MCIS meets Hundreds of Translators, Interpreters, Trainers and Entrepreneurs at ATA conference-Latha Sukumar, Executive Director Shares her Experience

By: Jack Xu

We arrived in sunny San Francisco on Wednesday, November 2, 2016, to attend the American Translators Association Conference. From the airport, we went straight to the hotel where the conference was being held and proceeded to the low ceiling windowless exhibitor space in the basement. However, the bleakness of the space could not dampen our enthusiasm since we knew from past experience it would be humming with activity over the next few days. MCIS was allotted a nice spot in one of the central aisles right in front of a coffee station. We put up our banners and spread out our promotional materials in neat piles. Little notebooks and pens as give-aways were placed beside a basket which would be filled with little chocolate bars, the kind you do not get in America. We rehearsed our sound bites for consistent messaging and then retired to our rooms in different hotels.  The conference venue, was fully booked and only had space for 50% of our contingent of 6. And, no wonder. There were an unprecedented 1800 attendees at this conference and over 65 exhibitors with several individuals stationed at each booth.

That evening we attended the welcome reception. There were stations of complimentary food and cash bars for drinks everywhere. There was vegetarian, Japanese, Chinese and Mexican fare, besides an eclectic offering of pastries and deserts. There was just so much of everything. Food, drink and decibel level from the several hundred people standing and networking around strategically placed tables which were organized by languages or themes; science, technology and education were among the most prominent ones. It was clear the language industry was rapidly maturing and adapting to the new reality of a global world made more complex, and brought closer by evolving technology.

The next day, bright and early, we were at our booth welcoming the large throng of attendees who came in a steady stream. They asked questions about our training offerings and how we distinguished ourselves as a social enterprise. We explained that we were animated by our commitment to being a Global Voice (our vision) and not by our financial bottom-line alone. We pointed out that we had no shareholders and invested our net income into projects that would improve access to critical information and services for vulnerable populations. We also provided information on our online training programs for interpreters and translators and our newly approved ATA Continuing Education Units (CEU) for language professionals on Cardiovascular Disease. They dropped off business cards which we promised to draw for books on the last day.

We met hundreds of translators, interpreters, trainers and entrepreneurs. Each had a unique story and several were potential MCIS partners. I cannot list them all here, but can speak to some common themes that emerged for me during three days of intense interaction with them.

One, technology is bringing about a lot of disruption. The only way to survive and thrive in this industry is by embracing it and making it an essential part of everyday operations. So, where it previously was within the domain of translation, it is now ubiquitous in relation to all language services. There are apps for interpretation, the plain vanilla “Uber” kind and more complicated ones with a channel approach, designed for Language Service Providers (LSP). Computer Aided Translation (CAT) and project management tools now offer much more flexibility for custom solutions. Online training programs are a growing phenomenon and much sought after.

Two, translators are more specialized in what they do. They are also taking on more expansive roles given the potential of big data. They are actually making sense of data mined from search engines in other languages, to predict behaviours. A Russian translator mentioned that she is often provided a data dump by a Russian search engine’s consulting arm and asked to make sense of it,  predicting consumer, employee and market behaviour and trends. In advertising, translators are doubling up as copywriters to transcreate. CAT tools are doing some heavy lifting removing the repetitive tasks that translators had to do and industry is engaging them to perform more nuanced roles, as above.

Three, the words “Consulting” and “Solutions” are used to describe what Language Service Providers (LSPs) do, and mean many different things based on whom you are talking to. So one LSP said they have an arm of the company that provides accounting and legal services, since it also makes sense for them to offer those services given the nature of the translation work that they do and the industry they serve. Another mentioned logistics and transportation in addition to language services since they mostly serve injured workers. Others mentioned consulting for companies on their cultural competence, conducting diversity audits and providing, as solutions, training in detecting unconscious biases and providing culturally appropriate services. Yet others mentioned providing information on population trends and linguistic needs at a granular level using data models. Also, refer to the solutions offered by translation companies under three above.

Four, technology providers offer language services and LSPs work closely with technology companies writing code, creating apps and providing keywords for search engine optimization. In addition, with the global nature of instantaneous information exchange, the use of localization is gaining using a combination of mechanical and human skill. This has also meant crowd sourcing from a global pool of translators pro-bono or at a low cost.

Five, the language services industry is truly global and partnerships are beginning to develop, grow, thrive and flourish across countries, even continents. We met a few of MCIS’ global partners who provide us back- end support. Further evidence of this, the US government’s defense strategy has included the creation in 2013 of a National Language Service Corps a civilian corps of multilingual volunteers who are readily available to serve the US government by providing foreign language services as required. Mission Essential is a US government defense contractor primarily serving intelligence and military clients and got its start just 12 years ago as the US government’s leading provider of translators and interpreters for both within the US and abroad.

We may need the equivalents of the above here in Canada?

Of course, as with all industries, digital marketing is the name of the game.

We made two presentations at the conference.  Both of which were very well received.  One was on our online training and another on our social impact projects which included the Translation Manifesto we created.  The President of the International Federation of Translators (FIT) loved the video of the manifesto that we played and said he would like to promote it, since it reinforced translator pride in their work.

All in all, MCIS had a successful conference. We were exhausted from talking and shaking hands with hundreds of people over three days. However, it was all worthwhile. Our team met wonderful, talented and skilled people who were willing to share their knowledge, thoughts, and opinions with us. We engaged with several potential partners to build enduring partnerships based on synergies. MCIS came away hopeful that we could participate in this exciting industry that is truly global and that helps people communicate and share in substantially beneficial ways, as never before.

-Latha Sukumar
Nov 14, 2016