A Three-Legged Table

This Article has been first published on the December, 2013 issue of MultiLingual


Over the last few years, the need has become acute to adapt educational practice in university-level schools for translators to rapidly changing 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 on new graduates in translation: to them, universities fall short of meeting their expectations regarding the skills and preparation for being on the workplace.

The main obstacles encountered when hiring graduates are their preparation for dealing with specialized translation, terminology management and information technology, narrow exposure to culture, lack of practical drill but also with their 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 emerges as the result of the collaborative completion of authentic translation work.

In Issue 13-9-225 of his Tool Box Newsletter, the 226th edition, computer-savvy Jost Zetzsche forthrightly declares he really likes the folks in the translation profession for having a lovely mix of passion and ‘geekyness’, that is not of the tech-geek kind. In fact, admittedly, often translators are not computer-savvy nor numerate, while they are mostly and broadly — frequently obsessively — interested in languages only.

The focus on languages is yet substantially pivotal in translators education, even in time of ubiquitous, pervasive, and commoditized technologies. For example, many translators and scholars, too many indeed, still dismiss machine translation as doomed on the sole assumption that translation is a human-only task.

In the last three decades, the pragmatic approach in translation studies has helped considering translation as the product of a process depending on specific expectations and needs of the target audience, in its function in a given context or situation. And yet, translation teaching still focuses fundamentally on error handling through comparative analysis, always affected by a subjective approach, rather than on matching assumptions and goals between requesters and providers.

In this respect, students should be taught to use translation tools as of effectiveness and productivity, in an economic perspective, while translation courses generally lack of an economic approach with the associated investigation of the cost of errors, thus eluding the problem of translation sustainability. Tools reducing translation costs are becoming more and more popular, therefore students should be taught to take full advantage of the appropriate technology to improve efficiency, use of resources, costs, and to guarantee economic sustainability by standardization and large-scale use, reliability, and affordability.

To paraphrase Peter F. Drucker, in the frantic quest for something new, rather than stopping doing something old, universities have been introducing translation tools in translation courses for less than a decade to meet the demands for innovation of an industry constantly complaining of the lack of adequate resources, while their appearance on the market dates back to a quarter of a century ago.

In mature markets, like the translation market, especially in saturated segments, competition is based on price, and innovation is pivotal to prevent price from going below a survival threshold. In this case, innovation goes through automation of business processes.

In contrast, translation students are still generally taught to focus attention on their role rather than on job requirements.

A week or two before his newsletter mentioned above, Jost Zetzsche — again — on Twitter recommended Matthieu LeBlanc’s study Translators on translation memory as a base for reflection. Is any reflection still needed a quarter of a century after the appearance of translation memories on the market and at least two decades of unceasing spreading?

Matthieu LeBlanc is professeur agrégé (research associate professor) at the Université de Moncton, Canada. His study, made on a short time lapse, is restricted to a confined community and cites only publications dating from 2000 onwards. It does not present any new development, and it is spoiled by the expectation of a negative outcome, specifically de-skilling.

Unquestionably, the introduction and widespread use of translation memory systems have changed the way translators work, leading to some disquiet and misgivings among translators, many of whom are concerned about the use customers have been making of translation memories.

In my own experience, this disquiet is mostly resulting from a misconception of automation in general, when it comes to the everyday tasks of any professional raised in the humanities.

On the other hand, automation is increasingly ubiquitous, and the output of most of translation automation tools requires a lot of re-plumbing and retrofitting, even though, in some cases, is now better than that of many ‘professionals,’ and this is going to further undermine the role of translators.

Today, the major pressures in content localization are from the constantly increasing volumes and the increasing shortening of schedules. The reactions consist in maximizing the re-use of existing localized content, and automating the localization process. Both require deep process redesign as to terminology management and authoring, and incremental localization. Technology could help, and working upstream can be a big advantage. Translation students should then be taught to deal with ‘translation probability’.

Yet, despite the growth of the localization industry on a global scale, and the florilegium of language and translation courses, especially in the Old Continent, translators education cannot keep pace with the advances outside the closed rooms of the academy.

This is especially true for Italy that is lagging behind other countries in Europe for educational, professional and technological resources, even though its three major vocational faculties participate in EC’s DGT’s EMT program.

EMT (European Master’s in Translation) is an EC’s DGT’s 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 competences, additional competences should range from information mining to translation service provision competences. 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 of effectively using and integrating a wide range of software tools forming the typical translator’s toolbox, as well as the ability of productively interacting with database management and multimedia 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 good will of often-isolated researchers usually confined at the outskirts of the academy realms and watched with detachment or self-importance 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 or nothing of the evolving reality of the industry — while shamelessly boasting a meaningless expertise —, who possibly patched information browsed here and there to provide a justification for freezing current programs — and possibly their chairs —, with minor adjustments and no tangible changes.

Moreover, the program is apparently aimed at meeting DGT’s needs, but it is definitely insufficient for the European and, ça va sans dire, the global markets.

Translation tools are evolving fast. One is machine translation, and the big factor for making machine translation systems profitable and convenient is reducing ambiguity in the source text. In the coming future, translators that are not using machine translation to pre-process their jobs are 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, authoring of texts.

As to employability, according to the EMT board, a convergence must be studied between journalism, technical writing, multilingual documentation and translation studies, web science, internet studies, adaptation studies, transfer studies and intercultural studies.

What can be said? Welcome to the present. This convergence, in fact, has already occurred and in progress. It is missing only on the academic side. And most of the innovations above are actually distant hopes in many a 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.

Yet, the common theoretical conduit view of learning still predominates in translator education, and students are encouraged to focus to exams and grades rather than actual learning. And when they get into business, they blame the university since they become impotent witnesses of the unwillingness of employers abdicating their responsibility to educate and train their employees. On the other hand, the unemployment rates all over Europe confirm that certificates and diplomas alone are tickets to nowhere.

The river of money that the DGT pours on the European market affects all players and academic institutions. The former are eager to gain access to DGT resources and rely on graduates educated under the auspices and the supervision of a supranational body. The latter are just as happy to be able to promote themselves on employability, thanks to the compliance with the EMT requirements. And yet, all this interferes with a free market’s rules with false expectations, paving the way for more ruthless opportunists.

As the translation and communication industries will be confronting with new technologies, the next step in education could consist in taking advantage of the many free technologies available now to train translators in being conversant in the more spendable skills, to exploit the same tacit knowledge that people in the field tend to share through discussion and personal interactions. But a new breed of teachers is needed to this end.

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 carried within the context of real translation projects.

Universities should embrace project-based learning (PBL) 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 go through experience by being 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 the workshops where universities can forge new multilingual professionals while being active in helpful initiatives and actual innovation.

LSPs must also do their part. They cannot continue to claim to have their cake and eat it too. They are the main culprit of the application of Gresham’s law to the translation industry, with bad translators driving out the good. If they want to contrast the lack of qualified resources and expand their availability, they must accept that they cannot all suit all expectations, as it takes time and proper training to build experience and expertise. If they look for reliable, skilled and proficient resources, they can only resort to established professionals who require to be adequately remunerated and treated with respect, or 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 does not 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 on the forefront in admitting that, contrary to a common idea, 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 language knowledge and more one of knowing how to use it and the right tools to exploit it. These three legs must be of the same length, and then grow at par, for the table not to wobble.

Language is just a technology as Mark Changizi, Director of Human Cognition of 2AI Lab suggested. Knowledge is made up of skills that must include being able to use tools and producing data, access it and use it, and translation students should learn how to use language as a tool not an end, maybe in itself.

A widespread agreement exists within the translation industry that translators must specialize, as language service providers are increasingly focusing on specific subject areas to meet the customers’ demand. However, the rapid growth of information and knowledge, translation technology, and terminology resources are re-shaping 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.”

Applied to translation, this means that university-level training in translation should not be a must to do translations.

In translation, there is no common core of education, or common standard of knowledge, or achievement, then the so-called specialist translator might not even have the basic language skills and knowledge of the ‘generalist.’

Moreover, when I am asked to foresee the future, a statement from Wacker and Taylor’s The Visionary’s Handbook comes to my mind, which says, “The closer your vision gets to a provable future, the more you are simply describing the present”. A similar sentiment was expressed by John Maynard Keynes’s who said “The long run is a misleading guide to current affairs. In the long run we are all dead.”

Universities cannot be asked to anticipate the future; following Abraham Lincoln’s tip, though, they should help students to predict their own future by creating it.

On the other hand, according to futurist Thomas Frey, 60% of the best jobs in the next ten years have not been invented yet.

For these reasons, university should not prepare for work but form knowledge and the ability to exploit it, and companies can and actually should activate to promote this training, rather than merely state their expectations, which are doomed to be left unfulfilled because the pace of universities is not and cannot be that of the labor market. If universities chase companies on this ground, hoping to increase their employment rates and their prestige, they are mistaken.

Therefore, rather than simply keep on complaining for 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.