Translation: Calling All Angels

The “professional realities” course offered by Université de Montreal is in full swing. Thirty students have put summer on hold to continue studying and better prepare for a career in translation. Each has a unique background, unique strengths and challenges, and unique career objectives.
What do they have in common? They are all word nerds, love language and the craft of translation. You might say they see translation more as a vocation than a profession. Higher callings and noble purposes aside, however, they still need to make a living and many are just a tad concerned about how to actually do that with a degree in translation.
They know that a diploma is just one step along a long and rocky road toward professional autonomy. They also believe that mentoring, or angelic intervention, might also help them succeed in a competitive and rapidly evolving field.

Each semester, students enrolled in my professional realities course complete a survey that reveals what they understand about the market for translators. Here’s a snapshot:
•     94% know that there is a strong and growing demand for translation.
•     50% believe that there is a lack of translators.
•     92% do not believe that a strong demand means high salaries.
•     80% believe that a degree in translation will not help them get a job; 88% believe that a college education will not help a freelance translator get clients.
•     84% do not expect future employers to provide training on the tools currently used in the trade.
•     50% are ambivalent about joining the professional order.
These results have not changed much over the years. Oddly, and consistently, students are pessimistic about job prospects and the odds for success as a freelancer. And, yet, every summer, here they are, ready to knuckle down, work hard and take a flyer on a very uncertain future.
This year, the much-publicized arrival of machine translation – technology long in development that industryand governmentin Europe and Canadahave now embraced as a viable way to decrease costs and increase production – has changed the debate in the classroom. Sharing the notion that translators may be the new blacksmiths (do you know any blacksmiths?), has not been easy.
One of the Bureau’s activities for increasing productivity and efficiency is the implementation of a language ecosystem. This ecosystem is based on the integration of technolinguistic tools, including machine translation, into every stage in the process for handling translation requests. — from the Translation Bureau website
And still they stay, my students.
A surveypublished in 2012 by AILIA, a language industry association in Canada, confirms that the shortage of translators concerns stakeholders. It also demonstrates that stakeholders expect universities to do something about it. 74% think that it is “important” for colleges and universities to “take action”; 10% think the role of educational institutions is “moderately important”.  My interpretation: universities and colleges are squarely on the hook for addressing this problem. Government? Employers? Not so much. The professional order is not mentioned at all.
At Université de Montréal, I am proud to be surrounded by educators who take their jobs very seriously. You might say that they have a dual vocation: translation and teaching. Despite their active contribution to the field, however, they can’t the “address” the issue alone.
So, here’s where angels come in.
My students have done their homework. They’ve studied the methodology and know more than anyone else would want to know about grammar, syntax, style, and terminology. They’ve had a valuable opportunity to explore, but not master, critical IT tools.
Just as you can’t learn to swim by reading a book, in the classroom, translation students can only learn a small (if important) portion of what they really need to succeed as a professional. What they really need is to get their feet wet. Actually, they need a thorough, well-supervised, dunking in the profession.
They need internships. Paid internships would be nice. Most are willing to take an unpaid internship for the chance to learn the ropes, to apply all the theory they’ve studied.
My students need mentors and real-world experience. They need the intervention of angels, employers willing to invest in the future of the profession.
A heavenly sign would be thrilling but, if you are unable to perform such miracles, feel free to drop me a terrestrial line.


  1. Interesting, Nancy. A colleague of mine is having the opposite problem; she wants to hire a web design intern, and they are nowhere to be found. Back to the topic of translation, though, is demand dissipating as a result of on-line tools? What is the reality (versus the students’ perception)? That would be good to know. When I was trying to get translation gigs, I would cruise the Internet, find badly translated web sites, and offer to improve them. Sometimes it worked. Also, remind your students that there is translation required in the literary world too – English readers who would love to enjoy French authors, and vice versa….

    • Hi Lorrie,

      Actually, demand for translation is steadiliy increasing and outstripping supply, hence the feverish development of tools to increase productivity. Increasingly, production models are based on the implementation of tools and IT-rich processes, a lean inhouse management structure that divvies out work to a pool of freelancers.

      Inhouse translation jobs are often reserved for experienced translators. With fewer full-time jobs on offer, inexperienced translators have trouble getting their foot in the door. Experience gained as an unsupervised freelancer is not valued as highly as inhouse experience.

      Internships offer a solution for both employers and new grads. Unfortunately, training human resources may be seen as a cost instead of an investment, and internships a hard sell.

      It’s a difficult Catch-22 for all involved.

  2. michelle corbeil

    Merci Nancy de te donner autant de mal pour nous, tes étudiants. Faire valoir cette profession qu’est celle de la traduction et nous offrir des moyens pour réaliser notre rêve d’un jour devenir traducteur ou traductrice te tient très à cœur, il n’y a pas de doute. Aussi, je tiens à t’en remercier, ici, sur ce site. Si quelqu’un un jour, grâce à toi, m’offre de faire un stage dans son entreprise, et que cette première expérience dans la “vraie vie” à titre d’apprentie traductrice s’avère par la suite avoir été ce que l’allumette est au feu (de joie) crois-moi, je ne t’oublierai pas.

    Michelle Corbeil
    24 mai 2013

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