Perspectives: Translation education: A three-legged table

Over the last few years, the need has become acute to adapt educational practice in universities to rapidly-changing translation market requirements. Nevertheless, almost everywhere, translation teaching is still based on a trial-and-error approach, reflecting the teacher’s self-deemed superior wisdom and the attempt to duplicate knowledge in the students’ minds.

Translation buyers and employers have clear expectations of new graduates in translation: to them, universities often fall short of meeting their expectations regarding the skills and preparation for being in the workplace. The main obstacles encountered when hiring graduates are their lack of preparation for dealing with specialized translation, terminology management and information technology and a narrow exposure to culture. And, additionally, an inability to organize themselves autonomously, to work independently or in teams, to solve problems, or to establish and effectively manage social relations on the job.

In the traditional translation education scenario, the in-class instructional process is largely reduced to homework review: the teacher essentially identifies the errors in students’ drafts and provides “correct” solutions to translation problems. The teacher is supposed to possess absolute knowledge of how to translate, while translator competence actually emerges as the result of the collaborative completion of authentic translation work.

Despite the growth of the localization industry on a global scale, especially in the Old Continent, translator education cannot keep pace with the advances outside the closed rooms of the academy. This is especially true for Italy, which is lagging behind other countries in Europe for educational, professional and technological resources, even though its three major vocational faculties participate in the European Commission’s European Master’s in Translation (EMT) program. EMT is an initiative launched in 2006 to gather European universities around a common educational framework for a master’s degree in translation. The network was officially formed in December 2009, with 54 universities participating today in 20 European countries.

EMT’s main goal is to create a quality label in translator training and to “produce translators competent in all aspects of translation service provision, including marketing, customer relations, time and budget management and invoicing, as well as training in new technologies and specialist fields.”

According to the EMT expert group, the participating universities should prepare experts in multilingual and multimedia communication as well as professional translators. Beyond the typical language and cultural competencies, additional competencies should range from information mining to translation service provision competencies. These, in turn, should consist of marketing, negotiation, collection and specification of requirements, time management, pricing, project management, teamwork and team building.

From a technological perspective, the EMT expert group also indicated as pivotal the ability to effectively use and integrate a wide range of translation software tools, as well as the ability to productively interact with database management and multi-media systems.

Unfortunately, there is virtually no trace of any of these topics in the programs of the participating universities, most of which are still shaped in the traditional literary molds. Some of these are tentatively addressing translation automation technologies, but attempts are left to the goodwill of often-isolated researchers, usually confined at the outskirts of the academy realms and watched with detachment if not with suspicion. It could not be otherwise, given the limited renovation of professors and their almost non-existent requalification on translation technologies and trends.

The EMT initiative itself has apparently been conceived by old-fashioned translation scholars who actually know little to nothing of the evolving reality of the industry. Translation tools are evolving fast. One such tool is machine translation (MT), and the big factor for making MT systems profitable and convenient is reducing ambiguity in the source text. In the future, many translators who are not using MT to preprocess their jobs will be doing too much work.

Innovation and employability were also pivotal in EMT’s strategic plan for 2012. Under innovation, the board lists transcreation, intercultural project management, creative writing, journalism,
statistical, rule-based and hybrid machine translation, wikification, editing, multimedia texts and authoring of texts. As to employability, according to the EMT board, convergence must be studied between journalism, technical writing, multilingual documentation and translation studies, web science, internet studies, adaptation studies, transfer studies and intercultural studies. Welcome to the present. This convergence, in fact, has already occurred and is in progress. It is missing only on the academic side. And most of the listed innovations are actually distant hopes in many an EMT university.

Globalization has become a synonym for commoditization of work, including knowledge work. In this framework, universities should be the place for continuing education, incubators of new ideas, approaches and solutions. Unfortunately, for a few years, universities have become sterile conservatories for accepted ideas, and the level of expertise offered by graduates is in fact far from the realities and requirements of the workplace. This does not mean that universities should churn out instantly productive professionals like so many human widgets, yet students should not be considered only diploma products either. On the other hand, the unemployment rates all over Europe confirm that certificates and diplomas alone are tickets to nowhere.

As business is the mainstay of modern translation practice, to help the development of translator competence, and the comprehension of all aspects of the translation process, learning should be processed within the context of real translation projects. Universities should embrace project-based learning for translation courses, asking students to team up, work together, take on social responsibilities and find solutions to real problems.

Gaming is a fundamental ingredient in learning, and to help students achieve a professional-like level of autonomy and expertise, they should become involved in the collaborative undertaking of authentic translation projects for real customers. Connections can be made with the real world in having students participate in a business game around actual projects. Translators without Borders, the open source movement, and the crowdsourcing and social translation phenomena are all perfect examples of workshops where universities could forge new multilingual professionals while being active in helpful initiatives and actual innovation.

Language service providers (LSPs) must also do their part. If they look for reliable, skilled and proficient resources, they can only resort to established professionals who require to be adequately remunerated. Or they can recruit, train and retain young graduates and take on the relevant costs and risks as part of their business. LSPs typically complain that the university doesn’t prepare for the market, but the market changes and the market requirements are different from one market segment to the other. On the other hand, LSPs are often on the forefront of admitting that one does not necessarily have to study translation to be a translator.

Today, translation competence is a three-legged table based on data, tools and knowledge; it is less and less a question of broad language knowledge and more one of understanding how to use what you know and the right tools to exploit it. These three legs must be of the same length, then grow on par, for the table not to wobble.

A widespread agreement exists within the translation industry that translators must specialize because LSPs are increasingly focused on specific subject areas to meet customer demands. However, the rapid growth of information, knowledge, translation technology and terminology resources are reshaping the nature and meaning of specialization. In his bestselling book You Are Not a Gadget: A Manifesto, Jaron Lanier wrote: “Any skill, no matter how difficult to acquire, can become obsolete when the machines improve.” In translation, because there is no common core of education, or common standard of knowledge, or achievement, the so-called specialist translator might not even have the basic language skills and knowledge of the generalist.

Therefore, rather than simply complaining about the lack of qualified resources and blame translation schools, employers must reconsider their notion of the perfect candidate. Instead, they should look for individuals who can grow into model employees for their companies, including current staff, and integrate the education of new translators with post-graduate courses, workshops, conferences and webinars for free or at discounted charges.