An Education

It almost seems unbelievable, but less than a century ago simultaneous interpretation did not exist and freelance translation was not really a profession young people aspired to but rather the concern of bearded scholars poring over texts (well, maybe not always bearded). Technology, coupled with the growth of globalization, changed the landscape radically, and nowadays translators and interpreters enjoy higher visibility than perhaps ever before.

With higher visibility and greater specialization comes the inevitable concern with training and education. While there are currently many translation degrees across the world (in some regions more than others), the fact remains that translation and interpretation are disciplines in which there is no clear demarcation between a qualified professional and a non-qualified one in most people’s minds —and thus most clients’ minds.

Usually we would think of non-qualified individuals as people with no training or experience. Professional translators and interpreters around the world are calling for requirements, such as licenses and certifications in an effort to bar these non-qualified translators and interpreters who charge poverty rates and have no respect for the profession from getting work.

But is an education actually necessary to do the work of translating and interpreting?

In the case of simultaneous interpretation it is more readily apparent why training is a necessity. Whoever has ever dared to put on a headset to provide simultaneous interpretation without ever having received any type of training does not know what they’re in for until it’s too late. Invariably, the anecdotes I’ve heard from people in these situations always have a horrendous conclusion, and there are few who would not consider it an act of absolute hubris to try and provide simultaneous interpretation without at least partial training.

Yet when it comes to translation and consecutive interpretation even some professionals hesitate before admitting that an actual education is necessary. “It’s up to you” and “you’ll learn most of it on the job anyway” are commonly heard answers. How is an education different from on the job experience? Is a college degree a guarantee of competence and job security?

One of the most common criticisms against formal education is that academic institutions often focus too much on the theory and not enough on the practice. True enough. Yet is theory intrinsically wrong? In the case of translation and interpretation, said theory would entail not just discussing the limits of skopos theory and pitching Venutti against Nida. The theory part also includes linguistic concerns, such as grammar, style, syntax, semantics, synonymy. Reinforcing a strong knowledge of grammar has nothing to do with imposing rigidity on the language. Grammar is a model that provides us with a common language and framework that allow us to refer to abstract objects and study them in more detail. That is what models are for. Linguistics is the study of the matter that most concerns translators and interpreters: language.

We can therefore establish that translation and interpretation are a hybrid discipline coupling both theory and practice. This may surprise many colleagues, who think of translation as a purely applied discipline where the theoretical component does not play an important role. In some people’s view of the profession, translators and interpreters would be no different from plumbers and electricians, carrying out a highly mechanical job that does not require deeper abstraction.

An online discussion dealing precisely with the question of whether translators needed to be educated sheds some light into what many professional translators and interpreters think about the subject. A majority of translators answered the question by implying that experience alone makes the translator, and that no degree is a guarantee of competence. Someone even went as far as saying that what you need is an innate talent in order to translate, so translators are born not made.

What is this talent that an individual must possess in order to become a translator? Incidentally, what “natural” talent must an individual possess to become a doctor, an engineer or a dentist? Being good at math and science? Being a people person? Enjoying the study of the human body? Knowing how to draw? I am sure that when they speak of “talent” for translation what they are really talking about is a gift for languages, which is not at all the same thing. I can say with confidence that all good translators have a gift for language. But not all bilinguals and polyglots with that capacity may be good translators. A translator is not just a special being that is capable of picking up languages easily. Many cannot pick up languages as easily as some polyglots, and yet they are better translators than those polyglots could ever be. This is because a translator is also a good writer, an avid reader and a good researcher —things that can only be learned.

I do think an education is necessary to become a good translator. True, the lack of one has not stopped many people from entering the profession. Degrees in translation and interpretation did not even exist half a century ago. But who is to speak for the competence of those translators? And while a degree is no guarantee of competence (the same way a degree is no guarantee of competence as a medical professional or attorney) experience alone, contrary to what many people argue, is not to be blindly trusted either. Many professional translators who have been in the business for years do not regularly receive feedback from their clients and editors, if they ever receive feedback at all. I am sure there are many agencies that work differently, but it is often the case where the editor just makes the changes directly and only opens his mouth to complain about what a horrible translation they got, in which case the project manager has no choice but to complain to the translator, who defends herself the best way she can, a process that is not at all constructive or edifying.

And yet, there is the concern that many clients and agencies seek professionals trained or experienced in particular fields, such as science, medicine or law, something a generalist translation degree does not provide. Combining translation courses with a good education background in, say, biology can definitely be beneficial for a translator who wants to get specialized. But I do believe that in case such a background is lacking, it can be compensated for with really good research skills, which are not just the result of intuition and natural skill, but of actual training.

Formal education in translation and interpretation is also often criticized for their lack of emphasis on business and technical aspects of the profession. Translation and interpretation degrees across the world should definitely review their curriculums to include the use of CAT tools and some business management courses, and it seems there is a shift towards that. However, these are definitely things that can be learned on the job. Many of the things I’ve heard PM’s complain about when it comes to freelancers —they don’t know how to handle files, they lack a basic knowledge of technology and software, they don’t have good business communication skills— are often matters of common sense and skills that can be picked up easily on any job. This is not to say that university degrees and other training programs should not provide this type of information, but their absence in formal degrees should not be the main cause for rejecting them. Ultimately the translator needs to be capable of translating. What good is a translator who has excellent Acrobat skills but leaves a lot to be desired in terms of linguistic consistency and quality? And translation skills are what translation degrees seek to provide.

What would a good education for translators and interpreters look like? First of all, there needs to be a clear demarcation between both disciplines. Parsing the different skills necessary for each type of job would be a good start. Nevertheless, areas of commonality need to be recognized as well. They both need a solid base in grammar and linguistics. Translators need to be capable of reading and analyzing text without any problems, as well as have robust writing skills. Literature courses are especially good at teaching students how to read and analyze text. This part is also important for interpreters, the ability to analyze discourse and extract main ideas.

Given how costly higher education is in the U.S. and the present hikes in tuition being implemented in many other countries where education was once free or very cheap, one may wonder if it’s worth it to invest thousands of dollars in an optional degree. And yet, it becomes clearer everyday that translation and interpretation are not for mere bilinguals and polyglots and that it is definitely necessary to become aware of the difficulties in approaching a text and strategies to deal with them in our particular language combination

The profession is only going to become more visible, and more and more people will want to participate. Therefore it is necessary to determine what is actually required of a professional translator and interpreter. I do not believe in all that rubbish touted here and there that education is a form of elitism and that it is unfair that talented people are barred from practicing it just because they don’t have a degree. An education in translation and/or interpretation is necessary, the same way that an education is necessary to become a doctor, a dentist or a pilot. Are hospitals, airlines and dentist’s offices elitist because of that?

Not everything need require a Master’s degree, however. Some types of interpreting, for example, could simply require a one-year course that could be provided at community colleges or vocational institutes. While it is true that it is possible to become a translator and interpreter without a degree, we must move away from this vacuous rationalization that in the end leads us nowhere and into a serious discussion of what a qualified professional translator and interpreter actually needs and how it can be obtained.

Further reading…

Imagine you are a translation graduate

LinkedIn discussion that inspired the post


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