The content conundrum

The content conundrum

Rarely has a conference been more eagerly anticipated than last month’s METM22. After all, it had taken two years to get to San Sebastián after successive COVID cancellations. It was certainly great to see so many old friends. And standing on the terrace of the Palacio Miramar at the welcome reception in the evening sunshine was one of those perfect conference moments. There was some food for thought too, particularly in John Bates’ excellent workshop on readability, and Helen Oclee-Brown’s splendid interview with “book doctor” Sally Orson-Jones made for an entertaining conclusion.

If you’re waiting for a “but”, though, here it comes. For me, the content of METM22 didn’t match up to the superb organisation and exciting social programme. Put baldly like this, it may seem a little harsh, but I feel it needs to be spelled out, because reading summaries of the conference in blogs and on Facebook, I sense that others agree with me but enjoyed the conference so much that they don’t want to say so. There has been a great deal of praise for the organisation, and suspiciously little said about the talks. Well, I enjoyed the conference immensely. But I didn’t come away with the usual buzz of ideas I want to implement and, more than a month on, I can’t remember seeing or hearing anything really outstanding.

In fact, the best of METM23 for me came before it officially started, with John Bates’s straightforward, no-nonsense approach to the English language in his workshop on readability. Among many highlights, I’d waited a long time for someone to so successfully demolish the ridiculous prejudice against the passive voice which infects so many English style guides. Mike Farrell’s workshop on food translation was interesting too, although it could have been a great deal better if he’d managed to time it properly to include all his intended content.

In fact, presentational lapses became something of a theme running through the conference. Tim Barton’s talk on how to find and choose translators to work into very unusual minority languages, which was interesting in parts, was marred by him having to skip large chunks because of lack of time. The worst examples, however, came from Michael Dever, who presented about future-proofing your translation business – a topic that attracted considerable interest. If, however, you are talking, as he was, about working for the premium market, using some slides that are handwritten and others including spelling mistakes seriously undermines your arguments.

Not only this, the ideas he was presenting, drawn from excellent models like Chris Durban and Kevin Hendzel, are all a decade old and already have been assimilated by the majority of translators with ambitions for self-improvement. Has nothing useful been said in the world of translation since then? I find it interesting, for example, that Chris Durban is now specifically adapting her advice for language professionals for whom the premium market, for one reason or another, will probably never be more than a distant dream.

There were highlights, of course, notably Helen Oclee-Brown’s interview with Sally Orson-Jones, who explained how she developed a favour she did for a friend – reading the manuscript of her novel for her and suggesting improvements – into a thriving career helping authors get into print. Elsewhere, though, the quality of the talks was decidedly patchy.

And this raises the perplexing question of why METM, which has always been known for the quality of its content, should have come up so short this year, at least for me. There are various possible answers. It’s possible, of course, that I was simply at the wrong talks. The way conferences run various tracks of content simultaneously means making bad choices is always a risk. This is unlikely, however, not least because the particular piece of content I chose to go and see was nearly always the clear winner out of the three available, as far as I was concerned. This year, I didn’t have to make any difficult decisions.

The best content could, also, have clashed with the two slots when I was presenting. This year I gave a talk on the way I use MT in my translation process and also copresented a session for Spanish-English translators in which they could work “live” on translating some tricky sentences and paragraphs. In fact, this, and my participation together with Karin Rockstad in the slam, on a wine translation theme, prompted some people to comment that I was hardly off stage during METM22. I can only apologise to anyone who became tired of seeing my face.

It could also be that the content was actually fine and that I am a jaded old translator unlikely now to learn any new tricks. This is not out of the question. I certainly concede that, when you’ve been to a few conferences, it becomes increasingly difficult to find anything that excites or surprises you. But I did find several interesting talks this year, for example, in Lisbon at the BP Conference, an event traditionally known more for its partying than for its presentations.

MET’s apparent content quality slippage is all the more surprising when you consider the peer review process all proposed presentations have to undergo in order to be approved. They are all reviewed by two experienced MET members, who help decide which talks are booked and which are not. Having worked on content selection at METMs, I know, though, that the organisers depend very much on what is submitted to them. As an attendee, you might want brilliant, innovative content, but if no-one puts any forward, there’s little the content coordinators can do beyond putting out a desperate plea to the usual suspects to help out with a last-minute submission. But if a regular METM speaker hasn’t already submitted an idea in a particular year, they are probably unlikely to have much to contribute.

For this reason, those nominally responsible for the content of this year’s METM may not be to blame for any decline in standards. Perhaps, in fact, it is this very selection process that puts people off submitting what might be interesting ideas for talks. It may also be that people think the quality is going to be so high, their little idea won’t stand a chance. Taking into account MET’s academic reputation, all this may, in fact, be putting potential speakers off. Someone might be prepared to risk submitting a talk to BP, for example, while they would be intimidated about offering the same talk to MET.

In fact, though, MET people are just about as friendly and encouraging as any group of linguists you could meet. Even if you’ve never spoken at a conference before, and don’t know the Mediterranean Editors and Translators organisation, you are sure of a warm welcome. So I would urge anyone thinking of speaking at a conference next year to consider METM23 in Mantua, Italy, as a real possibility. This particularly applies to those who strongly believe they have something that needs to be said, because these tend to make the best presentations. The selection process shouldn’t put you off – it is really aimed at helping you refine your idea to make it fit for presentation. So don’t hesitate and don’t be put off. Because there are plenty of people, including me, who’d really like to hear you.

The picture shows John Bates giving his workshop on readability, for me the highlight of METM22. Photo taken for MET by official photographer Jone Karres.

11 Comments

  1. Oliver Lawrence

    IMHO, criticism is best expressed through private feedback, to the presenters concerned and/or to the organisers. Naming / shaming individuals may also put off the new speakers you’re trying to encourage to come forward.
    But I do agree that conference presentations can be variable. I’ve sat through some that were banal or inadequately rehearsed or by presenters who clearly had no idea whether what they were talking about actually worked, which I find astonishing. Almost as bad as having the same guy on the programme 3 times ;).

    Reply
    • Simon Berrill

      Thanks, Oliver. I agree with you that sometimes, especially in the case of beginner presenters, private feedback is the best way. But, to use the translator cliché, it depends on the context! As for appearing three times, all I can say in my defence is that I only actually asked to appear once – my presentation. I was asked to do the snippets and the slam.

      Reply
  2. Kate Major Patience

    Simon! You actually raise some very interesting points that are being addressed and will no doubt at all be discussed further to constantly improve METMs. It’s always good to discuss things that didn’t work for some or most attendees and you bring up some important issues and ideas.

    I’m also going to address a couple of your points here to add something to this discussion and contrast a bit with your thinking on why content might not be the same as it might be:

    – I think you missed out taking into account that this was the first in-person conference MET has done since COVID: it’s not an excuse for anything in particular (not sure excuses are required) but it is a reason why some potential speakers weren’t there or didn’t feel like it this year.

    – Not sure I agree with your logic on your choice of talks: as with the content team, you are basing your choices on titles and abstracts. Then the talks themselves are quite different. I often get the equivalent of meal envy at METM in that I ALWAYS think I’ve chosen the best dish on the menu at every turn – whether there are two I want to go to or not – but later often wish I’d seen a different one because other people said it was good. Listening to what people had to say about talks I missed – and from the unhappy perspective of someone who covided out of the last day and missed a bunch of stuff – I would have loved to have seen some talks I didn’t even consider going to.

    At METM, I love the sense of talks tying in with each other, of tracing some sort of story out of my presence and experience there, and that did happen for me this year in that I was lucky enough to hear from a bunch of minority language speakers like Siru (her talk was fab, by the way) and discuss the experience of learning multiple languages and getting the perspective of some amazing polyglots in METM. This also tied in nicely with the keynote, although as you mentioned elsewhere there were perhaps some political ideas meshed in there that we don’t all agree with. But it did pick up and carry the debate.

    I am not sure what to say about the quality of submissions – I think generally plenty of good contents are proposed, even in post-COVID circumstances. So perhaps it’s the MIX that has to be worked on for any one year? The content process is constantly being updated so I think that could be ironed out in the future. I think a mix of new voices and experience and different formats gives that SENSE of good content that is overall and not down to whether you saw all blazing talks or a few that weren’t the best fit for METM with hindsight and all visual aids and presentation skills on display (some things cannot be discerned during the process). And I’m not sure we could count on the balance fully being there at this stage, on the first in-person conference back. We shall see next year.

    There is another good point in there about making sure new and diverse voices are heard and that ANYONE who needs a little help with their proofing or anything else gets a fair shot. In this respect, I probably agree with Oliver that unless truly necessary (where someone behaves in some sort of disgraceful way that requires public holding to account) perhaps the colleague who gave the talk you didn’t enjoy could have remained anonymous. It’s a blog after all! It all goes out to Ms. Google. Something to consider.

    I’ve already spoken to you in private and am very glad we had that conversation because I feel I can safely say your aim is to raise some relevant issues – and how and why that comes about is less important than the improvements and positive changes that can come from identifying and discussing those issues. These include diversity, support for potential presenters who need it, the mix and level of content achieved at conferences, and other things I’m now forgetting – so I’ll stop here.

    As long as the conversation continues and things keep moving in a positive way we can all keep learning huge amounts from METM as always.

    Oh and I almost forgot – I really enjoyed BP when I went but not based on the contents, and while you most certainly went to some very interesting talks there – some of whom please present at METM too could you? I don’t think they are at all comparable from my point of view as an author’s editor and translator of social sciences/arts etc., let alone the value for money when looking at price/quality of contents. I’ve got no problem with BP and would have gone this year – it was just down the road from me – but it wasn’t worth it for me personally to go for a few talks I was vaguely interested in. I do also recall that perhaps what holds me back from repeating at BP was the shockingly unfunny/misogynistic comedian presenter they had between talks the year I went. He was a big nope from me and I can quite safely say whatever nuances need adding or removing at METM and whatever we can change to keep up with the times and keep learning and respecting ALL Comers to the conference, he wouldn’t be seen dead cracking such jokes at METM. EVER.

    One last thing, I thank you for encouraging people to submit to METM. There is a rigorous content process in constant evolution and MET wants to hear from anyone who has something to say. You do always hope people don’t crash and burn – yes, I’ve seen a few even at MET – and there’s surely always more we can do to ensure that never happens.

    I have not the guts or indeed the CONTENTS to present at MET – will I ever? So kudos to anyone who does. If people don’t submit, we are in danger of repeating the same old stuff every year, or navel-gazing. That said, I personally look forward to hearing from the most experienced among us – in particular in author editing! – year after year since they have brought me so much in the past and I still have a lot of questions for them.

    Kate

    Reply
    • Simon Berrill

      Thanks for your lengthy comment, Kate. I’ll take your points in the order you make them.

      First, you’re quite right about COVID and that’s something I could and perhaps should have mentioned. You’re also right that sometimes you can come across a good talk by chance, particularly at MET. But normally I feel some sort of conflict over my choices. This time they were easy to make.

      As far as content goes, I know it’s difficult. I’ve been involved in that too. That’s why I went out of my way not to directly blame the content team. What I want and expect out of a conference are one or two take-aways that make me think about some aspect of what I do and the way I do things. I didn’t get that this year.

      Regarding the comparability of MET and BP, as conferences they are quite different, but I do think it’s reasonable to compare the quality of the talks given at both of them. And all I can say is that at this year’s BP there were at least four presentations that were better, in my opinion, than anything I saw at this year’s METM. And that’s what made me wonder why those speakers could have wanted to speak at BP, but not at METM.

      I really hope that people are encouraged to submit proposals to speak at METMs and I’m certainly prepared to do everything I can to help and encourage them.

      Reply
  3. Claire Cox

    I thoroughly enjoyed this, my second MET Conference, and while I did spend one afternoon chatting with a colleague because none of the talks particularly appealed, I don’t think that’s unusual. Having been translating for nearly 40 years, I’m bound to have heard a lot of stuff before, or not to find things relevant. But half the point of these events, for me at any rate, is to get out there and meet people in real life. As a freelancer, I spend so much time working on my own (which I love, don’t get me wrong!) that the opportunity to chat and network with like-minded colleagues is a real boon. It’s an added bonus if the content is scintillating, but not a dealbreaker otherwise.

    That said, I haven’t been to a BP conference because the content doesn’t appeal at all – on the one occasion I did sign up (then couldn’t go because I had a skiing accident a few weeks before), none of the talks I voted for came up – it was all marketing and soft skills that didn’t really interest me at my stage in my career.

    So I suppose it’s horses for courses really – and for me, more about who you meet than the actual content. But I love the wide choice of pre-conference workshops, very reasonably priced, and appreciate the emphasis on editing and the finer nuances of language, which you don’t always find at other conferences.

    Reply
    • Simon Berrill

      There are some great things about MET. I love it. That’s why I was surprised this year when there were, in my honest opinion, at least four talks at BP that were better than anything I saw at MET. And that’s what set me wondering and eventually writing this post. But that’s not to say that MET isn’t or will never be worthwhile. Far from it. I fully expect it to be better next time.

      Reply
  4. Timothy Barton

    I deliberately skipped past a whole section of slides on the minority/minorized language distinction because I realised I wasn’t going to have time to put it in and because I’d read abstracts from other speakers that were going to discuss this in more detail than me. In hindsight, perhaps I should have just removed the slides; instead I left them in because I thought people would get the idea just from seeing the slides for a few seconds. Probably in the back of my mind I didn’t want to delete slides I’d spent a lot of time preparing. Anyway, I appreciate the feedback and will apply it in future presentations.

    I’ve had some glowing reviews of my presentations in the past. If I can take the praise I must also be willing to take the flak, so I don’t mind the criticism.

    I should add that, in the case of my talk, there was no pretension of providing "ideas [participants would] want to implement" – at least not for most participants. I made it clear in my proposal that I thought people would find it interesting but that it wouldn’t be directly applicable (in the literal sense of the word) for most participants. I don’t think you have any intention of supplying, say, Twi translations any time soon.

    I’m eagerly awaiting an online review of my PerfectIt workshop, as I feel I really nailed it this time, and this was reflected in the anonymous feedback and ratings I’ve already received.

    Reply
    • Simon Berrill

      Thanks, Tim. I thought yours was an interesting talk. My only criticism was that the business you describe with the slides made it look rather rushed. And I understand that it was never going to be in the category of "talks with takeaways" that I wanted and didn’t get from this year’s MET. But it was definitely worth doing and might have been useful, say, to anyone who wanted to outsource a job in a very unusual combination and needed to select a translator (if someone asked me for a translation into Aranese, say, and I had to find someone to do it). As for PerfectIt, I didn’t come to that because I’ve already done that one. And I’m still using PerfectIt (in fact I’ve now extended my subscription for another year after winning the MET raffle prize) so even your previous version had an impact.

      Reply
      • Timothy Barton

        Stay tuned for the PerfectIt masterclass series I’m planning in January! Keep an eye on the Twitter hashtag #PerfectItMasterclass (https://twitter.com/search?q=perfectitmasterclass). (One thing I’m going to look at in the Masterclass is to address a concern you raised at my PerfectIt workshop: how to know what PerfectIt changes when you run finalization tasks.)

        Reply
  5. Jackie Senior

    I’m an old-hand too, but I really enjoyed and learnt from the talk on working with Chinese authors and the report on two editors co-working on a fantasy novel/e-book/audiobook/website, which was so far removed from my own type of work!
    Sally OJ’s interview was great too. Thanks Helen.
    Just saying.

    Reply
    • Simon Berrill

      Thanks, Jackie. There were some good things, of course, which I think I’ve given credit for. And I’ve suggested all sorts of reasons why I might not have been so happy with the content this year. Maybe I just got unlucky.

      Reply

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