Panning for nuggets

Panning for nuggets

Getting the best from a conference

When I went to my first MET meeting four years ago in El Escorial, it was like walking into a mine full of shining gold. Although I’d been translating for a good many years, much of that time I’d been working in almost complete isolation. So, when I started attending workshops and presentations, new ideas glittered in every corner. Every session opened up a new seam. It undoubtedly changed my professional life.

Just over a week ago in Girona, I attended my fifth METM, and, as a more experienced conference-goer, things are no longer the same. I love MET, and probably always will. I’ve made so many good friends there and I’ve learned so much, but it seems there may only be so much to learn. That’s not to say that I know it all, just that it’s more difficult to find anything that’s really new. Nowadays, instead of whole seams of precious new ideas, it’s more like panning for nuggets.

A lot of the gold dust can be found, not in the conference hall itself, but in the corridors, at the dinner table and in the coffee queue. Virtually everyone attending MET has something to interesting to say and there’s plenty to pick up by chatting with colleagues. This year, too, was special because it was the first time I had physically met my RevClub colleague Victoria Patience and the first time both of us had been together in the same room with the third club member Tim Gutteridge (you can find out about RevClub here). We were there to give our own workshop, about which more in a forthcoming post.

Here I want to talk about some of the nuggets I sifted out of the scheduled programme:

Laura Bennett‘s well-designed workshop explained a lot of the difficulties involved in translating texts for the art world. This was particularly timely for me, as I am currently in the middle of co-translating a sizeable art book.

The Translation Slam, bringing together two translators I know well: Tim Gutteridge and Maeva Cifuentes, who organises the regular Barcelona coworking sessions I try to attend. With an excellent, challenging text, it made the entire audience think and talk more about translation-related issues.

David Cullen, with his translator’s “decalogue” of at least 17 items, made some interesting points. One I had never thought of was the idea of showing some of your translations to people who are not translators. The logic behind this is how kind and understanding we can be to colleagues, whereas an outsider is likely to come straight out with it, if something isn’t as clear as it should be.

Rose Newell talked about a vital issue for translators – those times when we are required to go beyond mere translation and tell a client: “That just won’t work in your target country”. It would have been even better if her short slot hadn’t led her to cut the interactive elements I know she had planned to include.

I was greatly heartened by a presentation from Sue Leschen, which provided a legal expert’s confirmation of my suspicion, mentioned in a previous blog here, that many of the Non-Disclosure Agreements we are being asked to sign these days are utterly unacceptable.

Allison Wright‘s talk on how easy it is to infringe copyright – or to have your copyright infringed – in these internet days was one of the most entertaining and probably the most elegantly structured of the whole conference.

Well-known literary translator Daniel Hahn gave an entertaining keynote talk on the role of editors in translation. I would only take him up on one point: I could hardly believe my ears when he said that literary translations do not need to be compared with the source text because mistranslations aren’t important. That surely can’t be right. Because how do you know whether a particular mistranslation is important or not unless you’ve checked the translation against the source? It may, as you say, Mr. Hahn, be inconsequential but it could just be absolutely vital.

Maeva Cifuentes and Richard Lackey presented some research showing some translators have rather odd ideas about what the use of plain language in legal translation actually means, while, in his talk about the civil law notary system, Rob Lunn once again made it quite plain that the closer you look into legal terminology, the more complicated things become. That term you rejected ten years ago as too literal, might just actually be the one you need.

And Thomas O’Boyle rounded it all off by extolling the virtues of the translator as businessperson and salesperson in a particularly well-presented talk with startlingly simple slides.

It’s interesting, I think, that the two highlights I’ve put at the top of this list involved hands-on work and slamming. Many of the best talks I saw would also have made excellent workshops and some speakers simply did not have enough time to do their subject justice. By contrast, poorer talks would not have been any better even if they had been shorter. Maybe the supposedly ever-shortening modern attention span is not the issue here.

I was part of this year’s content team, so I know the problems involved in selecting – and rejecting – proposals to speak at the conference, and a peer-to-peer event like MET depends on the content the association’s members and other conference-goers are able and prepared to offer. But maybe it’s the actual structure of the traditional presentation that needs to change. Should we be moving to more hands-on, more interactive conferences? Perhaps it’s time to open this up for debate.

Next year’s METM will be in Split, Croatia, from 26-28 September 2019





  1. Oliver Lawrence

    Hi Simon, much of what you say chimes with my own experience.
    Although I enjoy and learn from colleagues’ presentations, I certainly find myself taking fewer notes than I used to, and just chatting to people about their experience can often prove fascinating and serendipitous.
    In what was my favourite session, Dick Edelstein & Kymm Coveney showed that there’s no reason why a presentation shouldn’t include a workshop element, so maybe that, as you say, is a good way to go.
    With Daniel Hahn, my impression was that, rather than advocating a cavalier disregard for the source text, he was saying that fidelity to details in the content should not be treated as more important than producing a translated work of literature that reads well and is faithful to the author’s voice – not that source and target should not be compared (by the translator) but that very few readers actually will (because that’s not how novels are read).
    See you in Split :).

    • Simon Berrill

      Thanks, Oliver. I remember we’ve had e-mail conversations before about how worthwhile conferences are, and I was thinking of you as I wrote this. I wasn’t at Dick and Kymm’s presentation (was that the poetry one?) but I’d be interested to know what they did, because I’m convinced that involving the audience in one way or another probably produces the best and most effective sessions. As for Daniel Hahn, I think what you say is probably what he meant, but I think there’s a danger that it’s an attitude which could (and does, as my colleague Tim Gutteridge has pointed out) lead to too many mistakes being tolerated. My point isn’t that all mistakes matter, but that we need to spot them so we can decide whether they matter or not.

  2. Phillippa

    Thanks for an interesting post, Simon. I always enjoy METM and take different things away each year. I very much agree with you about the format of talks, however perhaps this is something that can be left to the speaker to decide? I always try to incorporate interactive elements into my presentations, not only because this format makes me feel more at ease with my audience, but I also find it helps me to gauge whether my talk is at the right level.

    This year the highlight for me really was Daniel Hahn, especially since he translates from Portuguese (my source language). As I understood it, he commented that bilingual editors are a rarity these days. He made reference to one such occasion when Margaret Jull Costa edited his work and the valuable contribution she made due to her knowledge of the source language. This was an exception to the rule and normally bilingual review is not part of the translation/editing process. I don’t think his intention was to suggest "mistranslations aren’t important", but that in the literary work the focus is on the work as a whole, perhaps even "on being a good read". This is in stark contrast to the commercial translation world.

    • Simon Berrill

      Thanks, Phillippa. I agree that speakers should decide on formats, but that also depends on the time slots available and, perhaps, the encouragement and support they get in making their talks engaging. Maybe more can be done in those areas. As for Daniel Hahn, I have no problem with a translator veering away from the source if it’s justifiable, but if I was editing I would want to know it had been done and hear the justification for it. Maybe I misunderstood, but he seemed to be saying that mistakes didn’t matter. I’d say they might not matter, but we need to know about them to see whether they do or not.

  3. Nelia Fahloun

    Thanks for another very interesting post, Simon! My feelings are quite similar about translation conferences: I still enjoy the fun and networking, but I don’t take away as much from sessions and talks than I did when I started out 8 years ago. I even presented a couple of times, and enjoyed it, but I’m not sure I have a lot to say any more! This also means that I’m choosing which ones I attend more carefully.
    METM is one conference I’d like to attend at some point, even if I have a feeling it is more geared towards into-English translators (but I may be wrong).

    • Simon Berrill

      Thanks for your comment, Nelia. It’s true, METM is geared towards into-English translators, but out-of English translators also attend and, I think, get something out of it. Next year it’s in Split at the end of September, if that appeals to you.

      • Nelia Fahloun

        I have a soft spot for Italy, so I might wait until METM returns there 😉

  4. Timothy Barton

    I certainly would have liked to have done mine as a workshop. But MET likes to trial the workshops earlier in the year, which is not easy to come and do when you live the other side of the world. As I’m back in Europe this year, I’ll see if I can get a slot in the spring workshops.

    • Simon Berrill

      Yes, when we tried ours out it in Barcelona had to be just Tim and myself. Victoria couldn’t come all the way from Argentina for that. We have suggested that MET changes the way it chooses workshop ideas, which until now hasn’t been part of the proposal selection process, so we’ll have to see if they take us up on that.


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