METM19 Chronicles: Language breakout sessions

The language breakout sessions at METM19 offered a novel, informal setting to do some on-the-spot translating or editing in small groups. Each language group (ES-EN, FR-EN, IT-EN, and EN editing) was assigned a leader (Simon Berrill, Gillian Shaw, Elizabeth Garrison and Jackie Senior, respectively) who was responsible for introducing the activity, keeping an eye on the clock and reviewing the outcome.

How it worked

In the Spanish-English session we got into twosomes and threesomes and Simon handed each group a snippet to translate. As soon as we’d finished, we handed our translation to the group to our left and received a different text translated by the group to our right. Our job was then to come up with an alternative translation or tweak what was there. After repeating this process about four or five times, we pooled all our results and Simon then led a lively debate on the challenges, options and outcome of each translated snippet.

The activity was similar to speed dating where you meet a new potential partner every few minutes. At a language breakout session you get your eyes on one new phrase after another. The question is: will you hit it off with one? Will you make it sing?

The tech part

To share our source snippet and target hotchpotch, Helen Oclee-Brown (the mastermind behind the activity*) set up a slick system whereby we took a photo of our final text, sent it to her by email and she then shared the image on the projector. Real-time translating, real-time crowd reviewing!


The texts varied in subject matter from finance to journalism and advertising – all out of my comfort zone – so I relied heavily on my partners in crime, Jacqueline Lamb and Paula James. And this is where language breakout sessions have the edge over other networking events: brainstorming tricky snippets in a threesome gave me a chance to watch my peers in action at the wordface. Much more meaningful than meeting someone at a coffee break and exchanging pleasantries. (And my colleagues didn’t disappoint.)

Tricky challenges, deft solutions

Here are some examples of problem words and turns of phrase we had to translate:

Dinamizar la economía
We all knew what dinamizar meant. But how to say it in English? Solutions ranged from revitalise and stimulate to jumpstart and boost.

Con civismo es mejor
The context here was a notice on a train, accompanied by a symbol crossing out a passenger’s feet on the seat opposite. Unsurprisingly, we all steered clear of a literal translation and came up with some catchy alternatives:

Tapas y sobremesa, la tradición española que se cuela en el atlas de la felicidad
Sobremesa: another of those exasperating words we were all familiar with, but what a challenge to find a snappy way to say it in English. Suggestions included good company, after-dinner conversation, chat and simply leaving it in Spanish. The end of the sentence posed another problem: was the atlas a real or metaphorical one? Our decision could make or break the translation. This would have been an ideal case for consulting the client, because the atlas turned out to be a newly published book, so in hindsight we should have kept the Spanish and put it in italics.


The Spanish-English language breakout session was entertaining, eye-opening and earnest. If you were in the room, do leave your feedback below, and I particularly look forward to reading comments from people who attended the French, Italian or editing session.

* The language breakout sessions at METM19 were inspired by similar events pioneered by the ITI German Network and ITI Spanish Network.

  This METM19 presentation was chronicled by Emma Goldsmith.

3 thoughts on “METM19 Chronicles: Language breakout sessions

  1. Sounds great. I wasn’t in the room, but wish I could have been. I post a comment just to add that I think this new “session type” Is very much in the spirit of MET’s aim to rely on and promote peer teaching. Keep it up!

  2. This vivid playback of a conference session is truly worthwhile, offering a seemingly endless series of revelations.
    I’m fascinated by the recurrence of sources in (some of ) the sample texts used in the session for quick translation and review. In two cases (maybe there were others), items are excerpted from El Pais: one refers to the World Bank publication ‘Doing Business’ ( a ranking by country of the relative ease of setting up and running businesses), the other to ‘Atlas de la felicidad’ (2019) by Helen Russell, earlier published as ‘Atlas of Happiness’ (2018).
    These works are predicated on the notion of presenting lists and comparisons in the form of an atlas, in both geographical and supra-geographical forms – even, as Emma implies, a metaphorical one (what is ‘real’??). This is a modern classical way of adding to the value of comparing data, typified quite recently (mid-1990s) in the Atlas of Experiences, originally in NL, by Jean Klare et al. The World Bank work stems from the early 2000s, and uses a generic atlas format to rank data as well as a directory-management software called ‘Atlas’. Indeed, the Bank was enveloped at that time by a swarm of proposals to promote its knowledge base in atlas formats. I discern a shrinkage in the use of that format in the publication of listings in the 2020s, and the Russell work, itself very very far from being either novel or innovative, could be an exception to prove that trend.
    What could lie behind this pattern of recurrent modes of information sources in such an exercise as the METM19 ‘class’ chronicled here? Whence the preference? Pure chance? An overdependence on a narrow seam of sources? What common lessons could be in there for a school of translators who, on the face of it, feel comfortable in dealing with snippets about an economist’s tool, or lifestyle choices or the syntax of public signage? There’s more to ‘just a workshop’ than meets the eye!

  3. Thank you, Emma, for this thoughtful review and for driving the idea from the start. Thanks also to our tech assistants, Laura Bennett and Lloyd Bingham, who helped out in the Italian and French groups. And last, thanks to those who responded to the call in the METM19 mailouts for short, tricky texts in the public domain. With this type of quickfire exercise and with the relatively short time slot (one hour including the intro and group discussion) texts had to be as accessible as possible – and for any impenetrable snippets, we were lucky to have a good spread of specialisms in the room. Although the format needs some work, especially for the editing session, I’m pleased that we were able to offer four hands-on, interactive sessions – something that people had asked for. I thoroughly enjoyed it!

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