Attending A Conference in Times of Change

Ian Winstanley, Sociology, University of Liverpool (2017 Cohort)

In light of the current impacts of rapid technological changes in so many industries, social researchers are being encouraged not only to think about how they might contribute to academic debates on these developments but also to think about how their research might address the practical concerns of people working in the industries that are being shaped by technological innovations. In the “ESRC research helping industry” document, for instance, the ESRC refers to the need for social science research that develops insights into how work is changing in the creative and cultural industries in the context of transformative digital technologies. In responding to this need through my PhD research, I’m always keen to find opportunities to learn more about the experiences of people who are dealing with technological changes in their working lives, and I’d like to share my experience of one such learning opportunity in this blog post.

My PhD research explores the relationship between creative work and digital technology with a focus on the practice of translation in the UK language industry, a key site of cultural and creative activity within the global economy. Having been a translator myself, I’ve had first-hand experience of a variety of digital innovations in this industry. Computer-aided translation (CAT) systems, for instance, provide a set of software tools that human translators can draw upon as they translate. Machine translation (MT) systems involve the use of the computer to do the translating in an automated fashion. The development of digital technologies such as these has had a significant impact on how language industry practitioners go about providing translation services in recent decades and continues to do so today. So, to learn more about the very latest issues concerning current practitioners in this industry and to reflect on how my research might engage with those issues, I decided to attend this year’s conference of the UK’s Institute of Translation and Interpreting (ITI), which was held on 12th, 13th and 14th May 2021.

The ITI Conference is a major event in the language industry calendar and provides a platform for speakers from the world of translation and interpreting as well as related fields to speak about topics that are important to them and to their colleagues. This year, the conference theme was “Evolving in changing times”, evoking not only the changes taking place in the language industry and in wider society, but also, in light of the COVID-19 pandemic, the fact that the conference itself was drawing on new digital technologies to enable it to take place online for the first time. The online conference platform made it possible for people to attend sessions in real time from locations around the world, and recordings of most sessions were made available on-demand so that attendees could have the opportunity to watch any that they were not able to attend live. The conference programme included a wide range of interesting talks, panels and other sessions as well as an awards ceremony and online networking opportunities.

On the subject of digital technology, I found the talks on machine translation and business management software for language industry practitioners very interesting in terms of the insights they offered into how these digital technologies are being used within workflows for language services. In addition to these, however, there were many other sessions that offered equally interesting insights about the adoption of digital technology in the industry. For instance, there was a keynote talk on the role played by professional translator and interpreter associations in the present climate of technological change. There was also a panel discussion on new ways of working for interpreters, many of whom have had to adapt to a rapid transition from interpreting in person to interpreting via online platforms during the COVID-19 pandemic. Indeed, the pandemic was a recurring theme throughout the conference, and there were some fascinating accounts of how language industry practitioners have drawn on digital technology to help them address the associated challenges, not only by engaging with various online systems to carry out translation and interpreting work, but also, for instance, by making use of social media to develop online support networks among colleagues.

Overall, the conference gave me a valuable opportunity to learn more about the kinds of issues relevant to practising translators and interpreters working in the present industry environment. I found the experience of attending the event very worthwhile in terms of helping me to think about how my research connects with these issues and the possibilities for engaging with current industry practitioners so that my research addresses matters that are important to them. I’d like to acknowledge that the cost of attending the conference was kindly covered by the NWSSDTP through the Research Training Support Grant (RTSG). Reflecting on my experience, I’d encourage anyone doing a PhD to consider whether attending a professional association conference or an industry conference relevant to their research topic might offer them a new and useful perspective on their research and the associated possibilities for engagement and impact.

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