The human touch – Elia Together in Berlin

I recently travelled to Berlin for the Elia Together event – a conference which aims to bring together translators (or ‘independent language professionals’ as we were dubbed) and language service companies so they can make connections, forge new relationships and enjoy each others’ company. The event featured a number of presentations, and although the range of topics discussed was quite broad, many of the speakers touched on the importance of communication, and of retaining a human touch in our ever more technologically advanced world.

It got me thinking about a topic that has been at the back of my mind for a while: the English Arts & Crafts movement of the mid to late 1800s, and its best-known proponent, William Morris.

In the age of the Industrial Revolution – just like today – the world of work was changing drastically due to rapid advances in technology. Where before people had worked with their hands and out in the fields, now they found themselves in early factories powered by newly-invented steam engines. And, just like today, people felt threatened by the sheer scale and speed of the changes to the world they knew and their work. As Romantic poet and artist William Blake put it, “England’s green and pleasant land” had given way to “dark, satanic mills”.

The Arts & Crafts movement began as a reaction to the Industrial Revolution. Artists, architects, carpenters and other tradesmen, fearing that real skills were being lost and quality standards were dropping at an alarming rate, began impressing their work with as much craftsmanship as they could, creating intricate, elaborate designs and products. William Morris’ rallying cry was an appeal to the consumers of the day: “Have nothing in your house that you do not know to be useful, or believe to be beautiful.”

The influence of this philosophy on product design cannot be overstated – the most famous examples are Morris’ ornately patterned wallpapers, but evidence of the work of the Arts & Crafts movement can also be found on the streets of English towns and villages and in antiques shops all over the world. In fact, any product made since with aesthetic sensibilities owes something to the Arts & Crafts trailblazers.


A season ticket for the Arts & Crafts Exhibition Society, taken from the V&A Museum website

To return to 2017, one of my favourite talks of the Elia event was given by Rosie Robbins, whose presentation on content strategy was inspired in part by the legendary ad-man David Ogilvy. When advertising began to change the world of work and product all over again in the early 1900s, Ogilvy was yet another figure standing up for the preservation of a human touch. For communicating with people through advertising with honesty and respect.

Rosie said that everyone who has ever worked at the Ogilvy advertising agency has a favourite quote attributed to the man himself. Now, I’ve never worked there, but I do have one of my own: “If you’re trying to persuade people to do something, or buy something, it seems to me you should use their language, the language they use every day, the language in which they think.”

When faced with the inhuman (whether in the form of mass-produced products, trite, dishonest advertising or low-quality, inaccurate machine translation), Morris and Ogilvy tell us that the way to break through is to appeal to the human side. To be creative. To do something that a machine or uninspired advertiser could never come up with. As George Monbiot recently wrote in the Guardian, and as Rosie quoted in her presentation “In the future, if you want a job, you must be as unlike a machine as possible: creative, critical and socially skilled.”

Having heard all of the talks at the conference which touched upon the importance of humanity in communication, it seems to me that translators can draw inspiration from the Arts & Crafts movement and David Ogilvy: to differentiate ourselves from machine translation, we need to apply as much craftsmanship, skill and, above all, humanity to our own work. Yes, a machine can provide a rudimentary translation of a piece of writing. And it can do it faster and cheaper than a human translator. So we have to do it better, putting our humanity at the centre of what we do to achieve results that machines will never reach.

Or, as William Morris might have put it, had he been a translator:



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