Project-based learning in translation education

A longer version of this paper was presented at the TILS 2008 Conference ‘Translation, Interpreting and LSP. Research in cross-lingual communication: theories and methodologies’ at the Università di Macerata, Italy, on February 2, 2008, and then published in Cavagnoli S., Di Giovanni E., Merlini R. (eds), La ricerca nella comunicazione interlinguistica. Modelli teorici e metodologici, 2009, Franco Angeli, ISBN 9788856810561.

Tell me and I forget. Show me and I remember. Let me do and I understand.



Globalization has brought commoditization of work as a consequence, including knowledge work. In this framework, universities could and 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 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.

The common theoretical conduit view of learning still predominates in translator education, and students generally tend to focus to exams and grades rather than actual learning, to blame the university when getting into business, to experience the unwillingness of employers abdicating their responsibility to educate and train their employees.

On the other hand, the widespread practice of ceasing hiring in favor of short-term contracts confirms that certificates and diplomas 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 carried within the context of real translation projects.


Project-based learning (PBL) is a constructivist pedagogy approach for classroom activity that emphasizes learning activities that are long-term, interdisciplinary and student-centered. This approach is generally less structured than traditional, teacher-led classroom activities; it is designed to be used for complex issues that require students to investigate to understand: in a project-based class, students often must organize their own work and manage their own time.

Within the PBL framework students are asked to team up, work together, take on social responsibilities, and find solutions to real problems. Their choices lead to artifacts representing what is being learned.

The approach is based on two key assumptions:

  • learning is enhanced when knowledge is activated;
  • processing knowledge in a problem-solving approach to learning improves the ability to organize, store and retrieve it.

Not only do students respond by feeding back information, they also actively use what they know to negotiate, and devise solutions.

In PBL, traditional classroom activity integrates with ‘real world’ issues and practices. Running a structured project allow students to practice ‘real-world’ conditions in a ‘safe’ environment, and finally deliver a synthesis of their learning experience in a factual product.

The teacher teaches students how not to be at loss in real life situations, and help them build strategies to be armed with to deal with whatever comes their way. The class changes from a teacher-fronted passive mass to a place of activities. Instruction has its goal to make the student a self-sufficient problem-solver.

Students are discouraged to be passive receivers of the information transmitted to them from the teacher or the textbooks. They will otherwise end up focusing only to the exam, trying to devise strategies to pass it with the minimum effort and the maximum profit.

The rationale

Over the last few years, the need has become acute to adapt educational practice in university-level schools for translator training to rapidly changing market requirements. Nevertheless, 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 students’ minds.

Translation buyers and employers have definite expectations of new graduates in translation, and they are finding that the 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 training but also with their ability to organize themselves autonomously or work independently or in teams, solve problems or 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 instructor 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.

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 real translation projects for real customers. Nevertheless, while newspaper texts are actually rare on the translation market, they are still the all-but-exclusive practice material in classes.

Introducing localization

Computer-assisted translation is taught to introduce students to a working methodology different from the combination ‘word processor-dictionary’ and based on translation tools as an integral and indivisible part of the translation process.

Therefore, it’s important for students to learn about the industry, understand and evaluate their working environment, mature a teamwork attitude, and meet the deadlines, while getting accustomed to identify the technical aspects and skills to develop.

Students can then face a non-traumatic impact with the ‘real world’, while a first-time approach to computer-assisted translation can help the teacher take advantage of a total absence of habits and prejudices affecting long-time translation professionals. This makes it possible to integrate translation tools in the working process, and develop an unbiased view of a project.

After a few introductory lessons, students are called to participate in a localization project under the teacher’s guidance who will set deadlines and assign tasks, to team up and develop a time plan, while respecting the (virtual) customer’s instructions, starting with the style guide, to handle communications with all the parties involved, and solve any problems with terminology and translation memories. The student teams will have to deal also with any technical and logistic issues that could occur.

Running a localization project requires students to waive mechanical or mnemonic learning: translation tools alone are not enough to solve the problems arising and fulfill the assignments; students must understand the business and operation logic behind them to use them actively and usefully.

Students are then trained in translation techniques for localization, in the localization process, and in project management principles, and taught to devise and implement an overall project strategy that makes translation requirements easier to collect and understand and even apparent, although they are not, and help disambiguation.

Possibly, just like in any real project, something unanticipated happens. Collaborative learning helps students forge a contingency strategy.

The business game for ‘real world’ connections

In an applied localization program, assignments should mirror the kinds of job students will do in the workplace.

Connections must be made with the ‘real world’ in having students participate in a business game around an actual localization project. Most of the project must be run completely out of the class to give students the opportunity to learn from experience.

At the end of the teacher-fronted lessons on localization basics, students team up. The teacher chooses the product to be localized, and plays the service provider’s role thus appointing a student as the project leader who will allocate role and assignments, and coordinate the localization student team. The environment of a typical localization project is then replicated to simulate a workplace situation. The teacher will integrate experiences with further training during two or more project status meetings. These are the place for the teacher to train students on specific points as the need arises. Assisting students with some aspects of the production allow them not to be overwhelmed by problem-solving tasks ahead of them.

Students are urged to report any problems and queries to the teacher, and to use a bulletin board system to post messages, queries, documents, and training material.

In running the project, students are asked to build an environment for the application of translation, computation, planning, and communication skills. They also get accustomed with the complex processes and procedures that are typical of ‘real-world’ jobs.

Teamwork could prove very hard, especially for students who have secured high grades in exams, do not feel at ease in sharing their knowledge, and are usual at ruling.

Teamwork skills are pivotal in demand by employers: not only does collaborative learning help students learn from each other, it helps students develop problem-solving attitudes, and become more creative. Group assignments bring ‘free riders’ and slackers to emerge and team members face them and cope with their ability to exploit the extra efforts of peers, especially when groups are fairly small.

The teacher needs to know the students and be prepared to help them adjust to this kind of learning. Some students forge ahead with self-directed learning, while others need guidance.

The project impacts mainly on students’ time, and the first lesson learned is on time management to accommodate assignments of different subjects and run the project, especially if students have never undertaken a lengthy project before.

During the production stage of the project, students learn to monitor progress and make changes to improve their work; they also discover spaces for product enhancement.

Finally, students are asked to give an open-ended written reflection on their experience. This offers the chance to give them a view on a typical project management task: writing a post-mortem report.


The transition from dependence to independence is not an easy process, especially in an educational system where spoon-feeding and rote-learning are common strategies.

The project approach encourages students to use their specialized skills and talents on individual tasks and responsibilities, but also to develop problem solving, and self-management abilities.

Since student groups perform best when they have common goals and joint rewards, students are told how the teacher will evaluate the group and the effect group performance will have on grades before any activity begins.

Students also know from the beginning that their performance will be assessed on content and skills using criteria similar to those in the work world. Teamwork is then encouraged to create products that are better than one individual could achieve on their own, peer review is used to improve planning, translating, and revising processes, and students are trained to view editors or reviewers in a collaborative endeavor to improve their work. At the same time, student editors are prevented from the unpleasant attitude to make changes purely to demonstrate their authority.

This helps create positive communication and collaborative relationships, and engages and motivates bashful or indifferent students.

Students are encouraged to take risks and fight frustrations; their responses and enthusiasm can be overwhelming, but their increased output and productivity become a reward in itself; at the same time autonomy help them build confidence and consciousness of skills learnt.

Finally, 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 are increasingly spreading that reduce translation costs, therefore students are taught to take full advantage of appropriate technology to improve efficiency, use of resources, costs, and guarantee economic sustainability by standardization and large-scale use, reliability, and affordability.

Future Scenario

LSP’s are interested primarily in productivity and sales, and this should really matter to translators as well. Time to market is an important issue, and the demand for faster production times is increasing. Speed has becoming a larger pressure than quality — provided quality means the same for all.

Keeping costs under budget is a major, if not the prime challenge. Efficiency, global economics, and tools are a means to get those costs under control, and are leading to a collaborative, interactive, real-time production environment. Translation tools are evolving fast. Many free technologies are available now to manage huge projects in a much more efficient way than using standard tools. 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.

As the translation and communication industries continue to be confronted with new technologies, the next step consists in educating 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. Special attention should then be given to social aspects (collaboration and sharing through social networks, wikis and blogs) in a ‘Wikinomics’ or crowdsourcing perspective, and translation students should be introduced to web-based translation environments, controlled languages, content management, and workflow management systems.