Translation and Beyond

This article originally appeared in the March 2015 NewsNet

By Brian James Baer, Kent State University

For many people, the image of a translator that first comes to mind resembles the iconic depictions of the medieval Saint Jerome, who translated the Greek Bible into Latin: a solitary, ascetic figure surrounded by dictionaries. The rapid evolution of the language industry over the past thirty years, however, has relegated that image to the dustbin of history. Not only has the growth of the language industry produced more work for translators, it has also led to the diversification of the field. Today graduates of translation programs regularly find employment not only as translators but also as software localizers, project managers, terminology managers, and posteditors, or revisers, of both human-translated and machine-translated texts. The language industry is regularly cited as one of the fastest-growing sectors of the U.S. economy, on a par with nursing. According to the Occupational Outlook Handbook (2014-15) published by the U.S. Department of Labor’s Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), “Employment of interpreters and translators is projected to grow 46 percent from 2012 to 2022, much faster than the average for all occupations.” And the size of the translation and interpreting sector is already quite impressive.  The leading language industry market research firm, Common Sense Advisory, conservatively estimated the global market for outsourced language services for 2012 at $33.5 billion, with almost 25% of this market in North America. Continued growth in the field, accompanied by increasing complexity and specialization, is in turn creating a need for the professional education of translators and interpreters, for while the BLS report lists a Bachelor’s degree under “entry level education,” it goes on to note that, “Job prospects should be best for those who have professional certification.” Indeed, the latest International Organization for Standardization and American Society for Testing and Materials standards recommend certification or some form of academic credentialing. 

Many factors have contributed to this growth and ensure its continuation into the foreseeable future. The primary one is, of course, globalization coupled with advances in technology. In the early days of the Internet, for example, many believed English would be the lingua franca among Web users. However, studies soon showed that users stayed on web pages significantly longer when surfing in their native language, even when they had a strong command of English. This began to change the economic calculations, and many companies and organizations saw the worth of investing in translation. Similarly, the globalization of the economy and the opening of new markets have made it no longer viable for international businesses to introduce new products in English and then let the versions in other languages trickle in some time later. Best practices today include the launching of new projects in several languages simultaneously, which has led to the internationalization of digital products and associated documentation, such as user guides, Help systems and marketing collateral. At the same time, increasing ethnic and linguistic diversity produced by accelerated migration flows has made the provision of timely, high-quality translation and interpreting services, especially in legal and medical settings, into a matter of social justice, a basic human right. Just as the creation of international organizations, such as the United Nations, following the Second World War led to the establishment of some of the first translation and interpreting training programs, the creation of new political entities, such as the European Union, with its inclusive language policies, has created increased demand not only for professional translators and interpreters but also for educators of translators and interpreters—and educators of educators of translators and interpreters. All this has fueled the explosive growth in Translation and Interpreting Studies in many parts of the world over the last twenty five years. 

While the professionalization of translation and interpreting has led to greater calls in Western Europe and the U.S. for certification, as well as  enforcement of best practices in regard to directionality (translation and interpreting into one’s native language) and domain expertise, in many other parts of the world, conditions of diglossia and rapid economic advancement have made some degree of translation and interpreting competence a necessity across a variety of job descriptions. Graduates of the foreign languages program at the Kokshetau State University in Kazakhstan, for example, find themselves working in international corporations in Astana and Almaty where they are expected to translate documents, when necessary, into and out of English, Russian, and Kazakh and to serve as escort interpreters and cultural mediators in interactions involving foreign business associates and clients. In fact, the curriculum for the graduate program in foreign languages at Kokshetau State University includes, in addition to coursework in both translation and interpreting, an introduction to social work. And so, while not every college and university can or should create a program in translation or interpreting, the integration of translation and interpreting throughout the FL curriculum can prepare students for work in a variety of markets. 

At the same time that demand is growing for professional translators and interpreters, many academic disciplines in the Humanities are taking the “translation turn” in an effort to globalize the curriculum in an ethical way, that is, by avoiding the simple “appropriation” of foreign cultures in unreflective, “readable” English translations. Even in foreign language instruction, we are witnessing a rapprochement with translation, which was for so long exiled from the communicative classroom—and not without reason. In traditional foreign language classrooms, close translation was often used as a comprehension check or as a language acquisition activity, encouraging students to view language proficiency—and, by extension, translation competence—as a kind of linguistic matching game. But translation and interpreting have found their way back into SLA in the form of real-world tasks and in connection with possible career paths. The Golosa textbooks for elementary and intermediate Russian are a good example of this approach. Interpreting tasks simulating real-world encounters are included in every chapter. What student of a foreign language hasn’t had to serve as an ad hoc interpreter when studying abroad or hosting international students at home? Moreover, the tasks are constructed in such a way as to frustrate simple word-for-word translation. At the same time, researchers have begun to study the relationship between translation and second language acquisition. At a panel devoted to translation in second language development held at the 2013 MLA convention, Bradley M. Blair reported on the findings of an empirical study that suggested—although the sample was rather small—that exposure to translation and interpreting was not only not detrimental to the development of the foreign language, it appeared to accelerate the acquisition of reading proficiency. 

The integration of translation and interpreting into the foreign language curriculum reflects the broad recommendations of the 2007 MLA Report “Foreign Languages and Higher Education: New Structures for a Changed World,” namely, that foreign language departments reorient themselves away from the unrealistic goal of “replicat[ing] the competence of an educated native speaker, a goal that postadolescent learners rarely reach,” toward “the idea of translingual and transcultural competence, [which] places value on the ability to operate between languages.” Here the report invokes the kind of transfer competence that is a key feature of translator and interpreter expertise. The importance of translation to the humanities in general and to the study of foreign languages in particular was underscored two years later when MLA President Catherine Porter chose as the convention theme “The Tasks of Translation in the Global Context.”

And so, what does all this mean for us and for our students? While the linguistic and cultural competence fostered by departments of foreign languages are essential components of translator and interpreter expertise, foreign language departments can, I think, do more to enhance the employability of their students in the modern language industry by addressing other translation and interpreting-related competencies throughout the curriculum. But in order to do that effectively, it is important to understand what constitutes the competence—or range of competencies—of a professional translator or interpreter. In addition to advanced-level proficiency in two languages and deep familiarity with the two cultures, the professional language mediator is expected to have what researchers refer to as “transfer competence”—which research has shown to be something that is not inherent in all bilinguals—research competence, terminological and technical competence, involving the creation, use, and management of corpora, translation memories, and termbases, not to mention the effective use of the Internet for research, data mining, and communicative purposes,  and managerial competence (graduates of translation programs are increasingly being hired to serve as project managers at language industry companies). 

Introducing real-world translation- and interpreting-related tasks can address all the relevant competencies while contributing to the development of language proficiency. In order to best simulate real-world conditions, translation tasks should involve constructing a translation brief, which outlines the intended use, venue, and audience for the translation. This focus on purpose and function aligns well with the basic organizing principles of the communicative approach, which stresses purposeful speech in meaningful contexts. These real-world tasks might also involve computer-assisted translation tools, some of which (e.g., OmegaT) are available free for download. The ability to create personal glossaries and domain-specific corpora using parallel texts is a valuable professional skill to have and has also been shown to be very effective as a pedagogical activity, especially in courses on language for special purposes (see Bowker 2002). It is also a natural way to introduce the digital humanities into your curriculum. 

Lessons involving the revision of human-translated and machine-translated texts can build real-world skills while also stimulating reflection on comparative linguistic structures and on the nature and limits of machine translation. (Incidentally, the demand for translation revisers has increased dramatically as machine translation programs continue to improve.) In classes with both native English speakers and native speakers of other languages, students can work in pairs on translation assignments, with the one student serving as the target-language expert, and the other as the source-language expert. This is an easy way to differentiate instruction and to foster peer-to-peer learning. It is surprising perhaps to those of us who have worked long and hard to acquire proficiency in another language that many heritage speakers in the U.S. see their first language as a stigma rather than as a potential resource. Studies have shown, however, that targeted instruction in translation and interpreting can instill a professional self-image in heritage speakers while providing a structure for them to reflect on the differences between their two languages and on the ethical issues involved in serving as a cultural and linguistic mediator (see Angelelli 2010). 

More comprehensive—and costly—solutions involve the creation of certificate and degree-granting programs in translation and interpreting at the undergraduate and graduate levels. Students who love foreign languages and cultures but want to engage with them in a more applied way have until only recently had few options. An undergraduate student of Arabic decided to come to Kent State to pursue an MA in Translation rather than a PhD in Arabic Language and Literature elsewhere because he wanted to make use of his language proficiency in a more hands-on way—despite the fact that he had been offered a full fellowship in the doctoral program. This is certainly not to say that translation programs will or should replace programs in language and literature, but language students who are not particularly interested in studying literature or in pursuing a career in teaching too often are left to find their own way in the job market. To quote again from the 2007 MLA Report on Foreign Languages and Higher Education, “to attract students from other fields and students with interests beyond literary studies, particularly students returning from a semester or a year abroad, departments should institute courses that address a broad range of curricular needs.” We can do more to connect these students with careers in the language industry, but this involves not only introducing translation and interpreting into the FL curriculum in a responsible and pedagogically-sound way but also informing K-12 teachers of foreign languages and guidance counselors about these career opportunities. For something that is so ubiquitous, translation and interpreting have been a well-kept secret in the U.S. for far too long. 

At the doctoral level, too, Translation Studies has the potential to re-invigorate the Humanities by bringing together research methodologies from Applied Linguistics, Sociology, as well as Literary and Cultural Studies. It can also promote the de-nationalization of Literary Studies. Why don’t we study Pasternak’s translations of Shakespeare or Dostoevsky’s translation of Balzac’s Eugénie Grandet in doctoral seminars on Russian literature? Or look at Mikhail Mikhailov’s translations of Heine, which played such an important role in Russian literary culture and in the evolution of the Russian radical left? To include the study of literature in translation in our curricula challenges what Andre Lefevere (1992:39) has described as the “monologualization of culture” in the modern era by acknowledging the transnational essence of cultural flows, for, as Tomas Venclova put it so succinctly, “The literature of most nations begins with translation” (1979).

On the other hand, the current popularity of World Literature runs the risk of homogenizing cultural difference if the “problematics of translation” are not raised as a central concern (Damrosch 2009:8). And while I agree with David Damrosch that, “Few teachers of world literature today have any wish to ignore the complex issues raised by translation,” the fact is, there are few materials available to assist teachers in doing so. In fact, Damrosch’s 400-page volume Teaching World Literature barely touches on the problem of translation and offers virtually no practical advice to teachers who do not know the source language. And so, an informed discussion of translation is one way to address the twin dangers of monolingualization and homogenization that threaten literary and cultural studies today. 

And finally, another way to acknowledge the essential role of translation in almost all cultural exchanges is to encourage universities to treat scholarly translations as legitimate contributions to the generation of new knowledge by considering them fully when awarding tenure, promotion, and merit. This would in turn promote the creation of guidelines and best practices for scholarly translation. The Guidelines for the Translation of Social Science Texts (2006), a product of the Social Science Translation Project (SSTP), chaired by Michael Henry Heim and Andrzej Tymowski, are exemplary in this regard. The stated goal of this project “was to demonstrate the key role that translations play in the field and to promote communication in the social sciences across language boundaries by providing practical advice to people who commission, edit, and use translations of social science texts in their professional activities.” We need more such projects for only when the current “translation turn” is institutionalized in curricula and in policy will we ensure that this is not a passing fad but rather is widely accepted as a key component of true global literacy. 

Works Cited

Angelelli, Claudia. 2010. “A Professional Ideology in the Making: Bilingual Youngsters Interpreting for their Communities and the Notion of (No) Choice.” Translation and Interpreting Studies 5(1):94-108.

Bowker, Lynn. 2001. Working with Specialized Language: A Practical Guide to Using Corpora. London and New York: Routledge. 

Damrosch, David. 2009. Teaching World Literature (Options for Teaching). New York: MLA.

“Foreign Languages and Higher Education.” 2007.  Report of the MLA Ad-hoc Committee on Foreign Languages. Available online. 

Lefevere, Andre. 1992. Translation, Rewriting, and the Manipulation of Literary Fame. London: Routledge.

Venclova, Tomas. 1979. “Translations of World Literature and Political Censorship in Contemporary Lithuania.” Lituanus 25(2). Available online at: http: // (last accessed 16 Nov 2014).


Brian James Baer is Professor of Russian and Translation Studies at Kent State University and founding editor of the journal Translation and Interpreting Studies. His monograph Translation and the Making of Modern Russian Literature is forthcoming from Bloomsbury Press.