Does an academic background really make a difference?

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This is a quite controversial issue in the translation sector. Those who have an academic background categorically say it is essential, while those who do not, say it is not. With a BA and MA in Translation, I have to admit I am biased on the subject. Therefore, if you are like me, you will most surely like this post. If you have no academic background though, do not give up on me: keep reading. If I can make you change your mind, great! If not, you can share this post as the most absurd thing you have ever heard of. 😉 

You see, the thing is, unfortunately, in order to become a translator, you do not necessarily need to have a higher degree. If someone masters (or not) two languages, this person can work as a translator (please be aware that I am not discussing quality and professionalism here, just the fact that pretty much anyone can be a translator). As simple as that. If it is fair or not, that is a topic for another discussion. The fact is, since an educational background is not mandatory, people sometimes refuse to “spend” their time and money sitting on a chair, doing plenty of reading and writing, and practicing translating. 

After all, what’s the point in studying Translation? I’ll give you some reasons: 

  1. The theoretical knowledge you learn will help you build your translator self, your identity as a professional who knows about all the history and theories behind the art of transforming a bunch of words in one language into a beautifully crafted text in another.
  2. You will have plenty of practice translating several types of texts. This will help you have at least an idea of which path to take. Besides, it helps you learn some tricks, dos and don’ts.
  3. Grammar lessons. They may sound stupid and useless, but believe me: you do not know everything and you do make grammar mistakes you are not even aware of.
  4. Culture and literature lessons in both your working languages. And depending on your major, even other lessons. For example, my MA was in Translation Studies with Intercultural Communication, so I had, among others, Interpersonal Communication and Translating Cultures lessons.
  5. You get to learn more than you bargained for. I learned Italian in my BA (including for translation purposes), and Greek in my MA (Ab initio for translation purposes).
  6. It offers you recognition and validity. 

Are those reasons convincing? Well, some people say the bad thing about those courses is that they do not offer you a practical idea of the market. That is right, they don’t. However, I question if that is really the role of any university. The university only guides you. It is not its responsibility to give you every piece of information you need to be a successful professional. That is your job. Living and learning, with practice. Besides, it is better to be introduced in the market with all the background I pointed out above than with nothing at all.

Bottom line is there are no cons in taking a higher degree (in any field). Knowledge is never too much.

Some other related articles:
How (Not) to Be a Professional Translator and 6 Tips to Help You Become One (Fresh out of the oven. Alina also posted it today! Serendipity?)
The (un?)importance of translation-specific degrees to translation (also mentioned in Alina’s article)
Masters in Translation

 

What’s your opinion on the topic? Do you also have an academic background in Translation? Do you agree with me? Would you add any other good/bad points?

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26 thoughts on “Does an academic background really make a difference?

  1. I agree (again) with you Caroline! I have no formal translation education or training but I do understand how useful it is. It gives you a good preparation and helps you enter the market with more confidence. 🙂

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    • You got exactly what I meant, Magda!
      My goal with this post was not to compare qualified with unqualified translators, but to emphasize the importance of an academic background. Just as it is important to have experience, proficiency on your working languages, professionalism and ethics, and to keep studying and learning (e.g. with CPDs and conferences).
      Thanks a lot for your comment! 🙂

      Like

      • You are welcome! Not everybody is as open minded as you are. I think that at the end of the day what makes someone a good translator is determined by the people who hire him or her. It’s not enough to say “I am a translator”. It was lovely to connect with you today. 🙂

        Like

  2. Thank you, Caroline, for raising this discussion topic and spelling out the advantages of academic qualifications, which, as you say, some people don’t appear to value – but then, they are probably in the same camp as the people who do not want to pay a decent amount to translators or give them a reasonable length of time to complete the work.
    You ask if we can add any more good/bad points; you have done a very thorough job, but I might add that the discipline you learn in the course of a BA or MA trains you to:
    – complete tasks within deadlines and to a high standard of presentation;
    – act on constructive feedback;
    – research your field thoroughly;
    – take an ongoing interest in advances in the theory and practice of translation by continuing to read around the subject.

    Any degree programme these days also includes employability skills, particularly in IT, which are indispensable to a 21st century translator.

    You’ve probably guessed that I’m biassed, too – I hold a Diploma in Translation and I lecture in it. Perhaps we need to hear from a translator who has entered the profession without going down the academic route, to see their side of the argument. Any takers?

    Like

    • Hi, Alison!

      I’m glad you liked the post, and thanks a lot for taking the time to comment and add your own point of view. It’s really rewarding to know it reached someone in the academia.

      I totally agree with the points you added. I’m totally open to feedback, in fact, I actually prefer when a client gives me feedback on my work, because then I know where to improve. It’s a great way to learn, and I dare say an effective one too.
      I also learned how to research and use the available online resources to my advantage.
      Besides, there are extracurricular activities and events the university offers which can give us an insight into the profession and the practical side of it.

      And I also welcome “unqualified” professionals to share their opinions.

      Like

      • Hello Caroline! I am exactly the person you want to hear from! Slightly over 40 years a translator/reviser for organizations like NATO, OECD, FAO, and some others, and not even a language degree, let alone a translation one. But in those times, you just demonstrated your capacities by doing a test translation, and that’s all. Of course, in those times it was pen and paper, or a good old Remington. I started as journalist+translator, rewriting in french press dispatches from our correspondants at Reuter’s HQ, in London. I can remenber of same days where I (and my colleagues on the desk) would translate 20/30 pages…. But then, I had a degree in law, economics and political science, a few years of journalism, and a wide “culture générale”, which is, I believe, an absolute must. And today, although officially retired, these institutions continue to trust me to deliver “ready to print” translations. And nobody ever asked me if I had a degree in translation… None was mentionned in my CV, of course… Anyway, I will continue to follow this discussion, quite interesting…..

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      • Hi, Guido!
        Thanks a lot for your comment! It’s nice listening to your side of the story.
        This is quite an interesting discussion indeed, due to its controversial topic.
        As my friend Sara said, in the past things were really different. As you said, you had to translate on pen and paper, no internet, no Google. Nowadays, a simple test is no proof of your capacity. What assurance do you have that the person didn’t use Google Translate and/or asked someone else to translate and/or revise?
        Besides, I believe having at least some kind of academic experience helps a lot.
        You have an impressive educational and professional background! Something any translator would aim at. Congratulations!

        Like

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  5. Just my thoughts. I will try to be brief. If the server crashes due to the length of my post, don’t blame me!

    I agree, basically, with the points you made. However, I do not have a degree in translation. At 30 I’ve decided to pursue the job of my dreams.

    *Basic* translation is not that difficult. You really do not need a solid and extensive theoretical background to do basic translation, in my opinion. However, it’s kind of obvious that as someone who is paid according to number of words translated; as someone whose work other people rely on; etc., then in the interest of becoming the best you can become at your work, it makes sense to read every significant book written on the subject of translation. There probably is not much more than a couple of dozen books that should be read, I suppose? That is my plan, if indeed I stick to the plan of perhaps some day becoming a ‘full-fledged’ translator. Don’t get me wrong: I would have loved to study translation at university, but those venues aren’t available to me now without breaking the bank and postponing my career another few years and further embarrassing myself in the eyes of my parents.

    So my solution is simple: I forgo the luxury of a translation degree, and make do with learning all that stuff while doing actual work for a *relatively* low starting rate. Perhaps 2-3 years down the line I’ll have the same confidence in translating as someone who just majored in translation studies? Who knows, right?

    Really though, I don’t think there are books on translation that will help me in my current IT / UI translations to a great extent. In place of a teacher who can correct my work, what I need more than anything is to read IT-related texts written by skilled people written in my target language, to use for inspiration in producing good translations. It’s important to be able to distinguish good work from shoddy work, and that’s not always that easy when you’re a beginner. Sometimes a field’s conventions run contrary to common sense as well. Also, I need a firm grasp of the relevant style guide(s) preferred by the client, and the terminology conventions… Really, a single technical field can have a lot of conventions. If you don’t produce clean and accurate texts that are similar to existing texts in your field, I think you’ll come across as an inexperienced amateur. This would be so even if you have a phenomenal bachelor + master’s in translation. I guess specializing in a few fields is rather crucial if you want to become a master of your trade.

    Anyway, those reasons are all quite good. Obviously though, there is nothing that’s ‘absolutely necessary’ about a degree. The necessity of survival assures that a person will meet deadlines. Also, I was never good with feedback in uni, but for work it is simple to make a decision to be ‘professional’ – obviously you’d get very hungry if you weren’t prompt and accurate etc. In university, I didn’t have the fiscal incentive, so I could be quite the lazy procrastinator. But in the ‘real world’? I’d never get any sleep!

    The question, ‘translation degree or not?’ is not a very useful one. Some people are 40 years old with 20 years of experience in a certain high-tech industry, where they also translated documents between 2 languages they speak at a native level. No experienced translator is going to match that person’s skill and expertise in the field itself, though they may still produce better-sounding translations *if* the necessary info is supplied to them. I’m not talking about your average text though…. “experts” are often terrible at translating too, so the person I describe might be more of a hypothetical one. Few industry experts are actually fully bilingual and have an experience with relevant texts in both languages, I imagine…

    However… if anyone knows any online translation courses, please let me know! 🙂

    Like

    • Dear Eirik,
      A translation degree is not really a luxury. My BA degree here in Brazil was with a public university; and for my MA degree in England, I simply worked really hard to pay for it during my studies. I had two jobs as a waitress, and the course was full-time. Plus, I’m not even nearly rich and I come from a developing country. No pros for me there, right? I simply worked really hard and always pursued my dreams with dedication, commitment and hard work.
      There may not be books in translation studies that can help you with IT translations, but they surely help you have the basic understanding of how translation works, of the different views scholars have, of what history can teach you. Besides, that’s not the only thing you do in a translation course. You have plenty of other important subjects as well, from language classes to practical translation classes.
      I never assumed that a degree is totally essential to becoming a translator. There are plenty of wonderful translators out there who don’t have a single degree in translation. As there are plenty of terrible translators who have a couple of degrees in translations. However, the latter is true in any profession!
      My point is a degree helps you have the necessary knowledge and basics to work as a translator. As does specializing in one or two fields, keeping learning, being aware of the client’s specifications and so on. They’re all part of the package; they’re a multiple choice – you choose the one that suits you if you want to become a translator.
      Truth is, there are always exceptions. If you are one of those exceptions, great! I’m sure you’ll be quite successful as a translator.
      Now if you’re really interested in taking an online translation course, try googling it, because, as I said, they are not only about reading theory books, and you do need to find courses in your working language pair. 😉
      Wish you all the best!

      Like

    • Hi Eirik,
      It was really nice to read your comment. You can see what I think about the subject in the two comments I have already published here and I also share Sara’s response. I think she she nailed it.

      Now, there’s one thing I want to bring your attention to. RATES. I don’t think you should charge low rates as in half the price or whatever. Be reasonable. Miserably low rates give the impression you aren’t good enough as the rest and I don’t think this is the case. However “bad” or “not perfect” a translation is, we should always focus on : 1. Becoming better and 2. Charge a normal and reasonable price considering the work we do and our efforts. It’s kinda like telling them “Hey, I don’t have a degree in translation, so my translation isn’t as good as the translations produced by those who hold a degree/diploma”.

      There are lots of options for you Eirik and I am sure you can make it work.

      The other day, I came across an online diploma from http://www.scps.nyu.edu.

      Check it out and let me know (leave a comment here).

      🙂

      Like

  6. Really interesting. I totally agree with you. And of course, not all those who have a translation or any profession academic background are good at those professions. I know some translators who have no degree in translation, but they are very good at it. They just learned some languages and worked in some companies and learned to translate the documents those companies work with, especially technical and legal ones. Now they have a lot of experience translatings those documents and do it, in my opinion, better than any other translator because, as you said, they know the subject the documents are about, and that knowledge lets them better understand those documents and make good translations. But of course, now-a-days if you have a degree, you’ll have more oportunities. But I think that experience and knowleges should be more important than any academic degree.
    My best regards.

    Like

    • Dear Jorge,
      Thank you for your comment! 🙂
      I’m not sure experience and knowledge should be *more important* than academic background though. Especially because it’s difficult to prove knowledge. I think experience, academic background and references should be used to assess a translator. But in the end, it’s all a matter of trust. You’ll only know if a translator is really professional and qualified when you start working with them.
      In a nutshell, I believe an academic background (in any area, actually) is extremely important for our personal growth, and an essential step in our lives. We’ll always learn a lot from an academic experience, in all sorts of aspects.
      Best regards

      Like

  7. Very debated issue, I have to say.
    Personally, I love studying and don’t see it as a problem. I don’t perceive it as something directly related to my job: I study because I love it and I translate because I love it, as well.
    On the very practical side, and in my direct experience, agencies are also learning to select candidates on educational bases, which often include also a master’s degree in a specific field like translation. At least for what concerns young translators getting into the market now.
    So despite the various points and opinions, I think that getting a degree or a certified official qualification in translation or languages with translations modules is almost mandatory, nowadays.
    You can tell me things where different 10-15 years ago. But weren’t things different for ALL professionals? Or almost all sectors? Our parents went into all sorts of career without an official degree, because education had a different social role and the market wasn’t so specialised as it is today.
    And even if there are experienced translators who have been around for 15-20 or more years, I believe that getting back on the books would be an interesting experience for them all, at least for the technology part.

    Education has changed, it’s almost a continuous process, and translators can surely benefit from these new forms of knowledge.

    Regarding the university system, I think it really depends on the uni/school and the students themselves. Some courses are more theoretical than others, but all universities have a website with an info page where future students can get details regarding the nature of their chosen degree. And the same applies to feeling lost or frustrated: getting into the translation market is not easy, but who said life is easy? Who told students that getting a degree meant becoming successful professionals?
    It’s about what you make out of your degree, your own ability to create something unique and stand for it, rather than the degree itself.

    Like

    • Hi, Sara!
      Thanks a lot for commenting on my post! Your opinion is always much appreciated. 🙂
      I agree with every word you said. I don’t undervalue those few fantastic translators who do not have an academic degree in translation, but I’m quite proud to have one and will always encourage people to do the same.
      Maybe if this trend of agencies and clients learning to select candidates based on their educational background became more rigid, our profession would be more valued and, consequently, real professionals like us would be more respected as well.
      As you said it’s a matter of loving what you do. If you love being a translator, then it why should it be a problem to take an academic degree?

      Like

    • This is the best comment anyone could give on this! Objective, clear and real. The “modern times” factor is actually at the heart of the matter. I don’t have a degree on translation, but I share this view as well. I wish I could turn back time but I can’t. 🙂

      Like

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