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.