Every now and then I receive e-mails from readers of my blog who ask for my input. I usually ignore them, but not always.
One of them from this week went like this:
My name is Charlie, and I’m a Chinese ‑ English translator with a few years of part‑time work, and about 1 month of full‑time work under my belt. I’ve been a fan of your blog for a while, and greatly appreciate your no‑bs take on life and the industry.
Which brings me to a question that I would like to pose to you. How do you feel about paying $50k to NYU to go get a degree in translation? I have a high‑intermediate knowledge of, and a strong passion for IT and computer technology, which I would love to turn into a career in Chinese ‑ English patent translation. That being said, I know nothing about legalese, and my one attempt at translating a IT patent abstract was a painful and ultimately unsuccessful undertaking (and that was just the abstract).
Had such a program been offered at the time, do you think a M.S. in translation would have saved you time, enabling you to “jump” through the first 3‑4 years of struggling? Would you recommend it to a young translator who wants to skip such a period now? Do you think the cost and inconvenience of getting this degree and living in NY for a year to do this program is time/money well spent?
If anyone is going to call it like it is, it’s you. At the same time, you must get lots of unsolicited sh*t e-mail, so please don’t feel the need to respond to this either.
I asked Charlie if it would be OK to respond in a post, and he said:”Sure, do your worst“.
So here is my very worst.
As far as I can tell, there are two kinds of technical translators.
A. Those who have a degree in linguistics or languages and learn what they need about the technical fields in which they translate on the job.
B. Those who have a degree in a technical subject and either “picked up” a foreign language “accidentally”, for example because they lived abroad for a long time or grew up in a multilingual family, or they learn a foreign language on their own because they want to be able to translate.
I belong to the first category, and my degree in Japanese studies served me well, as I was able to put it to good use on three different continents over the last three decades which is described in this post.
Ideally, a good patent translator should be native in at least two languages, he or she should have a technical degree (at least a master’s degree, although PhD would be best), as well as a law degree. Which is why ideal patent translators simply don’t exist, only plenty of people who belong either to category A. or B. above.
In fact, I believe that people who are truly “native” in more than one language do not exist either, as the word native is a cognate of the Latin word “natus” meaning “born”, and unless you are James Bond or become reincarnated, you get to live only once.
We live in an imperfect world in which imperfect people are doing their best, or their worst. We may and sometime we do strive for perfection, but perfection is attainable probably only on rare occasions in art, hardly ever in real life, or even in translation. Our world and our life is simply an endless series of compromises.
(I can just see Charlie muttering under his breath – even though I have no idea what he looks like):”Come on, man, stop this dumb philosophizing already. Is it worth 50 grand or not)?
OK, I think that a degree from NYU is probably not worth 50K.
One of the extreme injustices young people in countries such as United States or Japan are facing is the extremely high cost of college education.
Instead of trying to help smart people who are just about to start living their lives to become educated so that they could eventually figure out how to fix things that old people screwed up so badly, we saddle them with mountains of debt right at the starting line, debt that some of them will be paying, with a lot of interest, for the rest of their lives.
A dysfunctional society needs to do that partly to prevent young people from becoming too independent, because then they could be thinking for themselves and trying to change the society, which is what often happens when young people are allowed to think for themselves.
With tens or hundreds thousands of dollars in student debt to pay off, independent thinking is a luxury that the indentured young can simply no longer afford.
And that is just the way Wall Street likes it.
You can become a very good translator, Charlie, whether you have a degree in translation from NYU or not, if you have it in you and if you put your mind to it. And I would bet anything that there will be tons of Chinese patents that will need to be translated for decades to come, and very few people who will be able to do it well.
Potential employers, at least here in United States, probably pay little attention to such a degree anyway. In 31 years that I have been living here, I have been asked about my degree only twice: once by a nosy old lady at the Northern California Translators Association, about 15 years ago, who had absolutely no reason to see it. She probably thought I was making it up (so sorry if I disappointed her), and once by a translation agency in UK. The agency was looking for impressive resumes and people with degrees because they were bidding on a translation project. Once they got from me what they wanted, I never heard from them.
It is not the degree that is so useful later in life, it is what you can learn before you receive your degree, and after you have received your degree. A degree is just a start, a good, solid base for good, solid, lifelong learning, if you have been lucky enough to have gone to a good school.
But there are also other ways to learn what you need to learn to become what you want to be one day. I don’t know anything about NYU, but from what you told me I do know that they are very greedy.
If you can figure out how to pay the debt that you would incur by going to NYU within a few years, I would recommend to go for the degree. If I were young again, I would love to be living in NYC and going to NYU.
But only if I could figure out how to pay the debt very quickly.
If something like that does not seem feasible, I would recommend to look for a cheaper alternative, to you, Charlie, and to others, perhaps a less greedy college. Aren’t there still a few left in this country or abroad?
I believe that education has a value that is independent of the earning potential that usually, but not always, comes with a degree. In other words, education (or a degree, if you will), has real value even if it does not translate directly into making more money later in life.
But if the choice of a young person today is between a degree that would turn this person into an indentured servant who will spend decades trying to pay off a mountain of tuition loans, and an alternative to such a sad existence, I believe that a smart young person should look for an alternative.