May 24, 2017

What is it with teaching translation at universities?

Many years ago as an exchange student at the Universität des Saarlandes in Saarbrücken I marveled at the competence and breadth of the university's offerings for translation and interpreting and the great competence I found there in its Dolmetscherinstitut. Other programs in linguistics with Max Mangold and Vorderasiatische Archäologie offered complementary enlightenment for analyzing language structures, early writing systems and long-dead languages of the Fertile Crescent. Most of that is gone today.

Reports over the years of the decline of language teaching programs in Saarbrücken felt like watching a slow-motion car crash. So a few weeks ago when a friend in that area informed me of the demise of the translation and interpreting institute and its replacement with some IT-based nonsense emphasizing machine translation, I was not particularly surprised. I have watched other university translation programs wither or at least fail to thrive under current conditions, largely as a result of their failure to adapt to changing times in a responsible way.

Most would agree that adaptation is necessary, but there is less agreement on the actual changes which should occur. There is, of course, no single right answer to this dilemma (except in Germany, where such things are Pflicht), but it is nonetheless disappointing to see the lack of vigor and vision with which the necessary discussions sometimes take place.

A recent article by Ramón Inglada on the European Parliament DG TRAD Terminology Coordination site presents some key issues regarding the use of technology in translation teaching but fails to provide accurate information or useful recommendations. This is surprising given that the author has been a professional translator for some time, and colleagues tell me that he is not unfamiliar with the current state of technology in the the real world of commercial translation. I take particular issue with his mention of possible "disadvantages" to the use of technology in the instructional program:
  • Some students might struggle with the technology and this could have a negative impact on their acquisition of translation skills. 
  • Some universities might not have enough staff with the required technical skills. 
  • The potential costs associated with a technology-based approach (computer labs, software licences).
First of all, in the programs with which I am familiar, students do not struggle especially with technology taught in an appropriate way. The "struggle" is too often instead with teaching faculty unwilling to update their professional knowledge and not-so-quaintly antiquated curricula. One also encounters toxically ignorant professors like one I know at a Portuguese university, who did his best for years to discourage new students in the now-suspended masters program by informing them that translation is all about poetry and literature and that it is impossible to make a living as a translator.

I can understand the fear of some faculty who recognize that things have changed and continue to change but who are baffled by the bullshit barked in the catastrophic carnival of machine pseudotranslators and confusing and sometimes creepy CAT clowns. I take their concerns as a sign of mental health and hope for the future; a healthy dose of skepticism will be needed as some universities transition from pen and paper work, with the odd bit of word processing and Moodle thrown in, to more modern tools for organizing reference information, text sources to translate, and writing tasks.

Most of these skeptics understand some fundamental truths that many crazed advocates of computer-assisted translation have forgotten: without an excellent foundation in source languages, first-class writing skills in the target language and a clear understanding of the relevant subject matter to be translated, technology for translation is more useless than lipstick on a pig. Anyone who tries to tell you that machine translation or massive archives of parallel translated texts or any other gimmicks can replace the actual competent mastery of language and content by qualified translators or subject matter specialists with outstanding linguistic skills is either a liar or a fool or both.

Those who have the competence to assess translation quality are usually of the considered opinion that more emphasis should be placed on developing language skills, subject expertise and research skills, while the hucksters, the wordblind and those who really don't get the meaning of "fit for use" or who try to sell snake oil with a label stating that "Quality Doesn't Matter" tend to push more monetary transfers to the IT side of things.

One cannot argue responsibly against the first position: the utter train wrecks we see so often in the bulk market bog of translation, with its unsustainable practices of exploitation and frequent disregard of the occupational health and safety of service providers, make it clear that only a few dishonest middlemen are served much of the time by its unusual business as usual.

Good linguists are hard to find and often not so easy to train, so it is important to consider where technology can provide some relief in organization and ergonomics and improve the processes of learning and professional work. There is a lot of scope for technology to streamline current teaching programs at universities and in programs for continuing professional education and free up more time to focus on essential language skills and knowledge acquisition.

As for the concern that there might not be enough staff with the requisite technical skills to include technology in university programs of instruction, I find that suggestion ridiculous and insulting to a lot of competent people. Anyone who is competent enough to teach at university also possesses the wherewithal to evaluate how technology might contribute effectively to the curriculum. Too often, the failures are on the part of technology advocates who have too narrow an understanding of their own "expertise" and do not listen to the teaching experts and understand their needs and objectives. With patience and open discussion, we will all get a lot further.

As for "potential costs", I almost hurt myself laughing about that one. Universities are among the places on this planet most familiar with Open Source software, and there are quite a number of such tools or other free software which can fully meet the requirements of teaching professional concepts for the use of technology in translation. The OmegaT project is just one example, but it is an excellent one. Major commercial tools are also available for teaching and learning at low or no cost: SDL offers many resources to universities at minimal cost, and Kilgray's memoQ - the most flexible environment available for the widest range of translation workflows - is free to instructors and students for educational purposes, with server resources also available for a small support fee. There are quite a number of other tools available for corpus analysis, speech recognition, format management and a myriad of other peripheral needs of translators on similar terms. Money is not the real issue, but a commitment to doing better with the resources available most certainly is.

There are of course points of light in the firmament of academic blight. The Facultad de Derecho at Buenos Aires University is one such. In April 2017 I visited the law school's integrated translation program and spoke to students, some staff and guests about various ways in which technology can help to better organize the work of legal translation.

Students in the Certified Public Translator program at the Buenos Aires University Law School take many of the same courses as those working toward a law degree; some pursue both degrees. This means that the young professionals graduate with the kind of solid subject matter competence one might expect only from those with significant work experience or who have side-stepped to translation from another field.

In today's market situation, where very few translation graduates can look forward to staff positions in an in-house translating team for a law firm, engineering company, hospital or other institutions as they might have in the past, the problem of acquiring real subject matter competence seems difficult. But programs like BAU's Facultad de Derecho offer can serve as good examples of how similar programs might be established with engineering schools, medical schools, science faculties and other such institutions. Interdisciplinary cooperation is inevitably a great source of creativity and useful results, and I think that struggling translation programs at universities have much to offer in collaboration with other departments and much to learn as all reap the good harvest of such cultivated seeds.

Even the miserable state of translation's bulk market bog offers a fruitful source of research topics to investigate the implications on physical and psychological health under current conditions and to propose remedies for problems. This would seem a much more useful thing than yet another boring and useless doctoral thesis on machine pseudotranslation and post-editing underwritten by short-sighted and unscrupulous promoters of human sacrifice for corporate profit today and who knows what destruction tomorrow.

Do universities need to consider a greater role for technology in their teaching programs for translation? In most cases probably. But just as the real value of technology is measured only by its ability to improve our lives, the most difficult challenges ahead are not technical, but human. A program which fully embraces technology but fails to deal with matters of psychological and physical health and which does not reinforce its credibility and open doors with many possible alliances with other departments or outside institutions will sadly not achieve its full and evident potential. But with good will, open eyes and a willingness to commit to learning and partnership we can all get there.


  1. Kevin, you almost hit it in the head but in general I enjoyed your critical article on translation teaching at universities. In America the situation is quite deplorable with the abundance of translation 'certificates.'

    Quoting from you: “writing tasks” - I agree, more writing tasks in the source and target language will reveal more about what skills the student possesses and which ones need improvement and/or maintenance.

    “an excellent foundation in source languages, first-class writing skills in the target language and a clear understanding of the relevant subject matter” - In agreement, but I would add that first-class writing skills are necessary in the source languages as well. This may sound like nitpicking but reverse translation is part of our skills as translators. Our ancestors (translators in other centuries) did it, so why not us?

    Understanding of the subject matter: this is one way to state a general truism, that specialization is very important in the training of translators and in making a career out of translation.

  2. My problem is with the education that they do not teach anything IT-related topics. Okay, they show them MemoQ and Trados, but they do because distributors supports them so it is a bit marketing. But they do not have a strong idea how they should manage their files, projects, TMs, TBs. And the other IT tasks like OCR, FTP or other filesharing methods, could usage (pro and cons)... they never heard about that. And they should have courses in marketing and management. They "just" translate, but after graduation they have no clue what to do. "I send my resume and see what happens" and they end up as "intern" generating ten times more revenue for the agency than for themselves. And they are glad to be slaves as "they are so kind to me"... They should learn the tricks of the business and know what is their work value, so a medical or legal translator would not end up in a position for EUR 0.02... (that's not a typo).


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