Posted by: patenttranslator | July 27, 2014

A Gaping Hole in the Curriculum for Translation Studies

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 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 providers.

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.


  1. I actually have to say I was quite pleased with my liberal arts degree in this regard, even though many people say liberal arts degrees are worthless. I spent about a third of my time on my language, and the rest of the time studying the subjects I now specialize in. Later, I did a translation masters program in my target language country, and I enjoyed the balance of linguistics courses that taught things that are nice to know but useless in translation and then practical courses taught by working translators. But I always wondered what, exactly, you can go on to translate when you have nothing in your educational background except a translation bachelors and masters. Being a generalist isn’t very lucrative.


  2. “But I always wondered what, exactly, you can go on to translate when you have nothing in your educational background except a translation bachelors and masters.”

    Exactly. It took me a long time to figure out that the best way to earn a decent living and have some fun too would be to become a self-employed Mad Patent Translator, in part because no career guidance was provided at my school.


  3. Dear Steve:
    Yes, of course you’re right (again). I did a master’s in translation and interpreting which was great and did all those great things you say it does—a chance to study universal culture, practice interpreting, read all those translation theory articles and delve into the details of linguistics. That jump to being a professional cuts the wheat from the chaff though. Enter the course Getting Started as a Freelance Translator and more hours dedicated to reading literature about how to actually run a business and be an ‘entrepreneurial linguist’. Without this kind of advice and knowledge I don’t see how it’s possible to be successful in a business sense as a freelance translator or interpreter. The good news? There are a couple of great courses out there you can take, books with really juicy info (101 Things a Translator Needs to Know is pretty bomb) and podcasts (Corinne’s and also Marketing Tips for Translators) as well as a bevy of other translators looking to propel you into professional spheres. There’s that gap left by universities teaching translation, just one course would do it—on managing your money and your time as that is your money and just the basics of invoicing. In a rainbow and unicorn cloud world, the universities would teach this to the newbies and they would all have wised up before the agencies and other creepers shuffled them into little boxes where they work for nothing and are undervalued as professionals. But since this isn’t what’s happening right for the moment, I think Corinne has skillfully found a way to give people really good advice and to fill a void with her courses.


  4. Another substance-packed post!

    I would add, though, that the field of TEFL (teaching English as a foreign language) has long disfavored the grammar/translation approach to teaching a new language, and that there is a large literature available on teaching methodologies that take a “communicative” and “eclectic” approach, instead. In TEFL, for example, something called “guided discovery” is a highly preferred method for conveying grammar/syntax principles, and so while some university venues may still take older approaches in new language instruction, there are many well-developed resources available in the newer approaches.

    I must qualify this, though, with mention that it does not necessarily make sense to teach all languages through the communicative approach, especially when the learner is planning to become a translator. As a translator of Modern Standard Arabic (MSA), which is merely a written variant of classical Arabic, I survive ONLY because my training in Arabic was very, very heavy in grammar/structure. MSA functions rarely as a spoken language, except in certain circles, and so to learn to speak MSA makes very little sense for someone whose primary goal is to get by in daily life, in an Arabic speaking country (which, moreover, will be dominated by dialect variants).

    I have worked with graduates of “communicative” approach programs in Arabic, as the reviewer and editor of their translations into English, and here’s what I’ve found: Because their MSA learning failed adequately to teach the famously intricate grammar of Arabic, favoring, instead, conversational speech, they are unable to advance to truly functional levels, as translators.

    Here’s what else I’ve found, and this goes to the question of what translators working in all languages really need to study: Even structurally well- grounded English-native translators from Arabic can make for terrible translators, because too often, their command of their native English is really weak. They may speak English beautifully, but many cannot communicate professionally (grammatically and with proper register) in written English. They often understand the Arabic fabulously well.. .but then fail to be able to convey its real meanings and nuances in their target (and native) language.

    So I would vote for rigorous testing in one’s native/target language as a strict prerequisite for admission into any academic program in translation, and then I would favor granting admission, into such a program, not necessarily to great speakers of the source language, but, rather, to those who have real mastery in the feature of the source language that is most RELEVANT to translation in the intended target language: In Arabic, that feature is invariably structure, and not fluency.

    New-language instruction for daily-life applications being an entirely different animal, it should indeed involve communicative approaches that allow grammar to be internalized through activities that speak directly to the process by which language users form internal descriptive (as distinguished from prescriptive) grammars.


  5. There must be some university courses in translation that are valuable, because I hear rumors about them now and then, but the kind you describe are certainly worthless for preparing a person to earn a living as an independent contractor translator.

    I wouldn’t have the slightest idea how to advise a beginning translator how to get started these days. The field is incredibly different from when I started about 30 years ago. For one thing, we worked with typewriters, and received and sent jobs by “snail mail” (of course we didn’t call it that then), FedEx, or by hoofing them ourselves if the agent or client was nearby. It was all so leisurely!

    I just fell into translating after studying Japanese in Japan for a couple of years, because I needed a job, and gradually learned how to do it by doing it. I never did learn how to run a business for myself properly, and am only slowing picking up some knowhow now as the economic situation of freelance translators becomes more and more precarious.

    I just finished Corinne’s course for more experienced translators, and also recommend her educational efforts highly. Translators need to pick up all the knowledge they can get from anywhere they can find it. The situation is no joke these days.


  6. @Jesse, Lucille and Zenner

    Thanks for your comments.

    Everybody seems to agree with me that a practical course on how to become a successful self-employed translator would be a good addition to the curriculum in universities that teach foreign languages.

    I wonder if somebody has an existing example of something like that.


    • There are some universities now where you can take this kind of practical course. At the University of East Anglia (Norwich, UK), I run a module, ‘Translation as a Profession’, for Masters students in translation and intercultural communication. It’s designed to be flexible, responding to the needs of each year’s group. This year, for instance, three of the students planned to set up new translation or localisation agencies in their home countries, where there was either no such provision or it was of limited use/quality; so we focused on business-level issues as well as those facing new freelance translators. Although I’d agree that getting started is probably more challenging in lots of ways today (one reason for my decision to offer the module), technological developments also represent significant new opportunities. For instance, students can access fantastic information and resources to help them get established (I point students to Corinne’s book and blog, among many others), and are often well-equipped to win work in new fields: in the past, translation experience was a big block to getting started, but younger/less experienced translators can now often exploit their greater technical ability or understanding of social media to take advantage of growing translation opportunities opened up by localisation and the Internet. I think there are some other such courses out there if you dig down to the module level – Daniel Gouadec at Rennes (France) has written a book on the topic so I imagine he offers a related course, for instance.


  7. […] 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 …  […]


  8. Amen! When I got my MA in German it was with the immediate goal of working in the field in some way (I was 35 years old then) and I kept wondering why we were not learning how to make our bread with German. I did find rather to my surprise that with the MA and having read old high German, middle high German, and literature from then to the present, all in some depth, there was very little in a patent application – grammatical or technical – that was any great problem. But I had the advantage of very good spoken German myself before I began the MA, and the classes were all taught in German.(But GW no longer offers graduate degrees in German nor I think any graduate-level German courses.) Universities generally seem not to teach any foreign languages with a focus on speaking and hearing the language. After the first undergrad year or so, everything is literature. Just recently my grandson was complaining that the French classes at his college were not up to his own level, and he’d had French only in middle school and maybe a year in high school. Since most students don’t know the spoken language that well, the university just lets them read at their own speed, and occasionally translate. (Translation was slow, boring and tedious when I first tried it as an undergrad, but after my MA it was mainly a breeze.)Since this seems to be a worldwide problem, what is the solution? Some people forge ahead on their own, whenever and where they get a chance. You’d think they could get more help from university courses, though.


  9. “Since this seems to be a worldwide problem, what is the solution?”

    I don’t know what the solution is to the worldwide of problem of universities that do not seem to teach languages to language majors, but the solution to the lack of vocational guidance for language students at the same universities could be courses that would fill up this gap in the curriculum. Such courses could be given by “visiting lecturers” who could be highly experienced self-employed translators such as yourself, since the regular professors would probably not have a clue about something like that.

    Many universities could probably be talked into something like that.

    When I was studying Japanese at Charles University in Prague, we had no Japanese conversation classes because at first we had no Japanese teachers. So I found a Japanese lady who was giving a private lessons through a language school and I started taking lessons from her. Her name was Mrs. Haneda. When my teachers at the university found out about it, they put her on the payroll and she started teaching Japanese conversation to all students of Japanese at the university.

    Those were wonderful times. In the summer we used to have these classes in cafes, or while sitting on the benches in Old Town Square and talking in Japanese while all the other monolingual people sitting on the benches nearby were looking at us with envy and admiration ….


  10. Somehow it seems to me that much of this whole problem may be related to the fact that whenever translation is written about in English-language publications, as far as I have seen, the translation being discussed is almost always literary translation, which is of course only a small fraction of the total amount of actual translation done in the world today, and of course has its own set of problems and techniques that are frequently different from non-literary translation. Also, of course, the overwhelming majority of translators who earn their primary income from translation don’t do literary translation — at least, that’s certainly true of Japanese>English. (How many of your friends and neighbors are eagerly awaiting the next translation of a Japanese novel or book of poetry to come out? It just doesn’t sell.)

    So in the academic world, what most professors who are at all concerned with foreign languages associate the word “translation” with is probably usually literary translation, which they do, if they do it at all, as a side line, almost a hobby. It’s certainly not something they think of as a way of paying the mortgage, the grocery bill, and the cable bill. And so it’s natural that they wouldn’t think of trying to prepare any of their students for a practical career in translation. They don’t even realize that there are people who actually make a living at it, or at least try to.

    And when most laypeople think of translation (which is not that often), they generally have literary translation in their minds, I think. This is also related to something that irritates me a little: most of the time, when I see some reference to “reading” in journalistic and cultural periodicals (at least American ones), it soon turns out that the writer is only talking about reading novels. (And we’re not talking about the likes of Dickens, Henry James, James Joyce, and Faulkner here!) It’s as though there is nothing but novels to read.


  11. @Zenner

    I agree.

    And this perception that translation means translating novels and the rest is MT needs to change.

    That is why I think that before graduation, language students here and in other English-speaking countries should be offered vocational guidance that would also include some information about career in technical translation, in particular for translation from languages like German, French, Japanese, Chinese, Korean, etc., i.e. languages in which there is a lot of technical information that needs to be translated into English.


  12. As long as translators are depicted (and regard themselves) as freelancers (I do the translating for the wage offered, and someone else worries about the client, marketing, project management, etc.), this dilemma is not easily resolved.
    The moment we (and those teaching us) start thinking about ourselves as ‘professionals in private practice’, there will be a need to start thinking about marketing ourselves, developing a reputation, image, record, etc.
    Then the need to teach the relevant skills will become obvious, and will be seen as an opportunity by teaching institutions.


  13. […] Study When You Do a PhD in Translation? The Interpreter Ethicist: Should Interpreters Accept Tips? A Gaping Hole in the Curriculum for Translation Studies 5 lessons I’ve learned during my first year of freelancing A Frog in a Well Knows Nothing of […]


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