Communiques from My 10th Translation Conference
Updated: Feb 23, 2021
In the United States, a translator can sometimes be left feeling like quite a peculiar sort of professional. Inquiries of “What do you do for a living?” from complete strangers are followed by blank stares or surprised expressions when I reply, “I work as a German translator.” Shock and confusion quickly give way to disbelief, manifested in the incredulous question “Full time? You support yourself that way?” In the face of such reactions, I find myself feeling alternately like a rocket scientist or the Easter Bunny – someone with a job so obscure that everyone thinks you are either a genius or a mystical being.
For one week a year, however, all that changes. Thousands of translators descend upon one city for a week of geeking out with fellow translators, professional networking, continuing education, and reunions with old friends. Last October in Palm Springs, California, I was one of the many translators swamping the local hotels with reservations, scurrying between rooms at the conference center, and filling the air with the sound of foreign language. I arrived at the conference with three goals in mind: learn more about interpreting, get the latest information on developments in machine translation, and connect with old friends while meeting new ones along the way.
A call at 9 am on a Tuesday morning piqued my interest in interpreting. “Are you free for a project?” they asked. “Yes” I replied, expecting a request for a document translation. “Great, we’ll see you at the courthouse at 1 pm.” I didn’t accept the project, but have since surmised there must be a shortage of German-English interpreters in the Mid-Atlantic Region where I live. Although I have never worked as an interpreter, translation and interpreting are very closely related. Working as an interpreter would not be a far stretch for me. The conference offered the perfect opportunity to find out more about the nitty gritty details of this profession, which involves speaking verbally rather than translating a written document as translators do. My first foray into the interpreting world at the conference was a workshop called “So You Want to Be a Court Interpreter?” presented by Jennifer De La Cruz. This presentation went over ways to work as a court interpreter in California and provided interesting insight into how courts hire interpreters. In California, as in many states, there is a testing and certification process in place to ensure interpreters with high-quality output are hired. They even hire interpreters for select languages on a full-time basis! Court interpreter certifications for German appear to be few and far between, but an awareness of how hiring works is invaluable no matter what the language.
My favorite interpreting session was the last one, “From the Stage to the Booth: Acting Tips to Improve Your Interpreting” presented by Javier Castillo. It was an incredibly creative presentation, comparing preparation work for an interpreting job to getting ready for an acting role. Castillo pointed out that interpreters must be aware of their role within the interaction taking place, have good diction, dress properly, and deliver language with emotion equal to the emotion with which the original interlocutor expressed it. The last factor is something I found most interesting. As an interpreter, you really are acting as the client’s voice in an interaction. Tone and emotion are an integral part of spoken language and failing to convey that could seriously impact the message. At the same time, you also need to keep in mind that you aren’t an actor. Expressing yourself in a way that reflects the speaker too closely could be seen as mockery. Interpreters must often find themselves walking a thin line between delivering the original speaker’s words with the same emotion and appearing as if they are mimicking the speaker. This is an aspect of interpreting I hadn’t devoted much thought to and is definitely something I will consider moving forward. Castillo’s presentation opened up a universe of nuance in the interpreting profession for me.
Aside from interpreting, machine translation was another of my main academic interests at the conference. Being somewhat of a technology enthusiast myself, I had decided to try out the new and improved machine translation technology this year with some of my clients. I was surprised to see that the machine translated some things remarkably well, while other documents were complete failures. Furthermore, there has been no real way to predict the translation quality for any given document. As with any industry, however, it is not the objective quality of a tool that matters, but rather the public’s perception of its usefulness.
At the conference, I set out to uncover how machine translation is being used by translators and consumers alike, and how prolific it is becoming in the realm of translation. Judy Jenner’s presentation “What is the Future of Translation and Interpreting?” offered a rather optimistic outlook for translators. While she did say that translators may be replaced eventually, she emphasize the importance of the human touch in translation. She pointed out that it is unlikely machines will become culturally aware in the near future and this is a strength that human translators should emphasize in their work in the future. She mentioned interpreting as another related field less likely to be affected by machine translation.
Machines may be able to translate language, but capturing audio, converting it into recognizable words, then translating it is a tall order! Cultural sensitivity remains just as integral to interpreting as it is to translation. This is an essential way translators and interpreters can continue to add value, even after machine translation gets really good.
Although Judy Jenner’s presentation was quite enlightening, I was unable to draw any conclusions about the future of machine translation and human translation for myself at the conference. Among translators as a whole, I discovered a mixed bag of optimism, readiness to adopt new technology, and deep concern that machine translation would soon be taking away translators’ jobs. With so many differing opinions flying around, I can only conclude that there must be a bit of truth and relevance in all three viewpoints. For my part, I will simply have to continue keeping tabs on developments in machine translation and emphasizing the value I can add that a machine cannot. After the initial shock caused by the introduction of new technology has passed, perhaps modern machine translation and human translation will eventually settle into a sort of symbiosis, helping each other be alternately more productive and more culturally sensitive. I am certainly always glad to discover new tools that can help me do my job more efficiently and effectively.
Networking at the conference was predictably delightful. Having been notified that I had passed the German->English certification exam of the American Translator’s Association just days previously, it was the perfect opportunity to share my joy with fellow translators. Colleagues responded by regaling me with stories of airport security searching their dictionary-laden suitcases, hotel horror stories, and awkward testing situations leading up to their ATA exams. At conference dinners and in spontaneous hallway gatherings, old friends enthusiastically told me of projects they have been working on and plans they have as I filled them in on my year. The Buddies Welcome Newbies program even offered me the opportunity help people attending the conference for the first time get acclimated. Usually an experienced conference-goer, or “buddy” will take on one or two “newbies” to mentor at the conference. Since I was the only “buddy” at a table of seven, however, I simply adopted them all! We arranged a big group dinner and even had several spontaneous hallway conversations about the conference. It was wonderful!
All good things must come to an end, however, and the conference was no different. Having been immersed in a translator-filled world for four days, it was a bit sad to return to my old Easter Bunny self. All the same, memories of this year’s conference and the promise of next year are sure to inspire for months to come!
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