Paperless Preparation at International Organisations – an Interview with Maha El-Metwally

Maha El-Metwally has recently written a master’s thesis at the University of Geneva on preparation for conferences of international organisations using tablets. She is a freelance conference interpreter for Arabic A, English B, French and Dutch C domiciled in Birmingham.

How come you know so much about the current preparation practice of conference interpreters at so many international institutions?

The answer is quite simple really: I freelance for all of them! I am also pro paperless environments for obvious environmental and practical reasons. So even if some organisations offer a paper alternative (ILO, IMO, UNHQ, WFP) I go for the electronic version. Paperless portals of international organisations may differ in layout and how the information is organised but they essentially aim to achieve the same thing. Some organisations operate a dual document distribution system (paper and digital) with the aim of phasing out the former over time.

The European Parliament is already on its second paperless meeting and document portal. It used to be called Pericles and now it is called MINA, the Meeting Information and Notes Application. This required a bit of practice to become familiar with the new features.

I recently heard someone working in one of these paperless environments complain about the paperless approach, saying that they often struggle to find their way through a 400 pages document quickly. My first reaction was to say that hitting CTRL-F or CTRL-G is an efficient way to get to a certain part of a text quickly. But maybe there is more to it than just shortcuts. What is the reason, in your experience, that makes it difficult for colleagues to find their way around on a tablet or laptop computer?

I think that tablets represent a change and people in general resist change. It could be that we are creatures of habit. We are used to a certain way of doing things and some of us may be having a difficulty coping with all the changes coming our way in terms of technology developments. It could also be that some interpreters do not see the point of technology so they are not motivated to change something that works for them.

How is the acceptance of going paperless in general in the institutions you work for?

This depends on individual preferences. Many colleagues still prefer paper documents but I also see more and more tablets appearing in the booths. Some organisations try to accommodate both preferences. The ILO operates a dual distribution system as a step towards going completely paperless. Meeting documents are available on the organisation’s portal but are also printed and distributed to the booths. The same goes for the IMO where the interpreters are given the choice of paper or electronic versions of the documents or both.

Right, that’s what they do at SCIC, too. I take it that you wrote your master’s thesis about paperless preparation, is that right? Was the motivational aspect part of it? Or, speaking about motivation: What was your motivation at all to choose this subject?

Yes, this is correct. I am very much of a technophile and anything technological interests me. I was inspired by a paperless preparation workshop I attended at the European Parliament. It made sense to me as a lot of the time, I have to prepare on the go. It happens that I start the week with one meeting then end the week with another. Carrying wads of paper around is not practical. Having all meeting documents electronically in one place is handy. It happens a lot that I receive meeting documents last minute. There is no time to print them. So I learned to read and annotate the documents on apps on my tablet.

So while you personally basically did „learning by doing“, your researcher self tried to shed some more scientific light on the subject. Is that right? Would you like to describe a bit more in detail what your thesis was about and what you found was the most interesting outcome?

My thesis looked at training conference interpreting students to prepare for conferences of international organisations with the use of tablets. I noticed from my own experience and from anecdotes of older colleagues that meetings were getting more and more compressed. As a result, especially in peak seasons, interpreters may start the week with one conference and end it with another. Preparation on the go became a necessity. In addition, there are several international organisations that are moving towards paperless environments. Therefore, I think it is important for students to be introduced to paperless preparation at an early stage in their training for it to become a second nature to them by the time they graduate. And what a better tool to do that than the tablet? I created a course to introduce students to exactly that.

So when you looked at the question, was your conclusion that tablets are better suited than laptop computers? Currently, it seems to me that on the private market almost everyone uses laptops and at the EU, most people use tablets. I personally prefer a tablet for consecutive, but a laptop in the booth, as I can look at my term database, the internet and room documents at the same time more conveniently. I also blind-type much faster on a „real“ keyboard. I hope that the two devices will sooner or later merge into one (i.e. tablets with decent hard drives, processors and operating systems).

Now, from your experience, which of the two option would you recommend to whom? Or would you say it should always be tablets?

I prefer the tablet when travelling as:
– it is quieter in the booth (no tapping or fan noise),
– using an app like side by side, I can split the screen to display up to 4 apps/files/websites at the same time so the laptop has no advantage over the tablet here,
– it is lighter.

You have created a course for students. What is it you think students need to be taught? Don’t they come to the university well-prepared when it comes to handling computers or tablets?

The current generation of students is tech savvy so they are more likely to embrace tablets and go fully digital. The course I put together for teaching preparation with tablets relies on the fact that students already know how to use tablets. The course introduces the students to paperless environments of a number of international organisations, it looks at apps for the annotation of different types of documents, glossary management, more efficient google search among other things.

I also like to use the touchscreen of my laptop for typing when I want to avoid noise. But compared to blind-typing on a „normal“ keyboard, I find typing on a touchscreen a real pain. My impression is that when I cannot feel the keys under my fingers, I will never be able to learn how to type, especially blind-type, REALLY quickly and intuitively … Do you know of any way (an app, a technique) of improving typing skills on touchscreens?

I’m afraid I don’t really have an answer to that question. I am moving more and more towards dictating my messages instead of typing them and I am often flabbergasted at how good the output is, even in Arabic!

Talking about Arabic, is there any difference when working with different programs in Arabic?

Most of the time, I can easily use Arabic in different apps. The biggest exception is Microsoft Office on Mac. Arabic goes berserk there! I have to resort to Pages or TextEdit then. Having said that, a colleague just mentioned yesterday that this issue has been dealt with. But I have to explore it.

As to glossary management, not all terminology management tools for interpreters run on tablets. Which one(s) do you recommend to your students or to colleagues?

I use and recommend Interplex. It has a very good iPad version. The feature I like most about it is that you can search across your glossaries. I can do that while working and it can be a life saver sometimes!

If I wanted to participate in your seminar, where could I do that? Do you also do webinars?

I offer a number of seminars on technology for interpreters to conference interpreting students at some UK universities. I will keep you posted. I also have an upcoming eCPD webinar on September 19th on a hybrid mode of interpreting that combines the consecutive and simultaneous modes.

That sound like a great subject to talk about next time!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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