The underlying theme

The underlying theme

Themes are problematic for conferences, I always think. And for me, the title of this year’s MET conference in Split – “Make it count: communicating with clarity and concision” – was doubly so because it included a word I’m certain I would never to use. Despite the fact that it does appear in the dictionary and the obvious analogy with “precision”, that word “concision” didn’t manage to convince me.

Anyway, as we all know, despite everyone’s best efforts, not many talks at any conference you might mention take very much notice of what the event says it’s supposed to be about. Speakers have their own agendas and conference organisers, above all, need people to speak, so they don’t insist too much on their speakers toeing the line. Strangely, though, at some point, what I call the underlying theme of a conference always emerges: and that’s the real message to take home.

In the beautiful Croatian city of Split, the underlying theme started to appear in the first keynote talk by David Jemielity. I’d already seen David this year at the ITI Conference in Sheffield, but although his message was the same his talk here was completely different. He explained how he and his team of translators had managed to win the confidence of top management at the Swiss bank where he works to the point where they are now included in corporate communication decision-making. This had been achieved, David explained, by learning to speak the language of the managers and bankers and to think like them. Only in this way could they be convinced of the need to change procedures to ensure that translation was given the importance it deserves in a multilingual country like Switzerland.

The next day, Maeva Cifuentes was looking at the same issue from another point of view. In her excellent talk on content marketing, the basic idea was the same. Know the clients you’re aiming at, find out what they’re interested in and use language they will understand so that you write content they will want to read. I can’t actually see myself following Maeva’s advice to the letter – I’ve tried blogging for clients and it’s very hard work – but the idea of knowing my clients better, whether that’s the clients I already have or the ones I want to find, definitely appeals to me.

Jenny Zonneveld offered another variation on “know your client” in her very useful talk on preparing the perfect quote. Because what is a quote if not a very important way of communicating with a customer or potential customer? And knowing how to quote and how much to quote is very much bound up with knowing about client expectations. A client who is used to dealing with translators can be handled very differently from one who is a complete novice. And you will almost need a different language depending on whether you’re dealing with a commercial company or a university professor.

Lloyd Bingham gave what was perhaps the most entertaining presentation at MET this year, talking about pseudo-English – those times when foreign languages adopt English words but use them wrongly, out of context or in amusingly embarrassing ways. Amid all the fun, his talk had a serious side, and once again the theme of client communication came up. Because Lloyd explained how stubborn certain clients are, not only in continuing to butcher the English language but also in trying to insist that he should carry such misuse over into his translations. A relationship of trust and great powers of persuasion are often required to put them right.

There were plenty of other good things at this year’s MET too. The two workshops I attended – Ruth Simpson on wine translation and Tim Barton on the PerfectIt – were excellent in their different ways. From Tim I learned that I was right in thinking that I’d only ever scratched the surface when using the editing tool and from Ruth I discovered, among many other things, that her husband makes truly excellent Chablis. There was also a splendid new feature in the form of various language break-out sessions where those attending could practice their translation skills in quickfire activities. These hands-on sessions are among the best on offer at METM and long may they continue!

Meanwhile, the other keynote talk saw Lynne Murphy setting out the differences between British and American English, which are not always the ones you think they are. Emma Goldsmith gave a fascinating account of her attempts to polish her source language skills after many years living in Spain and being content, like so many of us, with just getting by. And Wendy Baldwin explained her interesting virtual co-working arrangements with academics operating in completely different fields. As usual, the official conference was complemented with a range of social activities and some of the very best insights came in conversations with colleagues in coffee breaks, bars and restaurants. The food in Split, incidentally, was fabulous.

Next year’s METM is in San Sebastián in the Basque Country from 15-17 October. The theme will no doubt be announced before too long. But if you want to find out what the conference is really going to be about, I suggest you go along and find out.

Group photo of METM19 attendees by official photographer Mario Javorčić.


  1. Ruth Simpson

    Fabulous writing as always Simon, and very interesting to see that we attended practically all of the same sessions. Your analysis is spot-on and you pinpointed something I hadn’t realised on my own, that the theme is never what you think it will be, but always proves to be something useful anyway. Thanks!

    • Simon Berrill

      Thanks, Ruth. It was great to see you in Split.


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