The (un?)importance of translation-specific degrees to translation

I hope this blog post finds you all well. I just thought I’d start by pointing you in the direction of a guest post I recently wrote for the Balance Your Words blog in case you missed it. Entitled ‘Tackling Specialisation and Sports Translation’, the post is a brief insight into what goes on in my particular corner of the translation profession. Hope you enjoy it!

Now on to today’s post. A debate that regularly crops up among translators is that of the importance of gaining translation-specific qualifications and I wanted to give some of my own humble views on the subject, though perhaps from a different angle to the usual ‘can the end results justify the length and cost of the course’ debates.

As a holder of an MA in Translation Studies which I found to be immensely valuable, it’s probably unsurprising that I probably have more of a positive take on the subject than many people will have, but that’s not to say this post is all one-way traffic.

Indeed, it is undeniable that there are many (perhaps even a majority of) translators out there who do a brilliant job without these specific qualifications and that immediately serves to place a question mark over the validity of the courses. However, there is more at stake than producing competent professionals and that is where I want to lay the focus of this post.

Beyond theoretical classes which are not to everyone’s tastes and practical lessons in subjects ranging from developing specialisms to invoicing clients, what these courses offer is recognition for a profession that often struggles with its own visibility. While the ongoing perception of translation as a derivative activity sees the actual translation task remain worryingly invisible, there is no reason for the discipline to be considered in the same way. In my view, achieving qualifications in the subject is one way of providing a much-needed authority, as the subject is afforded more concrete academic validity.

Furthermore, professional training in the subject certainly helps to differentiate between those who can translate and those who think they can. As a case in point, I’m certainly not ashamed to admit that after completing my languages degree I naively thought I was ready to become a translator, only to discover upon starting my MA that I didn’t even really know what translation was. This stems from the entire way that ‘translation’ is used throughout the English education system, which focuses upon ensuring comprehension and matching words like-for-like rather than exploring the true, core values of the subject which lie in allowing communication to occur across cultural boundaries.

With International Translation Day just around the corner (taking place on St Jerome’s day, 30th September), and several projects attempting to tackle this very issue of a lack of visibility and understanding of the subject, this is a debate currently occupying everyone’s thought within the world of translation. For me it appears that translation training plays a huge role in helping translation define itself as a subject.

While questions of whether or not qualifications are necessary to do your job well will undoubtedly go on to be debated to no avail, can we really deny the importance of these courses in promoting the visibility of translation? Surely anything offering a more standardised understanding of the task we undertake and more stringent criteria to dispel the common myth that bilingualism equates to translational skills is something worthwhile as translation continues to struggle to be recognised for what it really has to offer? Ultimately, it is my belief that translation-specific degrees and qualifications are one of the best ways of overturning commonly held misconceptions surrounding our subject and that can’t be overlooked.

Happy International Translation Day for next Monday!

14 thoughts on “The (un?)importance of translation-specific degrees to translation

  1. Emeline Jamoul says:

    Brilliant post, Joseph (and thank you for mentionning my project)! As someone who doesn’t own an MA in Translation Studies, but in another field, I can say that I wish I could go back to school to get that diploma. I think that, on top of bringing more visibility to our profession, it gives just a bit more credit to the translator. Of course, as you said, it doesn’t mean that those without this MA are not doing a great job. It depends on a lot of factors, and at the end of the day, on what suits you best.

  2. Melanie Martin (@_MelanieMartin) says:

    That is a very good post. Although many great translators I know don’t have a specific degree, I agree that in order to get our industry acknowledged and seen as not just a “skill” but an actual learned profession, we have to embrace and foster those kind of degrees for the future. It does not mean, that someone who translated successfully for 15 years or more now has to take a degree course, but it means that for the future we all can set a standard.

    Great post

  3. Nancy A. Locke says:

    Terrific post, Joseph. I forwarded it to someone who left a rather harsh comment on one of my recent posts. His complaint: translators in Quebec, regardless of age or education, are culturally illiterate. Yikes. As a teacher, it seems that my students, armed to the gills with method, do lack a certain curiosity and depth that might be remedied by an undergraduate degree in anything but translation. 😉

    • jaltranslation says:

      Glad you enjoyed the post Nancy, you’ve certainly hit upon an interesting point there – in my mind it takes us towards that old debate between whether lawyers with linguistic skills tacked on or linguists with a bit of background in law make the best legal translators… But however you look at it, there’s a huge gap between translation as a discipline and translation as a profession that we need to deal with in a more effective manner.

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