Why bother with a translation degree?

They cost lots of money, don’t really help and waste your time. That’s the common opinion of the majority of translation degrees. In a profession where there are as many routes in as there are professionals and where a good work history trumps a list of degrees, why on earth would anyone even think of spending thousands of pounds on a year or four in a university? Surely there are easier ways in.

Well, truthfully, there might be easier ways into the profession. You can, if you want, set yourself up as a translator with no training and even less experience. You might, if you keep your rates low, just score a few early clients and work up from there.

But let’s turn this around. Almost everyone reading this post will agree that translation could do with a greater degree of professionalization. If the fight over conditions and pay for interpreters has taught us anything, it is that we need fixed standards and defined entry paths if our professions are to attract the respect we believe they deserve.

How many of us would happily visit a GP whose only qualifications was a month watching Casualty and House? We all agree that it is good that people who want to become doctors (or dentists or accountants or lawyers) need to go through a period of university training BEFORE they are let loose to practice. Why should things be any different for translators?

The problem then is not so much with the concept of a translation degree but with our perception of them. For many translators, fairly or not, a translation degree is associated with time spent thinking about translation, writing about translation and discussing translation but doing very little of it. Hence why so many translation blogs go on about a translation degree not making you a translator.

But what if there was such a thing as a practical translation degree? What of prospective translators got down to the nitty-gritty and into texts from week one? What if, on top of their training, they got advice and help from practicing translators on how to get into the field? What if the texts they handled were very close to the kinds of texts they will face in real-life? Surely that would make it worth it.

Of course, we can’t let this idea go by without pointing out that Heriot-Watt has just such a degree. 😉 On the other hand, it would be a shame if all this post achieved was a little advertising. In a recent survey on this blog, “better translation training” was one of the top things people wanted research to look at. What exactly does this mean? How did you train as a translator? If you did a degree, was it any good? What could have made it better? What kinds of things should a degree actually cover and how long should it last?

Please leave your views in the comments below.