Oct 9, 2012

The future of translation now. In Warsaw.

Beautiful crowdsourced Warsaw.
This year’s Translation Management Europe conference was held at the Hotel Mercure Warszawa Grand, short walk from the reconstituted Olde Towne of Warsaw. This pleasant district is said to have been built in large part by non-professional crowdsourcing after some of Poland’s neighbors had repurposed too many of the qualified builders as fertilizer and pulverized the original city structures. This magnificent recovery from nothing should put into perspective the widespread sense of doom about the future of translation, which was in fact the theme of TM-Europe this year.

The road trip to get there was an adventure with German to English financial translator Susan Starling, Kilgray’s Gábor Ugray, Stridonium founder and Dutch to English legal translator and interpreter Christina Guy (my copywriting partner),  Ajax vom Bernsteinsee, Csővárberki Jámbor and myself packed into a minivan with luggage and provisions for the week and hurtling down the new EU-funded superhighway that crosses Poland. Due to a few delays we missed the Kilgray reception the evening before the conference, but we were able to chat with a few straggling colleagues for a bit before turning in to rest for the start the next day.

Thursday morning, after a brief greeting by the conference organizers, Mark Childress of SAP gave his keynote talk unplugged, sans microphone and slides. Goed zo, as the Dutch say: he needs no props for his message.

After the conference, one participant expressed a bit of puzzlement about the choice of terminology for a speech to open a conference on the future of translation. Too specific she said. I disagree. Terminology is a general problem in most translation and localization projects, and getting it right before you get started cuts costs and time overall by about a third according to figures Mark quoted (which I have encountered elsewhere – EU data I think). Cost savings like that are very, very important to the future of translation.

A lot of specifics were in fact presented, but these merely emphasized the universal importance of terms and intelligent management of terminology. He spoke of synonyms used to help potential customers to find the right product in a search, branding and semantic influences. The dark side of terminology was presented, how “term criminals” use words to distort and deceive, but how this is also becoming harder with better access to information through the Internet.

"New" languages are emerging in the commercial arena as economies around the world develop. There is a great need for proper localization in the countries of Africa and elsewhere to bridge the communication gap between Western-trained doctors with their English and Latin terminology and those who understand only the local lingo these medical experts disdain. This is not just a problem in emerging nations; in my host country Germany I often see the alienation of older citizens who cannot understand modern advertising communication in Denglish. To the localizer will go the profits as now “unimportant” regions grow and flex new economic muscles.

Localization consultant Stefan Gentz (who kindly supplied the pictures used in this post) followed with a lively talk on change management, the motivations of companies that introduce it and how to get it right. This is an easy subject to get me snoring, but Stefan failed miserably in that regard; the talk was too well presented and interesting to allow me to catch up on my sleep deficit.

Stefan is a unique individual, a German brimming with optimizing and a humility that is all the more surprising given his great competence. I met him earlier this year at memoQfest 2012; he introduced himself as the author of a blog post that had drawn a few scathing comments from me. I don’t remember what it was all about, but I suspect that if Stefan was in fact wrong about whatever irked me at the time, his graceful way of dealing with matters probably puts him on the right side of most things. He is an enormously creative problem solver whose infectious enthusiasm is probably just what the doctor should order for companies needing a guide to effective change management with their language technologies. I found his lecture fun and inspiring and the occasional phonetic stumbles just added a bit of pleasant spice.

Stefan’s most important point, I think, is that change management is not crisis management. If you wait until you are in a crisis, it may well be too late.

Reinhard Schaler followed with a talk on trends in localization that was interesting but not necessarily relevant to the commercial world I and many of my colleagues inhabit.

"Social localization" represents the greatest growth opportunity, he said, but many of the examples presented involved harnessing the free time of those who have their living secured in other ways. There were a few contradictions in the presentation that were never resolved to my satisfaction: on one hand, the short shelf-life of information and its loss of value before traditional translation processes can be applied effectively was emphasized, but a few minutes later he spoke of vast archives of old wisdom in urgent need of recoding for other languages and cultures. Not a contradiction, really, as I think I probably agree with him on the specific examples he’ll cite – I think we’ll both agree with the opinion of the late Miguel Llorens that the content tsunami has less a wave of valuable content than my puppy unleashes on the sidewalk on a typical walk, and his observation that the Common (Non)sense Advisory has not reported on community translation because it is not yet of obvious commercial interest and they cannot sell reports about it is probably an accurate observation despite any intended humor.

Reinhard commented that a trillion hours of free time is up for grabs each year… I wish someone would spread a bit of that wealth my direction. I work for a living and have little desire to be spending my bit of free time doing more of the same work for nothing. Reinhard does not see this use of unprofessional translation as a threat to the pros, and I largely agree with him. And when it is, I think of the likely result in many cases and remind myself that these are good times for those who have studied tort law.

The case he cited of drug companies selling pharmaceuticals around the world with labels and directions for use only in English is appalling and morally criminal. When he talked about this point I wondered about the viability of recorded phone messages with directions in local languages and how these might be accessed using codes on a package. I was disappointed at Reinhard’s failure to offer viable paths to action for working language professionals, but I do care about many of the matters he touched on.

He delivered one of my favorite lines at the conference: The Titanic was built by professionals, the Arc by amateurs! A very good point, but Noah was a pro at manure management. Most crowdsourcing companies have yet to master that skill.

A panel on standards followed, with interesting background on the EN 15038 standard, its development and politics and future incarnations under discussion. Various national standards in Canada and elsewhere were discussed, and there was a good exchange between the audience and the panel members.

Chris Durban with her book, The Prosperous Translator. Photo: Stefan Gentz
Chris Durban (in the audience) pointed out that the need to purchase copies of the EN 15038 standard posed a barrier  to its adoption, and she described how her French association (SFT) had negotiated a bulk purchase deal to help overcome this.

After lunch I was full of excellent Polish food and tired from the effort of concentrating on the morning’s presentations. A colleague in the US once suggested to me that breaks at these conferences should be long – much more than the short hour here. I agree. Two or three hours would have allowed for a refreshing, much-needed nap or more networking time with interesting international colleagues.

Though I was desperately tired, Paul Filkin’s talk on migration issues from SDL Trados 2007 to the latest versions of SDL Trados Studio – “Making the Leap” – kept me alert and interested. It was a competent overview with relevant test data on leverage differences, compatibility strategies and more. A good time for an extra coffee break if you stay well away from the Trados Jungle, but a valuable guide for those in it who prefer to avoid the snakes, quicksand and tigers. Paul is one of the best explainers of the cabbalistic secrets of SDLarcana that it has been my pleasure to meet over the years, and the great services he has done to user communities with improved customer service and support as well as the SDL Open Exchange and his excellent tips blog even make things look easy sometimes.

Gábor Ugray followed with a talk on the Kilgray constellation of tools. It was a useful overview for those unfamiliar with the suite, but the focus on server solutions was a bit aside from my personal needs, and I was having a terrible time understanding parts of the talk, because his microphone was defective. I did, however, manage to extract some useful information regarding development plans with Kilgray’s terminology tools that will affect development and publishing plans of my own. When asked about plans for possible further web-based offerings (because Paul had mentioned various SDL plans) there was a deadpan pass on mentioning anything specific or interesting. Praiseworthy caution perhaps, but a little disappointing, because the rumors of things ahead are quite encouraging.

There were further presentations that afternoon from Plunet and others, but a severe need for caffeine, fresh air and a walk for the dogs caused me to miss it. That’s always a problem with conferences – not enough time and/or caffeine to take it all in. Thus ended the first day of TM-Europe 2012.

A loaf of bread, a jug of wine and a vigorous debate on the language "industry". Photo: Stefan Gentz
Not quite, actually. A few hours later, after a suitable break for rest and relaxed chats, we met again at the conference hotel and walked to the venue for the event’s gala dinner at Pod Gigantami. It was a smaller gathering than last year, but the food and the atmosphere were better than last year’s rather nice evening. I had the pleasure of sitting with colleagues from Russia, Germany, France, Sweden, the US and the Netherlands among other places (with some overlap) and hearing them share their thoughts on marketing strategies and the challenges of the profession. I was pleased that Chris Durban was at the table to share her thoughts, particularly as problems related to an illness the next morning caused me to miss her keynote speech and most of the other presentations that day.

The program the next day was quite a good one, but illness and the need to prepare for my own presentations caused me to miss the talks I had looked forward to most. I was to take part in the panel discussion of whether machine translation, a 70-year old technology that always seems to be five years short of perfect implementation, is perhaps overrated as a technology of the future. The other panel members, Doug Strock and Michal Tyszkowski, are credible technologists with a clear understanding of the practical limits of MT and the honesty to state these limits and warn against their abuse, but the member of the panel who was unable to make it at all due to his untimely death at age 41 of a heart attack spoke most entertainingly and clearly through insightful and irreverent quotes projected in the background and the memories many have of his vigorous defense of real common sense. I stumbled in late, a bit disoriented, and shared a few of my skeptical concerns about the mind-numbing and warping effects of machine translation post-editing on a good human brain and as well as my thoughts on research data presented last year at TM-Europe by Indra Sāmīte discussing Latvian MT experiments which clearly showed an increase in serious errors after editing machine  translation supported work. I'm not actually sure that what I had to say was relevant to the preceding discussion, but damage to one's professional writing skills through exposure to linguistic garbage has been a concern of mine for many decades, which is why I don't watch much television or correct crappy human translation work either.

My afternoon rant on responsibility for the future of translation was originally scheduled for the morning, but Doug had kindly agreed to switch times, and I explained as best I could my cautious optimism that things can in fact work out better than many of us expect - if we remember that there are people behind all our "processes". I'm not sure the point really worked, because in the Q&A afterward, one fellow chided me for my pessimism, telling me that translation agencies should do everything for freelance translators so we all can just type. Oh well. In his future perhaps.

The final Warsaw Pact Debate for the meeting of 87 delegates and two dogs from 21 countries saw Doug Strock, Chris Durban, Reinhard Schaler and Mark Childress summarizing and dissecting each others' visions of the future of translation and localization. Just as there is no single translation market, there is no single future for our profession, and listening to these colleagues and others discuss their thoughts and fears for times ahead is a great help to me in choosing my own future rather than accept one that others might choose for me.


  1. Hey, that is what I really call devious banklinking ;)
    The Warsaw Pact picture is great, but again, the text or rather numbers under this... Devious indeed...

  2. Excellent report, thank you very much for all the trouble you took to write this. I’m not sure whether you made me feel I was there or that I wished I could have been there — somewhere between those two options.

  3. No trouble at all, Margaret :-) I had nothing else to do but write this and type up the notes from my talk on the way back; my travel companions preferred to do most of the driving, because I am notoriously slow about it and do not take full advantage of the high-speed roads that all that EU money helped to create. Alas, despite the past 12 years in Germany, I'm of the opinion that ground vehicles should travel below the speed of sound....

    TM-Europe really is great fun and an excellent opportunity to meet inspiring professionals from around the world. Last year it was Daniel Benito and a lot of other great people I missed this year, but the team that moved in to take their places taught me just as much. I look forward to next year.

  4. Thanks for your thorough report, Kevin! I second what Margaret said. You virtually bring us to the conference rooms and closer to the minds of the great people you met and heard at the conference. I also enjoyed the other article you posted about your talk - highly inspiring!

  5. Thanks for passing on your impressions from the conference, Kevin. I particularly like your closing point: "Just as there is no single translation market, there is no single future for our profession" - we're free to find the direction that suits us and our clients.


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