Why we should take the latest Multilingual with a pinch of salt

Why we should take the latest Multilingual with a pinch of salt

Saint Nicholas (the friendly and totally fictional character who sneaks around bringing fairly random gifts) came a few days early for my students and me: thanks to the lovely folks at Multilingual, the latest issue arrived this morning, bringing with it the usual range of useful insights from the Language Services Industry… or did it?

Upon unwrapping the package on my way to my CAT class, what better reason to get excited than reading “Industry focus: Education”? “Brilliant! Surely this is exactly what the students need to become even more motivated to join the Industry!” I thought, but the following second I felt a slight chill, as well: I remembered a rather amusing (if you were a masochistic lecturer) or slightly terrifying (if you were of a more impressionable nature) panel at LocWorld Dublin (June, 2014) on the topic of “Recruiting talent”. While some will surely chuckle at the more philosophical implications of starting to use “talent” instead of “people/employees/any-term-for-a-human-insted-of-this-pompous-but-impersonal-one”, the situation in the very full LocWorld venue was that lots of representatives of companies of all sizes took the opportunity to rant for a full hour about the lack of said “talent”, and also about the great fault of universities for being totally useless (bar one they knew about and quite approved of). The “two-year gap” (it reportedly takes two years to train a new recruit on the job to a satisfactory level) got a lot of mentions alongside a few other figures and statements plucked out of – frankly – rather thin air. I’m not joking: if you had been a lecturer with somewhat lacking self-esteem at that time in that room, you would have quit your job for any manual work available there and then (it’s lucky there were only three of us in the room; funnily enough, the vast majority of our colleagues hadn’t thought it was worth spending a cool €650 minimum on an entrance pass to get abused by the Industry). But more about this later.

It was therefore with both excitement and some trepidation that I read this latest issue of this publication I truly appreciate. I was hoping there would be new ideas rather than the same tiresome rants and, in fairness to Multilingual’s editorial team, the tone could have been a lot stronger had it followed Andrew Lawless’ cue with his dramatic “The talent trap”. Luckily it didn’t, though Andrew’s seemingly favourite way of presenting –  i.e. generalising his personal experience, his thoughts or other equally statistically insignificant sources of information (sorry, Andrew, but I’m afraid all our personal thoughts are rather insignificant in the grand scheme of things) – was quite popular in a fair few other articles. I am not going to dwell too much on this, because I have found some of Andrew’s other articles in previous issues genuinely instructive and I am not looking for any kind of pointless cream cake fight Laurel-and-Hardie-style. I’m sure Andrew’s got better things to do than read my blog and I choose to focus on my students than bicker with people I meet at conferences.

But this is where it gets important: the students. We all agree that they are key to shaping tomorrow’s Industry and we “bring ours up” (so to speak) in Leeds with a super-strong cocktail of client and server-based technologies from CAT to PM, Speech Recognition, subtitling, MT and Corpus Linguistics, all nicely seasoned with monthly issues of Multilingual and a solid Reading List. We do that thanks to a lot of wonderful professionals who teach on our programmes and give our students invaluable advice about translation strategies, as well as starting out, negotiating rates, quoting and invoicing, observing guidelines, meeting deadlines and communicating professionally. We do that thanks to local and national professional networks who welcome our students and co-organise mutually-beneficial CPD events. We do that in problem-based training scenarios like the international CAT Team Project my students happen to be involved in this week, in which they collaborate with other MA students in Slovenia and France, getting their heads around managing international projects, coping with multinational pricing, scheduling and tracking projects so that real clients like the WFTO and many other NGOs get high-quality translations back next week (which other countries and NGOs have we been working with? I’ll leave you guessing for a bit). We do it using cloud technologies, tracking and logging our time spent on various tasks, using translation error typologies to learn to give meaningful feedback when revising (I’m using ISO 17100 terminology here), and reflecting on the experience to maximise the learning experience both in individualised writing and in group feedback sessions. We do it while translating and revising in CAT tools (three different flavours this week just for kicks), but also by doing image localisation, DTP, website localisation and troubleshooting. We don’t do it just once a year and forget about it, we do it three times in one module alone and we keep getting better (at least that’s what our graduates say alongside the companies they choose to work for even before they graduate – yes, we don’t really have many cases of internships; our students are hired when they start talking about what they can do after their MA). What do our students think about this? Well, you can read, for instance, here, here, here and here, Kirsty’s impressions (just about to graduate, but already happy in the Industry rather than overloaded with debt and totally unprepared as Andrew suggests is the grim reality).

Of course, it’s a lot easier to generalise based on one’s feeling that training courses are useless, instead of researching and acknowledging all the outstanding work done in the TAPP projects, the many initiatives from local projects to simulated translation bureaus centralised by the OPTIMALE project, the work of colleagues in Monterey, the strong collaborations happening within the EMT network, or even the example described above from Leeds to give just a few examples (colleagues will forgive me for not including more illustrations of this point).

However, I do not think it is healthy to do that. I think it is counter-productive, especially as the contributors to the latest issue of Multilingual have quite numerous criticisms of training programmes, but conveniently forget to give a more complete picture: for instance, they forget to mention that, at LocWorld Dublin 2014 when this Talent focus group was started, there was little agreement between the companies themselves as to what would be sufficient skills. Did all companies assign financial responsibilities to their Project Managers? How much hands-on technical troubleshooting did PMs do? Were all PMs salespeople or could they actually use their training in translation processes and techniques? There was no agreement to any of these questions. Moreover, how did companies expect to recruit the amazing know-it-alls they keep talking about when a PM role can, in the UK for instance, start at £14,000-£16,000/year before tax? Does anyone genuinely think this is acceptable? When (various and by no means all, let’s be clear) companies are quick to criticise the training institutions, do they ever pause to reflect on what their actual contribution is to the industry, and perhaps even blush and tone down their finger-pointing especially if they have recently been the subject of national boycotts by professional linguists? How can companies which take years to modify some processes in order to become more efficient or update some ridiculously outdated technology they’ve been using expect that universities will be able to change their curricula several times a year to accommodate what they think they say they need and then turn out to need something completely different?

At the organisational level, GALA, ELIA, EUATC have been excellent collaborating with the EMT Network for the benefit of the students. They are aware that lecturers are interested in keeping abreast of industry news to keep their courses relevant, but that, if it is difficult for companies to source the very hefty conference fee + travel and subsistence for events like LocWorld, it is genuinely impossible for some lecturers to attend a conference which is not acknowledged as a research activity by their home institutions. Those who have any kind of small budget will most likely spend it on events where they can publish research, learn something new, and not be treated as the poor, dim relative crawling out of a hole.

I realise these are quite strong words, but I am genuinely quite tired of these kinds of messages spread by people who could make much better use of their influence. I have met a fair number of industry representatives and I am convinced that they do mean well. The vast majority of my contacts appreciate the value of training, acknowledge none of us is perfect and kindly agree to collaborate so that the students get the best of both worlds. I cannot thank them enough (and I take every opportunity to thank them) and we’re in such a good place that we can talk about new projects while sampling one or the other’s latest batch of home-made jam. Who would have thought that some useless lecturers can do that? Or is it simply the case that we realise we’re all just human with a common cause we’re passionate about.

At the same time, though, it’s 2015 – soon 2016 – and it’s way past the point where as an industry we should have dispensed with ivory towers. It’s funny, but it seems to me that a part of the Industry is busy building its own: nothing that goes on in the academia is good enough. If I may, it would be courteous to stop assuming anyone vaguely associated with an educational institution anywhere in the world has three months off every year, goes home way before 5pm every day, and generally just mooches about while the rest of the world breaks its back clocking way over the Henry-Ford-given-and-never-since-contested 8 hours of meaningful, concentrated and efficient work every day, including week-ends. Newsflash: in the Knowledge Industry hardly anyone switches off, so let’s all relax a little and learn to appreciate the others’ efforts and contributions!

All in all, I am not saying any training programme is perfect – just as I very much doubt all the companies pointing fingers are perfect themselves. What we are, though, is motivated to learn from our mistakes and improve. We try to be agile, but often the structure of our institutions is waterfall, so we innovate in smaller ways than we ourselves would like. We may not be the best at bragging about our achievements, but that doesn’t automatically mean we’re useless. We just care too much about the students to divert time from their training to things like the one I’ve just done. So we just turn the other cheek. But I think (in the nicest possible way, of course) that those of us who seem to find the time for pointing fingers, dividing opinions and suggesting impractical solutions to incompletely-defined problems should stick to what we have researched for some time and can therefore be reasonably accurate about. After all, you wouldn’t really ask a linguist who’s been studying a new language for a while, but only a couple of hours every other month if that to be the lead on your most important account when you’ve got qualified and experienced others available, right?

Writing about all of this has not been easy because I realise that a few opinions do not represent an Industry view. However, given the justified popularity of Multilingual at Leeds and in other Universities, not having a reaction to this latest issue would make me think twice the next time I talk to my students about challenging preconceptions and educating clients: why would they do it well when faced with strangers if I did not dare raise the points that bothered me when talking to people I had met and with whom I share a passion for a more ethical and open Industry?