B y: Nancy A. Locke
Even though you can’t expect to defeat the absurdity of the world, you must make that attempt.
That’s morality, that’s religion. That’s art. That’s life. — Phil Ochs
Imagine a river, let’s call it The Absurd, in places placid, by turns turbulent. On The Right Side, aged towers reach toward a perennially heavenly blue sky. No windows face the river. Light and air enter the towers through windows with a view Inland. Inland, a lovely country of cozy homes and safe cities sharply etched in black and white spreads to the horizon and, one might assume, beyond. Here, there are no Band-Aids for children never skin their knees. Here, there is no need for dog collars or leashes as dogs are loved and never stray.
On The Opposite Bank, sturdy and gleaming new factories belch smoke. Dogs and children stay inside. At 9:00 am and at 5 p.m., black-suited men and women carrying highly efficient computers in battered, black, leather briefcases pass to then from the factories. The factories spread as far as the eye can see and, one might assume, beyond. Downstream, a partially constructed bridge, partially hidden by weeds, rusts and crumbles.
Many boats of many sizes ply the river. Occasionally, boats from The Opposite Side traverse the river to collect passengers from The Right Side. Dressed in chic black suits and armed with spanking new, black briefcases, only their rose-colored glasses identify the passengers as newly-minted graduates. Their diplomas have been unrolled, flattened and tastefully framed. For now, the precious documents are discreetly hidden away in their briefcases. The new briefcases also contain a healthy lunch of sandwiches made from locally-produced, raw milk cheese, bread from local bakeries and shiny red apples from local orchards.
As sleek and commodious as these conveyances might be, the boats can carry but a fraction of all the graduates produced by the towers. The graduates left behind on the banks of The Absurd clutch rolled diplomas in one hand and brown-bagged lunches in the other. Rose-colored glasses perch firmly on their noses. They hurry toward a bridge upstream that arches over the river. A dense fog hides the bridge’s keystone and the downward arc leading to the Opposite Side. At least, that is what the graduates think. The former students, now professionals, have no reason to think otherwise. No one has warned the graduates that, in reality, the bridge has never been completed. The bridge is nothing more than the carcass of an excellent idea doomed by design.
Anxious to get to The Opposite Side, the ambitious graduates race up the bridge at breakneck speed, never slowing to take in the view of the far shore or to look over the edge at the swift-moving river below. And so the graduates plunge, one after another, into The Absurd.
Some graduates sink. Some graduates are swept out to sea to be swallowed whole by predators.
Stronger graduates manage to swim to the Opposite Side. Employed just long enough to build a boat, the now-experienced workers return to the river. The workers with a big enough boat fish the drowning from the river. The grateful, if bedraggled, survivors, their diplomas and rose-colored glasses now sleeping with the fishes, gratefully agree to work for peanuts.
Smaller boats also navigate the river. Some boats, big and small, find placid coves, serene shallows. Clever captains find sturdy jetties or equip their boats with powerful motors. Most workers on the river, however, must row fast and hard just to stay in the same place and within shouting distance of The Opposite Side.
Now and again, tourism and cultural exchanges blossom on the river. Boats whisk rose-bespectacled, tower-dwellers from The Right Side to The Opposite Side to meet with bosses and biz wonks. Catered lunches are consumed in quantity accompanied by many bottles of cheap wine with exotic names shipped in from distant vineyards. Bosses and biz wonks alike compete to host the happiest happy hour.
Tipsy tower dwellers return, glasses askew, and slump in comfy chairs snugged up to windows. The thinkers sleepily turn their attention Inland to ponder the wonders of The Opposite Side, to contrast and compare, and to jot down their impressions in thick hidebound books. The books will be indexed, catalogued and shelved before quick, quicker than the cure for a hangover and heartburn, the seductive superiority, the sheer beauty of black and white overwhelms any lingering memory of The Opposite Side.
— • —
I am not an academic of the highest order. Actually, I belong to no order. I am a chaotic freelance writer and translator. To supplement my income in a truly stimulating, enjoyable and rewarding way, I teach a course entitled “Réalités professionnelles” (Professional Realities) at Université de Montréal. My students are future translators enrolled in one of three translation programs offered by two faculties. Students enrolled in the Translation program offered by the Arts and Sciences faculty will earn a baccalaureate. The Continuing Education faculty offers two certificate programs that may be combined with a third to earn a baccalaureate.
I have no finely-turned theories to propose. I cannot offer The Solution to The Problem of translator training. What I can do is share my experience.
In the last twenty years, the synergy created by technological innovation and heightened demand for translation has radically altered the professional context in which translators work. The university curriculum, however, has not kept pace. Innovative programs that might have made a difference were quickly abandoned by faculties required to prove a positive return on investment.
As you might expect, many students take my course at the very end of their undergraduate career in order to be better prepared for the job market. They arrive bright and eager to be told how to get a job in translation. A few brave students plan to work as freelancers.
In ten years, despite all the changes in the working environment, the overall student profile has changed very little. Because IT has slowly made its way into the curriculum, some students have taken a survey course in translation tools. Most students have not taken any course in translation tools. None of them has actually mastered a translation tool. In fact, despite renovations to the classrooms that include four-socket power outlets on each desk and upgraded projector technology, only a small fraction of my students arrive carrying laptops. Most students favor spiral bound notebooks and matching cases filled to bursting with a wide array of pens, mechanical pencils, highlighters in an array of bright colors, erasers and the latest and greatest correction fluid “technology”.
Some, two or three already working in the field or on internships, have a vague, if very limited, idea of what it means to work in translation. Most don’t have a clue about what awaits them after graduation. Worse yet, many of them can cite from memory cheery, now utterly erroneous, statistics from reports published before some of them were out of braces, as well as the (historically inflated) rates paid to members of the professional order. The professional order has disappointing membership numbers. To judge by the grimaces on my students’ faces when I mention the order, the order may not be gaining members in the future. What is even more startling is that, most of the students cannot name a single translation agency, big or small, in Montreal.
Can you imagine a student in engineering who has never heard of Lockheed, Bombardier or SNC-Lavelin? A med student who can’t locate a local hospital? A student in the public relations program who has never heard of Fleishman-Hillard, Hill and Knowlton or National? Is there one law student who can’t recite the top-paying ten firms in North America?
Imagine, then, translation students who have never heard of Lionbridge or SDL, both of whom have offices in Montreal. Mention of the Translation Bureau (TB), the federal translation service and a formidable force in the Canadian industry that influences translation curriculum and the market for language services nationwide, draws blank stares from half of the class. One student meekly asks, “Is it a professional organization?” The other half of the class stays smugly silent. If the stars align, the search for a permanent, in-house job for these students will begin and end at the TB.
My students have all learned that the demand for translation is large and growing. True. In fact, the dynamism of the market is one factor that attracted students to the field. Here is a very short list of what my students haven’t learned:
- the vast majority of translators will wind up working freelance
- production models rely on a vast pool of freelance talent that can be tapped virtually anywhere and for any price
- mastering translation tools is no longer an option; mastering translation tools is a necessity
- machine translation is not science fiction
- developing and honing entrepreneurial skills is a necessity
- job precarity is a fact of the modern working life for both freelance and salaried workers including translators
- most freelance translators do not work using a wireless tablet while rocking in a hammock hung between palm trees on the beach at Santa Banana
- a translator’s education does not end with a diploma or a certificate
- reading often and widely, and writing well are professional prerequisites
Experience shows that arbitrarily adding tools training to translator training curriculum does not better prepare students. Unpaid internships spent manning the photocopier will not a future professional make.
I am just another “blind man” with my hands on the language industry “elephant”. From my point of view, however, it’s high time that the translation industry truly collaborates with the universities to overhaul the curriculum currently offered by translation programs. The first task of such an initiative would be a thorough audit to develop criteria for the eventual revision of the curriculum. Any revision of the curriculum should include a high concentration of applied methodology and tools mastery. The context in which that methodology will be applied and those tools will be used should also inform curriculum as much as possible.
Finally, both the industry and universities should understand that the role of translator training is not to produce ever higher numbers of high-performing, market-ready, off-the-shelf professionals. Aiming for such a goal is to embrace the absurd. The industry and universities should stimulate and encourage critical, independent thinkers able to adapt as necessary to a rapidly changing professional context. Who knows? Skilled professional translators, fully aware of the industrial context in which they work, one day might find the solutions to the problems that have, to date, eluded the project managers and the business wonks.