Perspectives from translation program graduates

Ten years. It seems like yesterday. And yet ten years ago, the world was still reeling from the devastating one-two punch of the tech bubble implosion and the 9/11 attack on the Twin Towers. Both events had a chilling effect on the economy. The language industry did not escape the global slow down as companies reassessed their globalization strategies, axed important projects and choked off important revenue to a nascent industry with already thin margins. Some language services providers took a direct hit. Most spectacularly, Lernout & Hauspie, once a language industry superstar, crashed and burned in October 2001. Many other companies struggled to keep afloat, and major players such as Bowne Global disappeared. Optimism was at an all-time low; layoffs and rumors of layoffs cast a dreary pall over the industry.
In Canada, however, where federal language policy plays a key role in creating the demand for language services, a quiet campaign to put the language industry on the map finally started to show results. Bureaucracy-bound, the campaign moved at glacier speed. The upside of glaciers? They’re hard to stop once they get moving.
So, despite the dreary economic context, in 2002, Canada proudly announced the creation of one of the first master’s programs in localization, offered at Université du Québec en Outaouais (UQO), and an innovative undergraduate localization certificate created under the aegis of the translation program and offered by the continuing education faculty at Université de Montréal (UdeM). In 2003, for the first time ever, the federal government recognized the importance of the language services by allocating funds for the creation of an industry association.
The excitement of those years has since evaporated. In 2007, UdeM summarily decided to yank the localization certificate program. The master’s program at UQO has been mothballed.
Fast forward to 2012, when the students who enrolled in the new programs have long since left school and joined the work force. As the former director and instructor in the now-defunct localization certificate program at UdeM, I had the pleasure of meeting many of these translation students cum pioneers. Recently, some of them generously offered to share their experiences as students and as professionals — food for thought for current and future translation students destined for careers in the language industry.
A career in translation was not Sébastien Adhikari’s first choice. Naturally curious and attracted by the sciences, he imagined a future in engineering. But this is a highly competitive field, and the polytechnic passed on his application. Disappointed but undaunted, he considered a degree in mathematics, but the idea of spending years writing proofs to then wind up in academia didn’t appeal to him. Of the programs still open for enrollment, the baccalaureate in translation caught his attention.
The first thing he learned? A career in translation was ideally suited to his curious nature and his innate linguistic aptitude. He graduated with a BA in Translation (technical concentration) in 1994 and landed a series of in-house positions in the insurance and financial services fields.
In 2004, his career at a plateau, he was anxious to “move to the next level.” He let his curiosity guide him to a presentation on localization offered at the annual meeting of OTTIAQ, the professional order of translators in Quebec. Sold! He enthusiastically enrolled in UdeM’s certificate program.
Unfortunately, the exciting career possibilities suggested by the certificate program, in particular the introduction to internationalization taught by Pierre Cadieux, proved to be largely theoretical. Adhikari expected to find more job opportunities in localization and even internationalization. In his experience, he says, Canadian companies are still dragging their feet about adopting such processes.
Recently, again sensing that he had reached another plateau, Adhikari left the security of in-house positions to go freelance. Despite certain disappointments, he seems very optimistic about the future and anxious to tackle the challenges of a solopreneur in the language industry. “I think it’s a pretty vigorous field,” he said but, laughing, admitted, “I don’t have any empirical evidence for that!”
Like Adhikari, André Jodoin had a decided scientific bent. He enrolled at the polytechnic but decided that it wasn’t really for him. Unsure what direction to take, he enrolled in a certificate program in arts and sciences at UdeM, then a second in electronic business solutions at L’Université du Québec à Montréal, a program more in line with his interests. A simple plan began to emerge: complete a third certificate to receive a cumulative baccalaureate. His mother, France Jodoin, who at the age of 52 completed her baccalaureate in translation, led him to consider the localization certificate program at UdeM. “She saw a bright future for this field and understood that combining languages and IT would interest me.” Turns out, Mom was right! Jodoin quickly made an impression on one instructor, Mourad Amine, an engineering line manager at SDL, who took Jodoin under his wing and secured an internship for him at the Montreal office of SDL. The internship turned into a two-year stint at the company as a computer-aided translation (CAT) technician, a position that included providing training on SDLX. Jodoin currently works at GAT as the CAT/desktop publishing team lead.
While Jodoin believed that his baccalaureate would demonstrate a marketable versatility, he doubted that he would have much luck finding work in his chosen field. “I had the impression that there were very few agencies that needed or had the money to hire a full-time CAT expert,” he wrote in an e-mail. “This autumn, I was approached three times on LinkedIn. My perspective has changed. The translation world is in constant evolution, and to stay competitive and profitable, agencies have no choice but to use translation tools.”
Caroline St-Onge always had a flair for languages, but as an administrative assistant, she wasn’t exploiting her talents fully. At 26, she decided to go back to school and make better use of her strengths. She completed the certificate programs I and II in translation at UdeM in 2007. Her first job as a language professional was in copyediting. Her employer quickly recognized her skills, and in less than a year, St-Onge was entrusted with translation. Although she imagined working freelance eventually, she felt confident enough to make the leap much faster than anticipated. In 2010, she launched Verbophile, a microenterprise that offers revision and adaptation as well as translation services, and has never looked back.
“I’m really fulfilled by this new profession,” she wrote in an e-mail. “I earn a very good living and appreciate the multiple aspects of my work: project management, translation in itself, accounting and business development. I find validation in the fact that my results are directly proportional to my efforts.”
St-Onge attributes her success to two factors. First, she praised the course content at UdeM even if she would like to have seen an internship added as a requirement. Secondly, she stresses the importance of an in-house experience under the tutelage of a seasoned reviser. For St-Onge, embarking on a career in translation “was the best decision I ever made.” In the future, she hopes to become a mentor within her professional order.
As a student, Maude Doucet, a confirmed linguaphile, discovered that she also had a strong interest in and aptitude for the IT side of the translation process. Having completed her baccalaureate in translation in 2004 at UdeM, she enrolled in the localization certificate program to further explore this new IT-related field. To fulfill the requirements, she sought an internship by literally going door to door visiting local translation agencies that advertised localization services. She was stunned to discover some of them were a tad fuzzy on what localization actually entailed. Finally, she knocked on the door at Traductions Serge Bélair Inc. (TRSB) and found Michele Lamarche, a seasoned localization professional and a supportive and skilled mentor. At first a little reticent to take on an intern, TRSB took a chance on Doucet. Lamarche made sure that Doucet gained the necessary experience to stay on full-time. At first, Doucet split her time between translation and CAT/localization tasks, but she eventually concentrated full-time on the latter.
Doucet admits that her university studies gave her the confidence to pursue a career in translation; however, the degree program did not prepare her for actually doing the job. Her experience at TRSB provided the key complement to her formal studies. After more than six years as a localization and CAT technician at TRSB, Doucet accepted a promotion to team lead, a challenge that she relishes even if it’s a little scary. Although she has nothing to compare it to, she enjoys her work, her team and the company, and has enjoyed participating in a multitude of changes at TRSB. She regrets a little that her work is not more multilingual — TRSB specializes in Canada’s official languages — and that there is more CAT than localization to do. That said, she is pleased to have significantly deepened her understanding of CAT tools, and she hasn’t let her education in localization lapse. In 2008, Doucet earned certification as a localization professional from The Localization Institute.
Alexandre Bujold also works at TRSB; however, he arrived there by a more circuitous path. Armed with a baccalaureate (a major in political science and a minor in arts and sciences) from UdeM, Bujold realized that finding a job might be a challenge. Linguistically agile, he thought translation would be a more “concrete” way to apply his studies. He enrolled in the translation certificate I at UdeM with the intention of pursuing a master’s. The freedom of a freelance career tempted him, but life had other plans. In 2006, he accepted a job at Lionbridge as a project manager.
Like several of the students interviewed, Bujold discovered that while he loved languages and translation, his strengths lay elsewhere. “I’m not a great translator,” he said, “but I know if a translation is good.” He enjoys variety in his work, the innate diversity of project management and pitching in on revision and desktop publishing if necessary. After a little over three years at Lionbridge, Bujold left to join the team at AD-COM, a much smaller, diversified language provider, then five months ago took a position at TRSB. Although he is by nature optimistic, the “mcdonald-ization” (commoditization) of language services concerns Bujold. Not only does the trend threaten the pricing structure for services, he said, but quality also suffers.
Translation is a second career for Fabien Côté. First a programmer, then a sales professional in the IT sector, he wearied of battling the innate conservatism of big organizations. He wanted more independence, more control over his professional life. In 2004, Côté enrolled in the undergraduate translation program at UdeM, where he discovered the brave new world of localization, and simultaneously pursued a freelance career as a translator. Even before he graduated in 2009, the freelance life had lost its appeal, and he was looking for new challenges.
In 2008, he founded his own translation company, Trans-IT Translations, Inc. Understanding the importance of clear positioning and with a solid background in the field, Côté chose to specialize in the language service demands of the IT sector. Trans-IT also garners a fair amount of business from the federal government. The company has weathered the economic downturn and is now well-positioned for expansion. During our interview, the smell of fresh paint hung in the air as construction was underway to enlarge the office space.
As a freelancer and now business owner and employer, Côté places a high premium on formal university education in translation, professional accreditation and continuous professional development. He described the curriculum at UdeM as “not perfect but very good.” Since so many translators are freelancers, he believes that small business management would be a useful addition to the curriculum. He stresses the importance of the professional order for translators and the necessity to continually sharpen their skills.
Raised in Algeria, Yasmina Ait Ali is not only a linguaphile but an impressive polyglot. She speaks Berber, French, Arabic, English and Spanish. For her, translation was an obvious career choice. In 2009, she graduated with a baccalaureate in translation from UdeM. After graduation, Ait Ali moved to Gatineau and worked freelance for two months while seeking full-time employment. In 2010, she accepted a position at The Masha Krupp Translation Group Ltd. and nine months later joined the staff at Fox Translations Ltd.
As a student, Ait Ali dreamed of traveling widely to discover new cultures, interpreting or teaching languages in poor communities, writing books, working for international organizations and working freelance. To date, her professional experiences have fallen somewhat short of her dreams. “I thought that translation was a pleasure, a pleasure to discover and help others discover by transmitting content in a language they understand,” she wrote. “The professional reality: translation is assembly line work.” She decries the intense pressure to produce volume, not only for translators but also for revisers whose role she doesn’t always appreciate.
She feels that her studies did not adequately prepare her for the real world of work, admitting that no academic program alone can create a professional. That said, the participation of a wide range of language professionals invited to share their experiences in the professional realities course did open her eyes to the possibilities in the translation field. Still, for Ait Ali, it’s on the job every day that you really learn.
Despite some disappointment, Ait Ali describes herself as “a born translator” and believes in the value of the translation profession. She also remains optimistic about the future. Ait Ali plans to launch her own language services company very soon and is preparing for accreditation by the professional order.
Older, wiser but still committed to their choice to work in the language industry, my former students seemed to agree on the importance of a formal university education even with all its flaws. Naturally curious, they all value opportunities to grow in their careers and recognize the value of continuous professional development through participation in professional orders or associations, as well as the role played by mentors. Finally, despite a sluggish economy and some of the negative aspects inherent in the field, all of them seem to be satisfied with their career choices and optimistic about the future.