A recent Proz poll asked whether we translators attended courses to improve our expertise. Most of my colleagues answered that, yes, they have attended courses or training sessions. I was reminded of some thoughts I’ve been pondering regarding translator and interpreting training, views that I have been revising mentally since May this year after a series of job interviews with a private American university.
I was being interviewed for the position of adjunct professor of translation and interpreting. I made it clear that I do not know how to teach interpretation but they were interested in seeing me personally because of my years of translator experience. I was to give a 45-minute class which was to be monitored by the hiring manager and program director. That evening, she gave me this assessment:
“Mario, your class was good but it was more like a lecture, not the kind of classes we teach here. Here we apply the student-centered approach to teaching. Your teaching style is more instructor-based, the European kind, but I’m certain you will be able to adapt.”
-What preadmission exams students are required? —I asked.
-TOEFL, of course, for foreign students. For the MA students, the GRE.
-I understand that both TOEFL and GRE tests have a vocabulary and a writing component for English. What about Spanish, since the position is for English-Spanish translation education?
-We currently do not have a Spanish writing evaluation.
Back home, I considered these answers. I was surprised at the absence of a writing test for Spanish since this is an English-Spanish translation and interpreting undergraduate and graduate program.
About a week ago (mid August 2015), the current ATA president shared her thoughts about foreign language education and whether we will fund the next generation of interpreters and translators. Her June 2015 opening paragraphs are a call to action:
The proportion of high school students who have studied formal courses in a foreign language is indeed quite low. The first sentence is a gentle reprimand to the states that do not require a foreign language as high school graduation requisite. What worries me is the rest of the percentages being inserted in strange ways. More on that later.
In that LinkedIn discussion opened by the ATA president, I wrote that “fluency in foreign languages does not necessarily equal or include writing skills in a foreign language. We keep singing the same bilingualism song. How about the ATA foster a more writing, less talking in foreign languages so we can prepare future translators better?” My criticism encountered what I consider a baffling response:
Fluency in a foreign language includes reading, writing, listening and speaking ability. Much of the predicted growth is already materializing in interpreting sectors, making the spoken v.s written debate moot.
So now being fluent in a language automatically implies writing ability? A high school course covering French or Spanish may focus on the basics, just like a continuing education language course in college. Last year, I took a college French course that required attending a 3-hour session twice a week for almost 3 months. I was happy with the challenge of learning a new language and practicing it with my fellow students. The teacher is an engaging instructor who spent some years in France. I came away with a certain degree of fluency in French, situational bilingualism I call it: what to do at a restaurant, how to find a train station or ask questions to get to the post office, how to address younger or older people, friends and strangers alike in France, etc. But was the course geared to teach me how to write a letter in French? No, it was not. So, I was functionally bilingual but only in the verbal sense.
Back to the private university I interviewed for last May. Prospective students are expected to be fluent in a given language (Spanish in this case), and that implies knowing how to write in Spanish. However, there is no test to assess that competence. Moreover, the courses are designed to get the students to translate from day one and to familiarize themselves with the technology tools of the trade, such as translation memories, glossary creation and maintenance, as well as specializing in certain areas such as medicine, finance, software localization, etc.
In my view and with the benefit of having undertook years of formal translation courses and seminars, this kind of instruction is doomed to fail because it just tries to fit the bilingual circle into the square of actual translation education. There is no theory, no stylistics, no writing practice to speak of. If Spanish grammar is taught, students are already expected to have an advanced knowledge and practice of it. But without a way to assess it, how well prepared are they to absorb college-level Spanish grammar classes, let alone put them to work in a translation context?
In my years of being a member of the American Translators Association, I’ve indeed associated myself with very bright individuals and colleagues, several of them holders of MAs and PhDs in their chosen field and/or in translation or interpretation. However, whenever there has been discussion of preparing future translators or improving current ones in their knowledge of translation techniques and methods, the umbrella word, the operative term is training, which I find utterly simplistic and misleading.
By definition, training is the method to acquire mainly technical skills and takes place in a short period of time, from a few hours to a few weeks or months. In the professions, training is often called professional development. If you wanted to learn how to create floral arrangements, your training would probably take you a few weeks. On the other hand, a complex procedure such as Lasik surgery requires a degree in medicine, in Ophthalmology, a residency and further training. However, the word training in the latter context does not present the problems I’m citing in the area of translation for a number of reasons, mainly because ophthalmologists are a special kind of eye doctor (i.e. they are not optometrists!) and their profession is highly regulated. They are not considered medical specialists just because they pepper their conversation with cataract this and presbyopia that. People do not hold them in high esteem and pay high fees to see them because they wear white smocks or fancy nametags.
Think of the last plumber or electrician you hired for your home. Did you ask for a copy of his certificate or license? Electricians, for one, have to have a license number to practice, and many of the workers in the construction trades, from HVAC technicians to welders, need to be bonded. These are visible signs attesting to the practitioner’s training and knowledge. But if you take an interpreter or a translator, how does she prove her competence? Do you ask for an educated conversation in French or German, a letter of recommendation from a teacher or professor, or a writing test or a diploma? Chances are you only take her word for it. Maybe you ask her if she is a member of the corresponding professional association. A detailed person may offer her business card with the association’s seal and membership number but, do you call or write the association (NAJIT for interpreters, ATA for translators and interpreters) to verify the practitioner’s credentials? No, you will just take her word for it and focus on her being bilingual and fluent in a foreign language that you do not understand.
Hiring someone to perform a service based on this criteria would be irresponsible for a business owner, wouldn’t you agree? However, that’s exactly how many American businesses and organizations hire translators and interpreters: on the strength of their bilingualism and foreign language fluency.
I would propose that, in the field of preparing and educating current and future translators and interpreters, we take a step up and leave the word training behind. In practice, a translator or interpreter hits her stride on her fifth year of full-time practice, with or without a college degree. Right now, my proposal, my challenge, is for translators and interpreters associations and groups to take translation and interpreting education very seriously, acknowledging the inadequacy of current so-called certification programs blithely given at many American universities and colleges. I also want to make this challenge extensive to the American Translators Association to help dispel the misassociation people have between the word bilingual and the professions translator and interpreter. If the ATA is truly concerned about foreign language degrees in America, it should start going beyond the buzzwords of bilingualism and translation training and focus on the actual competencies required, mainly excellent writing skills in the languages involveds and the means to assess those skills in a way that a member of the public, a business owner, a government official, a hospital administrator who does not write in that language may find useful and purposeful.
Finally, a word or two about the misuse of statistics. In the “Fewer than 8% of college students study a foreign language” paragraph I cited above, I saw two important data points: that only 10 U.S. states require a foreign languages as graduation requisite for high school, and that 8% of college students (or a lower proportion) take up to studying a foreign language. We are not told what level these foreign language courses are: are they beginner level (such as the French course I took in 2014)? Are they mid-level or advanced level? What are the goals or expected outcomes?
The opening argument is that high school graduates with no foreign language skills represent “a skill level far too low with which to work.” We are left to guess what the author meant by that: what skill level is far too low with which kind of position or area to work? We are left in the dark.
Then two more statistics are thrown in to close the argument, the growth rate in translation and interpreting jobs since 2005 (a floating statistic I call it, because the reader is not given any reference framework to compare) and the US BLS prediction of 46% growth for these professions from 2012-2022. If you and I were government officials, we might be impressed with such large percentages…but we are not. Let’s see the actual statistic with some context:
Notice the following:
The entry-level education (a BA degree), none as work experience in a related occupation, short-term on-the-job training as on-the-job training (remember what I said about training?) and the paragraphs under What interpreters and translators do and How to be come an interpreter or translator. Especially troubling is the statement: “the most important requirement is to have native-level fluency in English and at least one other language.” So it circles back to what I was saying regarding fluency in a foreign language.
At ATA conferences I’m always hearing talk about how little people and companies and governments understand our role to be, what little professional respect we are given, how demeaning it is to be considered just another bilingual professional. One immediate step or campaign the ATA’s Public Relations Committee could take is to contact the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics and start correcting this wrong image. Otherwise, the ATA in practice is more like the American Bilingual Professionals Association.