When I was a university student, many, many years ago, I thought that the approach to teaching of foreign languages at my university was skewed too much toward the endless study of somewhat ephemeral and apparently useless subjects. For example, if your major was the French language, you needed to memorize first a lot of facts about French literature from middle ages to 18th century, if your language was English, you would have to deliver a seminar work on Beowulf, and if you were majoring in Japanese, you would need to study also the basics of classical Chinese and the complicated grammar of classical Japanese language called bungo.
Most of this knowledge would be completely forgotten within a few years after graduation, with the exception of a few of these students who eventually became teachers of the same subjects again, generally as university professors.
I knew even then that these were worthwhile and interesting subjects to study (especially classical Chinese was really interesting). My main objection was that the kids who were studying these languages, including myself, did not speak very good French, English, or Japanese, which to me meant that the university had the priorities completely wrong. When I said as much all those years ago to one of my favorite teachers, he told me:”You will have the rest of your life to try to learn a foreign language and become really fluent in it. But the only time when you can learn all of these seemingly less important things is while you are still studying here”.
I know now that he was mostly right, and I was mostly wrong. But I did have a point too. A few years after graduation, 5 to be exact, I was working as an in-house translator in Tokyo for a small Japanese company that was importing BMWs to Japan. One of my Japanese colleagues at the company majored in German language at Waseda University, one of the most prestigious universities in Japan. But when I tried to have a conversation with him in German, I found out that he did not understand even very simple German sentences. He told me that most of the time they were just analyzing German grammar at Waseda (in Japanese) instead of learning the actual language. I had the same experience also with a Japanese friend of mine whom I met in San Francisco and who majored in German studies at Kyoto University, also a prestigious Japanese university. He could not speak German at all.
The approach to teaching of foreign languages at many universities, probably most of them in any country, has always been heavy on theory (grammar, history, literature), and light on practical knowledge (mastery of the language). And it may even be for the best, provided that the graduates eventually do learn the languages from which they are supposed to be expertly translating after graduation.
But I think that a practical approach to teaching of foreign languages at the university level should also include advice and counseling about career choices for students who are about to graduate. There are many things that one can with do with a degree in languages. And one of them is working as a specialized, self-employed translator.
Most young people who study languages probably do not give much thought to their eventual career after graduation. They study languages because it is something that they are really passionate about. If they were equally passionate about making a good living, they would probably have chosen dentistry, accounting, or law instead of languages.
It is possible to make a good living as a self-employed translator, depending on your language combination and specialization – if you know how to go about it. But is this a subject that is included in the curriculum at colleges and universities? When I Googled it, there was no shortage of advice offered from a number of source, some of the very questionable. But I did not see any links to this kind of “career planning” offered as a course at a university.
The job market and career choices that new foreign language majors are facing now must be very confusing in these turbulent times. The traditional employment model, based on the employer/employee relationship, is becoming so diluted in the brave, newly globalized world that it may even be on its way out after about two centuries during which it this was the predominant employment pattern.
There are many things that inexperienced translators who are armed only with a brand new diploma should know about.
They should know that they are facing formidable obstacles in the modern job market, obstacles that did not exist when I was young. The public naively believes that in a few years, most human translators will become obsolete as they will be replaced by miraculous translating machines, just like most bank tellers were replaced by miraculous money dispensing machines. Most people do not understand the simple fact that a major limitation of machine translation is …. that it is not translation. Most people are led to believe that machine translation is similar to human translation, that it will be getting incrementally better until it is as good as human translation, and that this ultimate result is just around the corner. That is what they have been told by various assorted snake oil salesmen (people who sell “language technology” for a living) for at least two decades now, so it obviously must be true.
They should know that the corporate translation agency model in the so-called translation industry is based on a predatory relationship in which translators are viewed as easily replaceable, cheap hired help, neatly captured in endless databases containing thousands of worker bee translators, rather than as highly valued experts in their fields. Somebody should explain to them how things work in that part of the translation market and tell them that there are alternatives to the predatory corporate translation agency model and what those alternatives are.
They should know that depending on their language combination, they may be facing competition from countries where most people must survive on a few dollars a day and how translators can deal with these and other problems resulting from globalization.
They should know that there are many specialized “niches”, or fields of specialization where the potential for earning is generally better, such as financial translation, technical translation, or patent translation, and what are the prospects for future developments in different specialized translation fields.
They should be taught the basics of running a business as a self-employed translator. It takes years before a new translator can become confident that his or her particular model is financially sustainable.
There is a whole range of subjects that should be and probably are not taught on colleges and universities to people who are about to graduate with a degree in language studies.
Associations of translators generally do a very poor job of making sure that their members have access to useful information of this kind because they are mostly run by translation agencies. This will be inevitably the result in countries where both translators and translation agencies are allowed to be members of the same “association of translators” because translators’ interests are often diametrically opposed to those of the translation agencies, and the agencies have more money and thus wield a lot of power in such organizations.
Some bloggers emphasize the need for established, experienced translators to mentor young, beginning translators. But this kind of mentoring is probably not going to help a whole lot of people who need access to up-to-date information about their profession.
It would best if the issues and subjects that I am mentioning in this post were discussed as a part of the curriculum at colleges and universities where young people are majoring in a foreign language. Knowledge of this kind in the hand of new translators might eventually start shifting the power away from greedy brokers back to highly educated, specialized translators who are in fact the real language service provider.
I think that it would be really good for our profession if such practical courses were offered as a part of the curriculum at universities where foreign languages are taught, but I don’t think that this is the case at this point.