Thursday, 17 December 2015

Landing on a Comet

Picture of bright comet in starry night sky


It woke up. Phew!

It bounced a bit. Well, the unplanned bounce had unexpected benefits.

Two scientists described the European Space Agency’s Rosetta Mission to land the probe Philae on a comet. Comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko to be precise. Comet 67P for short.

The New Scientist magazine hosted the lecture at London’s Conway Hall to a packed house. The words “To Thine Own Self Be True” were emblazoned above the stage. The two strong characters on the stage, Matt Taylor and Monica Grady, certainly lived up to that expression.

As they discussed the highs and lows of the Rosetta Mission, my mind could not help wandering. I contemplated the occasional bruising bounces of the freelancer’s life.

Portent of doom?
Comets were traditionally seen as portents of doom. A comet appears in the Bayeux Tapestry. Doom for Saxon Harold, but not for Norman William the Conqueror. His Tower of London still stands firm on the banks of the River Thames today. Many more recent constructions have fallen or been demolished.

Stefan Gentz issued a wake-up call at ITI’s 2015 conference in Newcastle. He foretold the doom of the traditional translator. While we slept 99% of the market has been lost to Google and Microsoft. The remainder is still sizeable and worth the fight.

I’m convinced that language professionals will survive under a different guise. They will perform different roles and tasks.

We must reposition the translation industry. We must reinvent, rebrand and promote our creativity.

A past innovator
A suitable comparison emerged from the Wallace Collection’s Friday Late in June 2015. The exhibition was entitled: Joshua Reynolds: Experiments in Paint. This British artist is widely regarded as one of the greatest portrait painters of the 18th Century. His taste for innovation and experimentation with pigments have not always stood the test of time. And yet, you can see in the life and creativity of his early portraits that he was destined to excel his master.

Historical Professional Guilds
The Guild of Wigmakers was so outraged that young men were wearing their hair naturally that they protested to the King. The Guild of Wigmakers ultimately gave way to the Guild of Hairdressers.

One man’s loss is another man’s gain.

The Worshipful Company of Armourers and Brasiers was founded in 1322. Its first Royal Charter dates back to 1453. Today, it maintains its link with metal. Now it focuses on charity work.

Technological disruption in translation
The translation community is experiencing major technological disruptions. Barely has one innovation bedded in as more appear on the horizon. For practitioners, there is a choice. You can either rigorously hold onto the past or embrace technology. The later course offers the best chance to shape the future and nudge it in a more palatable, less threatening direction.

By way of example, there is an enormous gap between the modern active Hair Council and the historic relic of a Worshipful Company.

Free oxygen
As freelancers in the disruptive digital age, we may feel that we are trying to land on a comet. It sounds crazy to even try. The Rosetta Mission succeeded and is ongoing. It is sending high resolution pictures back to Earth.

In October 2015, Rosetta’s scientists discovered oxygen in the comet’s atmosphere. The finding contradicted long-held theories that free oxygen can’t survive in space.

As we head rapidly towards 2016, freelance translators can take heart from the inspirational Rosetta Mission. The translation profession is not doomed. It is simply undergoing a major transformation as professional guilds have done in the past.


The choice of direction is ours.
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