My report from the 2017 CIUTI Forum

My report from the 2017 CIUTI Forum


Conferences form an important part in any interpreter's life: not only do a lot of us work at conferences (usually in those glass boxes at the back of the room). We also attend a fair amount of events, which are often organised by professional associations like FIT or BDÜ. There is one conference, however, that has been taking place every year since 2003 and yet seems to be very low on our radar: the CIUTI Forum. CIUTI - short for Conférence Internationale des Instituts Universitaires de Traduction et d'Interprétation - is an international network of university institutes training translators and interpreters. The Forum is CIUTI's only public-facing event and always the first event I look forward to in the new year. It brings together people from all walks of linguistic life: international organisations like the UN or the EU, research and education, service providers, technology companies and, I am happy to note, more and more freelance language professionals as well.


The CIUTI Forum lasts two days and takes place on the wonderful campus of the United Nations in Geneva ("UNOG"). Not in the beautiful Palais des Nations - home of the League of Nations of yore - but in an adjacent and comparatively dull conference building. The CIUTI Forum is also exhausting, as it is packed with lots of talks and presentations (some excellent, some less so) and provides ample opportunity to network before, during and after. This year's conference shunned its usual room and was moved instead to a recently refurbished space, named after the sponsors of the facelift: the "Emirates' Room". Yes, it is just as lavish as the name suggests.

As a technology geek, I was particularly impressed by the Televic conference system installed there. Every delegate console is equipped with a microphone and a screen that gives access to a sophisticated piece of software. You can choose between several camera angles (including a somewhat unflattering close-up of the speaker's chin) and the projector feed (i.e. the speaker's slides). Having the PowerPoint so close by is useful for (a) slides with too much text and (b) taking photos of slides you want to capture for later. (Pro tip: If you use a scanner app like Scanbot, you'll have a nice, clean PDF of the presentation in no time and with very little effort.) Speaking of technology: this year's topic was "Short and long term impact of artificial intelligence on language professions". Let's dive right in!

Since the CIUTI Forum is a rather formal conference - certainly compared to a barcamp format - it always starts off with several introductory speeches and welcoming addresses - from Hannelore Lee-Jahnke (honorary president of CIUTI and Forum mastermind), Michael Møller (UNOG director-general), Corinne Momal-Vanian (UNOG conference management chief) and Marie-Claude Sawerschel (secretary-general for education of the Republic and Canton of Geneva). Sawerschel's talk was noteworthy in that it set the tone for the conference by highlighting how information technology has changed, and sped up, many workflows, enabled networking and continues to impact the field of translation: Today, Sawerschel said, we need to explicitly refer to "human translators", which would have been tautological not too long ago.

Fernando Prieto Ramos, head of the Faculty of translation and interpreting at the University of Geneva, looked back at the recent 75th anniversary of his institution and how it has kept up with the pace of technology by setting up the Department of Translation Technology. Two recent projects putting "research at the service of the community" are BabelDr, a speech translation application for non-French-speaking patients at Geneva General Hospital, and Trainslate, a cooperation with the University of Zürich to translate French train announcements into Swiss French Sign Language. Ramos finished by stating that "the time of resistance [to technology] is behind us", and that we needed to ask ourselves how technology can help us get where we want to go.

CIUTI also awards prizes to students and researchers in the field of translation and interpreting. Maurizio Viezzi, a professorfor interpreting at Trieste University and also current president of CIUTI, and Peter Holzer, professor of translation at Innsbruck university, awarded the CIUTI Prize for the best master thesis to my friend and fellow barcamp organiser Sandra Haldimann. Sandra, and her husband Matthias, are improv theatre experts, which is why she decided to write her thesis about how improv techniques can become part of interpreter training. London Met's Alex Krouglov then awarded the 2nd CIUTI PhD Prize to Dr. Carla Quinci for her longitudinal study on translation competence.

The 2017 Forum also featured several research poster presentations, including the one by Brussels-based interpreter and researcher Camille Collard on "Sex differences in simultaneous interpreting". Camille uses a European Parliament corpus to find out if women's better memory causes differences in simultaneous performance compared to men (for variables like ear-voice span, aka décalage, false starts and filled pauses, interpretation of figures and verb position.

Marcin Feder is a staff interpreter at the European Parliament here in Brussels and a friend and colleague of mine. He is also a big friend of tablets for interpreting! During his talk at the Forum, he introduced us to several technology projects in the Parliament, such as the Paperless Parliament initiative, the knowledge management portal (an information dashboard for interpreters' general knowledge), the Interpreter Support Tool (to organise meeting documents and perform terminology extraction and machine translation on them, using the Glosbe online dictionary) and a feasibility study on automatic speech recognition with many languages (with the aim of supporting interpreters and increasing accessibility for the hard-of-hearing).

Maurizio Viezzi (University of Trieste) proceeded to ask three "layman's questions on technology". (Layman is a humble brag here!)

  1. Is it useful? - Yes! Video-conferencing, for example, can bring interpreting into legal settings or community interpreting, where smaller languages are underserved.
  2. Will it change interpreting as we know it? - Yes, but not for the first time. Just look at simultaneous interpreting at the Nuremberg Trials.
  3. Is it a threat or an opportunity? Well... Fundamental oppositions is wrong. The world will always need interpretING, the question is whether it needs interpretERS!

Bits and bobs

  • PEARL is the patent terminology database of WIPO, the World Intellectual Property Organisation. It's worth checking out for its interesting concept maps.
  • In its TranslationQ tool for quality management in translation workflows, Televic use "big wrong data" to enhance translation quality.
  • I really enjoyed Cheng Wei's talk. She works at Beijing International Studies University and explained the whole range of AI, from "narrow" to "superintelligence" (which supposedly exceeds humans in every possible way). Cheng stressed, however, that only well-trained linguists can capture all the subtleties of communication, which is why universities must not give up on liberal arts and critical thinking in translator training and focus also on the legal and ethical issues of using AI.
  • EU Commission translator Piet Verleysen pointed us to stunning research by the University of Berkeley, where scientists have managed to draw a semantic map of the human brain.
  • Two professors from ZHAW - Gary Massey and Maureen Ehrensberger-Dow - presented thoughts and on how machine learning will impact translator training, including this interesting slide. On Barry's suggestion, let's see if we can come up with a similar pyramid for interpreting.
  • A post-doc from KU Leuten, Paola Gentile, presented her (huge!) study on the professional status of interpreters, including social aspects, gender differences and internal vs. external perception of the profession. I interviewed Paola for my LangFM podcast and will publish that conversation very soon. Watch (or listen to) this space.
  • Every interpreter knows that fast speakers can be a headache. But Paweł Korpal from Poznan University has the research to prove it. Fast speakers really do lead to more stress and less accuracy. Pawel also looked into how we manage to sympathise and/or empathise with speakers despite the cognitive strain of simultaneous interpreting.
  • You have probably watched at least one of Matthew Perret's videos on YouTube; they're hilarious and insightful at the same time. But Matthew is also involved in ORCIT (short for Online Resources for Conference Interpreter Training)an EU-funded project that works to provide technology tools for trainers and students of conference interpreting.

Fellow EU interpreter Alison Graves is one of the Forum regulars. Her talk came last on day one, and I'd like to quote her to round off this post:

How To Trump*

How To Trump*

On the role of English in the EU after Brexit (updated)

On the role of English in the EU after Brexit (updated)