Guest post: Translator competence

Here we are, on our last guest post of the year. And I’m very proud and happy to announce that today’s guest, wrapping up 2014 in great style, is the lovely Lynne Bowker, who I had the great pleasure to meet at UNESP’s Semana do Tradutor back in September.

Welcome, dear Lynne!


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.

I also learned that we share the same birthday week in January, which means that Caroline is a Capricorn. No wonder she’s so dedicated, hardworking and professional, as well as being a generous and all-around terrific person. 🙂 Thank you, Caroline, for the opportunity to get to know you better and to write a guest post for your blog.

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.

Thank you, Lynne, for promptly and so kindly accepting my invitation to write to my humble blog and taking the time to write such a wonderful contribution to our series. I really appreciate it. It was a lovely Christmas gift to the blog. 🙂

As a former translation student, I do think it is extremely important to add practical aspects to the formal theoretical education we already have. Trying to prepare the student as much as possible to the real world will certainly help them get into the market feeling less lost and more ready to take the bull by the horns.

Dear readers, please note that our guest series will be taking a three-week vacation for Christmas, New Year and my birthday (:D). We’ll be back at full speed on January 13th, 2015. Happy Holidays!

About the author
LynneBowker_Oct2014_croppedLynne 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.

17 thoughts on “Guest post: Translator competence

  1. What a nice text and what a great idea, Lynne! I do believe translator training should include both exercises of deep reflection and of quick decision-making.
    One kind of activity I have already thought of sometimes is a translation exercise in which the source text would be sent to students the day before the class in which they should handle their translations, or in which the deadline would be set with a specific date and time (maybe even time zone), as when working with real clients.
    Do you think something like that could work in the classroom?


    • Hi Reginaldo,

      Thank you for your suggestion! I think it would certainly introduce a realistic element to the education program.

      I think it would work particularly well in a cohort-based program (where all students follow the same courses and have the same schedule). It could be a little more challenging to implement in programs where students define their own path through the program, but not impossible 🙂

      In such a case, one concern would be trying to ensure that such an assignment (which has very little flexibility or options for time-management) did not conflict with or compromise a student’s ability to complete work for another course. But a bit of coordination with our colleagues should make it possible to avoid this situation.

      Thank you for taking the time to read and comment!



      • Hi Lynne,

        Thank you for replying.
        Yes, I had in mind the system more common in Brazil. You are right, it would be quite difficult in more flexible programs.
        I think your idea of a “speed training” summarization exercise, on the other hand, could be used in Brazilian programs, maybe also adapted to translation exercises: students might be asked to translate a small text during class time, to train their ability to work with time pressure.


      • Hello,

        Yes, I did a small experiment with “speed translation” in a previous class — with more senior/experienced students who were in their final semester of the BA in Translation program. It has been accepted for publication in TTR (to appear later this year). It was a positive experience, but it demonstrated a need to introduce some of these issues earlier in the program. However, when I tried to do the same thing with 2nd year students, they found it very stressful and intimidating because they were not yet very experienced translators. So that’s when I thought about trying a “speed” exercise based on writing/abstracting, without yet introducing the interlingual element. It’s all unfolding by trial and error, I’m afraid 😉 But I’m learning more with each experiment, and I’m convinced that it is worth pursuing in some form. I’d be delighted if were something that could be useful in a Brazilian program also!


  2. Dear Lynne,
    I think that it is indeed a good idea to teach students how to work fast, still focusing on quality.
    On my side, I don’t teach translation, but translation project management to future translators. In some courses, I describe 3 different projects, indicating to the students when they should receive each one of those and when they should deliver them. The 3 projects have to be done within the same time frame, but with different reception and delivery dates – their level of difficulty is also different. I ask the students to calculate the time needed for each one of those and to explain me how they would make sure to deliver the 3 projects on time. The exercise is more related to the planning aspect than to pure speed but the goal is to show them that when accepting various assignments, they should make sure to be able to deliver them all on time, working fast enough, and still delivering the required quality. My experience with new translators has been that sometimes, they tend to accept too many jobs at the same time, without realizing that they might not be able to work fast enough to meet the various deadlines for the various customers :-).


    • Hi, Nancy!
      Happy New Year! 🙂
      The subject you teach seems very interesting indeed! I’ve never seen something like that here in Brazil. It does help future translators have a better idea on how to manage several projects at the same time. Great job!
      Thanks for visiting and leaving a comment.
      Lynne has already been notified of it and will soon reply.


    • Hi Nancy,

      Thank you for your comment. That sounds like a very interesting – and relevant! course. I agree that there is a real danger at the beginning of a translator’s career (or sometimes even later in our career!) with regard to over-estimating how much we can accomplish. This becomes even more challenging when multiple projects come into play. I agree that ANY exercise that raises awareness about this issues and gets new translators to reflect on time management is very valuable! Thank you for the example!



      • Hi Lynne,
        Thank you :-).
        Yes, time management is important, even more today than in the past I think since nearly everyone is expected to work quickly…
        Kind regards


  3. Pingback: A competência do tradutor | Carol's Adventures in Translation

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