Three minute thesis

Lise et Paolo.jpeg

This unique contest gives PhD students exactly three minutes to present their research in an easy-to-understand format to a non-specialist audience from a range of backgrounds. It's quite a challenge: each participant has three minutes – not a second more, not a second less – to present what is typically a five-year project in clear, concise, and convincing terms. The aim is to learn how to boil down often complex research outputs into a simple, audience-friendly format. Participants compete for three prizes awarded by the panel and one decided by audience vote, leading to the national final in Lausanne on 29 June and then, for the holder of the Swiss title, the international final in Rabat, Morocco, on 5 October.

This year, twelve PhD students dazzled the audience and panel with their presentations at the Geneva final on 4 May. The fascinating presentations can be seen here. The FTI is proud to have been represented by Lise Volkart (winner of the third panel prize, which allows her to take part in the Swiss final on 29 June) and Paolo Canavese. We were keen to hear more about their experiences and their research.

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Spotlight on... Lise Volkart

Lise Volkart graduated from the Institut libre Marie Haps in Brussels with a degree in translation and interpreting before moving to the FTI for a Master in translation technology. Since 2020, she has been a PhD student and assistant at the Department of Translation Technology. Her thesis, "Traduction automatique neuronale et post-édition : vers une uniformisation des textes traduits ? Étude sur la langue post-éditée, ou post-editese, en contexte professionnel", seeks to identify the traces left by machine translation in everyday texts.

What made you sign up for the MT180 contest this year, and how do you feel about it now?

I watched the contest in previous years and I found the presentations really brilliant. It made me want to rise to the challenge and see if I could do just as good a job. Taking part myself, I came to realise that communication skills are not innate, but come from many hours of hard work. A wonderful, kind team helped us all prep for the competition and we all knew we could count on the rest of the group for support. It all came together to let us rise to the challenge and shine. Overall, taking part was a fabulous adventure and a great way to learn how to communicate effectively what exactly it is you are working on.

Can you tell us a bit more about your research? What made you choose your topic?

I compare translations by humans with translations by machine translation software that are edited by humans – what we call post-editing. My aim is to see whether machine translation gives translated texts a certain style. I became interested in the question because machine translation is increasingly coming into use in the translation professions and we now know it saves time without compromising quality. Yet many translators remain sceptical: some feel that you can always tell a machine translation, but they can't quite put their finger on why. Since research had not really shed much light on the question, I decided to look into it myself and try to pin down the subtle differences – if there are any – between texts translated or just post-edited by humans.

What are your post-thesis plans?

There's a long way for me to go yet! I love research, but I also really like being in contact with translators. I am thinking about looking at something more in direct contact with professional practice, like training and consulting on translation technology. I already do some of that in my role as coordinator for the association SuisseTra, which promotes translation technology to professionals in the sector. It's stimulating and really satisfying to build bridges between academia and professional practice. I'm not closing any doors at this point and remain open to any opportunities that come my way.

Spotlight on… Paolo Canavese

Paolo Canavese holds a joint degree in Comunicazione interlinguistica applicata from the University of Trieste, Italy, and Deutsch-Italienische Studien from the University of Regensburg, Germany. He also holds a Master's degree in translation and interpreting from the University of Trieste. He arrived at the FTI in 2018 to take up an assistantship in the Department of Translation’s Italian unit, also joining the Centre Transius. He defended his PhD, "Atti normativi elvetici nella terza lingua ufficiale : chiarezza de jure o de facto ?", on 5 April. His thesis focused on the legibility and comprehensibility of normative Swiss Italian and how translation impacts textual clarity.

What made you decide to take part in the MT180 contest and what challenges did you face?

I decided to sign up for the adventure back in 2018, right at the start of my research, after seeing a colleague doing an amazing job. I was captivated by her brilliant speech and all the amazing presentations at the contest that year and it made me want to rise to the challenge myself. But I decided to wait until the end of the thesis, so I could share my results. Five years later... it was time for me to step out on stage. The hardest part, the bit that really pushed me out of my comfort zone, was the slightly "theatrical" nature of the contest. The aim was not just to sum up my thesis and make it accessible, but to do so using metaphors and humour to reel the audience in – not easy when your topic is something like legal translation, which is often thought of as rather dry. At the same time, it was vital not to let the theatricality distract from actually getting over what my thesis is about.

What was the best bit about taking part?

Standing on stage for three minutes talking to a large, attentive audience was simply a fantastic experience! I made the most of this once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to turn the results of my research into a call to action. While the research topics we work on tend to be very narrow, they often lead us to consider wider social implications. In my case, studying institutional Italian in the Swiss context often led me to look at the role of minorities in society. The language data I analysed demonstrated empirically that multilingualism is an asset and I took the opportunity at MT180 to share a message about the importance of diversity. I strongly believe that as researchers, we can work to improve society.

Can you tell us more about your research and what is next for you, post-thesis?

My research focuses on institutional communication in multilingual Switzerland and language accessibility. My thesis looked at Swiss federal laws translated into Italian, with several interesting findings. First of all, the laws are remarkably clear and can stand as a model for other countries. I was also able to show that the increasing focus from federal institutions on Italian as a minority language has had a positive impact on the quality of texts written in Italian by legislators in Bern. I also studied the role of translation, which seems to have a positive effect on textual clarity, both in drawing up and interpreting laws.

My PhD also let me look at other institutional communication contexts. For instance, I was part of a small research team at the FTI working on a project on accessible multilingual communication for the Federal Statistical Office. The project included interviews and workshops with the content writing and translation team. My plan for the coming academic year is to keep up my research in this arena and carry out a broader study in the sociology of translation, thanks to a post-doctoral mobility fellowship that the Swiss National Science Foundation (SNSF) has awarded me. I'm particularly interested in the current challenges facing translators in institutions and how research can help. In the immediate future, though, I'm planning to make the most of my summer – after the PhD defence and MT180, I really need to recharge my batteries!