I think you will spend 380 seconds reading this post
I’ve just returned from a work trip to Athens, my first in-person away day for my translation and production working group since before the pandemic. I’d last attended a conference in person back in 2019, and an away day of the group back in 2017. A big takeaway from the work trip has been how good it is to talk face-to-face.
In the last six years, I had not attended the group in person, but had attended meetings consistently since the group went virtual and then hybrid. Hybrid meetings allow me to participate in the group more frequently, but in Webex/Teams/Skype there are barely any opportunities to talk to other participants. I was fortunate that the group’s hosts, the Bank of Greece, were very generous hosts and arranged dinners for the participants on both evenings. The hospitality extended at the meeting itself was also conducive to being able to talk to colleagues from other institutions, with breaks for coffee and lunch allowing me to speak to several other attendees.
Webex et al. may have revolutionised meetings in terms of making meetings more accessible in terms of removing the travel element, but at the same time, they’ve stripped participants of the chance to catch up and discuss the issues that affect translators. Even quick chats to the colleagues sat either side had a novelty compared with the awkward silence of hybrid meetings where at best there is a round of salutations before silence. With presence meetings you are consciously “in the room” the entire time.
Hybrid kills off one-to-one conversation
It is an almost unwritten rule not to use the chat function in hybrid meetings, so the possibilities to have conversations with other colleagues are limited – especially if you are focussing on the meeting. Online meeting fatigue has also meant that meetings have been pared back in length massively, and people attend for the bare minimum time and often not even with cameras on (although some of this is due to conserving bandwidth rather than not wanting to be seen).
So, when preparing from the trip, I felt like I was attending the meeting with a renewed purpose – I wanted to talk to as many of the other participants as possible, after all I had known some for years from presence meetings, but had had little to no contact during the pandemic years. While some sessions of group meetings are of less direct relevance to me than others, even they can provide interesting comments that can flow into my internal “Language Services Handbook” (LaSH). My LaSH is a living document that has been compiled since 2017 and covers various aspects of language services – addressing all sorts of issues like best practices, lessons learned from past experiences, technical issues that have been resolved, through to handling procurement processes.
The scheduled breaks in meetings allow me to talk to other participants. They range from fellow SPLSUs (single person language service units) who I ally with, and where we discuss how we manage without a team, and the challenges of smaller language units. With larger language service units, I frequently talk about how job remits are changing, e.g. team members upskilling, diversification of activities, changing trends in the types of jobs managed, and the changing profiles that are sought after. Most frequently, it gives me a chance to talk about LangTech. Within the group, practically all the language services represented use Computer Assisted Translation (CAT) / Translation Memory software, as well as terminology software.
We need to talk about LangTech
The real hot potato is about the increasing use of technology in language services. LangTech is ultimately an essential part of language services. During my time as an in-house translator, I have witnessed the neural machine translation (NMT) revolution, and the use of natural language processing (NLP) and AI in language services, especially in the form of large language models (LLMs) like ChatGPT is the current hot topic. Some also use additional solutions, have looked into machine translation, or even have in-house language technologists who work on finding the system(s) that suits their needs. More often than not, there is more openness to talk about what hasn’t quite worked out, or has perhaps not proved as successful as hoped.
Preparing for presence meetings
I find that my preparations for presence meetings are far more thorough than hybrid/online meetings. By nature, I am never a passive participant in any meeting I attend, whether personally or virtually. However, with a presence meeting, I find I take more time over preparation, e.g. finding out who else will attend and what I can talk to whom about. I also try to prepare a set of potential questions in relation to the presentations that are being given. Presentations of technical solutions also work better in person, and I usually have a think about the possibilities of how to apply what I see.
In contrast, in a hybrid setting due to Webex-weariness, I probably only really tune into the meeting a few minutes before it begins, and seldom look at presentations beforehand if available. There is also the distinct temptation to relegate a hybrid meeting to a second screen and not to fully listen. Having had three years of exclusively hybrid meetings, it was definitely a case of having to almost re-learn meeting skills.
(Re)learning to listen, observe, process and reflect
After three years of speaking into webcams, with either a headset, conference spider or podcasting mic, and personally often not having my own window displayed on my old screen, I found that the return to full presence mode meant that I had readjust to simultaneously listening and observing gestures and facial expressions of speakers. The increased effort in terms of concentration, if you have not been used to a presence meeting setting for a while, can be quite tiring.
Presence meetings still have a very real role to play, even if they may not be quite so frequent given time pressures due to heavy workloads and employers agendas of rationalising unnecessary business travel as they had been prior to the pandemic. Another reason that such meetings remain essential is the fact that you also have some time for reflection about your daily work, and what is working and not working in your job and to think about changes that can be made to the way you tackle certain tasks or jobs to either increase productivity or to weed out the distractions.
Time spent in presence meetings also helps to have breaks from continuous screen time that otherwise dominates daily work, allowing time to think and process situations differently from when staring into your screen continuously. And of course, travel opens a new window on the world – I appreciated the possibility to walk through the streets of Athens and have a physical change of scenery away from Vienna, when work has otherwise become a tale of commuting between home and the office, or working from home. In the case of working from home, I have come to value my virtual commute (walking my son to school, counting the snails, slugs and worms and heading back home) when working from the office in the corner of our bedroom.
Part of this blog post appears on my professional site – www.transl8r.eu – and has more of a LangTech focus than this version on my personal website, which focuses more on the role that presence meetings still have in the world of online/hybrid meetings.