Friends, zombies and writer’s block

Friends, zombies and writer’s block

Enjoying another thought-provoking conference

If I say that I thoroughly enjoyed another MET meeting, this year in the lovely Italian city of Brescia, I’m hardly going to surprise anyone. Readers of this blog know that I really appreciate the annual opportunity not only to learn new and useful things but also to meet and talk to old and new friends, as I’ve mentioned in previous posts here, here and here.

This year I particularly enjoyed Michael Farrell’s talk on how far a translator should go correct an author who has made factual errors, given in humorous and entertaining vein but highlighting what can be a particularly sensitive issue. I learned a great deal in Mary Fons’s workshop on how to get the most from possibly the software translators most love to hate: Microsoft Excel. The only problem was that just when it was getting most interesting it was time to stop. A “Part 2” version of it is definitely needed. ITI chair Sarah Griffin-Mason’s presentation on translation and interpreting to 2050 also gave an unsensationalised but thought-provoking view of possible and likely changes.

I was also presenting myself, having stepped in after a late withdrawal to give a shortened version of a talk on specialisation I first offered at a MET training day in Barcelona in September. I was absolutely delighted at the positive response and I particularly enjoyed the discussion it provoked to the point where I’m considering turning the talk into a longer workshop to offer another year. I will also, no doubt, be producing a version of it as a blog post here.


One of the joys of MET is that often the most unlikely sessions turn out to be the most interesting, thought-provoking or simply fun. I especially like a presentation by Anett Enzmann, for example, with the wonderful title “My cat fights zombies in outer space”. Anett outlined the whole business of creating a video game and the unexpected decisions involved, with particular emphasis on the importance – and difficulties – of getting good translations in this field.

Another unexpected hit, at least for me, was a talk by Professor Rowena Murray. She is an expert on helping academics to write and organises special retreats in Scotland to help them with their problems in this area. This is not something that directly concerns me, but it was fascinating to hear about her work and she was a fine speaker who turned out to be something of a stand-up comedian.

The concept of writer’s block got me thinking, though. It’s not a problem I’ve ever had, partly because of my journalistic background. For a journalist, as should also be the case for translators, the deadline is everything. If you don’t get your story written on time, it simply won’t get in the paper. Not only that, you’re likely to have a news editor, chief sub-editor, or even the editor in person breathing down your neck. So what you need to do is get something – sometimes anything – down on your computer screen and then rewrite and polish it as much as you can in the time you have. You can’t afford to be too precious and perfectionist about the whole business.


Earlier this year, I was working with a colleague on a copywriting project. Because the way ideas and approaches changed during the project, part of it had to be done really quickly, and my colleague found this a daunting prospect, so I just sat down and wrote. A lot of what I produced wasn’t particularly inspired, but from my sketchy beginnings, my colleague was able to develop something we could use. Once she had material to work with, her clearsighted perfectionism could polish the result to a sheen but starting from scratch would have been much more difficult for her.

More evidence that we don’t all work the same way came in the entertaining talk given by the novelist and translator Tim Parks, MET’s big name speaker this year. As he explained, with plenty of amusing asides, how he goes about producing his much-praised Italian-English literary translations, I began to realise that, as a translator, he is my polar opposite. While I produce the kind of rough first draft I would be ashamed to show anyone and then knock off its awkward edges, gradually sculpting it into shape as I described in a previous blog post here, Tim pours all his effort into achieving something verging on perfection the first time. For him, revision is merely a quick check for any silly mistakes that might have slipped through.

All the translators and editors present at METM17 will have their own equally valid methods and approaches, and I don’t think any of them is necessarily any better than any other. Nor do I believe, though, that all of them work equally well for everyone. And as I sat and listened to Tim Parks, I couldn’t help thinking that if I tried to work his way, I’d soon be down with a severe case of translator’s block,  all set for one of Rowena Murray’s Scottish retreats. For me, perfectionism is a curse, not a blessing.

Photo of all METM17 attendees courtesy of MET and this year’s official photographer, Maria Luisa Barbano.

METM18 will take place in Girona, Catalonia, from 4-6 October next year.


  1. Alison Hughes

    Great article, Simon. I must try to get to a MET conference one of these years.

    The past paragraph struck a particular chord. I remember an art translator being stunned when I said I needed a first draft (even if it is nonsense) to pull my thoughts together. She worked like Tim.

    It may depend on the type of work you do, but I certainly find lots of creative solutions among my nonsense when I edit. If I tried too hard first time round, they simply wouldn’t be there. The second – and often third – edit has to be really thorough, of course.

    I often ask myself if I’m a perfectionist and I’m not really sure. I won’t return a job I’m not happy with but I analyse every single concept rather than sweating every word or sentence. And I work with a good editor.

    • Simon Berrill

      Thanks, Alison. It would be great to meet you at MET one year. Girona’s a lovely place to visit if you’re thinking of next year. I think if you’re not sure whether you’re a perfectionist it means you’re not. I’m definitely not (although in previous lives I used to be in many respects), although that doesn’t mean I don’t want to do the best job I can in the circumstances.

  2. Alison Hughes

    Girona is tempting…

    You’re probably right. I’m not a perfectionist in ‘real life’ so probably conscientious is a better word. I like things to be a bit offbeat and interesting:-)

  3. Paul Osborn

    Thanks Simon, gave me a nice feeling of almost being there! And that photo: brilliant. Smart move, smart MET.
    Hasta Girona!

    • Simon Berrill

      Thanks, Paul. Sorry not to see you this year and I hope you’re able to make it next time. I can’t claim any credit for the photo, though. It was taken by this year’s official photographer, as credited at the bottom of the post.


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