All over the world, like other conferences and congresses, translation events have fallen victim to the coronavirus. The question I want to answer in this post is what they are going to look like in the future. And can online events ever provide a real replacement?
In the lockdown period, we’ve all, including – or perhaps even especially – our school-age children, become accustomed to the Zoom video conference. It’s a wonderful thing for seeing each other’s faces, chatting, playing games and even having a drink with friends, together but socially distanced. Does it, though, really work as an educational tool?
I’ve had several different experiences with it over the past few weeks that make me wonder, at least about whether it can be used for everything. First of all, I took part in a MET workshop which was moved online after the face-to-face version in Barcelona had to be cancelled. Three hours in front of a screen is a long time and I have to say that at times I felt my attention wandering. I also felt for the presenter, who had had to adapt his face-to-face workshop into an online version in quite a short time. The amount of information he was trying to give might have been possible with us all in the same room, but online it seemed way too much. He also tried some hands-on activities, using a Zoom feature which allows a group to be randomly broken up into twos or threes but once again it was not entirely successful. The problem is that being in a group of three on a video conference is not the same as the three of you gathering round a computer screen in a classroom. You end up either working on your own and ignoring the group or just chatting. That means you also need at least twice as much time to complete an activity in this format than you would normally expect. We didn’t have it and the activities were left more or less undone. So although I’m not denying the possibility that someone could come up with a clever idea to work with Zoom remotely and interactively, but this certainly wasn’t it.
Shortly afterwards I had some experience of the other side of online webinars, when Victoria Patience, Tim Gutteridge and I presented one on our mutual revision group known as RevClub for the ITI’s Spanish network. When we’ve presented at conferences we’ve always tried to put some sort of hands-on or interactive element into our talks and workshops, but, partly because of my experience, we decided that the best format was a simple round-table discussion in which we answered questions from those present. It was the right decision. What video chat programs are good for is precisely that: chatting. We spent an enjoyable hour talking together and mostly answering questions from our audience. All the feedback we had was positive which, I would say, had less to do with any personal magnetism we might enjoy and more to the fact that we played to the strengths of the medium and kept it simple.
This fits in with some distance teaching guidelines for university lecturers I translated recently. The basic message from these was that video conferencing should be used sparingly, to maintain contact with students, to provide an opportunity for answering questions and clearing up doubts, and to make sure everyone knows what they’ve got to do. But the actual work set, according to the university, should be done offline, or at least off-screen.
The academics seem to be aware of the phenomenon of “Zoom fatigue”, which seems to have been becoming more common in recent weeks as it and other platforms have been used at all hours for work meetings and social events. I’ve used it very little, to be honest – probably less than my teenage son, whose has one or sometimes two video conferences a day with his teachers – but I did find that when I considered “attending” the BP translation conference, which was due to be held in Nuremburg in April and then moved online, I couldn’t actually face the prospect of several days of streamed conference presentations. Since then, I’ve seen posts and had conversations with people who assure me that they have no intention of going to any online conferences for exactly the same reason.
This is a problem because, for obvious reasons, there are not going to be any face-to-face translation conferences for a long time now. The coronavirus, as we know, spreads particularly well in crowded indoor environments, so even if some other things go back to normal, it’s unlikely to be possible to hold conferences until a reliable vaccine for the virus is available. Organisers are coping with this in different ways. BP went online and so is the forthcoming SENSE conference in Holland. MET, which was due to have held its event in San Sebastián in October, simply cancelled. So will conferences ever be the same again. There are those who would do away with in-person events altogether even after the crisis is over. In their concern to reduce travelling, I understand that some environmentalist translators are already referring to the type of event we all know as “legacy conferences”, implying they are a relic of the past that will die a natural death.
I disagree. I believe that when we’re finally able to gather for “traditional” conferences again, without distancing or masks, the excitement will be palpable. In person we learn better, as I’ve suggested above and as I wrote in a previous blog post on the subject. We also have more fun. I only need to think back over the past year to be sure of that: cocktails in an ex-public lavatory in Sheffield, a ceidlidh in Aberdour and Croatia’s finest food in Split were just three highlights. However much we might connect online, a computer screen is just a pale, flickering image of the real thing. And, when it comes down to it, even translators are social creatures.