Conference report – SATT19, Milan

If a speaker programme’s success can be measured by how many notes you make, then SATT19 was something of a triumph. Nine pages of scrawl was a hefty haul for your correspondent, who had been reduced to a crabbed, jaded figure by sitting through years of talks on valuing yourself, work-life balance, and pricing for dummies at general translation conferences.

But this one had a theme. No, a real theme.

The School of Advanced Technologies for Translators, on 13 and 14 September in Milan, had talks on how neural machine translation (NMT) works under the bonnet, how universities should be training translators in an industry where MT is now part of the norm, and how companies use MT, human translation and transcreation in their globalisation strategies. Not to mention workshops on post-editing (PEMT), SEO for translators, and various CAT tools. It was an interesting offering with contributions from academics and brands as well as language professionals.

It called itself a “School” – fair enough, it was held in a university, and many attendees were inexperienced translators or students. This put me in the unusual position of feeling duty-bound to correct certain misperceptions that the mainly academic/big-brand/big-LSP speakers were perhaps unwittingly creating in their as yet unsavvy audience. Like the idea that translation students should be taught that doing PEMT work is inevitable. Or that “human parity” actually means anything. Or that freelance translators are isolated (when we have local networks, Facebook groups and peer review partnerships …). Or that most translators work for large LSPs. When challenged, Airbnb’s localisation chief wryly acknowledged that using an agency denied him the chance to collaborate with the top translation talent, who tend to work directly with clients, but he had to because dealing with dozens of freelancers individually would not be feasible.

It was interesting to see how Unbabel, a Lisbon-based enterprise, is using AI (artificial intelligence), MT and crowdsourcing to provide fast, cheap translations of customer service emails, FAQ pages and other simple texts. Speed here is of the essence, and there would be little added value for them to seek out seasoned wordsmiths from the elite professional ranks. Their workflow seems highly complex: MT, an automated estimate of the MT output quality, two levels of post-editing by glorified amateurs who know both languages, various feedback loops, assessing the editors and trying to stop them gaming the system (e.g. by waiving through raw MT output to save time). Myriad checks and balances, then, to avoid using a professional.

Another session about a major brand’s approach to translation and transcreation for international markets proved insightful. Nike’s core team seem to have all bases covered, with a globalisation manager, an ad woman, and a translator with copywriting and storytelling training. They spoke about their internal-review processes for ensuring a consistent voice when working with multiple translation teams. And about how transcreation is the optimum way to create the desired communication effect in a foreign market when significant creativity is required, while keeping control of the message and avoiding reinventing the wheel in each market (which is what hiring local copywriters would have meant). They brought fresh examples of real localisation missteps, like “” (a chortle-worthy URL for the Italian branch of Powergen, fortunately altered in time) and “Time to take on Europe” (an abortive slogan for the women’s Champions League football tournament that was deemed unwise in these times of fractious anti-EU rhetoric).

A quick assortment of take-aways from the speakers:

  1. When deciding on your website content, start by considering which search terms your prospects might use to find the services you offer; then base your content around that.
  2. Before starting to translate a webpage, ask for a keyword list from your client’s target-language SEO specialist. (And if they want you to do that, price the service accordingly.)
  3. Some end clients are asking LSPs for technical solutions to better integrate the media translation process – e.g. for videos with dubbing/subtitles – into their marketing workflow. (And at least one LSP has already developed one.)
  4. MT has no place in localisation workflows for games or entertainment products, as the texts cannot be as engaging or compelling as they need to be.
  5. Universities should be training translators in content creation, writing skills, specialisation and transcreation. (Otherwise, they’ll spend years fixing MT bugs before finding themselves out of work when the machines become “good enough” to operate unattended.)
  6. The title character in a recent Disney film was renamed in the Italian version to avoid using the name of a famous pornstar.

To conclude, I enjoyed SATT19, not least its location near Milan’s buzzing Navigli district. Specialised, tightly themed events like this offer a good way for experienced translators to obtain stimulating, useful CPD. And excellent human translators should continue to thrive even as the machines march on.