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  • Ruth Simpson

A revisited revelation

My six year-old went to school in a surgical mask this morning. I don't know why that pains me so much. Perhaps it's not the object itself but what it represents. The danger, the need for personal protection. She's fine about it by the way. I'm the one worrying.

We are living in strange times. Looking back not even a year, who could have predicted that the world would be struggling through a pandemic? This time last year I was revelling in the thrill of having played a new instrument in public for the first time (the ukulele, of course it is) at my local bar's open mic jam session, planning to attend a mini-reunion in the UK in December with some of my old university chamber choir people, and looking forward to celebrating Christmas with my parents. I feel blessed to have been able to do all of those, but it's now November 2020 and none is possible this year.

Life has certainly changed. But as a professional translator who can work pretty much anywhere, my actual business environment hasn't seen many transformations. Again, something I certainly don't take for granted. I still get offers of work, even though the source of those offers is quite different from what it was this time last year. My wine translation work is pretty much the same, personal development as well, but requests from the beauty industry have nosedived since March, and I've noticed that cosmetics and fragrance brands are now overhauling their strategies for the post-Covid world, veering away from 'all natural' and moving towards 'antibacterial', certainly at the lower end of the market.

Yes, business is different, but humming along. It's in the extracurricular sphere where things have really taken a hit. Being a translator is a rather lonely life, and in addition to the precious time I spend with my wonderful friends here in Chablis, I depend on regular translation conferences like Wordfast Forward and METM for interaction with like-minded - and not so like-minded - colleagues who share expertise and experience. Returning to those conferences year after year is even more rewarding, because not only do I benefit from the beautifully curated content, I also get to catch up with the familiar faces I've had the joy of meeting - and eating, drinking, dancing and even singing with - in the past.

So when I received an email from the Mediterranean Editors and Translators association (MET) earlier this year confirming my fear that October's MET meeting for 2020 due to take place in San Sebastian wasn't going ahead, it was yet another reminder of just what a complete and utter pain in the unmentionables 2020 has turned out to be. The reliably fantastic Wordfast Forward conference in Montenegro planned for May 2020 had already been cancelled, and that had been disappointing enough.

But MET is a formidable beast, and the incredibly energetic and highly professional council were not to be discouraged. The association's dream team put together an entirely online conference programme worthy of any huge corporation (and better than some), to take place over three days. There was even online yoga by the enviably cool and collected Francesca Matteoda as part of the off-METM programme.

Initially I must admit that I had rolled my eyes at the prospect of spending hours in neverending Zoom sessions, but as the agenda began firming up, I realised that the exceptionally talented and organised people in charge could actually make the idea into a success after all. But what about the singing? I have helped out with the pop-up METM choir for three years now, and I was determined to bring music into the online event somehow.

Despite my eye-rolling, I do admit that Zoom is a wonderful tool for bringing people together. But one thing it still can't quite manage is allow a group of people to sing together. The MET council eventually asked me to compose an instrumental track that could be used while attendees were waiting for the online event to begin. I set about putting some sounds together on Garage Band and recorded myself playing my beloved ukulele and a smattering of other instruments.

The conference programme kicked off with a very inspiring presentation by former Chair of MET, Anne Murray. She talked about how she uses Sketch Engine to create corpora and I was delighted when at the end of the presentation I had at long last understood what a corpus was, and how it could be useful to me and my business.

Highly professional Oliver Lawrence gave a fascinating talk on ambiguity in language, and that really got me thinking about how I write and how I could be getting better at it. One memorable nugget was "more lies ahead" and how that fragment of language could have two different meanings.

Unsurprisingly amusing was multi-talented guitarist, singer and Italian to English translator Michael Farrell, who took us on a journey across Europe while telling the fascinating tale of Vin Santo and Popelini/Poppelini cakes, skilfully weaving in the importance of research and an open conversation with your client.

Due to childcare constraints I wasn't able to catch the other sessions, but I have it on good authority that they were equally interesting and packed with useful information.

For the Off-METM programme, the ever-enthusiastic Kit Cree organised a series of hands-on language sessions as well as the yoga provided by Francesca. Louise Normandière and I were asked to host the French to English translation breakout group and after many hours scratching our heads and worrying if the snippets we had earmarked for on-the-spot translation were good enough, we were thrilled with the enthusiasm and camaraderie that came out of our session. Louise has a sparkling energy that really drove the group and it was a joy to work with her.

The final session (the association's annual general meeting) took place on the Saturday morning, and I have to admit it's the first time I've been moved to tears by an AGM. The organisation's volunteer council is a group of people who astound me year after year with their dedication, enthusiasm and drive. I've come to know some of them quite well, and it was a very emotional experience seeing how strongly affected they were by the lack of in-person contact for the event. Covid-19 cannot pass through a screen, but the emotion of all the council members was infectious, and I found myself welling up alongside them. Passing the baton usually happens at a conference after two or three days of interaction and enjoyment, and right before a delicious buffet is served. There are hugs all round and opportunities to thank people for their service. This time, we simply had to click out of the session and were jolted back to real life.

Here's hoping that the preventive measures we're taking and the sacrifices we're all making will eventually lead to a resumption of normal activities. When things do return to a semblance of normality, let's pledge to take no freedom for granted.

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