FIT Congress 2017 in Brisbane

I have just returned from attending the 2017 Congress of FIT in Brisbane, with “disruption and diversification” as its overarching theme. In this article I try to formulate some of my impressions from the event – no easy task, given the wide span of topics covered.

The keynote addresses may be a good place to start, in view of their consistently high quality and impact. Immediately following the official opening there was a presentation on the interpreting of indigenous languages in Australia. Colleen Rosas provided a useful outline, but the real highlight here was the personal statements of three indigenous interpreters, describing how and why they were working to keep their communities well informed, and above all to ensure the survival of their respective languages. I doubt that anyone in the auditorium will forget the video showing the speaker’s mother teaching kids to read, illustrating the letter “m” as two anthills, and then getting the pupils to write it with their fingers on each other’s backs. This was indeed diversification with a capital “D”.

We then launched into the “disruption” side of things with Eric Yu’s presentation on “big data” based language services in the AI age. However, these and other presentations focused on future developments provided little to convince the translators in the audience of impacts here and now, and were mainly confined to impressive PowerPoint slides and statistics. I, and probably many others present, would have welcomed some examples of output and actual case studies.

Prof. Antony Pym, an internationally known translation theorist, managed to cover both aspects of the theme, placing the current paradigm of “fidelity” in translation in the context of views of translation that preceded it, and those that may be about to follow it. His description of the reluctance of Chinese translation students to translate the concept of China’s “bullying” behaviour towards its neighbours in the South China Sea accurately proved both memorable and provocative, as a questioner from the floor insisted that indeed it should not be translated to mean this, since China was not a “bully”, but a “big brother” in this context. So was the obligation to be “faithful” to the word on the page or the situation on the ground, as the translator sees it? Anthony Pym’s argument that the Chinese reader would not know what the Australian writer was thinking if the word was not translated across as “bullying” appeared to fall on rather deaf ears. This motif of the political, indeed geopolitical, nature of information became something of a motif throughout the conference.

More interesting to me was the point where Professor Pym argued that the subject of translation studies was coming ever closer to translation practice. The group of translators I was sitting with begged (silently) to differ, and I was right with them. There was ample evidence during the congress of theory taking the high road while practice takes the low road, with little indication of any common destination.

Friday morning’s keynote from Prof. Jemina Napier really did disrupt and break new ground, since it was delivered in sign language. Prof. Napier is an internationally known researcher on the topic, and a “native speaker” as the daughter of deaf parents. So as we watched her we heard the disembodied interpreter’s voice from back stage. Memorable stuff indeed!

Then Dr Glenn Flores presented on health interpreting, and the dramatic positive and negative consequences of getting things right and wrong respectively in this area. Even though we have heard all this before, his address was more packed with facts and figures than most, including one extremely interesting statistic – a study showed that after 30 years’ experience, health interpreters were still making the same categories of mistake as when they started out, yet with as little as 100 hours’ training – yes, just 100 hours – the incidence of errors was cut dramatically.

The next keynote highlight was the anthropologist Dr Sarah Kendzior, a committed pro-democracy activist focused particularly on recent developments in the US, and more particularly the extremely difficult situation for those seeking human rights and change for the better in Uzbekistan. She highlighted the importance of using the local language, yet the difficulty of communicating widely in that language when it is not yet translatable by Google and similar tools. And more particularly, social media – formerly a tool for the promotion of freedom and human rights – are increasingly being used by the authorities to crack down on dissent, she argued.

I was unable to attend the final keynote, given by leading translation theorist Dr Michael Cronin from DCU, Ireland. However his topic was “Why translation should not cost the earth: towards geocentric translation studies”, and he sums up his argument as follows in his recent book on the subject: “Translation as a body of ideas and a set of practices is central to any serious attempt to think about [our] interconnectedness and vulnerability in the age of human-induced climate change”.

Meanwhile, there was also much to reflect on in some of the individual sessions. Interest in literary translation at the FIT Congress has diminished over the years, yet, true to form, it was here that some of the most fascinating discussions of practitioners grappling with everyday problems were to be heard. My personal highlights included Eva Dobos speaking on translating the understated tone of Norwegian fiction into the loquacious and eloquent Hungarian tongue, of which I am hoping to see some examples in the near future!

Te Tu Matakuru O’Connell kept the New Zealand flag flying with his presentation on the Maori language localisation and disruptive technology, followed by an absorbing talk by Tea Dietterich and Tieneke van Beukering on localising texts into rare and emerging indigenous languages, including many of the Polynesian languages we work with at NZTC. This was billed as a “true to life” picture of what happens, and indeed it was. Everything they said about the conflicts between customer demands on the one hand and the reality on the ground on the other, the use of translation memories, but in a context of little or no familiarity with these tools, had a very familiar ring to many of us in the room. In fact, one of the most rewarding aspects of attending such a conference is to realise that you are “not alone”, and to share and commune with others dealing with exactly the same challenges as your own.

In discussions of the use of translation memories, I found that freelancers are generally well disposed towards them, which is understandable given the major difficulty of managing the large volumes of text arising in larger agencies. Trados remains a firm favourite with many, although MemoQ continues to make inroads, it would appear, largely on the basis of very good customer relations.

I was not able to attend all the technology sessions – and this is not my area of interest – but I came away with more impression of promise than actual delivery. One very interesting exception was a session I had to chair, given by Helene Jaccomard, who teaches in West Australia. She set out to chart how far the performance of free MT tools had improved over the decades. She actually managed to find short passages of texts translated between French and English back in the 1990s, and reran the same texts recently. There were indeed dramatic improvements, without getting to a fully convincing result.

So overall my feeling was that the future is not quite here (otherwise it wouldn’t be the future, I suppose). I was unable to attend the presentations on “how to survive in the future translation environment”, of which there were quite a few. However the mood was convivial rather than apprehensive, and I remain convinced that as the ongoing development of translation technology will continue to open up niches for smaller operators to work along more subtle and creative lines.

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