Pedagogy

Academic Training in Principle

The basic approach to academic training for translators seems to remain unchanged from the time of the School of Scribes in ancient Egypt. Student translators are given short texts to translate, then their translations are evaluated by teachers, and finally the translations are discussed in great depth and detail among all the students in the class and the teacher. Variations occur in the length of the assignment, though 500 to 1000 words per week seems to be average, the subject matter in the assignment, including but not necessarily limited to business, financial, legal, medical, computer-related, or political material, and the direction of the translation, with some programs requiring students to translate both into and out of their native language, while others choose to have students translate exclusively into their native language.

Academic training rarely if ever includes any theoretical work, though this could well be a result of the relative lack of material to present to students; a cogent theory of translation remains to be developed. Academic training also tends to limit or exclude entirely matters related to terminology research and development, glossary or term database design and maintenance, or various computer technologies, running the gamut from basic word processing to localization of software source code. Academic training also rarely if ever includes content courses on, for instance, law, medicine, computer science, or other subjects that translators inevitably translate material on but almost have extensive, in-depth, formal academic training in. Last, academic training seems to stay away from the development or writing skills or cultural sensitivity, two areas which translators have to deal with every day of their working lives.

In essence, translation training then consists of giving students plenty of time to do very short translation assignments, then analyzing those assignments in every last detail, and ultimately discussing the nature of their work, often with an extreme focus on student errors, in great depth. In other words, students get to make mistakes that have no ramifications in their professional careers, and presumably they learn from their mistakes, as well as acquiring familiarity with terminology and various kinds of source material.

This system of education for translators places an extreme emphasis on the teaching faculty, making them responsible for selecting texts that reflect what the translation industry is currently asking translators to work on, evaluating student translations in a manner consistent with what the industry expects a translator to be able to produce, and discussing all student errors and other textual problems so as to guide the student toward developing translation skills that will meet with the industry's demands and expectations.

Faculty must therefore be very proficient translators themselves, as well as capable educators. Needless to say, not everyone can teach, regardless of how well they know their subject matter. Merely possessing a mastery of a subject does not qualify someone to teach it. Teaching is a very difficult task. Imparting knowledge and experience to another person requires not only mastery of the subject matter, but also mastery of the communication of knowledge.

Teaching translation is a very labor-intensive process, since each student's weekly assignments have to be evaluated in great detail and with extreme precision. In addition, course materials should not be recycled; the translation profession change too quickly to allow last year's translation texts to be used more than perhaps a couple of years in a row. Having students work on patents from five years ago may mean they will not learn the currently accepted format for a patent; having students work on a hardware or software manual from even three years ago will deny them much needed current terminology and subject knowledge. The same obviously holds for all subject areas. And by extension, the same will hold for any tests the students take.

Translation faculty must as a result have considerable time and enthusiasm for their subject, as well as intimate familiarity with the current state of affairs in the industry. This does not mean, however, that faculty should be working professionals who just happen to teach a few classes here and there. Students require and deserve full-time attention, meaning that faculty at best should be doing part-time work as freelance translators. As an aside, I do teach one translation course each spring (entitled "The Business of Translation"); one of the reasons I do not teach more than that is my freelance business doesn't allow me to. Covering the demands of my clients and the needs of the students in that one class pretty much absorbs all my working time. To teach more than that would, for me at least, be irresponsible.

Finally, we have the issue of the administration of a translation program. Again, the people involved in running the program should have experience in the translation profession, as well as considerable ability to manage and oversee an academic program. This may seem obvious, but it bears mentioning because the supply of such people is sufficiently small that some programs do not have such people in their administrative ranks. While having any administrator is arguably better than canceling a program, the limitations of someone who does not know the translation profession in a position of authority in a translation program can lead to misunderstandings about the time, money, and academic resources (e.g.: dictionaries, glossaries, software) that such a program requires.

Is This The Best We Can Do?

The above approach has been in use for thousands of years, give or take a bit of technology. The Thebes School of Scribes did not have the Internet, word processors, or MAT to contend with, but their methodology was roughly the same. Though I agree that practice is an essential element of training translators, I am convinced that other forms of learning should play an integral role.

First, the volume of translation. Students who spend one or two years translating a thousand words per week are wholly unprepared for the daily demands of professional translation. The average translator produces in the neighborhood of two- to three-thousand words per day, with many doing considerably more. While students should certainly on occasion study one short text very intently as an exercise in learning how to analyze and parse a text, then create the best translation possible, they should also work on translating a normal day's work for a practicing translator.

Students need to acquire the speed and accuracy of a professional. This includes learning to type quickly, knowing how to work efficiently in current software applications and on the Web, and understanding what to do when a text does not yield to translation, whether because the printing is illegible or the writing is unintelligible. Translators who lack these skills will find the market unwelcoming and uncomfortable.

Translation students also need to become very comfortable in the subject field or fields they will work in. Because most translators lack a thorough education in anything other than their languages, part of their education should include subject knowledge. This cannot come directly from the translation texts themselves, as the students simply do not generally translate texts of sufficient length or depth. Developing a thorough understanding of computer science by reading 1,000 words per week on the subject is just not possible. So content coursework, presented in both of the student's languages should be integrated into any translation program.

What's more, professional translators specialize. No translator works in every subject area; it is simply not practical to try to develop that much expertise and linguistic knowledge in that many subjects. Translators generally focus on a few related subject areas, depending on their backgrounds and interests, then cultivate their specialized knowledge and language skills so as to tailor them for translation in those fields. The same should occur in a translation program. After an introductory period of basic translation exercises and development of secondary skills like word processing and terminology management, students should pick a subject area and focus on that. A translation program should therefore offer academic tracks—such as in medicine, law, social science, natural science, finance, computers/localization, the specific breakdown does not matter—then work through both a concerted study of general material on those subjects, in both of the student translator's languages, of course, as well as translation exercises based on what the market is having translators do in those areas. This will not only develop their subject knowledge to a point at which they can confidently approach a text, but will also provide them with the terminology and knowledge of writing style necessary to create an accurate, readable translation.

Subject fields should be selected based on what the market is demanding from translators. Certain fields, like computers/localization, are strong enough for all major languages that they should exist for all translation students. It may not be practical, however, to have certain translation languages working on certain subjects. For instance, how much medical research or fundamental science is done in Vietnam? Certainly some, but not enough to justify a Vietnamese-English translation student specializing in that area. The task of the translation school is to prepare translation students for the real world, so subject areas should be selected and developed in accordance with the market in the translation industry.

Therefore, having all students in all language combinations work through the same set of exercises in broad categories of experience is not practical or fair to the students. A student with no interest in financial translation who is studying a language combination with minimal demands for such work will not benefit from such efforts as much as she might from doing more in an area that interests her and is in demand. Similarly, the market rarely if ever asks for translators who simply have a smattering of ability and familiarity with a wide range of texts, so graduating students who fit that description is less efficient than graduating students who can handle one subject very well.

Next, technology. Different programs integrate various computer technologies and translation tools into the curriculum, with each language combination often functioning as a separate entity, and therefore each student getting a different level of training with these technologies. All students need to know how to do high-level word processing, basic DTP and HTML work, as well as deal with terminology and glossary databases, and MAT/MT tools. These technologies should be introduced through special classes, of course, but then should be a part of the daily translation curriculum. Students should be expected to create complex word-processing documents for their translations, to do database and terminology projects, to deal with HTML files, and even to open and translate text strings within software code. This will prepare them for the demands of the translation industry. Anything less will simply give them more to learn after they graduate, defeating the purpose of the training they have paid for and worked through.

Finally, theory. I realize there is as yet no well-developed theory of translation, but there is certainly enough theory within linguistics and psychology on the subjects of language, terminology, and such that translation students would benefit from an introduction to this kind of material as a way to ground them in what it is they are doing and give them some broad, general ideas of how to approach a text and translate it well. Too much theory is unnecessary, and each program, depending on its duration, will have to decide how much is sufficient. But no theory at all will leave translation students without a model to use to unify their knowledge and develop a deeper understanding and appreciation for their work.

Special Considerations

There are within teaching translators some particular issues that bear mentioning. First has to do with student background. In other words: what is the proper academic background for a student of translation to have? At the very least, most translation students seem to benefit from having had formal training in their foreign languages, including intensive study of reading and writing. Also, extensive experience writing in their native languages is very beneficial, whether had through courses such as a college English class or its equivalent or the study of journalism, such experience prepares the future translator to write quickly and effectively in a variety of styles.

The second issue is whether to train translators by having them work into their native and foreign languages, or just into their native language. Since virtually no translator actually translates professionally into any language other than their native language (their A language), formal study by actually translating material into translators' foreign language or languages (their B languages) seems like a less than effective use of time, not only for the students but also for the teachers. Rather than having a translation student struggle to create a good translation in the B language, the student would be better served by developing more insight and understanding into the B languages through reading, terminology acquisition, cultural training, and subject area familiarization. In the same vein, the teachers would have more time to focus on nurturing in their students translation and writing skills that the students will use as professionals, rather than merely correcting and explaining the subtleties of idiom and usage in the students' B language.

Related to this issue is the nature of classroom assignments. Having all the students work on the same assignment often results in the students collaborating to produce their individual translations. Non-native speakers may have their work corrected by native speakers, terminology research becomes a shared endeavor, and background research is done in teams. While this situation is not inherently bad, it does limit how well faculty can judge individual student's ability and progress, not to mention creating problems in grading. So I suggest that at least some translation assignments be similar to real-world assignments: have the students work on a large document, with each student translating a portion of it. This way the students can still share the burdern of terminology and background research but at the same time can meet the challenge of crafting a good translation on their own.

Third is the faculty itself. Excellent faculty is vital in an academic undertaking like training translators. The faculty should be experienced translators themselves, having done work in the subject areas they plan to teach. Since continuity in training is an essential element for the successful education of translators, the faculty should make a long-term commitment to their institution and students, and conversely, the administration should do likewise for its faculty. There are too many stories of programs whose faculty changes in its entirety every year or two; the amount of time and effort involved in such a change-over hinders student learning, wastes limited resources in the translation program, and generally results in a reduction of quality in the program. Solutions to these problems lie in the administration of translation programs, a subject beyond the scope of this article. It is merely my hope that people involved with the administration of these programs will try to see the effects of their actions from the students' perspective.

Finally comes the issue of graduation testing. Many programs require students to pass a battery of graduation exams. This process seems a traditional element in many forms of training, and perhaps is intended to serve as a form of licensure or accreditation for alumni of the translation programs. I feel, however, that such exams are a poor use of time and resources. Rather than devoting weeks to preparing such exams, finding suitable material and testing sites, then implementing the exams, and evaluating the results, the students should instead spend their time in the classroom, undergoing nothing more than the routine testing that comprises a natural part of all formal education. I have already written about the considerably difficulties associated with creating and carrying out accreditation exams in a separate article and am convinced that the same basic problems plague graduation exams. By the end of a year or two of academic training, faculty should know if the students are or are not ready to enter the profession and then advise the students accordingly. To deny a student a certificate or diploma based solely on his or her performance on one graduation exam seems unfair and counter-productive.

As an aside, some programs require translation students to do some form of project for graduation, perhaps a lengthy translation of material the student is interested in, research on terminology, the preparation of a glossary, or an investigation into an important issue in the profession. Such endeavors, if relevant to the students' overall studies, can enhance the students' understanding and preparation for a career in translation, not to mention adding to the available resources within the translation industry itself. So as long as such projects are integrated into the translation program as a whole and are amply supported by the faculty and administration, precisely defined in the curriculum, and recognized as a significant stage in the students' training, such graduation projects will have value and should continue.

Can We Do It?

The basic problem facing any translation training program is money. Training translators is very labor intensive and offers little in the way of economies of scale. In addition, implementing some or all of the ideas above would only increase costs. And since the translation profession does not offer particularly high income potential, tuition costs must be kept under control. We have, as a result, a not inconsiderable problem, one for which I have a few suggestions.

First and foremost, get the translation and localization industries involved. Many translation vendors and agencies seem to want some form of translation accreditation as a way to verify that a translator can actually translate. Graduation from a credible, viable training program would serve this purpose. So the industry ought to consider putting its money where its mouth is and contributing both in time and effort to the training of translators. This can be done in a number of ways.

One, provide technology. More and more translation vendors, localization firms in particular, want translators with very specific technical skills, such as facility with MT and MAT systems, familiarity with programming languages like Java and C++, skill with software like DTP packages and word-processors. Many of these organizations have such software and the hardware to run it, often they have left-over systems that no longer fill any need. These systems could be donated as an educational grant, contributed as some form of technology transfer, or even sold at very low cost to translation training programs.

Moreover, translation training programs would make outstanding beta test sites for localization and MT/MAT products. A clean beta of the next version of Trados or TM2 could be given a very extensive shake-down in a translation school, where students would both learn about the systems and help improve them. This would not only provide the students with training on the forthcoming systems, but would give the manufacturers of these products a pool of highly capable linguists and translators as testers. In addition, problems with interface design, the handling of terminology, and the integration of terminology, translation memory, version control, and so forth would also be addressed by precisely the people who will be using the systems. Perhaps there is something about this idea that is not what it seems, but to me this appears to be a classic case of win-win.

Two, provide educational grants or other support, in the form of scholarships, internships, and even work-for-hire (that is, you work for us for 2 years after we pay for your education, or something like that). Internships have so much obvious value, and are a growing part of the relationship between industry and translation training programs that little need be said about them here. Scholarships, a form of corporate charity often discussed but infrequently implemented, represent a logical next step. And work-for-hire, or whatever you want to call it, is a time-honored tradition in many fields, so adding this option for the training of translators seems reasonable.

Second, there are the governments, federal and state, as well as various NGOs and other international organizations. If the United Nations, the WTO, IMF, along with the U.S. State Dept. and intelligence community, as well as various state governments want good translators, they should contribute to the process of creating them. Again, contributions here does not necessarily mean money. It can mean training materials (what better way for a translation training program to get good study material than to get it from the people who hire the graduates?); technology (as with industry, these organizations often have equipment they just don't want or need; it might as well go to good use rather than taking up space in landfills); and even people (why not have full-time translators at these organizations be available, at least occasionally, as advisors, consultants, or guest lecturers?). Again, the idea is to get all parties involved to cooperate for each other's benefit.

There are undoubtedly many other ways to create mutually-beneficial relationships between the programs that train translators and the businesses that employ them. The point here is that both sides stand to benefit from active cooperation with each other, and any idea that plays to so-called enlightened self-interest stands a greater probability of being implemented. So if you are a part of a company that hires or is looking to hire translators, consider contacting one of more of the translation programs in the U.S. and contributing to the training of translators. You will after all get what you pay for. And if you are involved in training translators, I hope you will solicit the active participation of local companies that hire translators.

Thinking About It

Training translators is not an academic endeavor and should not be compared to Ph.D. study in linguistics or literature. Instead, it is professional training, similar perhaps to training computer programmers or accountants. While there are many programs in the United States offering one form or another of such training, and this number is rising, there are enough disgruntled graduates of such programs and confused perspective students that a few words on how to choose the right program seems appropriate.

First, talk to the current students and recent graduates. See what they say about the program. Make certain you are not getting propaganda or the party line by talking to a few people. Read articles about the profession in general (this series might be useful in this regard) so that you can ask intelligent questions and understand the answers you are given. Also talk to potential employers, be they translation agencies and vendors, localization firms, or the government, to find out what kind of training you should have.

Second, talk to the faculty and administration. Do not be shy, coy, or cute. You are interviewing them, and the best way to avoid disappointment and frustration in the future is to ask the bold questions now. Query them about every aspect of the program: admissions requirements, graduation requirements, faculty backgrounds, continuity in the faculty, campus language resources, career placement resources, and statistics on what graduates are doing. Do not accept vague generalizations like "our faculty is very committed." You want specific numbers like "Professor X has taught here for three years after fifteen years in technical translation" and "All of last year's graduates are now employed, with an average starting salary of $36,500." If you don't want to make a mistake, you have to ask these kinds of questions and demand precise, specific, concrete answers.

Third, consider the structure and nature of the program. How long does it take? What kind of degree or certification do you receive at the end? Is that degree or certification respected in the industry? What classes will you take? Does the coursework reflect your interests while giving you the training you need to succeed in the translation industry? Coursework should ideally include some formal training in theory and terminology, practice translating documents into your native language in subject areas that the industry currently hires people to work in, practice using current MT/MAT technology and other software tools common in translation work, and at least one class on the practical side of being a translator, in other words a class that covers business and other professional issues.

Finally, weigh carefully the benefits of the program against the costs. Try to figure out if the program truly advances your career enough to justify the investment of time and money. A translation program prepares you to be a translator, and not a whole lot else. You should therefore be quite comfortable in your decision to enter the translation profession and rather convinced that the training program will accelerate your entry and progress. You can always wait an extra year to start if you are uncertain; you cannot get back your tuition or the time you spent in the program.

Final Remarks

This article is not meant to be a commentary on existing translation programs or any individual at any such program. Instead I hope it provides some insight into the issues surrounding the training of translators, particularly the classroom methodologies in use and what might be implemented in the future, as well as means to make such programs affordable and maximally beneficial to the students.

I hope this article is particularly useful to people involved in training translators and to individuals considering attending a training program. I would welcome comments, corrections, or suggestions from current students and graduates of the existing programs, from faculty and administration at such programs, and from employers who have hired graduates of such programs or have some formal relationship, whether through internships, technology transfers, or financial support, with such programs. Finally, I hope this article will spur interest in creating better training programs for translators and raising the overall level of translation quality in the industry.

 

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Academic Training in Principle

The basic approach to academic training for translators seems to remain unchanged from the time of the School of Scribes in ancient Egypt. Student translators are given short texts to translate, then their translations are evaluated by teachers, and finally the translations are discussed in great depth and detail among all the students in the class and the teacher. Variations occur in the length of the assignment, though 500 to 1000 words per week seems to be average, the subject matter in the assignment, including but not necessarily limited to business, financial, legal, medical, computer-related, or political material, and the direction of the translation, with some programs requiring students to translate both into and out of their native language, while others choose to have students translate exclusively into their native language.

Academic training rarely if ever includes any theoretical work, though this could well be a result of the relative lack of material to present to students; a cogent theory of translation remains to be developed. Academic training also tends to limit or exclude entirely matters related to terminology research and development, glossary or term database design and maintenance, or various computer technologies, running the gamut from basic word processing to localization of software source code. Academic training also rarely if ever includes content courses on, for instance, law, medicine, computer science, or other subjects that translators inevitably translate material on but almost have extensive, in-depth, formal academic training in. Last, academic training seems to stay away from the development or writing skills or cultural sensitivity, two areas which translators have to deal with every day of their working lives.

In essence, translation training then consists of giving students plenty of time to do very short translation assignments, then analyzing those assignments in every last detail, and ultimately discussing the nature of their work, often with an extreme focus on student errors, in great depth. In other words, students get to make mistakes that have no ramifications in their professional careers, and presumably they learn from their mistakes, as well as acquiring familiarity with terminology and various kinds of source material.

This system of education for translators places an extreme emphasis on the teaching faculty, making them responsible for selecting texts that reflect what the translation industry is currently asking translators to work on, evaluating student translations in a manner consistent with what the industry expects a translator to be able to produce, and discussing all student errors and other textual problems so as to guide the student toward developing translation skills that will meet with the industry's demands and expectations.

Faculty must therefore be very proficient translators themselves, as well as capable educators. Needless to say, not everyone can teach, regardless of how well they know their subject matter. Merely possessing a mastery of a subject does not qualify someone to teach it. Teaching is a very difficult task. Imparting knowledge and experience to another person requires not only mastery of the subject matter, but also mastery of the communication of knowledge.

Teaching translation is a very labor-intensive process, since each student's weekly assignments have to be evaluated in great detail and with extreme precision. In addition, course materials should not be recycled; the translation profession change too quickly to allow last year's translation texts to be used more than perhaps a couple of years in a row. Having students work on patents from five years ago may mean they will not learn the currently accepted format for a patent; having students work on a hardware or software manual from even three years ago will deny them much needed current terminology and subject knowledge. The same obviously holds for all subject areas. And by extension, the same will hold for any tests the students take.

Translation faculty must as a result have considerable time and enthusiasm for their subject, as well as intimate familiarity with the current state of affairs in the industry. This does not mean, however, that faculty should be working professionals who just happen to teach a few classes here and there. Students require and deserve full-time attention, meaning that faculty at best should be doing part-time work as freelance translators. As an aside, I do teach one translation course each spring (entitled "The Business of Translation"); one of the reasons I do not teach more than that is my freelance business doesn't allow me to. Covering the demands of my clients and the needs of the students in that one class pretty much absorbs all my working time. To teach more than that would, for me at least, be irresponsible.

Finally, we have the issue of the administration of a translation program. Again, the people involved in running the program should have experience in the translation profession, as well as considerable ability to manage and oversee an academic program. This may seem obvious, but it bears mentioning because the supply of such people is sufficiently small that some programs do not have such people in their administrative ranks. While having any administrator is arguably better than canceling a program, the limitations of someone who does not know the translation profession in a position of authority in a translation program can lead to misunderstandings about the time, money, and academic resources (e.g.: dictionaries, glossaries, software) that such a program requires.

Is This The Best We Can Do?

The above approach has been in use for thousands of years, give or take a bit of technology. The Thebes School of Scribes did not have the Internet, word processors, or MAT to contend with, but their methodology was roughly the same. Though I agree that practice is an essential element of training translators, I am convinced that other forms of learning should play an integral role.

First, the volume of translation. Students who spend one or two years translating a thousand words per week are wholly unprepared for the daily demands of professional translation. The average translator produces in the neighborhood of two- to three-thousand words per day, with many doing considerably more. While students should certainly on occasion study one short text very intently as an exercise in learning how to analyze and parse a text, then create the best translation possible, they should also work on translating a normal day's work for a practicing translator.

Students need to acquire the speed and accuracy of a professional. This includes learning to type quickly, knowing how to work efficiently in current software applications and on the Web, and understanding what to do when a text does not yield to translation, whether because the printing is illegible or the writing is unintelligible. Translators who lack these skills will find the market unwelcoming and uncomfortable.

Translation students also need to become very comfortable in the subject field or fields they will work in. Because most translators lack a thorough education in anything other than their languages, part of their education should include subject knowledge. This cannot come directly from the translation texts themselves, as the students simply do not generally translate texts of sufficient length or depth. Developing a thorough understanding of computer science by reading 1,000 words per week on the subject is just not possible. So content coursework, presented in both of the student's languages should be integrated into any translation program.

What's more, professional translators specialize. No translator works in every subject area; it is simply not practical to try to develop that much expertise and linguistic knowledge in that many subjects. Translators generally focus on a few related subject areas, depending on their backgrounds and interests, then cultivate their specialized knowledge and language skills so as to tailor them for translation in those fields. The same should occur in a translation program. After an introductory period of basic translation exercises and development of secondary skills like word processing and terminology management, students should pick a subject area and focus on that. A translation program should therefore offer academic tracks—such as in medicine, law, social science, natural science, finance, computers/localization, the specific breakdown does not matter—then work through both a concerted study of general material on those subjects, in both of the student translator's languages, of course, as well as translation exercises based on what the market is having translators do in those areas. This will not only develop their subject knowledge to a point at which they can confidently approach a text, but will also provide them with the terminology and knowledge of writing style necessary to create an accurate, readable translation.

Subject fields should be selected based on what the market is demanding from translators. Certain fields, like computers/localization, are strong enough for all major languages that they should exist for all translation students. It may not be practical, however, to have certain translation languages working on certain subjects. For instance, how much medical research or fundamental science is done in Vietnam? Certainly some, but not enough to justify a Vietnamese-English translation student specializing in that area. The task of the translation school is to prepare translation students for the real world, so subject areas should be selected and developed in accordance with the market in the translation industry.

Therefore, having all students in all language combinations work through the same set of exercises in broad categories of experience is not practical or fair to the students. A student with no interest in financial translation who is studying a language combination with minimal demands for such work will not benefit from such efforts as much as she might from doing more in an area that interests her and is in demand. Similarly, the market rarely if ever asks for translators who simply have a smattering of ability and familiarity with a wide range of texts, so graduating students who fit that description is less efficient than graduating students who can handle one subject very well.

Next, technology. Different programs integrate various computer technologies and translation tools into the curriculum, with each language combination often functioning as a separate entity, and therefore each student getting a different level of training with these technologies. All students need to know how to do high-level word processing, basic DTP and HTML work, as well as deal with terminology and glossary databases, and MAT/MT tools. These technologies should be introduced through special classes, of course, but then should be a part of the daily translation curriculum. Students should be expected to create complex word-processing documents for their translations, to do database and terminology projects, to deal with HTML files, and even to open and translate text strings within software code. This will prepare them for the demands of the translation industry. Anything less will simply give them more to learn after they graduate, defeating the purpose of the training they have paid for and worked through.

Finally, theory. I realize there is as yet no well-developed theory of translation, but there is certainly enough theory within linguistics and psychology on the subjects of language, terminology, and such that translation students would benefit from an introduction to this kind of material as a way to ground them in what it is they are doing and give them some broad, general ideas of how to approach a text and translate it well. Too much theory is unnecessary, and each program, depending on its duration, will have to decide how much is sufficient. But no theory at all will leave translation students without a model to use to unify their knowledge and develop a deeper understanding and appreciation for their work.

Special Considerations

There are within teaching translators some particular issues that bear mentioning. First has to do with student background. In other words: what is the proper academic background for a student of translation to have? At the very least, most translation students seem to benefit from having had formal training in their foreign languages, including intensive study of reading and writing. Also, extensive experience writing in their native languages is very beneficial, whether had through courses such as a college English class or its equivalent or the study of journalism, such experience prepares the future translator to write quickly and effectively in a variety of styles.

The second issue is whether to train translators by having them work into their native and foreign languages, or just into their native language. Since virtually no translator actually translates professionally into any language other than their native language (their A language), formal study by actually translating material into translators' foreign language or languages (their B languages) seems like a less than effective use of time, not only for the students but also for the teachers. Rather than having a translation student struggle to create a good translation in the B language, the student would be better served by developing more insight and understanding into the B languages through reading, terminology acquisition, cultural training, and subject area familiarization. In the same vein, the teachers would have more time to focus on nurturing in their students translation and writing skills that the students will use as professionals, rather than merely correcting and explaining the subtleties of idiom and usage in the students' B language.

Related to this issue is the nature of classroom assignments. Having all the students work on the same assignment often results in the students collaborating to produce their individual translations. Non-native speakers may have their work corrected by native speakers, terminology research becomes a shared endeavor, and background research is done in teams. While this situation is not inherently bad, it does limit how well faculty can judge individual student's ability and progress, not to mention creating problems in grading. So I suggest that at least some translation assignments be similar to real-world assignments: have the students work on a large document, with each student translating a portion of it. This way the students can still share the burdern of terminology and background research but at the same time can meet the challenge of crafting a good translation on their own.

Third is the faculty itself. Excellent faculty is vital in an academic undertaking like training translators. The faculty should be experienced translators themselves, having done work in the subject areas they plan to teach. Since continuity in training is an essential element for the successful education of translators, the faculty should make a long-term commitment to their institution and students, and conversely, the administration should do likewise for its faculty. There are too many stories of programs whose faculty changes in its entirety every year or two; the amount of time and effort involved in such a change-over hinders student learning, wastes limited resources in the translation program, and generally results in a reduction of quality in the program. Solutions to these problems lie in the administration of translation programs, a subject beyond the scope of this article. It is merely my hope that people involved with the administration of these programs will try to see the effects of their actions from the students' perspective.

Finally comes the issue of graduation testing. Many programs require students to pass a battery of graduation exams. This process seems a traditional element in many forms of training, and perhaps is intended to serve as a form of licensure or accreditation for alumni of the translation programs. I feel, however, that such exams are a poor use of time and resources. Rather than devoting weeks to preparing such exams, finding suitable material and testing sites, then implementing the exams, and evaluating the results, the students should instead spend their time in the classroom, undergoing nothing more than the routine testing that comprises a natural part of all formal education. I have already written about the considerably difficulties associated with creating and carrying out accreditation exams in a separate article and am convinced that the same basic problems plague graduation exams. By the end of a year or two of academic training, faculty should know if the students are or are not ready to enter the profession and then advise the students accordingly. To deny a student a certificate or diploma based solely on his or her performance on one graduation exam seems unfair and counter-productive.

As an aside, some programs require translation students to do some form of project for graduation, perhaps a lengthy translation of material the student is interested in, research on terminology, the preparation of a glossary, or an investigation into an important issue in the profession. Such endeavors, if relevant to the students' overall studies, can enhance the students' understanding and preparation for a career in translation, not to mention adding to the available resources within the translation industry itself. So as long as such projects are integrated into the translation program as a whole and are amply supported by the faculty and administration, precisely defined in the curriculum, and recognized as a significant stage in the students' training, such graduation projects will have value and should continue.

Can We Do It?

The basic problem facing any translation training program is money. Training translators is very labor intensive and offers little in the way of economies of scale. In addition, implementing some or all of the ideas above would only increase costs. And since the translation profession does not offer particularly high income potential, tuition costs must be kept under control. We have, as a result, a not inconsiderable problem, one for which I have a few suggestions.

First and foremost, get the translation and localization industries involved. Many translation vendors and agencies seem to want some form of translation accreditation as a way to verify that a translator can actually translate. Graduation from a credible, viable training program would serve this purpose. So the industry ought to consider putting its money where its mouth is and contributing both in time and effort to the training of translators. This can be done in a number of ways.

One, provide technology. More and more translation vendors, localization firms in particular, want translators with very specific technical skills, such as facility with MT and MAT systems, familiarity with programming languages like Java and C++, skill with software like DTP packages and word-processors. Many of these organizations have such software and the hardware to run it, often they have left-over systems that no longer fill any need. These systems could be donated as an educational grant, contributed as some form of technology transfer, or even sold at very low cost to translation training programs.

Moreover, translation training programs would make outstanding beta test sites for localization and MT/MAT products. A clean beta of the next version of Trados or TM2 could be given a very extensive shake-down in a translation school, where students would both learn about the systems and help improve them. This would not only provide the students with training on the forthcoming systems, but would give the manufacturers of these products a pool of highly capable linguists and translators as testers. In addition, problems with interface design, the handling of terminology, and the integration of terminology, translation memory, version control, and so forth would also be addressed by precisely the people who will be using the systems. Perhaps there is something about this idea that is not what it seems, but to me this appears to be a classic case of win-win.

Two, provide educational grants or other support, in the form of scholarships, internships, and even work-for-hire (that is, you work for us for 2 years after we pay for your education, or something like that). Internships have so much obvious value, and are a growing part of the relationship between industry and translation training programs that little need be said about them here. Scholarships, a form of corporate charity often discussed but infrequently implemented, represent a logical next step. And work-for-hire, or whatever you want to call it, is a time-honored tradition in many fields, so adding this option for the training of translators seems reasonable.

Second, there are the governments, federal and state, as well as various NGOs and other international organizations. If the United Nations, the WTO, IMF, along with the U.S. State Dept. and intelligence community, as well as various state governments want good translators, they should contribute to the process of creating them. Again, contributions here does not necessarily mean money. It can mean training materials (what better way for a translation training program to get good study material than to get it from the people who hire the graduates?); technology (as with industry, these organizations often have equipment they just don't want or need; it might as well go to good use rather than taking up space in landfills); and even people (why not have full-time translators at these organizations be available, at least occasionally, as advisors, consultants, or guest lecturers?). Again, the idea is to get all parties involved to cooperate for each other's benefit.

There are undoubtedly many other ways to create mutually-beneficial relationships between the programs that train translators and the businesses that employ them. The point here is that both sides stand to benefit from active cooperation with each other, and any idea that plays to so-called enlightened self-interest stands a greater probability of being implemented. So if you are a part of a company that hires or is looking to hire translators, consider contacting one of more of the translation programs in the U.S. and contributing to the training of translators. You will after all get what you pay for. And if you are involved in training translators, I hope you will solicit the active participation of local companies that hire translators.

Thinking About It

Training translators is not an academic endeavor and should not be compared to Ph.D. study in linguistics or literature. Instead, it is professional training, similar perhaps to training computer programmers or accountants. While there are many programs in the United States offering one form or another of such training, and this number is rising, there are enough disgruntled graduates of such programs and confused perspective students that a few words on how to choose the right program seems appropriate.

First, talk to the current students and recent graduates. See what they say about the program. Make certain you are not getting propaganda or the party line by talking to a few people. Read articles about the profession in general (this series might be useful in this regard) so that you can ask intelligent questions and understand the answers you are given. Also talk to potential employers, be they translation agencies and vendors, localization firms, or the government, to find out what kind of training you should have.

Second, talk to the faculty and administration. Do not be shy, coy, or cute. You are interviewing them, and the best way to avoid disappointment and frustration in the future is to ask the bold questions now. Query them about every aspect of the program: admissions requirements, graduation requirements, faculty backgrounds, continuity in the faculty, campus language resources, career placement resources, and statistics on what graduates are doing. Do not accept vague generalizations like "our faculty is very committed." You want specific numbers like "Professor X has taught here for three years after fifteen years in technical translation" and "All of last year's graduates are now employed, with an average starting salary of $36,500." If you don't want to make a mistake, you have to ask these kinds of questions and demand precise, specific, concrete answers.

Third, consider the structure and nature of the program. How long does it take? What kind of degree or certification do you receive at the end? Is that degree or certification respected in the industry? What classes will you take? Does the coursework reflect your interests while giving you the training you need to succeed in the translation industry? Coursework should ideally include some formal training in theory and terminology, practice translating documents into your native language in subject areas that the industry currently hires people to work in, practice using current MT/MAT technology and other software tools common in translation work, and at least one class on the practical side of being a translator, in other words a class that covers business and other professional issues.

Finally, weigh carefully the benefits of the program against the costs. Try to figure out if the program truly advances your career enough to justify the investment of time and money. A translation program prepares you to be a translator, and not a whole lot else. You should therefore be quite comfortable in your decision to enter the translation profession and rather convinced that the training program will accelerate your entry and progress. You can always wait an extra year to start if you are uncertain; you cannot get back your tuition or the time you spent in the program.

Final Remarks

This article is not meant to be a commentary on existing translation programs or any individual at any such program. Instead I hope it provides some insight into the issues surrounding the training of translators, particularly the classroom methodologies in use and what might be implemented in the future, as well as means to make such programs affordable and maximally beneficial to the students.

I hope this article is particularly useful to people involved in training translators and to individuals considering attending a training program. I would welcome comments, corrections, or suggestions from current students and graduates of the existing programs, from faculty and administration at such programs, and from employers who have hired graduates of such programs or have some formal relationship, whether through internships, technology transfers, or financial support, with such programs. Finally, I hope this article will spur interest in creating better training programs for translators and raising the overall level of translation quality in the industry.

 

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Academic Training in Principle

The basic approach to academic training for translators seems to remain unchanged from the time of the School of Scribes in ancient Egypt. Student translators are given short texts to translate, then their translations are evaluated by teachers, and finally the translations are discussed in great depth and detail among all the students in the class and the teacher. Variations occur in the length of the assignment, though 500 to 1000 words per week seems to be average, the subject matter in the assignment, including but not necessarily limited to business, financial, legal, medical, computer-related, or political material, and the direction of the translation, with some programs requiring students to translate both into and out of their native language, while others choose to have students translate exclusively into their native language.

Academic training rarely if ever includes any theoretical work, though this could well be a result of the relative lack of material to present to students; a cogent theory of translation remains to be developed. Academic training also tends to limit or exclude entirely matters related to terminology research and development, glossary or term database design and maintenance, or various computer technologies, running the gamut from basic word processing to localization of software source code. Academic training also rarely if ever includes content courses on, for instance, law, medicine, computer science, or other subjects that translators inevitably translate material on but almost have extensive, in-depth, formal academic training in. Last, academic training seems to stay away from the development or writing skills or cultural sensitivity, two areas which translators have to deal with every day of their working lives.

In essence, translation training then consists of giving students plenty of time to do very short translation assignments, then analyzing those assignments in every last detail, and ultimately discussing the nature of their work, often with an extreme focus on student errors, in great depth. In other words, students get to make mistakes that have no ramifications in their professional careers, and presumably they learn from their mistakes, as well as acquiring familiarity with terminology and various kinds of source material.

This system of education for translators places an extreme emphasis on the teaching faculty, making them responsible for selecting texts that reflect what the translation industry is currently asking translators to work on, evaluating student translations in a manner consistent with what the industry expects a translator to be able to produce, and discussing all student errors and other textual problems so as to guide the student toward developing translation skills that will meet with the industry's demands and expectations.

Faculty must therefore be very proficient translators themselves, as well as capable educators. Needless to say, not everyone can teach, regardless of how well they know their subject matter. Merely possessing a mastery of a subject does not qualify someone to teach it. Teaching is a very difficult task. Imparting knowledge and experience to another person requires not only mastery of the subject matter, but also mastery of the communication of knowledge.

Teaching translation is a very labor-intensive process, since each student's weekly assignments have to be evaluated in great detail and with extreme precision. In addition, course materials should not be recycled; the translation profession change too quickly to allow last year's translation texts to be used more than perhaps a couple of years in a row. Having students work on patents from five years ago may mean they will not learn the currently accepted format for a patent; having students work on a hardware or software manual from even three years ago will deny them much needed current terminology and subject knowledge. The same obviously holds for all subject areas. And by extension, the same will hold for any tests the students take.

Translation faculty must as a result have considerable time and enthusiasm for their subject, as well as intimate familiarity with the current state of affairs in the industry. This does not mean, however, that faculty should be working professionals who just happen to teach a few classes here and there. Students require and deserve full-time attention, meaning that faculty at best should be doing part-time work as freelance translators. As an aside, I do teach one translation course each spring (entitled "The Business of Translation"); one of the reasons I do not teach more than that is my freelance business doesn't allow me to. Covering the demands of my clients and the needs of the students in that one class pretty much absorbs all my working time. To teach more than that would, for me at least, be irresponsible.

Finally, we have the issue of the administration of a translation program. Again, the people involved in running the program should have experience in the translation profession, as well as considerable ability to manage and oversee an academic program. This may seem obvious, but it bears mentioning because the supply of such people is sufficiently small that some programs do not have such people in their administrative ranks. While having any administrator is arguably better than canceling a program, the limitations of someone who does not know the translation profession in a position of authority in a translation program can lead to misunderstandings about the time, money, and academic resources (e.g.: dictionaries, glossaries, software) that such a program requires.

Is This The Best We Can Do?

The above approach has been in use for thousands of years, give or take a bit of technology. The Thebes School of Scribes did not have the Internet, word processors, or MAT to contend with, but their methodology was roughly the same. Though I agree that practice is an essential element of training translators, I am convinced that other forms of learning should play an integral role.

First, the volume of translation. Students who spend one or two years translating a thousand words per week are wholly unprepared for the daily demands of professional translation. The average translator produces in the neighborhood of two- to three-thousand words per day, with many doing considerably more. While students should certainly on occasion study one short text very intently as an exercise in learning how to analyze and parse a text, then create the best translation possible, they should also work on translating a normal day's work for a practicing translator.

Students need to acquire the speed and accuracy of a professional. This includes learning to type quickly, knowing how to work efficiently in current software applications and on the Web, and understanding what to do when a text does not yield to translation, whether because the printing is illegible or the writing is unintelligible. Translators who lack these skills will find the market unwelcoming and uncomfortable.

Translation students also need to become very comfortable in the subject field or fields they will work in. Because most translators lack a thorough education in anything other than their languages, part of their education should include subject knowledge. This cannot come directly from the translation texts themselves, as the students simply do not generally translate texts of sufficient length or depth. Developing a thorough understanding of computer science by reading 1,000 words per week on the subject is just not possible. So content coursework, presented in both of the student's languages should be integrated into any translation program.

What's more, professional translators specialize. No translator works in every subject area; it is simply not practical to try to develop that much expertise and linguistic knowledge in that many subjects. Translators generally focus on a few related subject areas, depending on their backgrounds and interests, then cultivate their specialized knowledge and language skills so as to tailor them for translation in those fields. The same should occur in a translation program. After an introductory period of basic translation exercises and development of secondary skills like word processing and terminology management, students should pick a subject area and focus on that. A translation program should therefore offer academic tracks—such as in medicine, law, social science, natural science, finance, computers/localization, the specific breakdown does not matter—then work through both a concerted study of general material on those subjects, in both of the student translator's languages, of course, as well as translation exercises based on what the market is having translators do in those areas. This will not only develop their subject knowledge to a point at which they can confidently approach a text, but will also provide them with the terminology and knowledge of writing style necessary to create an accurate, readable translation.

Subject fields should be selected based on what the market is demanding from translators. Certain fields, like computers/localization, are strong enough for all major languages that they should exist for all translation students. It may not be practical, however, to have certain translation languages working on certain subjects. For instance, how much medical research or fundamental science is done in Vietnam? Certainly some, but not enough to justify a Vietnamese-English translation student specializing in that area. The task of the translation school is to prepare translation students for the real world, so subject areas should be selected and developed in accordance with the market in the translation industry.

Therefore, having all students in all language combinations work through the same set of exercises in broad categories of experience is not practical or fair to the students. A student with no interest in financial translation who is studying a language combination with minimal demands for such work will not benefit from such efforts as much as she might from doing more in an area that interests her and is in demand. Similarly, the market rarely if ever asks for translators who simply have a smattering of ability and familiarity with a wide range of texts, so graduating students who fit that description is less efficient than graduating students who can handle one subject very well.

Next, technology. Different programs integrate various computer technologies and translation tools into the curriculum, with each language combination often functioning as a separate entity, and therefore each student getting a different level of training with these technologies. All students need to know how to do high-level word processing, basic DTP and HTML work, as well as deal with terminology and glossary databases, and MAT/MT tools. These technologies should be introduced through special classes, of course, but then should be a part of the daily translation curriculum. Students should be expected to create complex word-processing documents for their translations, to do database and terminology projects, to deal with HTML files, and even to open and translate text strings within software code. This will prepare them for the demands of the translation industry. Anything less will simply give them more to learn after they graduate, defeating the purpose of the training they have paid for and worked through.

Finally, theory. I realize there is as yet no well-developed theory of translation, but there is certainly enough theory within linguistics and psychology on the subjects of language, terminology, and such that translation students would benefit from an introduction to this kind of material as a way to ground them in what it is they are doing and give them some broad, general ideas of how to approach a text and translate it well. Too much theory is unnecessary, and each program, depending on its duration, will have to decide how much is sufficient. But no theory at all will leave translation students without a model to use to unify their knowledge and develop a deeper understanding and appreciation for their work.

Special Considerations

There are within teaching translators some particular issues that bear mentioning. First has to do with student background. In other words: what is the proper academic background for a student of translation to have? At the very least, most translation students seem to benefit from having had formal training in their foreign languages, including intensive study of reading and writing. Also, extensive experience writing in their native languages is very beneficial, whether had through courses such as a college English class or its equivalent or the study of journalism, such experience prepares the future translator to write quickly and effectively in a variety of styles.

The second issue is whether to train translators by having them work into their native and foreign languages, or just into their native language. Since virtually no translator actually translates professionally into any language other than their native language (their A language), formal study by actually translating material into translators' foreign language or languages (their B languages) seems like a less than effective use of time, not only for the students but also for the teachers. Rather than having a translation student struggle to create a good translation in the B language, the student would be better served by developing more insight and understanding into the B languages through reading, terminology acquisition, cultural training, and subject area familiarization. In the same vein, the teachers would have more time to focus on nurturing in their students translation and writing skills that the students will use as professionals, rather than merely correcting and explaining the subtleties of idiom and usage in the students' B language.

Related to this issue is the nature of classroom assignments. Having all the students work on the same assignment often results in the students collaborating to produce their individual translations. Non-native speakers may have their work corrected by native speakers, terminology research becomes a shared endeavor, and background research is done in teams. While this situation is not inherently bad, it does limit how well faculty can judge individual student's ability and progress, not to mention creating problems in grading. So I suggest that at least some translation assignments be similar to real-world assignments: have the students work on a large document, with each student translating a portion of it. This way the students can still share the burdern of terminology and background research but at the same time can meet the challenge of crafting a good translation on their own.

Third is the faculty itself. Excellent faculty is vital in an academic undertaking like training translators. The faculty should be experienced translators themselves, having done work in the subject areas they plan to teach. Since continuity in training is an essential element for the successful education of translators, the faculty should make a long-term commitment to their institution and students, and conversely, the administration should do likewise for its faculty. There are too many stories of programs whose faculty changes in its entirety every year or two; the amount of time and effort involved in such a change-over hinders student learning, wastes limited resources in the translation program, and generally results in a reduction of quality in the program. Solutions to these problems lie in the administration of translation programs, a subject beyond the scope of this article. It is merely my hope that people involved with the administration of these programs will try to see the effects of their actions from the students' perspective.

Finally comes the issue of graduation testing. Many programs require students to pass a battery of graduation exams. This process seems a traditional element in many forms of training, and perhaps is intended to serve as a form of licensure or accreditation for alumni of the translation programs. I feel, however, that such exams are a poor use of time and resources. Rather than devoting weeks to preparing such exams, finding suitable material and testing sites, then implementing the exams, and evaluating the results, the students should instead spend their time in the classroom, undergoing nothing more than the routine testing that comprises a natural part of all formal education. I have already written about the considerably difficulties associated with creating and carrying out accreditation exams in a separate article and am convinced that the same basic problems plague graduation exams. By the end of a year or two of academic training, faculty should know if the students are or are not ready to enter the profession and then advise the students accordingly. To deny a student a certificate or diploma based solely on his or her performance on one graduation exam seems unfair and counter-productive.

As an aside, some programs require translation students to do some form of project for graduation, perhaps a lengthy translation of material the student is interested in, research on terminology, the preparation of a glossary, or an investigation into an important issue in the profession. Such endeavors, if relevant to the students' overall studies, can enhance the students' understanding and preparation for a career in translation, not to mention adding to the available resources within the translation industry itself. So as long as such projects are integrated into the translation program as a whole and are amply supported by the faculty and administration, precisely defined in the curriculum, and recognized as a significant stage in the students' training, such graduation projects will have value and should continue.

Can We Do It?

The basic problem facing any translation training program is money. Training translators is very labor intensive and offers little in the way of economies of scale. In addition, implementing some or all of the ideas above would only increase costs. And since the translation profession does not offer particularly high income potential, tuition costs must be kept under control. We have, as a result, a not inconsiderable problem, one for which I have a few suggestions.

First and foremost, get the translation and localization industries involved. Many translation vendors and agencies seem to want some form of translation accreditation as a way to verify that a translator can actually translate. Graduation from a credible, viable training program would serve this purpose. So the industry ought to consider putting its money where its mouth is and contributing both in time and effort to the training of translators. This can be done in a number of ways.

One, provide technology. More and more translation vendors, localization firms in particular, want translators with very specific technical skills, such as facility with MT and MAT systems, familiarity with programming languages like Java and C++, skill with software like DTP packages and word-processors. Many of these organizations have such software and the hardware to run it, often they have left-over systems that no longer fill any need. These systems could be donated as an educational grant, contributed as some form of technology transfer, or even sold at very low cost to translation training programs.

Moreover, translation training programs would make outstanding beta test sites for localization and MT/MAT products. A clean beta of the next version of Trados or TM2 could be given a very extensive shake-down in a translation school, where students would both learn about the systems and help improve them. This would not only provide the students with training on the forthcoming systems, but would give the manufacturers of these products a pool of highly capable linguists and translators as testers. In addition, problems with interface design, the handling of terminology, and the integration of terminology, translation memory, version control, and so forth would also be addressed by precisely the people who will be using the systems. Perhaps there is something about this idea that is not what it seems, but to me this appears to be a classic case of win-win.

Two, provide educational grants or other support, in the form of scholarships, internships, and even work-for-hire (that is, you work for us for 2 years after we pay for your education, or something like that). Internships have so much obvious value, and are a growing part of the relationship between industry and translation training programs that little need be said about them here. Scholarships, a form of corporate charity often discussed but infrequently implemented, represent a logical next step. And work-for-hire, or whatever you want to call it, is a time-honored tradition in many fields, so adding this option for the training of translators seems reasonable.

Second, there are the governments, federal and state, as well as various NGOs and other international organizations. If the United Nations, the WTO, IMF, along with the U.S. State Dept. and intelligence community, as well as various state governments want good translators, they should contribute to the process of creating them. Again, contributions here does not necessarily mean money. It can mean training materials (what better way for a translation training program to get good study material than to get it from the people who hire the graduates?); technology (as with industry, these organizations often have equipment they just don't want or need; it might as well go to good use rather than taking up space in landfills); and even people (why not have full-time translators at these organizations be available, at least occasionally, as advisors, consultants, or guest lecturers?). Again, the idea is to get all parties involved to cooperate for each other's benefit.

There are undoubtedly many other ways to create mutually-beneficial relationships between the programs that train translators and the businesses that employ them. The point here is that both sides stand to benefit from active cooperation with each other, and any idea that plays to so-called enlightened self-interest stands a greater probability of being implemented. So if you are a part of a company that hires or is looking to hire translators, consider contacting one of more of the translation programs in the U.S. and contributing to the training of translators. You will after all get what you pay for. And if you are involved in training translators, I hope you will solicit the active participation of local companies that hire translators.

Thinking About It

Training translators is not an academic endeavor and should not be compared to Ph.D. study in linguistics or literature. Instead, it is professional training, similar perhaps to training computer programmers or accountants. While there are many programs in the United States offering one form or another of such training, and this number is rising, there are enough disgruntled graduates of such programs and confused perspective students that a few words on how to choose the right program seems appropriate.

First, talk to the current students and recent graduates. See what they say about the program. Make certain you are not getting propaganda or the party line by talking to a few people. Read articles about the profession in general (this series might be useful in this regard) so that you can ask intelligent questions and understand the answers you are given. Also talk to potential employers, be they translation agencies and vendors, localization firms, or the government, to find out what kind of training you should have.

Second, talk to the faculty and administration. Do not be shy, coy, or cute. You are interviewing them, and the best way to avoid disappointment and frustration in the future is to ask the bold questions now. Query them about every aspect of the program: admissions requirements, graduation requirements, faculty backgrounds, continuity in the faculty, campus language resources, career placement resources, and statistics on what graduates are doing. Do not accept vague generalizations like "our faculty is very committed." You want specific numbers like "Professor X has taught here for three years after fifteen years in technical translation" and "All of last year's graduates are now employed, with an average starting salary of $36,500." If you don't want to make a mistake, you have to ask these kinds of questions and demand precise, specific, concrete answers.

Third, consider the structure and nature of the program. How long does it take? What kind of degree or certification do you receive at the end? Is that degree or certification respected in the industry? What classes will you take? Does the coursework reflect your interests while giving you the training you need to succeed in the translation industry? Coursework should ideally include some formal training in theory and terminology, practice translating documents into your native language in subject areas that the industry currently hires people to work in, practice using current MT/MAT technology and other software tools common in translation work, and at least one class on the practical side of being a translator, in other words a class that covers business and other professional issues.

Finally, weigh carefully the benefits of the program against the costs. Try to figure out if the program truly advances your career enough to justify the investment of time and money. A translation program prepares you to be a translator, and not a whole lot else. You should therefore be quite comfortable in your decision to enter the translation profession and rather convinced that the training program will accelerate your entry and progress. You can always wait an extra year to start if you are uncertain; you cannot get back your tuition or the time you spent in the program.

Final Remarks

This article is not meant to be a commentary on existing translation programs or any individual at any such program. Instead I hope it provides some insight into the issues surrounding the training of translators, particularly the classroom methodologies in use and what might be implemented in the future, as well as means to make such programs affordable and maximally beneficial to the students.

I hope this article is particularly useful to people involved in training translators and to individuals considering attending a training program. I would welcome comments, corrections, or suggestions from current students and graduates of the existing programs, from faculty and administration at such programs, and from employers who have hired graduates of such programs or have some formal relationship, whether through internships, technology transfers, or financial support, with such programs. Finally, I hope this article will spur interest in creating better training programs for translators and raising the overall level of translation quality in the industry.

 

,

Academic Training in Principle

The basic approach to academic training for translators seems to remain unchanged from the time of the School of Scribes in ancient Egypt. Student translators are given short texts to translate, then their translations are evaluated by teachers, and finally the translations are discussed in great depth and detail among all the students in the class and the teacher. Variations occur in the length of the assignment, though 500 to 1000 words per week seems to be average, the subject matter in the assignment, including but not necessarily limited to business, financial, legal, medical, computer-related, or political material, and the direction of the translation, with some programs requiring students to translate both into and out of their native language, while others choose to have students translate exclusively into their native language.

Academic training rarely if ever includes any theoretical work, though this could well be a result of the relative lack of material to present to students; a cogent theory of translation remains to be developed. Academic training also tends to limit or exclude entirely matters related to terminology research and development, glossary or term database design and maintenance, or various computer technologies, running the gamut from basic word processing to localization of software source code. Academic training also rarely if ever includes content courses on, for instance, law, medicine, computer science, or other subjects that translators inevitably translate material on but almost have extensive, in-depth, formal academic training in. Last, academic training seems to stay away from the development or writing skills or cultural sensitivity, two areas which translators have to deal with every day of their working lives.

In essence, translation training then consists of giving students plenty of time to do very short translation assignments, then analyzing those assignments in every last detail, and ultimately discussing the nature of their work, often with an extreme focus on student errors, in great depth. In other words, students get to make mistakes that have no ramifications in their professional careers, and presumably they learn from their mistakes, as well as acquiring familiarity with terminology and various kinds of source material.

This system of education for translators places an extreme emphasis on the teaching faculty, making them responsible for selecting texts that reflect what the translation industry is currently asking translators to work on, evaluating student translations in a manner consistent with what the industry expects a translator to be able to produce, and discussing all student errors and other textual problems so as to guide the student toward developing translation skills that will meet with the industry's demands and expectations.

Faculty must therefore be very proficient translators themselves, as well as capable educators. Needless to say, not everyone can teach, regardless of how well they know their subject matter. Merely possessing a mastery of a subject does not qualify someone to teach it. Teaching is a very difficult task. Imparting knowledge and experience to another person requires not only mastery of the subject matter, but also mastery of the communication of knowledge.

Teaching translation is a very labor-intensive process, since each student's weekly assignments have to be evaluated in great detail and with extreme precision. In addition, course materials should not be recycled; the translation profession change too quickly to allow last year's translation texts to be used more than perhaps a couple of years in a row. Having students work on patents from five years ago may mean they will not learn the currently accepted format for a patent; having students work on a hardware or software manual from even three years ago will deny them much needed current terminology and subject knowledge. The same obviously holds for all subject areas. And by extension, the same will hold for any tests the students take.

Translation faculty must as a result have considerable time and enthusiasm for their subject, as well as intimate familiarity with the current state of affairs in the industry. This does not mean, however, that faculty should be working professionals who just happen to teach a few classes here and there. Students require and deserve full-time attention, meaning that faculty at best should be doing part-time work as freelance translators. As an aside, I do teach one translation course each spring (entitled "The Business of Translation"); one of the reasons I do not teach more than that is my freelance business doesn't allow me to. Covering the demands of my clients and the needs of the students in that one class pretty much absorbs all my working time. To teach more than that would, for me at least, be irresponsible.

Finally, we have the issue of the administration of a translation program. Again, the people involved in running the program should have experience in the translation profession, as well as considerable ability to manage and oversee an academic program. This may seem obvious, but it bears mentioning because the supply of such people is sufficiently small that some programs do not have such people in their administrative ranks. While having any administrator is arguably better than canceling a program, the limitations of someone who does not know the translation profession in a position of authority in a translation program can lead to misunderstandings about the time, money, and academic resources (e.g.: dictionaries, glossaries, software) that such a program requires.

Is This The Best We Can Do?

The above approach has been in use for thousands of years, give or take a bit of technology. The Thebes School of Scribes did not have the Internet, word processors, or MAT to contend with, but their methodology was roughly the same. Though I agree that practice is an essential element of training translators, I am convinced that other forms of learning should play an integral role.

First, the volume of translation. Students who spend one or two years translating a thousand words per week are wholly unprepared for the daily demands of professional translation. The average translator produces in the neighborhood of two- to three-thousand words per day, with many doing considerably more. While students should certainly on occasion study one short text very intently as an exercise in learning how to analyze and parse a text, then create the best translation possible, they should also work on translating a normal day's work for a practicing translator.

Students need to acquire the speed and accuracy of a professional. This includes learning to type quickly, knowing how to work efficiently in current software applications and on the Web, and understanding what to do when a text does not yield to translation, whether because the printing is illegible or the writing is unintelligible. Translators who lack these skills will find the market unwelcoming and uncomfortable.

Translation students also need to become very comfortable in the subject field or fields they will work in. Because most translators lack a thorough education in anything other than their languages, part of their education should include subject knowledge. This cannot come directly from the translation texts themselves, as the students simply do not generally translate texts of sufficient length or depth. Developing a thorough understanding of computer science by reading 1,000 words per week on the subject is just not possible. So content coursework, presented in both of the student's languages should be integrated into any translation program.

What's more, professional translators specialize. No translator works in every subject area; it is simply not practical to try to develop that much expertise and linguistic knowledge in that many subjects. Translators generally focus on a few related subject areas, depending on their backgrounds and interests, then cultivate their specialized knowledge and language skills so as to tailor them for translation in those fields. The same should occur in a translation program. After an introductory period of basic translation exercises and development of secondary skills like word processing and terminology management, students should pick a subject area and focus on that. A translation program should therefore offer academic tracks—such as in medicine, law, social science, natural science, finance, computers/localization, the specific breakdown does not matter—then work through both a concerted study of general material on those subjects, in both of the student translator's languages, of course, as well as translation exercises based on what the market is having translators do in those areas. This will not only develop their subject knowledge to a point at which they can confidently approach a text, but will also provide them with the terminology and knowledge of writing style necessary to create an accurate, readable translation.

Subject fields should be selected based on what the market is demanding from translators. Certain fields, like computers/localization, are strong enough for all major languages that they should exist for all translation students. It may not be practical, however, to have certain translation languages working on certain subjects. For instance, how much medical research or fundamental science is done in Vietnam? Certainly some, but not enough to justify a Vietnamese-English translation student specializing in that area. The task of the translation school is to prepare translation students for the real world, so subject areas should be selected and developed in accordance with the market in the translation industry.

Therefore, having all students in all language combinations work through the same set of exercises in broad categories of experience is not practical or fair to the students. A student with no interest in financial translation who is studying a language combination with minimal demands for such work will not benefit from such efforts as much as she might from doing more in an area that interests her and is in demand. Similarly, the market rarely if ever asks for translators who simply have a smattering of ability and familiarity with a wide range of texts, so graduating students who fit that description is less efficient than graduating students who can handle one subject very well.

Next, technology. Different programs integrate various computer technologies and translation tools into the curriculum, with each language combination often functioning as a separate entity, and therefore each student getting a different level of training with these technologies. All students need to know how to do high-level word processing, basic DTP and HTML work, as well as deal with terminology and glossary databases, and MAT/MT tools. These technologies should be introduced through special classes, of course, but then should be a part of the daily translation curriculum. Students should be expected to create complex word-processing documents for their translations, to do database and terminology projects, to deal with HTML files, and even to open and translate text strings within software code. This will prepare them for the demands of the translation industry. Anything less will simply give them more to learn after they graduate, defeating the purpose of the training they have paid for and worked through.

Finally, theory. I realize there is as yet no well-developed theory of translation, but there is certainly enough theory within linguistics and psychology on the subjects of language, terminology, and such that translation students would benefit from an introduction to this kind of material as a way to ground them in what it is they are doing and give them some broad, general ideas of how to approach a text and translate it well. Too much theory is unnecessary, and each program, depending on its duration, will have to decide how much is sufficient. But no theory at all will leave translation students without a model to use to unify their knowledge and develop a deeper understanding and appreciation for their work.

Special Considerations

There are within teaching translators some particular issues that bear mentioning. First has to do with student background. In other words: what is the proper academic background for a student of translation to have? At the very least, most translation students seem to benefit from having had formal training in their foreign languages, including intensive study of reading and writing. Also, extensive experience writing in their native languages is very beneficial, whether had through courses such as a college English class or its equivalent or the study of journalism, such experience prepares the future translator to write quickly and effectively in a variety of styles.

The second issue is whether to train translators by having them work into their native and foreign languages, or just into their native language. Since virtually no translator actually translates professionally into any language other than their native language (their A language), formal study by actually translating material into translators' foreign language or languages (their B languages) seems like a less than effective use of time, not only for the students but also for the teachers. Rather than having a translation student struggle to create a good translation in the B language, the student would be better served by developing more insight and understanding into the B languages through reading, terminology acquisition, cultural training, and subject area familiarization. In the same vein, the teachers would have more time to focus on nurturing in their students translation and writing skills that the students will use as professionals, rather than merely correcting and explaining the subtleties of idiom and usage in the students' B language.

Related to this issue is the nature of classroom assignments. Having all the students work on the same assignment often results in the students collaborating to produce their individual translations. Non-native speakers may have their work corrected by native speakers, terminology research becomes a shared endeavor, and background research is done in teams. While this situation is not inherently bad, it does limit how well faculty can judge individual student's ability and progress, not to mention creating problems in grading. So I suggest that at least some translation assignments be similar to real-world assignments: have the students work on a large document, with each student translating a portion of it. This way the students can still share the burdern of terminology and background research but at the same time can meet the challenge of crafting a good translation on their own.

Third is the faculty itself. Excellent faculty is vital in an academic undertaking like training translators. The faculty should be experienced translators themselves, having done work in the subject areas they plan to teach. Since continuity in training is an essential element for the successful education of translators, the faculty should make a long-term commitment to their institution and students, and conversely, the administration should do likewise for its faculty. There are too many stories of programs whose faculty changes in its entirety every year or two; the amount of time and effort involved in such a change-over hinders student learning, wastes limited resources in the translation program, and generally results in a reduction of quality in the program. Solutions to these problems lie in the administration of translation programs, a subject beyond the scope of this article. It is merely my hope that people involved with the administration of these programs will try to see the effects of their actions from the students' perspective.

Finally comes the issue of graduation testing. Many programs require students to pass a battery of graduation exams. This process seems a traditional element in many forms of training, and perhaps is intended to serve as a form of licensure or accreditation for alumni of the translation programs. I feel, however, that such exams are a poor use of time and resources. Rather than devoting weeks to preparing such exams, finding suitable material and testing sites, then implementing the exams, and evaluating the results, the students should instead spend their time in the classroom, undergoing nothing more than the routine testing that comprises a natural part of all formal education. I have already written about the considerably difficulties associated with creating and carrying out accreditation exams in a separate article and am convinced that the same basic problems plague graduation exams. By the end of a year or two of academic training, faculty should know if the students are or are not ready to enter the profession and then advise the students accordingly. To deny a student a certificate or diploma based solely on his or her performance on one graduation exam seems unfair and counter-productive.

As an aside, some programs require translation students to do some form of project for graduation, perhaps a lengthy translation of material the student is interested in, research on terminology, the preparation of a glossary, or an investigation into an important issue in the profession. Such endeavors, if relevant to the students' overall studies, can enhance the students' understanding and preparation for a career in translation, not to mention adding to the available resources within the translation industry itself. So as long as such projects are integrated into the translation program as a whole and are amply supported by the faculty and administration, precisely defined in the curriculum, and recognized as a significant stage in the students' training, such graduation projects will have value and should continue.

Can We Do It?

The basic problem facing any translation training program is money. Training translators is very labor intensive and offers little in the way of economies of scale. In addition, implementing some or all of the ideas above would only increase costs. And since the translation profession does not offer particularly high income potential, tuition costs must be kept under control. We have, as a result, a not inconsiderable problem, one for which I have a few suggestions.

First and foremost, get the translation and localization industries involved. Many translation vendors and agencies seem to want some form of translation accreditation as a way to verify that a translator can actually translate. Graduation from a credible, viable training program would serve this purpose. So the industry ought to consider putting its money where its mouth is and contributing both in time and effort to the training of translators. This can be done in a number of ways.

One, provide technology. More and more translation vendors, localization firms in particular, want translators with very specific technical skills, such as facility with MT and MAT systems, familiarity with programming languages like Java and C++, skill with software like DTP packages and word-processors. Many of these organizations have such software and the hardware to run it, often they have left-over systems that no longer fill any need. These systems could be donated as an educational grant, contributed as some form of technology transfer, or even sold at very low cost to translation training programs.

Moreover, translation training programs would make outstanding beta test sites for localization and MT/MAT products. A clean beta of the next version of Trados or TM2 could be given a very extensive shake-down in a translation school, where students would both learn about the systems and help improve them. This would not only provide the students with training on the forthcoming systems, but would give the manufacturers of these products a pool of highly capable linguists and translators as testers. In addition, problems with interface design, the handling of terminology, and the integration of terminology, translation memory, version control, and so forth would also be addressed by precisely the people who will be using the systems. Perhaps there is something about this idea that is not what it seems, but to me this appears to be a classic case of win-win.

Two, provide educational grants or other support, in the form of scholarships, internships, and even work-for-hire (that is, you work for us for 2 years after we pay for your education, or something like that). Internships have so much obvious value, and are a growing part of the relationship between industry and translation training programs that little need be said about them here. Scholarships, a form of corporate charity often discussed but infrequently implemented, represent a logical next step. And work-for-hire, or whatever you want to call it, is a time-honored tradition in many fields, so adding this option for the training of translators seems reasonable.

Second, there are the governments, federal and state, as well as various NGOs and other international organizations. If the United Nations, the WTO, IMF, along with the U.S. State Dept. and intelligence community, as well as various state governments want good translators, they should contribute to the process of creating them. Again, contributions here does not necessarily mean money. It can mean training materials (what better way for a translation training program to get good study material than to get it from the people who hire the graduates?); technology (as with industry, these organizations often have equipment they just don't want or need; it might as well go to good use rather than taking up space in landfills); and even people (why not have full-time translators at these organizations be available, at least occasionally, as advisors, consultants, or guest lecturers?). Again, the idea is to get all parties involved to cooperate for each other's benefit.

There are undoubtedly many other ways to create mutually-beneficial relationships between the programs that train translators and the businesses that employ them. The point here is that both sides stand to benefit from active cooperation with each other, and any idea that plays to so-called enlightened self-interest stands a greater probability of being implemented. So if you are a part of a company that hires or is looking to hire translators, consider contacting one of more of the translation programs in the U.S. and contributing to the training of translators. You will after all get what you pay for. And if you are involved in training translators, I hope you will solicit the active participation of local companies that hire translators.

Thinking About It

Training translators is not an academic endeavor and should not be compared to Ph.D. study in linguistics or literature. Instead, it is professional training, similar perhaps to training computer programmers or accountants. While there are many programs in the United States offering one form or another of such training, and this number is rising, there are enough disgruntled graduates of such programs and confused perspective students that a few words on how to choose the right program seems appropriate.

First, talk to the current students and recent graduates. See what they say about the program. Make certain you are not getting propaganda or the party line by talking to a few people. Read articles about the profession in general (this series might be useful in this regard) so that you can ask intelligent questions and understand the answers you are given. Also talk to potential employers, be they translation agencies and vendors, localization firms, or the government, to find out what kind of training you should have.

Second, talk to the faculty and administration. Do not be shy, coy, or cute. You are interviewing them, and the best way to avoid disappointment and frustration in the future is to ask the bold questions now. Query them about every aspect of the program: admissions requirements, graduation requirements, faculty backgrounds, continuity in the faculty, campus language resources, career placement resources, and statistics on what graduates are doing. Do not accept vague generalizations like "our faculty is very committed." You want specific numbers like "Professor X has taught here for three years after fifteen years in technical translation" and "All of last year's graduates are now employed, with an average starting salary of $36,500." If you don't want to make a mistake, you have to ask these kinds of questions and demand precise, specific, concrete answers.

Third, consider the structure and nature of the program. How long does it take? What kind of degree or certification do you receive at the end? Is that degree or certification respected in the industry? What classes will you take? Does the coursework reflect your interests while giving you the training you need to succeed in the translation industry? Coursework should ideally include some formal training in theory and terminology, practice translating documents into your native language in subject areas that the industry currently hires people to work in, practice using current MT/MAT technology and other software tools common in translation work, and at least one class on the practical side of being a translator, in other words a class that covers business and other professional issues.

Finally, weigh carefully the benefits of the program against the costs. Try to figure out if the program truly advances your career enough to justify the investment of time and money. A translation program prepares you to be a translator, and not a whole lot else. You should therefore be quite comfortable in your decision to enter the translation profession and rather convinced that the training program will accelerate your entry and progress. You can always wait an extra year to start if you are uncertain; you cannot get back your tuition or the time you spent in the program.

Final Remarks

This article is not meant to be a commentary on existing translation programs or any individual at any such program. Instead I hope it provides some insight into the issues surrounding the training of translators, particularly the classroom methodologies in use and what might be implemented in the future, as well as means to make such programs affordable and maximally beneficial to the students.

I hope this article is particularly useful to people involved in training translators and to individuals considering attending a training program. I would welcome comments, corrections, or suggestions from current students and graduates of the existing programs, from faculty and administration at such programs, and from employers who have hired graduates of such programs or have some formal relationship, whether through internships, technology transfers, or financial support, with such programs. Finally, I hope this article will spur interest in creating better training programs for translators and raising the overall level of translation quality in the industry.

 



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