#TranslatorsTraining: Navigating the Absurd

I first met Nancy A. Locke online, some years ago, when I was harassing people into writing for free for the now defunct online journal, The Big Wave. Nancy very kindly contributed with a great article on the slippage between translators’ education and the harsh reality of the translation industry. The article was entitled “Navigating the Absurd” and the first part was – to quote Nancy’s words – “a metaphor that portrays the current relationship between The Academy and The Industry.

After The Big Wave folded, Nancy and I stayed in touch, sometimes suggesting books to each other, sometimes comparing notes on our professional reality on two different continents. Besides being a published writer, a translator and a public speaker, Nancy teaches at the University of Montreal, Canada.

This short interview is the result of one of our exchanges.

How did you start out in translation? Did you train to be a translator or did you land in the translation industry through other work experiences?

Born and raised and educated primarily in the United States, an undergraduate degree in translation was not in the cards. I did earn a BA in French but only because of a year-long stint at the Sorbonne. Despite having taken a range of courses, from political science to art history, the bureaucrats at my university magically transformed two semesters of diverse coursework into two semesters of undifferentiated French course credits. Me voilà! A French major. Winding up in translation was, to quote Bob Dylan, a simple twist of fate.

What kind of courses do you teach?

I teach just one course, a course I love, three times a year: Réalités professionnelles. Like many university faculties, the directors of translation programs at Université de Montréal have recognized that the job market is in constant and rapid flux. They have also recognized that subject matter competence falls short of preparing students for the demands of the real world. Hence, programs at both the arts and sciences faculty and the continuing education wisely decided to provide a course that will help students better navigate the transition from school to workplace.

Which are the pillars of translator’s training in Canada?

The traditional ones of language transfer competency and methodology.

How do you rate knowledge, curiosity, and openness in translation students and professional translators?

I suspect that translation students and professionals are like any other group in any other field of study and endeavour. A third are passive and/or indifferent but capable of mastering the basics and a third are highly-motivated, pro-active and really shine. The remaining third is composed of folks who will never have the chops to survive in the field or who discover that they positively loathe translation. That said, translation students and pros seem to share certain character traits. They are die-hard eggheads, word nerds and language geeks with sketchy social skills. Born perfectionists, they shrink from risk-taking. Clearly, this is a gross generalisation and there are many, many exceptions. That said, increasingly, surviving in today’s job market requires an entrepreneurial turn of mind. As a result, the congenitally self-effacing have a tough row to hoe.

Which major changes (if any) in translators’ education did you see in the last 10 years or so?

Innovations in language technology have triggered the biggest changes in the curriculum. Of course, “changes” and “curriculum” are two concepts that rarely go together. My experience has led me to believe that universities are like enormous, unwieldy ocean-going vessels. Yes, images of the Titanic come to mind. Technology, and we only see the tip of it, is the iceberg. Faculties struggle to adjust their curriculum. Forging ahead under a full head of steam, well-meaning captains and crew debate the merits of various options while the deck tilts and the passengers sing Nearer my God to Thee.

What role should technology play exactly in translators’ training?  

I firmly believe that technology should be integrated into the curriculum on day one. Currently, students take a survey course or two in tools. Despite the best efforts of the committed and highly-competent teaching staff that presents the technology content, proficiency remains elusive. Why? Because the technology is not integrated into other courses. There are two simple reasons. First, an ageing teaching staff, unfamiliar with new technology and/or skeptical about its importance, is ill-equipped to integrate tools proficiency into their courses. Second, for cash-strapped institutions, the cost of tools is prohibitive and makes setting up and maintaining a state-of-the-art tools lab very difficult. So, many students still arrive in class with the classic “toolkit”: a pencil case jam-packed with pens, mechanical pencils, erasers, white-out tape, and highlighters. Imagine accounting students turning up to class armed with abacuses.

As I wrote in my article for The Big Wave, I think it’s time that the translation industry truly collaborates with the universities to overhaul the curriculum currently offered by translation programs. There should be a common initiative with a thorough audit in order to develop criteria for the eventual revision of curricula.  But, most importantly, both the industry and universities should understand that the role of translator training is not to produce ever higher numbers of high-performing, market-ready, off-the-shelf professionals. Aiming for such a goal is to embrace the absurd. The translation industry and universities should stimulate and encourage critical, independent thinkers able to adapt as necessary to a rapidly changing professional context.

Are you a trainer/teacher active in the translation industry? Do you believe there should be more collaboration between the academic world and the translation industry? What are your own experiences and challenges?