The purpose of this post is to help you answer the question: Is it worth it for me to get a degree in translation? By degree, I mean a formal, one- or two-year academic program that teaches the theory and practice of translation. Clearly, the answer to the question will depend on the individual and their circumstances. To help you decide, I will describe my experiences at the two-year master’s degree program at the Middlebury Institute of International Studies at Monterey in California (MIIS), way back in the late eighties.
Two caveats come with this post. First and foremost, as I’ve just said, I attended the institute back in the Jurassic Period, when it was still known as the Monterey Institute. I’m sure the school has changed its curriculum and its entire program to some degree. Yet I still think it will be valid for me to talk about the teaching methods, the organization of the program, and the benefits I derived from attending.
The second caveat is that you should not assume I believe that a specialized degree in translation is the only way to go. A fair number of us have arrived at the destination of professional translation through many a winding turn and side road. I am certain that plenty of excellent translators out there never attended such a program. For me, however, the experience proved essential.
When I was at the Monterey Institute, the translation and interpretation program was divided into two years of two semesters each. Candidates had to pass a screening process that included demonstrating fluency in at least one other language, their B language. Your A language is your native language (not necessarily English), a third language is your C language, and so on.
The first year was devoted to honing English skills through exercises that taught us how to analyze a text, and introducing us to the various methods of interpretation: sight translation, consecutive interpreting, and simultaneous interpreting. We also learned how to translate. Translators who learn on the job can certainly figure out an approach to their craft, but I am grateful that I had experts teaching me exactly how to read a text, how many passes to go through to produce a final translation, and what each pass should consist of.
At the end of the first year, I opted for the translation-only track. Classes consisted of small groups of six or seven students; we would go around in a circle reading aloud one section of a translation we had prepared in advance as homework. One class was technical translation into and out of the foreign language; the other was general texts in the same two directions. “Technical” texts included anything from an article on local area networks to a description of the Chernobyl disaster. “General” texts tended toward international affairs and politics because many of the teachers worked for the European Union. They were practicing translators and interpreters, able to give us critical exposure to real-life skills and methods.
Meeting in small groups meant everyone had to participate, and everyone was able to receive feedback from professionals. Working into our B and C languages provided useful insights into why those languages use the styles they do, and how to go about molding them to fit the usage norms of our native languages. I think it would be difficult or impossible to reproduce these aspects of the program on your own.
The Monterey Institute teaches students to be generalists, on the theory that if you know how to research a topic and how to translate, the specializations will come as you build your career. This training contrasts with that of translators who have received degrees in a specialized field such as law or biology, most likely in their native language, and then learned how to translate as they went along. Ideally, a student would have both types of education, in a much longer academic program combining undergraduate and graduate studies. But life is rarely ideal. A college education requires a great deal of time and money. My own view is that while a master’s degree in translation is not essential to becoming a translator, a bachelor’s degree certainly is. Four years of undergraduate work provide the exposure to the wide breadth of basic knowledge that translators need to understand the texts they are translating.
Another benefit of the Monterey program is what I think of as the network effect. Because of the professional connections with the EU and Brussels, graduates often moved to Brussels with their degrees to begin work. When a friend from my class and I did the same, we had three instant contacts in the city to show us the ropes. As with any college program, you get to know a group of people, and they become potential job connections, along with the school’s alumni.
A graduate degree program is not feasible for everyone. I was fortunate to have attended the Monterey Institute; I learned lessons and gained experiences that I never would have otherwise. Luckily for all of us, a plethora of online and in-person training programs and courses also exists to help us perfect our craft.
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After graduating from the Monterey Institute, Diana Rhudick worked briefly in Brussels as a translator before returning to the States to teach and start her freelance career. Following a short stint as a translation agency project manager, she began her own translation and editing business.
Currently, she divides her time between her freelance work and project management for a boutique translation company.