A month in conferences

Light at the end of the tunnelBetween February 22 and March 22, 2018, I attended three international conferences.

On February 22 and 23, I attended Elia Together in Athens, Greece. Elia Together is a pretty young event series launched in Barcelona in 2016. It is a two-day event aiming at providing a collaborative environment where professionals from across the industry can connect and develop lasting relationships. Roughly 250 people convened in Athens around a three-track program on specialization, trends, and technology with 36 speakers.

On March 9 and 10, 2018 I attended the second interpretation and translation congress jointly organized by the Dutch association of translation agencies (VViN), the Belgian chamber of translators and interpreters (CBTI-BKVT), the Catholic University of Leuven, the Utrecht University, and the translation academy at the Zuyd University of Applied Sciences, under the patronage of the European Commission. Roughly 250 people convened in Breda (80 km south of Amsterdam—and roughly 2 hours by train—, 20 km north-east of Antwerp, and 100 km north of Brussels,) around a four-track program of business, education, technology and workshops, under the theme “The Language Industry 4.0: Embracing the future?”.

Finally, on March 22, I attended the EMEA edition of Global Ready, Smartling’s annual conference, in London. The conference gathered a hundred delegates from Smartling’s major customers and featured a dozen sessions across 2 tracks (marketing and localization.)

Criteria for attendance

Over the years, I have identified a few essential criteria for attending an industry event:

  1. No registration fee;
  2. Attractive location, easy and convenient to reach and stay;
  3. Intriguing theme and tracks;
  4. Reputation of organizer(s).

Since requiring a registration fee is now standard and established practice, I usually submit a proposal for a presentation to the events I find interesting, where speakers are not requested any registration fee, and I only attend if my proposal is accepted. Occasionally, when the event is new, attractive, and not for profit—i.e. a moderate registration fee is clearly requested solely for expense recovery—I may consider attendance. In this case, length, location, and originality are essential, each one on its account. I tend to prefer lunch-and-learn events where sessions are few, packed, and noteworthy. The journey (travel, accommodation, meals) must not exceed three times as much the registration fee. A charming location may be a plus, but hardly decisive.

I’m not a social guy, keen to networking, so I am hardly tempted by fancy events with tons of attendees, social moments, dinners and dancing nights. And I’m definitely not willing to pay a hefty fee just to meet people I know, mingle with them, and st(r)ay up late. I won’t pay a hefty registration fee to listen to the usual suspects giving the same talks, possibly recycling the same slide decks. And I’m definitely not willing to pay a hefty fee to attend over-sponsored events where sponsors are even allowed to take the podium and promote their stuff while speakers are—someway kindly—requested to be practical and not infomercial.

Most of all, for an event to make me consider paying a registration fee, it must be both educational and informative, but I’m sick and tired of boring academic stuff that should be left to the restricted circles of the passionate lovers of the many ivory towers helping obstruct the evolution of the industry. In the same way, I’m not inclined to attend events designed to allow people of the same kind to make common cause and pat each other’s back while complaining about this and that.

To this end, I very much appreciate it when organizers make conference programs, abstracts, and names and profiles of speakers available at the same time when opening registrations. And I even more appreciate it when organizers bring in outsiders, provide for take-aways, and set up unconference sessions to collect ideas for future editions.

Choosy? Definitely. Snobbish? Maybe.

However, every time I devise a proposal myself, I always try and make it fresh and original, not a heated soup, although the topics I care about are always the same. For the respect due to those who decide to invest time and maybe money to come and pay attention.

The conferences

The three conferences I attended lately met at least most of the criteria listed above. Registration fees ranged € 150 to € 200, and they were hosted in pleasant and convenient venues, although not all equally easy to reach.

What I like the most—and the less

All programs looked fairly ordinary, none of them was offering any disruptive, innovative or even remarkable presentations. On the other hand, one would hardly expect to find any in events like these. Therefore, not surprisingly, most keynotes were platitudinous, especially with their predictable persistent references to the new, to change, to innovation, and to the whole corollary of futuristic wonders. In some cases, even garment was intended to emulate those of major influencers, dead or alive.

In Athens, I was deeply disappointed with the opening speech, while I appreciated the approach described by Tetyana Struk and Svetlana Svetova to introduce students to PEMT. I was also intrigued by István Lengyel and Gonzalo Urriza’s presentation on the unimportance of trends. Unfortunately, I had to leave before Manuel Herranz’s presentation on disintermediation, automation, centralization, and MT as the future of LSPs. And the slide deck downloaded a few days later made me think I have missed something interesting.

In Breda, I was deeply disappointed with the keynote speeches, for adding more noise and hype to those already pervading social media. Daniel Prou’s presentation on the impact of NMTs was even more unsatisfactory, but maybe just as expected, while Vincent Vandeghinste’s tour under the hood of neural MT was pleasantly surprising. Nothing new or outstanding came from Raisa McNab’s presentation on managing quality through language industry ISO standards and Isabelle Moore’s presentation on measurements. In this respect, Andrez Nedoma’s presentation on KPIs was absolutely enlightening, even though some more practical references would have proved useful.

Finally, Smartling’s Global Ready conference in London was the closest to an ideal event in quite a long time: compact, interesting, and stimulating. Even when a presentation or two or some statements were disappointing—at least for the source—the location, the venue, the format, and the topics were engaging. I would have scheduled Dave Chaffey’s presentation on global content marketing strategies at the beginning of the day—in order to have a fruitful QA session—and Jack Welde’s keynote at the end of the program to give much more sense and depth to the day, but Kevin Cohn’s presentation (Translation by Numbers) and his subsequent chat with Kate Fitzgerald on discovering one’s data super powers were worth the trip, and the registration fee. I must admit that, being picky also about food—well, especially about food—I enjoyed the lunch (especially the duck) and the afternoon scones with jam and clotted cream, which I hadn’t tasted for thirty years. Needless to say, I took advantage of being in London to pay a visit to the National Gallery and the British Museum, to call at Hatchards and buy a signed copy of Mary Beard’s latest feat, and to have some traditional fish and chips for dinner at an historic Covent Garden pub.

My 2¢ for a near-ideal conference

Did I say that I like lunch-and-learns? I like them especially for corporate or company-promoted events because they can help build communities and encourage people to learn and grow their technical or personal skills.

I discovered what they are when working for the major Italian telecommunications company, and we used them to informally supplement employee training and development activities. We had a workshop in the morning in a standard meeting room booked for the case, and when finished, at lunch time, we catered lunch from the company canteen or moved there, sat together and continued the discussion. While most workshops were held by a small group of experts, colleagues were invited to propose a subject they were interested in or cared about, or a side project they were working on and, possibly, to hold a presentation. As the company was distributed throughout the country, participants usually were colleagues from distant locations, who then transferred the acquired knowledge to their coworkers. The Internet was in its infancy, but we were lucky enough to have a robust Intranet, and we continued our discussions even remotely, online.

Have you ever seen any post-event space where people can continue to talk about a topic?

I would like to see this kind of meeting replicated, at least within those mammoth events that usually provide participants with little more than some networking opportunities and panels where the usual suspects pretend to debate of maximum systems and look relevant. These events are just for gathering sponsorships, collecting registration fees, bragging on social media, and claiming to be significant.

What I’ve learnt from these conferences

I do not always attend events to learn something new. I must say that I usually beware of the pearls of wisdom that the usual suspects give condescendingly away. I value confirmations much more than any new information that I may find difficult to apply back home.

Solid confirmations came from Athens and Breda that something moves inside the industry, though still slowly. In Athens, I could see once again the inclination of blaming technology for replacing services, products and habits with others of lower quality, impoverished and/or simplified rather than human laziness.

In Breda, I could see the usual disinclination for investment and risk that leads to expecting change without being involved. On the other hand, Arleen Lorrance’s call for being the change you want to see happen was once again misattributed to Mohandas Gandhi.

Confirmation also came from Athens, Breda and London, that the industry finally seems to acknowledge the need to embrace rapidly evolving technology. Indeed, the pressure to provide shorter time to market is compelling, and most players still seem struggling to find a way to meet people, processes, and tools, while developing a persuasive value proposition to pursue a sustainable growth.

Confirmations also came from all the events on the importance of data, even though, it was in the London event that real-world and accurate applications were shown to drive strategic decisions. In this respect, as Jack Welde reminded in his opening presentation at Global Ready, every company is going to be a data machine.

The opinion is spreading that the future of the translation industry is in content enhancement. Unfortunately, despite the richer and richer skill sets required, academic institutions are dramatically lagging in understanding how translation has been changing, while wide skepticism still persists about machine translation. Actually, most industry players just seem, very simply, and sadly, to have not yet understood how to exploit it.

Many localization industry pundits have adopted agile as their new shibboleth, although almost two decades too late. Unfortunately, TEP—as the paradigm of the whole industry—and Agile don’t match. In London the paradigm shift was clearly anticipated. So, it’s time to reconsider all the outdated models that still drive most initiatives, stop babbling about innovation and change and technology, and get going.

There’s a light at the end of the tunnel in this messed-up industry. But beware, it could come towards us.

Author: Luigi Muzii

Luigi Muzii