Translator competence

Reblogged from Carol’s Adventures in Translation blog with permission from the author (incl. the image)

Translators and the need for speed

I’m very excited to be writing a guest blog post for Caroline, who I met at the XXXIV Semana do Tradutor in Brazil in September. Caroline indicated that I was free to choose any topic relevant to translators or translation, as long as it had not already been covered in a previous post. Therefore, like a good translator and researcher, I first diligently read the previous posts (I even attempted the ones in Portuguese!). And I’m really glad that I did. For one thing, I feel like I know Caroline a little better. I found out that she likes Alice in Wonderland, which means that she has something in common with Warren Weaver, who is one of my personal heroes in the field of translation. That’s Weaver as in “Weaver’s Memorandum”, the document that launched serious investigation into Machine Translation. Regardless of whether or not you are a fan of machine translation, Dr. Weaver was an impressive person in a number of respects.

In reading the previous posts, I observed some recurring themes, such as “translator education”, “knowledge vs skills” and “productivity”. I’ve decided to try to extend the discussion of some of these ideas by framing them in the context of my own experience as a professor of translation at the University of Ottawa in Canada.

The question of whether a translator education program should focus on knowledge (which leans towards theory or what Don Kiraly (2000) refers to as “translation competence”) or skills (which lean more towards the non-linguistic activities that support translation, or what Kiraly groups under the category of “translator competence”). Conventionally, universities have come down on the side of knowledge, contending that skills are too short-lived. For example, a university professor might argue that with regard to computer-aided translation, the important things to learn in class are the underlying concepts, and not the “how to” steps of using a specific piece of software, which may be outdated or out of fashion by the time the student graduates. Instead, the focus of a university education is on developing critical analysis, on honing evaluation, and on refining judgement. I think that few people would argue against this focus. Translation is a challenging task, and doing it well requires serious reflection. Learning to do it well, even more so!

Nevertheless, universities cannot ignore the fact that, after students graduate, they need to function in a professional work setting. One area where new graduates sometimes struggle is in meeting the tight deadlines which are a reality in the translation profession.

In many translator education courses, the focus is placed firmly on encouraging students to reflect fully, to analyze deeply, and to weigh options carefully before committing to a translation strategy, a terminological choice or a turn or phrase. There is no doubt that students must cultivate these deliberate analytical skills, and they must be given the time to develop them. However, in the professional world, there may be less time for careful deliberation. Instead, the translation must come quickly, if not automatically. Therefore, the addition of authentic and situated learning that tests and improves students’ translation skills under time pressure makes sense. It is an additional way to prepare students for the working world and to let them experience translation in a different form and under different circumstances.

Therefore, I have made a conscious decision to try to introduce some “speed training” into the courses that I teach. For the first time this year, in a 3rd-year course on professional writing, I have the students begin each class by preparing a précis or summary of a longer text. The texts in question are popularized texts on topics of general interest to students in Canada (e.g. the International Space Station, the World Series baseball championships, the discovery of a 19th-century shipwreck in the Arctic). Each text is approximately 600 words in length, and students are given 15-20 minutes to summarize the contents in about 200 words. The students receive feedback each week, although the exercises are not always graded. This takes the pressure off and allows the students to develop these skills in a low-risk environment.

The overall idea behind this “speed writing” summarization exercise is that it can allow the students to sharpen a number of skills and reflexes that are also useful for translation: the ability to analyze and grasp meaning quickly, the ability to extract key ideas and structure from a text, the ability to organize ideas, and the ability to convey ideas accurately and to recognize and avoid distortion in information transfer. By introducing speed training in a writing context, I hope that students will be better able to hone their capacity for making decisions quickly, and they can then extend this to a bilingual context at a subsequent stage of their training.

Students were surveyed at the mid-point in the semester to determine whether or not they found the exercise to be valuable. On the whole, their comments were positive and they indicated that they saw a genuine value in learning to work more quickly, and that they did feel that they were improving these skills as a result of practicing speed writing on a regular basis. There will be another survey at the end of the semester, and it will be interesting to see how their thoughts have evolved.

Meanwhile, from an instructor’s perspective, I have also noted improvements. Firstly, at the beginning of the semester, a number of students were unable to complete the exercise fully; however, now that we are nearing the end of the semester, students are able to finish within the time allotted. They are getting faster! With regard to quality, the information flow has improved significantly – the recent summaries read like actual texts, rather than like collections of independent sentences. The students are also doing a better job of differentiating between the key ideas and the more peripheral content.

So my questions to you, readers, are as follows: Did you ever do any formal “speed training” as part of your education? If not, do you think that it would have been helpful? Do you have suggestions for other ways in which “speed training” could be incorporated into a translator education program? Do you have suggestions for other types of professional “translator competence” type skills that could usefully be incorporated into a translator education program?

Some translation professors are genuinely interested in helping students to bridge theory and practice, but to do this successfully, we need input from practicing professionals! I look forward to hearing your thoughts! And thanks again to Caroline for the opportunity to write this guest post.

The complete article on this subject was published in the December 2016 issue of Meta, and it won an award.
Bowker, Lynne. 2016. “The need for Speed! Exploring ‘Speed Training’ in the Scientific/Technical Translation Classroom,” Meta 61(4): 22-36. Winner of the Vinay & Darbelnet Prize awarded by the Canadian Association for Translation Studies.
Back issues of Meta can be found at: https://meta.erudit.org/?lang=en

About the author

Lynne Bowker is a certified translator (French-English) with the Association of Translators and Interpreters of Ontario (ATIO). She earned a BA and MA in Translation from the University of Ottawa, an MSc in Computer Applications for Education from Dublin City University, and a PhD in Language Engineering from the University of Manchester Institute of Science and Technology (UMIST). She has been teaching translation, terminology, translation technologies and information studies at the University of Ottawa since 2000. In spring 2014, she was an invited professor at the Katholieke Universiteit Leuven in Belgium. To find out more about her teaching activities, and particularly her thoughts on teaching translation technologies, check out this summary in Research Media.