University of Massachusetts Amherst: A Day in the Life

By Jocelyn Langer

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The simple New England elegance of Amherst and the plain grey concrete walls of Herter Hall do not at first glance hint at the diversity of language and culture represented within the Translation program at the University of Massachusetts. A scientific look at the geology of the Connecticut River Valley, however, shows traces of its graceful mountains’ ancient connection to the coasts of Europe, and a brief encounter with translation students at UMass reveals that they hail from an even wider geographic area than the geological formations of the picturesque valley.

I was raised in Central Massachusetts, but most of my classmates come to UMass from much farther away, from China, India, Uzbekistan, Iran and Brazil. Our common interest in translation brings us together in passionate conversations and debates in an environment where we gain perspective on language and culture simply by interacting with one another. With this incredible group of students, I feel more at home than almost anywhere else.

Unlike many other translation programs, students in the M.A. in Translation Studies program at UMass are not grouped by language. Everyone takes at least two literature classes in each of their specific languages, but translation courses involve a mix of students working in any number of different languages. The result of this integration is that everyone – including the faculty – has an incredible opportunity to hear about translation practices and theories from many points of view. While it may be considered cutting edge for translation theories in English to be tested from non-Eurocentric perspectives, students at UMass routinely put theories to the test from diverse angles.

The UMass Translation Center works in collaboration with the Comparative Literature program, within the department of Languages, Literatures and Cultures, to host undergraduate and graduate courses in translation and interpreting studies. On an undergraduate level –  and soon-to-be graduate level – the program offers a Certificate in Interpreting Studies. At the graduate level, many students enter the Comparative Literature program to complete a Master’s in Translation Studies, and some Ph.D. students also specialize in translation.

Working in the Comparative Literature program, students receive a strong foundation in literary translation. While some go on to specialize in technical translation, a background in literary translation gives UMass students a unique perspective on texts of all kinds. My own focus is medical translation. Through studying issues in literary translation, I have come to appreciate that medical translation can be similarly influenced by culture, politics, aesthetics, and history. I have also been inspired to question assumptions about non-literary translation and to see that translations of health texts can go far beyond the level of words and sentences.

The education that UMass translation students receive in literary translation should not overshadow the fact that we are also encouraged to think like scientists. One of the strengths of the UMass translation program is its strong emphasis on theory. Theory is not interpreted lightly, and students come to understand that a solid translation theory must withstand the same rigorous standards as any theory in fields like biology or chemistry. Immersion in an international environment puts these standards to the test, as students from India or Russia weigh in on whether a given theory is applicable to translation in their language.

Reflecting on the past year, I am aware that I have learned as much from what is explicitly taught as what is implicitly and informally conveyed. Without having actually enrolled in a Chinese course, I have gained perspective through talking with classmates about translation in China that changes my approach to the Spanish>English translation of medical texts. The reputation of world-renowned faculty at UMass certainly helps to attract an amazing group of international students to the program, and I feel that what I learn from my classmates is as rich as what I learn through assigned reading and lectures.

Though it may seem improbable at a university of nearly 30,000 students, lively discussions during small, in-person classes are a huge part of my learning experience at UMass. In an age when online learning is becoming the norm, the value of face-to-face interaction remains as strong as ever. I have taken one online course and one independent study in this program. Both classes gave me the flexibility to do some work from home instead of making an extra two-hour roundtrip to campus, but my in-person classes are well worth the long commute. In this program, faculty members get to know their students and encourage new ideas, creativity and originality. Translation is not taught through a prescriptive approach, and students learn to think critically, problematize concepts, ask questions and engage in self-reflection.

In addition to courses on translation theory, practice, ethics, history and technology, the program is home to a graduate student organization (OGSCL), a multilingual literary journal (mOthertongue) and several conferences. This spring I attended the International Shakespeare conference, as well as a Graduate Student Conference in Translation Studies, both hosted by our department. My classmates and I chaired panels and presented papers, receiving feedback from faculty and networking with future colleagues from around the globe. Our Graduate Student Conference was the perfect culmination to a year filled with personal growth and professional opportunities, surrounded by inspiring translation scholars and the rolling hills of the Connecticut River Valley.

About the author:

Jocelyn Langer has recently completed her first year in the Master’s in Translation Studies program at the University of Massachusetts, with a focus in Spanish>English medical translation and a special interest in holistic approaches to both health and translation. Her B.A. is in Community Health Education, and she has worked as a health educator and as the executive director of a holistic health center in Central Massachusetts. Jocelyn has studied Italian in Italy and Spanish in Mexico and Guatemala, and traditional holistic health practices in India and Nepal.