Designing a Hierarchy for In-house Translators: Based on the Dreyfus Model of Skills Acquisition | July 2017 | Translation Journal

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Designing a Hierarchy for In-house Translators: Based on the Dreyfus Model of Skills Acquisition

Abstract - This paper proposes an organizational structure for translators working in organizational environments. This hierarchy is based on the Dreyfus Model of Skills Acquisition as the conceptual framework. In this qualitative study, the methodology to collect and analyze the data takes an inductive approach that draws upon the literature to form the criteria for the different steps in the hierarchy, which provides the basics for the steps along the translator career path (TCP). This path is based on descriptors of expert translator performance and best employees’ practice documented in the literature. Each translator skill will be graded as: novice, advanced beginner, competent, proficient, and expert. Consequently, five levels of translator performance are identified in the TCP as five ranks.The first rank is the intern translator, which is equivalent to the novice level; the second rank is the assistant translator, which is equivalent to the advanced beginner level; the third rank is the associate translator, which is equivalent to the competent level; the fourth rank is the translator, which is equivalent to the proficient level; finally, the fifth rank is the expert translator, which is equivalent to the expert level. The main function of this career path is to guide the processes of translator development in translation organizations. Although it is designed primarily for the need of in-house translators’ supervisors, the TCP can be used in academic settings for translation trainers and teachers.  

Keywords- Dreyfus Model, translation organization, translator career path, translator development, translator evaluation, translator promotion.


The concepts of translation assessment and translator assessment are sometimes treated interchangeably in the translation industry. However, they are vastly different, and each concept has different dimensions. Translation assessment deals with evaluating the final product of the translation process, and it focuses on target language words, phrases, sentences, structure punctuation, layout, and publication type (e.g., House, 2001; Williams, 2004; Giraldo, 2005; Colina, 2008; and Angelelli & Jacobson, 2009).

Translator assessment, by contrast, deals with evaluating the human being who is doing the translation on a professional level. For example, the first dimension of translator evaluation looks at how translators perform their work, the devices they use, the skills they have, the ways in which they develop their skills, the languages they have mastered, and so forth. The second dimension of translator evaluation deals with the personal aspects of translators’ work, including the ways in which translators interact with other stakeholders, how they interact in groups, and how willingly they help others. A comprehensive evaluation of the translator presumes a comprehensive examination of the performance of the translator, not only of his or her translated product. When translator performance is discussed in this paper, the concept comprehensively includes translation competence and other personal abilities and characteristics of the translator.

In sum, translation assessment is only one facet of the comprehensive translator assessment. Yet, organizations that employ translators typically evaluate them based only on their work product. Consequently, this is the main problem to be addressed in this paper.

Translator Performance Development in the Literature

To date, the literature regarding the performance of the translator has paid little attention to comprehensive translator performance that includes translation competence and other personal abilities and characteristics of the translator. Existing studies have considered translator performance only fragmentarily. For example, studies have been carried out on how a translator acquires translation competence (Orozco & Hurtado Albir, 2002), on how to provide a learning environment for translators through scaffolding (Dunne, 2011), and on translator satisfaction and motivation (Rodríguez-Castro, 2011), but no single study has examined translator performance development evaluation comprehensively. It is worth mentioning that the literature has traditionally treated translator performance (including translation competence and abilities to translate) as an abstract concept that is only seen in the translation product.

In the context of translator performance development, studies have shown that that translator development depends on acquiring new skills. It is critical that translators have the opportunity to develop their skills in the workplace if they are to reach the ultimate level of performance, namely that of an expert translator. Expertise studies found that the differences in performance between the best and the least accomplished performers occur in part due to the presence or absence of “a long period of preparatory education followed by an apprenticeship” (Ericsson, 1996, p. 3). Ericsson (1996) further asserts that “Only after many years of further experience are some individuals recognized as experts in the domain” (Ericsson, 1996, p. 3). In the translation expertise domain, for instance, Shreve (2002) states that “it takes ten years or ten thousand hours of practice to become an expert” (p. 151). Moreover, Shreve has focused attention on the fact that developing translator performance is a matter of not only time spent practicing translation tasks, but also time spent on deliberate practice. Deliberate practice with a purpose, feedback, and guidance is necessary for translator performance development. In line with these observations, Dunne (2012) points out that “being a full-time professional translator for years or even decades is not necessarily synonymous with being an expert translator” (p. 157). Furthermore, translators do not just leap from the novice to the expert stage; the development of expertise is a progressive process that occurs over years of deliberate practice (Shreve, 2002). The path from newly hired novice to expert translator presumably encompasses various steps or developmental stages. The Dreyfus model of skills acquisition supports this theory and postulates that when humans develop expertise over their career journey, they go through five stages of skill acquisitions. These stages are novice, advanced beginner, competent, proficient, and expert (Dreyfus, 2004). However, most of the authors in translation studies, among them Jääskeläinen (2010), have focused on examining the expert translator and identifying the differences between the expert and novice translator in terms of skills and strategies applied. Therefore, there is a need for additional work on the intermediate stages of development between the poles of novice and expert translators in the workplace setting. One solution, for example, is creating a translator specific career path.

Having a structured career path with a clear description of translators’ tasks and skills at each level of the path lays the ground for career guidance and objective evaluation of translators. As the Dreyfus model provides the infrastructure for the general stages of human skills acquisitions, it will be used as the backbone for building the translator career path that is presented in this paper.

The Dreyfus Model of Skill Acquisition

In 1980, Hubert Dreyfus and Stuart Dreyfus developed a model of skill acquisition based on their studies of airplane pilots, chess players, automobile drivers, and adult learners of a second language (Dreyfus & Dreyfus, 1980). The core of the idea of the Dreyfus Model of Skill Acquisition is the concept of acquiring new skills while gradually ascending a progression ladder. Their study was supported by the U.S. Air Force Office of Scientific Research, and it was not published. Few people outside of the Office of Scientific Research had access to the results of the study. One person who did have access was Benner, who in her 1982 publication applied the Dreyfus model to the professional development of nurses.

Stuart Dreyfus revisited the model and officially published the results some 24 years later (Dreyfus, 2004). The 2004 Dreyfus model identifies the five levels of skills acquisition as novice, advanced beginner, competent, proficient, and expert. This version of the model is largely cited in publications and is used in this dissertation. The paragraphs that follow provide a brief overview of the stages of the 2004 Dreyfus model. 

The development mode varies in each stage of the 2004 Dreyfus model. Novices, for example, tend to think analytically and to deconstruct a task to its basic elements, which remain context-free. They have difficulty setting priorities; they are personally detached from the task; and their decision making is conscious as opposed to the expert’s intuitive decision making. New employees experience the novice stage informally and through observations or self-teaching. After experiencing the facts and rules of real situations, they move to the advanced beginner stage. They begin to notice similarities with previous situations and events; these similarities enable them to associate facts and rules with context. In the third stage in the Dreyfus Model, the competent stage, individuals recognize the relative importance of both situational and context-free features and use the best and most important ones to solve problems. Here, learners engage in a certain level of creativity and improvisation, exhibiting what the Dreyfus brothers call “emotional investment.” As Stuart Dreyfus (2004) observes, “only at the level of competence is there an emotional investment in the choice of the perspective leading to an action” (p. 179). Competent learners or employees take responsibility in organizing and developing plans to efficiently and effectively achieve goals. The competent stage reflects what cognitive psychologists refer to as problem solving. The final two stages of the Dreyfus model are the proficient and expert stages. In these stages the learners simply know how to do things. In the proficient stage, individuals exhibit effortless understanding by drawing similarities with previous experiences. Another feature of this stage is that individuals increase risk taking and commitment to the outcome. Finally, unconscious decisions and solutions are a feature of the expert stage. At this level the individual absorbs the situation, intuitively knows there is a problem, and effectively makes unconscious decisions on how to proceed to reach the most acceptable outcome for the situation. The most important concept in the 2004 Dreyfus model is that attaining the level of expert performance requires that an individual first proceed sequentially through all of the previous stages of skill acquisition, accumulating experiences and emotional involvement (Dreyfus, 2004).

The Dreyfus model has been applied in a number of fields, including nursing training (Benner, 1982), sports (Moe, 2004), ski instruction (Duesund & Jespersen, 2004), the military (Eriksen, 2010), computer programming (Mead et al., 2006), and librarian development (Hall-Ellis & Grealy, 2013).

Chesterman (2000), also impressed with the Dreyfus model, describes acquiring translation competence as moving along an axis divided into the five stages of the Dreyfus model: novice, advanced beginner, competent, proficient, and expert. Going along this axis requires increased internalization and automatisation of certain processes or concepts and an ability to reflect both upon these tools and the translator’s own work. Along the axis from novice to expert, the first two stages are purely rational, the third stage introduces emotional involvement, and in the last two stages, intuition gradually takes over. He describes the image of the translator expertise growth as the following:

What we have, then, is a picture of the growth of expertise presented as a process of gradual automatisation, but one in which emotional involvement and intuition have important roles. The function of rationality, detached analytical thinking, is dominant at first, but gradually gives way to intuition, until its final task is to provide a kind of internal feedback, particularly at problem-points.(Chesterman, 2000, p. 79)

Another study that applied the Dreyfus model in depth and in more detail is the master thesis of Sánchez, who conducted her work in 2007. The author conducted an empirical study on two groups of subjects and then analyzed the translations done by those participants. The first group consisted of a group of students from the master’s program in translation at Universidad Nacional; the second group was composed of professional translators. The text translations of the participants, in addition to translation competence and evaluation theories, were used to write the descriptors for the scale proposed in Sánchez’s dissertation. The result was a five-level scale following the Dreyfus model of skill acquisition (novice, apprentice, competent, proficient, and expert translator). For example, the translational communicative competence scale has the following sub-competences:

  • Lexical (knowledge of and ability to use the vocabulary of two languages)
  • Grammatical (knowledge of and ability to use the set of principles that govern the two different languages to produce meaningful utterances)
  • Mechanical accuracy (knowledge of and skill to use punctuation, paragraphing, and layout conventions of two languages)
  • Cohesion and organization (the ability to arrange sentences in sequence so as to produce organized, structured, and coherent messages)
  • Sociolinguistics (knowledge, awareness, and understanding of the relation between the “world” of the source community and the “world” of the target community)
  • Each one of these competences also has a level on the Dreyfus scale. As an illustration, the first sub-competence, i.e., the lexical sub-competence, is given a 5-level progression on the Dreyfus model of skill acquisition:
  • The novice translator will: use sufficient vocabulary to transfer isolated words/and or phrases from familiar subject matter and real-world knowledge; have command of common field-specific terminology known to the lay person.
  • The advanced beginner translator will: use sufficient vocabulary to translate generalities from very simple factual texts, but frequent repetition, word confusions, false cognates and inconsistencies are common; have command of a very narrow repertoire of field-specific terminology. 
  • The competent translator will: have good range of vocabulary to translate texts that contain not only facts, but also abstract language; have command of a limited range of field-specific terminology.  
  • The proficient translator will: have good command of a broad lexical repertoire to translate moderate to difficult texts; have high command of field-specific terminology, idioms, colloquialisms, collocations, synonyms, and antonyms to vary writing, though occasionally a more appropriate rendering may have been used.
  • The expert translator will: have excellent command of a very broad lexical repertoire to translate very difficult and highly specialized texts; use impressive language, rich in imagery; adhere to target language norms; have mastery of field-specific terminology that allows successful translation within the field.

The same skill development process is assigned to the rest of the sub-competences in the scale. This is no doubt a brilliant dissertation, and it filled the gap in the translation studies field regarding detailing the steps a translator needs to take in order to pass from novice to expert in terms of developing translation competence. However, it was addressed to the academic field still does not answer the question of how to develop a professional in-house translator, which is the main purpose of the current paper.

The main objective for this paper is to design a model of translator development and an evaluation system that guides translators along a career path that can lead to the ultimate level of expert translator. The Dreyfus model is therefore the ideal model to follow in terms of determining the ascending steps to be described in the translator competence development scales and the design of the translator career path. 


This study utilizes a qualitative research design that deals with concepts and trends regarding translator development theories and evaluation models. According to Merriam (2009), “qualitative researchers are interested in understanding the meaning people have constructed, that is, how people make sense of their world and the experiences they have in the world” (p. 13). This paper examines the concepts and philosophies of translator development and how the translator reaches the ultimate level of expertise gradually.

The pool of data for this paper was compiled from existing models and theories published in a number of related areas such as translation studies, workplace learning, skills acquisition, and human resource development. A thorough examination was given specifically to available models in translation assessment, language proficiency scales, adults’ skill acquisition, and employees’ performance development models.

Discussion and Results

After reviewing the related publications, four models were chosen to be the sources of data in this paper: the European Master’s in Translation (EMT) expert group model; the Process of Acquisition of Translation Competence and Evaluation (PACTE) group model; the United Nations Competency Framework (UNCF); and the Researcher Development Framework (RDF). The first two models describe knowledge, skills, and abilities specific to the translation profession. For example, the EMT expert group model was chosen as a representative of theoretical models examining translation competence, and the PACTE group model was selected as a representative of empirical models examining translation competence. The other two models describe knowledge, skills, and abilities related to general employee behavior in the workplace. As this paper focuses on in-house professional translators, the professional development models of the UNCF and the RDF also provided useful elements for building the translator development model. The UNCF is rich in information about the best practices possible for an employee, and the RDF is a rich source of information about the development of the competences needed by professional researchers.

Competences in these four models fell into three major groups: knowledge, skills, and abilities. The following set of data (knowledge, skills, and abilities) resulted from the four selected models:

  • knowledge about geographical and historical information about countries of the world;
  • knowledge about general facts such as crises, celebrations, and religious beliefs;
  • knowledge about specific culture of the language pair;
  • knowledge about translation; knowledge about professional practice;
  • ability to communicate in two languages or more;
  • knowing how to search for information in its sources;
  • ability to use applications to assist in correction, translation, terminology, layout;
  • strategic skills: analysis, synthesis, evaluation, problem solving, planning and organizing;
  • reading (comprehending, decoding);
  • writing (producing, encoding);
  • creativity: novelty, fluency, and flexibility;
  • effective message sending, effective listening, openness to information sharing and collaboration;
  • self-confidence, perseverance, self-reflection, and enthusiasm;
  • integrity, responsibility, commitment to the job, time management, preparation and prioritizing, responsiveness to change, and work-life balance;
  • responsiveness to opportunities, continuous learning, networking, and reputation and esteem;
  • following standards regarding ethics, health and safety, legal requirements, confidentiality, and respect for diversity.

Based on the aforementioned elements of translator development found in the four major sources of data, Alowedi (2015), developed a model for translators’ development, and it is summarized in the following figure

Figure 1 Elements of the Translator Development Model TDM, (Al-Owedi, 2015)

Composition of the Translator Career Path (TCP)

Following the structure of the translator development model, this paper reaches the proposal of the translator career path (TCP), which will serve as a career ladder in the translation profession.

In general, career ladders consist of ascending steps leading the employee to elevate through the developing positions in the profession promotion ladder. Most of the professions that require intellectual and practical development of the employee have their own career ladder. For example, medical doctors proceed through four levels of development and each level is assigned a title. A medical doctor starts his or her career as medical intern for one year, serves as a resident for four to six years, is promoted to specialist for two to three years, and finally with all the experience gained, he or she reaches the consultant title. University faculty teachers also develop through a career ladder starting with assistant teacher who holds a bachelor’s degree, lecturer who holds a master’s degree, assistant professor who holds a doctoral degree, associate professor who holds a doctoral degree and has published peer reviewed articles in the field, and finally professor who holds a doctoral degree and has reached the required amount of peer reviewed publications. This paper proposes that the profession of translation deserves to have an approved career ladder that would be used internationally to help set criteria for objectively evaluating the translator and placing him or her on the associated level on the continuum of the translator career path (TCP).

The TCP proposed in this paper is a career ladder designed especially for professional translators. Like any ranking career ladder in other professions, the aim of the TCP is to guide the process of diagnosing the translator’s professional performance level, using objective criteria based on the previously proposed TDM and its related holistic scales discussed in detail in Al-Owedi 2015. Accordingly, the first title in the translator career path is the intern translator, which is assigned to the translator whose competences are described at the novice level in the TDM scales. The second title in the translator career path is the assistant translator, which is assigned to the translator whose competences are described at the advanced beginner level in the TDM scales. The third title in the translator career path is the associate translator, which is assigned to the translator whose competences are described at the competent level in the TDM scales. The fourth title in the translator career path is the translator, which is assigned to the translator whose competences are described at the proficient level in the TDM scales. Finally, the fifth title in the translator career path is the expert translator, which is assigned to the translator whose competences are described at the expert level in the TDM scales. Figure 2 provides a visual representation of the ascending translator career path.

Figure 2 Ranks of the Translator Career Path

The following is a narrative of each level of the TCP which is derived from competences identified, described, and evaluated in the TDM scales discussed in detail in Al-Owedi 2015.

The Intern Translator

The intern translator is typically a newly recruited translator in the organization, whether fresh graduate or had some working experience before joining the translation organization. He or she continues on this stage two years more or less depending on several factors. In this stage, the intern translator gets acquainted with the translation system in the organization, tries to learn the basic rules, and operates in terms of particular, separate activities. The intern translator's actions in this stage are purely rational.

The Assistant Translator

While still the actions in this stage are rational, the assistant translator starts to be able to “think outside” the concepts that were introduced in the previous stage and connect them to each other. Hypothetically speaking, the translator stays in this stage for a period of more or less three years. Moreover, his or her behavior becomes less atomistic.Understands equality and diversity requirements of the organization.

The Associate Translator

After around five years or so in the job, the translator will develop to the third stage in the Dreyfus model, which is the stage that entitles the translator associate translator according to the proposed translator career path. The associate translator’s actions will start to develop from purely rational to unconscious. The translator in this stage feels more involved in social activities among co-workers and in professional decision making. The translator is competent and gains the ability to prioritize among various situations of the task at hand. The associate translator becomes aware of the responsibility this particular task involves, which in turn leads to a greater emotional involvement.

The Translator

Between the fifth and eighth year, the translator develops to the fourth stage in the Dreyfus corresponding to the Translator rank in the translator career path. The translator’s actions in this level is prevailed by intuition and personal experience, which rest on the rules and concepts introduced in previous three stages.

The Expert Translator

Around the ninth or tenth year, with daily deliberate practice, the translator reaches the expert level.  The expert is driven predominantly by intuition and intuition is considered the main mode of operation. For example, things that might be problems for others are merely routine activities for experts.


The translator career path proposed in this paper has many advantages. First, it presents formal guidelines for professional development evaluators for use by organizations that employ in-house translators. Second, translators themselves will have a clearer vision of the career path they need to move along; they will have guidance and motivation as to how to climb a visible career ladder, and they will be able to identify the skills they need to develop in order to continue to improve their professional performance. Third, it can also be used to potentially improve translator quality of production. Finally, this career path can provide translation educators and trainers with new concepts to supplement their existing curricula.


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