Whose Job is it to make you a translator?

It’s a common complaint. A number of students graduate from translation and interpreting courses only to find, to their horror, that their courses have prepared them for the technical and linguistic aspects of translation and interpreting but have not assured their career success. Outside of the feathered nest of a university program, they find, to their horror that clients are not clamouring to work them and (shock!) they must find ways to get clients themselves.

It is very easy to blame the universities for this. It might seem perfectly reasonable for students to think that, if they are paying for a translation degree, that their degree will make them translators. It will not.

The truth is that, even in four year degrees, there simply isn’t time to give students all the skills they will need to establish their career in translation or interpreting. Besides language skills, research ability and flexibility, freelancers need to understand and use marketing, negotiation, pricing, accounting, networking, presentation skills, writing, and much more besides. Many of these will even be used differently in different sectors of the same industry.

It’s is unfair to expect students to emerge from any degree as a complete freelancer, ready to face the world. The reality is that they have much more learning to do, even after getting their first job or first project.

This, of course, does not entirely exonerate universities from any responsibilities. There are good reasons why students should expect that their degrees will at least introduce them to market realities and that their course will have some sort of connection to the world they will enter when they graduate.

Hence why Heriot-Watt University, like many in the UK, is pleased to hold (in partnership with ITI) Starting Work as a Translator or Interpreter events every year for final year and masters students. At such events, students can get vital introductions to freelancing, and even staff work. Rather than filling in gaps that “should” be in the degree, such events show that it is possible for academia and the market to cooperate in making sure that students are ready for their next stage of learning.

The key to all this is partnership. In most countries, even the biggest professional associations have neither the time nor the expertise to create the infrastructure for providing full training for hundreds of students every year. Universities do. They also find it much easier to accept the inevitable fact that not all students trained as translators or interpreters will ever find their way into these professions.

On the other hand, universities, due to resource restrictions, are not able to provide the kind of career-long support to professionals that their associations are increasingly offering. In fact, such support is, quite correctly, normally not within their remit.

The point is that no one becomes a translator or interpreter simply by getting a degree. It takes time, perseverance and, crucially, a decision to take part in your local (or not so local) professional community. All of this takes places as students and new professionals learn to apply their university training to real-life realities and to make decisions on further training. We are trained in the classroom but become professionals at the wordface.