Festival of talent

Festival of talent

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Tarragona hosts a memorable METM16

A translators’ conference should always be an exciting and stimulating event, but those organised by MET (Mediterranean Editors and Translators) are special. The academic base of an organisation with a strong university background means the language and skills content of its presentations and workshops is top class, while a growing and increasingly youthful membership ensures the association never becomes stale and inward-looking. This year’s event was in Tarragona, not far from my home, and I set off on the train with high hopes.

I was not disappointed by what was probably the best of the three MET meetings I have now attended. I began with a workshop led by Rob Lunn on translating contracts. This is a subject he has spoken on before, but the longer workshop format meant he was able to go into greater depth and include hands-on examples. His basic premise is that, instead of the rather literal translations of contracts, stuffed with legalese, that we are used to seeing, what we should be trying to produce is at is simpler and more straightforward language, including only the legal expressions that are absolutely necessary. The trick lies in identifying what can be trimmed or left out and what really needs to stay. My worry would be that some clients might not accept contracts with wording they are not used to, but the approach closely follows the advice given by the latest textbooks used by lawyers drafting contracts in English, so these could be used as references if necessary.


When you stop to think about it, MET workshops are amazing things: you can spend, as I did, a whole morning playing around with relative clauses and commas. And it was someone known for her keen eye for a comma who was probably the main attraction at the conference: Mary Norris of the New Yorker. With a consummate professionalism combined with a wicked sense of humour preventing her from taking herself too seriously, she gave a splendid keynote talk, describing her magazine’s extraordinarily elaborate process of revisions and corrections. This was a revelation to a former journalist like me, especially as I know that nowadays most newspaper copy is lucky to be looked at even once. The New Yorker, though, is a different and surely a dying world, which makes Mary’s tales of bitter disputes over hyphens; rows with a cartoon editor afflicted by the perpetual fear that his jokes will be ruined by one of Mary’s commas, and colleagues bringing bottles of bourbon to meetings even more poignant. We won’t know what we’ve lost when it’s gone.

Her talk was clearly one of the highlights of METM16, but for me another was a double session I chaired featuring four people I’m proud to call my friends. First came Phillippa May Bennett, Oliver Lawrence and Helen Oclee-Brown describing an interesting partnership they have established to improve their businesses and combat some of the isolation of freelancing. Translating from different languages and based in three different countries, they have no intention of merging their operations, but they work together every day in what they describe as a “virtual office” where they can ask one another questions, discuss ideas, take training courses together and even enjoy workplace banter. The aim isn’t just to have fun, though, it’s to try to raise standards for all three of them and the result is an imaginative iniative which seems to have all kinds of potential.

Following this enterprising trio was Liz Garrison who, when you ask her where her home is, replies that she’s a “digital nomad”. This describes a way of living that would have been impossible before the Internet age but which now offers all kinds of possibilities for today’s young, restless spirits. Philadelphia-born Liz, who I describe as the most British American I’ve ever met considering her years spent living in the UK, is part of a US-based programme of around 70 people touring the world for a year and living in a different city every month. They have already been to South America, now they are in Europe and they will spend the remaining few months of their wanderings in Asia. The organisers take charge of finding participants, who must all have jobs they can do online, somewhere to stay and somewhere to work (good wi-fi is of the utmost importance). Liz made sure she mentioned the drawbacks of life on the road – the danger of loneliness and of not getting enough work done and the fear of missing out on all the new sights just waiting to be seen – but a wistful look could be seen in the eyes of more than one older member of her audience, who would have loved to have had the opportunities offered by the Internet age.


And there was more. To mention only sessions I attended, Sarah Griffin-Mason gave some interesting insights into the Institute of Translators and Interpreters, which she chairs; Lucy Brooks did the same for her webinar training company eCPD; Mary Fons Fleming offered safe passage through the contradictions and confusion of talking about people with disabilities and Jo Rourke talked about how to find our ideal clients. There was an amusing talk from Oliver Lawrence on avoiding ambiguity in our writing, my own debut as a presenter (of which more in another blog), a keenly fought translation slam, and a hugely enjoyable speed networking session, which looks as if it may become a permanent feature at the conference.

These events are, after all, and perhaps most of all, about meeting like-minded people: sometimes friends we see only once a year and sometimes colleagues who are completely new to us. Being around bright, interesting people can generate joint ideas, plans and projects. During the three days, I discussed work and business opportunities, possible future conference talks and ways of editing one another’s work, to mention just a small sample. Sometimes, though, the socialising is just about having fun, and by the time we reached the closing dinner on Saturday night that was more or less all we were thinking about.

My abiding memory of Tarragona, though, is from a little earlier on that final day. I was standing talking to my friend and colleague Allison Wright during a break in proceedings in a covered cloister of the conference venue beside a chapel marking the spot where Saint Paul is said to have preached to the city’s early Christians. As we watched the crowd of 200 or so chattering animatedly, Allison turned to me. “Just think how much talent there is in here right now!” she said. And, looking across the cloister, I was possessed by the certainty that there was at very least enough to blow the roof off.





  1. Jason Willis-Lee MITI

    Thanks Simon for the well written round up. Like you, I got a lot from the event but alas, my medical bias on choosing sessions to attend meant I could not make the speed networking talk, whereby I am delighted to read it may well become a permanent conference fixture.

    • Simon Berrill

      Thanks, Jason. My non-medical bias probably meant we mostly went to different sessions, I imagine.


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