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Navigating in a New Era: What Kind of Education and Training for Translators?

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Eileen B. Hennessy photoIn the new era of industrial translation environment in which we industrial (i.e., non-literary) translators are now operating, translated text has moved from paper to a screen, and much of it comes forth, ready made, from the storage yard of computer memory, needing only to be edited and supplemented to fit a particular context.

In this new era, there is likely thus to be less need for the translator-writer of the past, and an increasing need for skilled copyeditors and proofreaders.
In this new era, there is likely thus to be less need for the translator-writer of the past, and an increasing need for skilled copyeditors and proofreaders (perhaps with project management skills as well) of computer-produced material who have in addition some knowledge of other languages and good computer skills. This sea-change will require changes in how the translation profession is presented to candidates interested in pursuing translation as a career, and changes in how they are educated and trained.

It is axiomatic in the publishing industry that for various reasons writers often (but not always) make poor editors and proofreaders. Career counselors and academic advisement personnel for translator education programs will need to present an accurate picture of the opportunities offered by the new-era industrial translation profession so that candidates focused on translation-as-writing can be made aware of their need to develop other types of skills, while computer specialists, fact-checkers, proofreaders, and copyeditors who possess in addition an interest in and knowledge of languages and translation will not be unnecessarily advised out.

Education and training of industrial translators are complicated by the fact that the ways in which we work, our language pairs, and our subject specializations differ widely. Some of us are full-time or part-time free-lance professional translators, some of us do occasional translations as part of our jobs in industry, business, the law, or the sciences. Some of us may work in-house for translation companies, some of us for international organizations or national/local government agencies. Some of us still translate chiefly "from scratch," others with the help of CAT tools, still others use either method, depending on client needs. Some of us refuse to do editing, others are willing to pre-edit, post-edit, and proofread translations produced by humans or by machines. Finally, some of us perform some of or all these activities in varying proportions.

Is it possible to create education programs that will meet the needs of such a wildly disparate group?

I believe it is time for all of us involved with translation to begin discussions and exchanges of opinion about the new modes of education and training that will be necessary. In the hope of initiating such a discussion, I am going to put down here a few thoughts in the form of questions that have occurred to me, based on my 45 years of experience as a full-time professional translator-writer, 23 years as an adjunct associate professor in the translation studies program at New York University, and two (to date) years as a student in an editing/proofreading training program at NYU.

  1. What percentage of the curriculum should be devoted to the study of translation theory?
  2. What percentage should be devoted to hands-on workshops in:
    • Translating "from scratch" (translating as writing)?
    • Learning the fundamentals of copy editing/proofreading/fact-checking?
    • Learning to copyedit/proofread/fact-check translations produced by humans, machine translation programs, and CAT tools?
  3. What percentage should be devoted to learning to work with CAT tools? Should students be introduced to all the leading tools, or to only the one(s) most commonly used by translation companies (which at the present time seem to be their chief users)?
  4. Should a workshop in localization be part of the curriculum? If so, should it be a core course or an elective?
  5. What type of terminology and subject-specialty research training is most suitable for translators? What are the best methods for teaching translators on-line and real-world research techniques? What percentage of the program should be devoted to them?
  6. What is the place of a course in ethics for translators? While we translators are less likely than our cousins the interpreters to find ourselves in situations requiring decisions of conscience, given recent developments in the corporate and government environments such a course might be advisable for translators as well.
  7. Assuming that translating-as-writing, copyediting/proofreading, working with CAT tools, and terminology and subject-specialty research are determined to be the four core areas of a good education program, should all students, even those with very specific and limited professional needs, be required to take courses in all of them? Consider, for example, a student who is called upon from time to time to do translations-from-scratch as one part of his/her job in a corporate environment, and who will probably never have occasion to work with a CAT tool. Should he/she nevertheless be required to take a course in this core area?
  8. What should be the respective roles of certificate programs and degree-granting programs?
  9. How can the role played by one-day and weekend workshops be strengthened?
  10. What previous education and training should be required of candidates for admission to translator education programs?
  11. Among what occupational groups would potential instructors in an education program best be sought? Translators from both the writing and CAT-tool ends of the scale? Professional editors/proofreaders, possibly with some knowledge (e.g., through high school and college language courses, residence in other countries) of one or more foreign languages? Project managers for translation companies? Employees of the companies that manufacture CAT-tool and computer-translation programs? Translators who can perform several of these functions? Is team-teaching of courses the best approach, given the complexity of modern industrial-translation practice?

Translation-as-writing is not going to vanish from the world of industrial translation. But a large part of the sea-change under way involves the need for professionals involved in translator education to realize and accept its diminishing role. The old-time translator who was able to produce a high-quality translation quickly because terminology, idioms, and sentence structures had become burned into his/her brain through long years of translating "from scratch," and whose fingers flew as rapidly across the keyboard as the words and sentences flashed through his mind, may become something of a rarity. Translators whose activity consists primarily of editing canned text produced from computer storage yards do not have the opportunity to develop that type of ability, and this will need to be taken into consideration in education programs.

Two other factors need to be considered in connection with training in the use of CAT tools. New-era translations can take longer to produce, because working with these tools requires time-consuming sequences of keyboard and mouse movements, and because more hands are involved in stirring the pot. The quality of the resulting stew can at times be inferior to the translation that would have been produced by an experienced translator-writer working with an ordinary word-processing program. These realities need to be kept in mind by educators as well as by translators and translation companies, and brought to the attention of students and translation clients.

Many of the existing training and education programs, even those that include courses in the computer aspects of the profession, appear to be still emphasizing development of translation-as-writing capabilities, perhaps because their directors and instructors are products of the earlier generation of education programs. It would seem, then, that a changing of the educator guard may also be necessary. To paraphrase the old joke: "How many horseshoeing experts are needed to change the tires of a car?"

This article is being published simultaneously with The Gotham Translator, a publication of the New York Circle of Translators.

Published - December 2008

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