The next best thing

The next best thing

As I’ve said before in this blog, I’m not a fan of online conferences and CPD. But if I go to too many like the recent METM21 Online I could be converted. Superbly organised, full of good content and with off-conference events that came close to achieving the wonderful atmosphere that in-person MET conferences always have, it was a great way to spend the best part of two days, and the fact that it was on only in the afternoons, with the social events in the evenings, meant I could even get some work done in the mornings without missing anything.

The official theme was “The Style Issue” and this attracted a plethora of presentations discussing various aspects of good writing. It’s only natural that MET, an organisation of editors as well as translators, should focus on this issue, but in any case it’s an important one. Increasingly I find that translation and editing begin to merge as I strive to produce the best piece of writing I can manage. So the talks on this theme were timely and directly relevant to me.

Dealing with this topic on the first day, Allison Wright even managed something very difficult to do online – holding a successful interactive session, with her audience sent into breakout groups to work on improving difficult-to-read texts. Allison was explaining the use of the Grammarly and Hemingway tools to help simplify over-complex writing. While her aim of removing the verbal fluff was laudable, however, I can’t say I warmed to the computerised tools. While I could take it from a human, there’s something deeply irritating about being told your carefully crafted sentence is hard to read by a machine. And I also believe that if you take a tool like Hemingway too seriously there’s a real danger of becoming involved with sterile arguments with yourself about what to remove from a sentence or how to rewrite it just to please an inanimate algorithm. So, while I will be trying to write leaner, sleeker English, I won’t be resorting to automated assistance to achieve that particular aim.

The following day, Elina Nocera returned to the theme for an excellent presentation on how to write clearly and simply, full of relevant examples and practical tips I shall certainly try to follow. Seeking a straightforward, simple style can be controversial, however, particularly in the field of academic translation and editing. This was the subject of John Bates’ talk, in which he went into battle against those who make the rather ludicrous claim that academic writing should actually be complicated to make it look, well, academic. His weapons were examples of how writing can be serious and scholarly but also clear, concise and precise, which, as I see it, really ought to be the aims academics are trying to achieve.

Another related question translators and editors who work with academics often find ourselves battling with is how foreign we ought to allow them to sound. This was at the heart of a fascinating presentation by Alice Lehtinen and Kate Sotejeff-Wilson who had surveyed their colleagues in MET’s sister organisation based in the Nordic countries, NEaT, to find out how heavily they edited academic authors’ work and what were their biggest dilemmas and problems. The general conclusion was that mistakes and bad grammar should be corrected and lumpy syntax smoothed, but not to the extent that all character and identity is removed from a piece of writing. It’s a fine line to tread, and the talk sparked a healthy debate at question time.

Earlier on, Alina Cincan had talked about the whole business of surveys as she described the mechanics of carrying out her extensive study of freelance translators, the results of which were published last year. She deserves every credit both for undertaking the survey in the first place, at considerable cost to herself in both money and time, and for giving a talk in which she openly admitted all the mistakes she had made along the way. It’s clear that there’s a lot more to getting this sort of research right than most of us are aware of.

I watched most of these presentations from “behind the scenes”, or as behind them as you can get online, as Master of Ceremonies for one of the tracks on the Friday afternoon, introducing the speakers and going through the rather fiddly process of fielding audience questions that jumped around on screen in a Q&A box every time someone sent in a new one. It was highly enjoyable, though. A good technical team, plenty of rehearsals and a detailed script (which I had on my desktop PC’s screen immediately behind the laptop I was actually using for the Zoom call), helped keep everything looking natural and I was able to concentrate on working out which were the best questions to ask the speakers, when I needed to fill in with one of my own, and when to wind things up.

It was all a lot of fun, as were the social activities afterwards, including an amazing recorded performance by the MET choir coordinated by Ruth Simpson, but one announcement brought real joy to hundreds of webcam faces: COVID willing, next year’s METM will be a face-to-face event in San Sebastián, where it was due to be held last year until it joined the long list of conferences wiped off the calendar by the pandemic. Because however good METM21 had been, online conferences will always be the next best thing.

Thanks to MET for the conference picture.

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