ost translator trainers and practicing translators agree on the need for closer links between training and what some refer to as "the real world". But the devil is in the detailshow, precisely, can motivated teachers and practitioners go about bridging the gap in this demanding, fast-moving industry? How can we help ensure that students of translation are able to hit the ground running when they leave school/training courses, and look forward to genuine career development as they hone their skills and gain experience on the job?
This round table was above all a constructive review of concrete options. It took place in August 2002 at the FIT conference in Vancouver, British Columbia and was followed by a lively Q&A session with the audience.
Chris Durban: A few years ago a teacher at a prestigious translation school in Europe greeted an incoming class with a relatively discouraging comment. "At least you young people love language," she told them. "That's good, since we all know you will never make any money translating."
We all know that financial success is not everything. Yet I was one of several observers who found her remark disturbing in that it presented these future translators as noble losersplanting the seeds of bad attitude from the start.
At best, a comment like this reveals a particular teacher's lack of awareness that there are certain sections of the market in which you can pursue your passion for languages and earn a good living. More worrying, especially given the dearth of skilled translators in many fast-growing sectors, it raises questions about a mismatch between the skills being taught and those that the market wants, needs and is willing to pay for.
The five people on our panel are all successful translators, each working in a different segment of the market. And it is worth pointing out that there is not just one translation market, rather a variety of segments. A major challenge for translators just coming out of school or seeking to reposition themselves is to identify the most promising segmentsto select areas that you enjoy working in and where there are prospects for genuine career development. To position yourself so that you can sell your services as a translator to an enthusiastic client baseenthusiastic clients being almost always, in my experience, more stimulating to work for and prepared to pay more for good work. This has two immediate implications: first, clients who pay more tend to listen more carefully to what their translators say, which means far better working conditions. Second, given the choice I certainly prefer being paid more rather than less for the work I produce.
Today each speaker will identify and discuss three key issues, which correspond in many cases to the skills translators need to succeed in their segment. As the panel members noticed in organizing the panel, there is a lot of overlap, but also some market-specific features. We will thus start by taking five minutes each to briefly present our "three issues". There will then be a round of comments from the panel, after which we will throw the discussion open to questions from the floor. We do hope you will have questions.
One final note before we begin: from the first day of this conference I have been impressed by the immense amount of knowledge and goodwill among many of the academic presenters. It should be clear that panel members are making their comments in a constructive spirit, and that we all look forward to working as translators and in some cases translator trainers ourselves to help bridge the gap.
Our first panelist is Brian Mossop.
Brian Mossop: My first proposition is that translation schools are inherently limited in what they can do to prepare students for the workplace and that we should not make exaggerated demands on them. It has sometimes been fashionable to complain that the graduates of translation schools do not arrive in the workplace already able to translate quickly and well. But that's always been an unrealistic hope, and always will be.
With a class of 20, the teacher can only look at a couple of hundred words a week per student, which isn't much. There are no clients in the classroom, so it's hard for students to develop a sense of what's important and what isn't based on a brief from the client. Some teachers have tried to simulate the workplace in the classroom, but in my view, that's not what the function of a classroom is. The classroom should be used for reflection on the problems and methods of translation.
These other things are better learned outside translation schools in two other forms of formal training.
The first of these is the practicum, which I think our profession must strive to make a necessary part of translator training. I have in mind a practicum where there is a supervisor or senior translator helping the student achieve certain learning objectives. The practicum is the place to learn how to deal with long texts, how to work to deadlines, how to learn interaction with clients, how to deal with poorly written source texts.
The second kind of formal training is the professional development workshop, of the kind provided here in Canada by the professional associations and some of the large employers. This is where, after you have been on the job for a while, you learn about things like quality control procedures, self-revision, and how to avoid doing unnecessary research. There are a number of topics that are best learned after you've started, in a one- or two-day professional development workshop. They should not be taught at translation schools.
So I believe that we should move towards this three-pronged approach. Here in Canada, schools have attempted over the past two or three decades to arrange practicums for students. But they have been optional for the most part and it has not been easy to find employers willing to accept the students who want this form of training. Only recently have we managed to create a couple of formal work-study programs with periods of classroom study and periods in the workplace. I suggest that translators' professional organizations should step in and try to do something rather than just leave it up to employers and the universities.
My second proposition is that students need to be prepared not just for the market as it will exist when they graduate, but for a life-long career. We should avoid seeing translation schools as a kind of training department for the current needs of the translation industry. Maybe the translation industry wants people to translate a certain type of document as a result of trade between Canada and Mexico, or something like thatbut will that be true 20 years or 30 years from now? Who knows. We don't know what the demands on translators will be in 2022 or 2032, so we should be using classroom time to help students develop those general and challenging abilities that will be useful for the next 40 years of their professional lives.
It's worth remembering that students who graduated 10 years ago and certainly 20 years ago, had very little training in computer tools, yet somehow we've managed. Learning to use computer tools is not a great intellectual task. So schools should not devote huge amounts of time to it, it's a waste of valuable classroom time. And it can be learned later in practicums and in professional development workshops. Schools should stay focused on the things that are really intellectually demanding: learning how to read a text closely, writing, editing, researching.
My third and final proposition is that mere practice cannot make a student into a successful translator. It's often said that practice makes perfect, but nothing could be further from the truth. In order to improve, you have to be able to criticize yourself. And to criticize yourself, you need to formulate your practices and reflect on them. And to do thatto think about translation and to discuss it with othersyou need concepts and terms, which is where theory comes in. Theory, if well taught, can provide students with the conceptual tools they need for thinking about translation in an organized way.
Also very useful, and I'll conclude on this point, is for students to study the history of translation, because this can help them see themselves as translators who will be working in a specific geographical, cultural and economic setting. The examples from history can help students think about "What setting will I be in?"
Ros Schwartz: I am speaking as a literary translator, but I think what I'm saying is relevant to all species of translator. I would like to address the question of why practicing translators should get involved in training.
First of all, translation doesn't happen in a vacuum. It's an economic activity that's dependent on a market where there are many playerspublishers, editors, typesetters, designers. Newly qualified translators need to be able to operate in that marketplace, to negotiate fees and deadlines with publishers, to understand contractual issues such as copyright and royalty payments, to work with editors, to ask the right questions, and generally to conduct themselves as professionals. Working as a free-lancer is isolating and translators do not always see how they fit into the bigger picturehow the work they are doing fits into the whole.
So some of my time is spent talking to students about the peripheral but very important aspects of the professional translator's work that will enable them to present themselves in a competent way and deal with things that come up in everyday practice. For example, what happens if an editor criticizes your translationhow do you deal with that?
My second point concerns what I think is one of the most important and exciting things that you can do as a practicing translator, which is to encourage the students to follow their own instincts. It means "giving them permission", for want of a better expression. After all, we come from a culture where the teacher is seen as the person who has the right answers. Yet in translation, there are very rarely wrong and right answers. Instead there are choices, and those choices are very subjective. As translators, we have to take responsibility for the choices we make; we must be prepared to defend them, and accept that there are people who disagree as well as others who agree. But there's nobody who can say, that's the right translationthat's the "absolute" translationand that's the wrong one.
Students find this intimidating. They're afraid to go with their gut feeling and pursue an avenue that might appear to be too bold or too creative. So they play safe and find a sort of middle ground. One of the most exciting things I've found is when a student has a really good idea and you're able to say "try it, see what happens". I can give you some examples later on if there's time.
Thirdly, sharing working methods. I refer here to practical issues as, for example, when students have never translated a full-length work before. Discussion on how you approach a long text, how you organize your work, how many drafts you do, do you perfect each sentence before committing it to paper, is important here. Just talking about those methodsand again, there's no right method or wrong method, everybody has to find their own. The practicing translator who's actually out there doing it can offer a lot of useful tips.
Students are often surprised that an established translator can experience the same fears and anxieties, the same blocks as they do. They are always surprised when I tell them that I'm absolutely petrified when I start a new text. No matter how many books you've translated, there's always this terror that you're not going to be able to do it, and it's very reassuring for them to hear that.
And lastly, guiding students in the choice of texts that they do for their dissertations. Students of literary translation sometimes feel that they ought to be tackling the big works, the major works that an experienced translator would find completely daunting, and they wade in there thinking they've got to do something big and important. They do this rather than look at their own experience, their own knowledge, and find a text that's more suitable. Again, this is where I think a practicing translator can offer a guiding hand.
After all, the practicing translator is at the intersection between theory and practice. We're able to discuss our concrete experience of abstract questions, such as who is the translator servingthe author, the publisher, or the reader? It's very useful in those kind of discussions to be able to give examples of works where that has been an issue. Do the theories hold up in the real world of publishing?
In conclusion, I would add that I find that teaching benefits my work as a translator enormously. Having my own translations dissected by students, having to be accountable for my choices, has forced me to question a lot of my own assumptions, and reflect on what I do and why.
Tim Martin: Good afternoon. I work for the European Commission Translation Service which is the largest employer of staff translators in the world. We currently have about 1,200 full-time staff translators, and we regularly take on new ones via open competitions. We also take on students and recent graduates for placements. This means that we see quite quickly how well or how badly these students have been prepared, and we try to make appropriate recommendations to the universities from which they have graduated.
All of the suggestions that I'm going to make now have been put in one way or another to various institutions in Britain and in Ireland. Some have been followed, some haven't. See what you think of them.
The first issue I want to address is the need for closer integration between the world of universities and professional translation. I have five concrete suggestions as to how that could be achieved:
- Teacher/translator swapsand please remember that I'm talking about staff translators here, not freelancers. Teacher/translator swaps are logistically very difficult to organize, but they are actually the most fruitful initiative I can think of. We have gone half of the way towards such swaps at the European Commission via a scheme under which a full-time translator from our institution, perhaps with some background in teaching, transfers to a university for part of a semester and teaches a particular translation-related course there. We have not yet been able to host the official teacher of that course in return, but this should not be impossibledespite the logistic complications.
- Research collaboration. Now, you can say that research is what universities doit's their job. True, but what is the wider benefit of such research to translators? Well there's one areatext corpora, a growing research domainwhich we've been able to identify as useful. At the European Commission we translate about 1.3 million pages a year. As you can imagine, that constitutes an enormous parallel corpus of translations, and if universities have the facilities and the time to exploit it, to turn it into a corpus, it could serve as a huge source of context-specific terminology.
- Short-term placements of recent graduates are regular and well organized, and we put a lot of time and effort into evaluating and advising such trainees. Some of our staff also occasionally act as external examiners for translator-training universities, and I think this is something we could usefully do more of. One of the problems of external examining is that practitioners sometimes reach decisions that are at variance with the academic consensus, but whatever the outcome, the corresponding discussion is never less than illuminating.
- And finally, input from academics could be useful in the areas of quality assurance and quality control. These subjects are very much in vogue, and much is written on them. We would like to see academics prepared to come and test some of their theories at the wordface, to see whether they work and above all whether they can fit into workflow procedures that organizations such as ours have set up over long years.
My second issue is course content.
The main point here concerns balance. It's both short-sighted and of limited practical use to produce stylists who are able to work out of three or four languages but who can't operate a word processor, don't know how to search the Internet, and don't know how to use databases. But it is equally useless to produce computer-confident graduates who can't spelland things do seem to be going rather in that direction. This point was raised by Brian, and I'm sure there will be questions on it. I see the current balance tending more towards production of the computer-confident, and I'd like to see that balance to some extent redressed.
The other big issue in course content is mastery of the mother tongue. I would like to see courses in technical and non-technical writing as a compulsory component of any translator-training course. I can see you nodding, so I guess that most of you agree that this is fundamental. But you would be surprised how few translator-training courses have a technical writing component actually built into them.
My third issue is attitudes towards the profession of translation.
Here I would say that universities have a key role to play. They could enhance attitudes by hosting many more eventsthough not necessarily large-scale events such as this, because that would probably be beyond their capacity. But in countries or regions where there is a professional association, these groups might, for example, have their annual meetings hosted by universities. After all, universities have the facilities. But this doesn't happen very often.
My final remark about attitudes towards the profession is that translators are often their own worst enemies. Ultimately it's the translator's own attitude towards the profession that counts, and much less the clients'. Clients have always tended to view translators as skivvieswe all know that. Of course things have greatly improved on this front and much has been achieved over the past 20 years, but still the skivvy mentality prevails among us. This is the real key to changing attitudes, and it lies partly with the universities, but also with translators themselves: act as a bona fide partner and little by little clients will begin to treat you as one.
Chris Durban: Thanks, Tim. It's my turn now, and to back up my points I'd like to show you some examples.
Keep in mind that we are each speaking about our own segment of the market. Mine happens to be financial translation, more specifically from French to English, for listed companies in France addressing investors outside the country. This is a sector where demand for skilled translators is extremely high: employers simply cannot find the people they need. As I see it, there are three main reasons for thisthree types of skills that are fairly thin on the groundand I would like to see more translator trainers helping their students acquire these skills.
Subject-matter specialization is the first.
When you translate for readers on financial markets, it is not enough just to write smoothly. You have to know what you are talking about; you have to understand the techniques, the background, the economic concepts, the power struggles and the jargon. To me it would be inconceivable to offer any kind of course on financial translation without all students having to read the Financial Times or the Wall Street Journal plus a national business paper every day.
The reason is simple: that is part of the job, and unless you are familiar with the information and the style of writing that comes up in the business press, you won't be able to find the images and the links you need to translate well.
In this respect, Internet forums give an interesting and sometimes depressing view of where many translators' heads are at. I'm not talking here about, say, technical translators who ask an occasional question about a financial term that crops up in a text they are working on (or vice versa). The example I'm going to show you came up on a specialized forum, where many questions asked purport to be about vocabulary, but are actually about the underlying mechanisms that drive financial markets. Let me be absolutely clear: I applaud the fact that translators get into the habit of asking for clarification (more on that in a minute). What is worrying is the gap between translators' claims of specialization and the texts they are apparently selling to their clients. Little wonder that many of these translators do not manage to charge a premium for their work; they are in fact winging it. And the reason is simple: they have not left the generalist credo behind, they have not accepted that they really will have to buckle down and do the reading to understand what it is they are translating.
Here's my example. In recent years stock options plans have become very popularalthough recent challenges to companies' accounting practices have perhaps led to more critical views! In this case a translator had accepted a fairly technical text on stock options and how they work, had raised a few "vocabulary" issues on an online forum, and had declared himself happy with his final rendering. 1
As luck would have it, a stock-options specialista woman who writes stock options plans for French companieshad spoken to a meeting of financial translators in Paris a few months earlier. She had commented, at that time, that her company had simply not managed to find English to French translators capable of producing usable texts; this in Paris, France, where there are certainly plenty of translators. As an experiment I submitted our intrepid translator's proposed rendering to this expert for an opinion, and you see in this second slide 2 the corrections she madethe strikethroughs, her changes, and her comments (here in capital letters).
The conclusion I draw from this example (and there are dozens more every day on online forums) is that many would-be "financial translators" are operating in a no-man's land, submitting work that potential buyers can easily identify as a nice "old school try" descriptive kind of rendering, whereas buyers are in fact shopping for far more polished work.
In this particular case, the expert was extremely critical; her notes state outright "this has to go; it's not only awkward but has nothing to do with the terminology used in a business context". (Mind you, she doesn't go so far as to suggest a solutionreassuring proof, perhaps, that this language business is complicated stuff, and that linguists and writers have a contribution to make!).
But the translator is often operating in a vacuum ("flying by the seat of his pants" comes to mind")selling himself as a financial translator to a translation agency that is equally at sea. He is stretching himself too thin, adopting a "can-do" attitude in the presence of other translators, and yet does not do sufficient reading or have contacts in the field who can provide professional feedback on content. So his work falls short of what the market demands, and he seems unaware of that.
The concrete implication is that translators who want to work in this section of the market must take a long hard look at what they do and don't know. Lots of what passes for self-confidence is misplaced. You must do the research and go out of your way to see what it is that market specialists want. You can't fake it.
My constructive proposal? Well, I realize that translator training courses cannot go into too much depth in specialized areas (there are too many areas, for a start), but getting this "you can't fake it" message across in pre-specialization courses involving at least some subject-matter content would be a useful first step.
My second issue is writing skills.
With only a few exceptions, no one is translating solely "for information" in the segment of the market where my colleague Bob Blake and I work. Which means that if you don't have a smooth writing style, forget ityou're not even in the running.
This grid gives a few examples of precisely what I mean when I talk about style in writing. I prepared it for a talk I gave last year to a group of non-linguists interested in translation. Call me nasty, but to illustrate some points on "quality" I put myself in the place of a client and commissioned some work from two prominent translation agencies, one in London and one in Paris. I was the "ideal client": they could name their price and deadline, but it had to be top-quality, "for publication"; I specified that I was available to answer any and all questions (in the event, neither agency passed any on). Keep in mind that I was not gunning for these agencies or agencies in general, merely seeking to buy in work produced to what we both agreed was a "premium" level.
You can judge for yourself in column threebut I maintain that the work delivered was not only technically flawed in several cases, but also hopelessly plodding. "For information" at best; churned out, word for word. And this in response to an order from an "ideal client"!
Needless to say, this sort of output simply does not make the grade with demanding clients. And I agree with them. The fourth column gives examples of the same texts translated to something closer to "for-publication" level and, again, I leave it to you to judge. But one of the most telling lessons of these examplesand one that I would certainly encourage teachers to emphasize to their studentsis that column three (the work I commissioned) commands prices of between €0.12-0.15 per word, while column four is paid about €0.40 per word. This is a complex issue and I only have a few minutes, but my point is that there is a payback for developing your writing skills, for being able to write in a way that is not stilted and plodding, that draws the reader in. Translators are writers or should be, and you don't get a crack at this end of the market unless you are.
Which leads me on to my final point. The more I translate the more I am convinced that there are very few good writers in the world; a secondary-school or even university education is by no means a guarantee that someone can write his or her way out of the proverbial paper bag.
Many translators in technical fields spend their time complaining about poor source-text writing, and while I understand their frustration I am tempted to see it as, yes, a marketing opportunity for translators. In my sector it is a given that a translation is as good as and often better than the source text; this is a good chunk of the added value that Bob and I bring to the jobs we do. But that, in turn, is only possible if we are willing to ask the questions needed to clarify our clients' intentions, nuance, concerns. We must reach out to them, insist on interaction, have them explain what it was they really meant (regardless of what they put on the page).
It seems to me that far too many students, far too many practicing translators, are too shy, too intent on remaining in the shadows. Some even seem to think that if you ask questions you lose face! That is absurd. It's the questions you ask, and how you ask them, that show the client you know what you are doing.
Subject-matter knowledge, writing skills, willingness (and ability) to ask questionsthose are three skills that my segment of the market demands.
Courtney Searls-Ridge: I teach translation, supervise interns in our office, and do a lot of editing and proofreading in my office.
In my experience, recent graduates from translation programs don't write well enough in their target languages, and they leave school with an inadequate understanding of what the market demands.
I propose four possible solutions to these two problems. Two are traditional approaches to skill building, and two specifically address the needs of today's "real world".
First, I think it would be really positive if current translation and interpretation programs would require that students do a practicum or internship with a translation provider or even with a free-lance translator before they graduate. In our office, we have had wonderful experiences with interns who have just completed university-level translation programs, and often they've said that it would have been terrific if they could have had this experience during their course of study, then returned to school and internalized what they'd learned in their internship with the guidance of people at the university.
Second, I would encourage students to join professional organizations earlieras student members, perhapsand take advantage of mentoring programs and other continuing education opportunities that the professional organizations offer.
My other two proposals address today's "real world".
I believe that the T&I industry needs more vocational certificate programs. I refer specifically to, say, vocational certificate programs at the level corresponding to the U.S. "community college" level or at other two-year degree institutions, taught by full-time professional translators and interpreters. In a discussion last night at dinner, some people noted that it is very difficult to find full-time translators who are in a position to teach. Community college translation programs are often offered in the evening, making it possible to bring full-time professionals in to teach.
The fourth proposal I have is to begin T&I training and skill-building much earlier, even at the high school level. I have in mind teaching courses to bilingual students, encouraging them early on to develop the target language skills that we all feel are missingwhen they can still develop good basic writing skills.
Recent research indicates that youngsters in immigrant families who have been self-selected by the family to be the family translator or interpreter, have tremendous potential in these fieldsor could if they were guided and directed, and if they were made aware very early that they can make a career out of these skills.
Chris Durban: Thank you very much. Before turning the floor over to our audience we'll have a quick round of panel feedback. Brian, would you like to react to what has been said so far?
Brian Mossop: Yes. I was particularly struck by one point that Ros made, which was this idea of students learning to find their own method.
I regularly give professional development workshops about self-revision to practicing translators. These are one-day workshops in which we talk about how you go about finding mistakes in your own translations. At the end of each session there's an evaluation, and the results of the evaluation are always the same: some people love the workshop, but others don't like it at all because I "didn't tell them how to do it". Which is exactly the wrong attitude!
We do not want students coming out of translation schools who think there's the "right way" to do something. We want them to be able to look at what they are doing and figure out what works for them, to understand that there's no such thing as one "right way" to check your text. After all, if you ask a room full of practicing translators how they go about self-revising their text, there's a huge variety. There isn't one method. And because no one's ever made an empirical study of this, we have no idea of what the best method is. People need to be able to think about what they are doing and then listen to what other people are saying and figure out what is the best thing for them to do, since everyone has a different psychology.
Ros Schwartz: I wanted to pick up on a point that Courtney made about apprenticeships with practicing translators. One of the French universities does thisthe University of Paris VII. They place the students with a practicing translator. But it's important to note that the translator is paid for taking on a student because it does take up a lot of their time. They have funding for this, and I think it works very well.
Tim Martin: I would like Brianand some of the other speakers as wellto be a little bit more specific about what "translation school" means. What level are we actually talking about? In many European countries, it's traditional to have a first degree which concentrates on a broad range of skills and perhaps a postgraduate degree which specializes more. Maybe I could simply ask Brian as a matter of information, how it works in Canada: when you talk about a "translation school", exactly what level are you talking about?
Brian Mossop: We're talking about undergraduate degreesa BA in translation.
Tim Martin: In that case, it seems to me that many of skills that have been mentionednegotiation skills, diplomatic skills in approaching clients, contractual negotiations, etc.are far better handled at postgraduate level than at undergraduate level. Indeed, I tend to agree with Brian that at undergraduate level you need to concentrate on far more generic types of skill. But that's a point for discussion.
Courtney Searls-Ridge: Returning to what Tim and Brian said, I don't know how much technology is currently being offered in the undergraduate schools. But I do think that it's important that students come out with some solid technology skills so that they can hit that part of the ground running. I think we do need to spend considerable time teaching technology to students in T&I programs.
Chris Durban: And I would like to get back to internships, which I think are extremely interesting for practitioners, students and teachers alike. I myself work free-lance with one other translator. Our structure is so small that we would not be able to take on a full-time intern, but through one of the universities in Paris we have shared one with another translation provider. In fact we've had three interns so far and their computer skills were essential. I don't think we exploited themwe made sure that they did some translation or writing, but frankly their writing and translation skills were not equal to the task. That's not surprising. I agree with Brian that you shouldn't exaggerate what translator training courses can realistically do, and my own experience is that it takes about two years for new graduates to find their feet. Our interns got a reasonably good deal insofar as they were in a workplace environment with two translators asking questions back and forth, discussing language the whole time, and they were expected to take part. Yet from our point of view it was the interns with some training in terminology and computers who had something to offer us. Otherwise they would have been an impossible drain on our resources.
But perhaps we could take questions and comments from the floor now.