A Gen Z Take on Preparing Translation Students for the Realities of the Language Industry

Having graduated from university with a joint honors degree in English and Spanish, I decided to continue my study of languages by doing a master’s in Translation in 2018. Motivated by the desire to become a professional translator, I started my MA course with relatively little understanding of the language industry.

For one thing, I was largely unaware of the many changes happening within the profession in terms of technology and job roles. What has become apparent to me over the past year is that technologies such as machine translation (MT) are having a major impact on the modern language industry. And, at the same time, they are changing the traditional role of the translator.

While, at first, I feared that these technologies (and particularly MT) could put my potential future career as a translator in jeopardy, it became clear to me throughout my MA that the increasing use of MT and other translation technologies in the language industry could actually present a great opportunity.

My MA course also allowed me to discover that becoming a professional translator is not the only route available to me. There are lots of new and exciting job opportunities in the language industry, which are not clearly signposted to language students pre-master’s.

Based on my recent experience, what follows is my personal assessment of the current state of master-level translation education as a training ground to prepare students for the present-day realities of the language industry.

With the rise of MT and translator marketplaces, the language industry is now more competitive than ever. Translators may often feel like they are no longer only competing with peers for work, but technology too. For a trainee linguist about to enter the profession, this can make the prospect of embarking on a career as a translator highly daunting.

To be able to thrive in this competitive landscape, language skills and knowledge of translation theory are no longer enough (if they ever were). If translators want to be successful, they must now have a much broader range of skills, including business awareness and proficiency in translation technologies. So, how do institutions that offer translator training help foster these skills? And what are they doing to ensure that their students are fully prepared to enter the translation marketplace?

Technology Training

In today’s language industry, as has long been the case, most language service providers (LSPs) work with translation productivity (a.k.a. CAT) tools, which help ensure consistency and produce higher volumes of content in a more time-efficient manner. And many translators also maintain their own translation memories (TMs) to gain further efficiencies. New entrants to the profession need to know how to make good use of productivity tools if they are to ensure a regular flow of work and maximize their earning potential.

In response to this, many universities offer optional modules on translation productivity tools to students on their translation courses. At some universities, these modules are now compulsory. In the UK, for example, all MA translation students at the University of Leeds are required to take a technology-based module where they receive practical training on the use of various translation productivity tools, including SDL Trados, memoQ and MateCat, as well as terminology management tools, such as SDL MultiTerm.

With productivity tools being a long-accepted industry standard, some institutions are turning their attention to training students on the newer and increasingly widespread language technology of MT. A good number now incorporate classes on MT into their translation technology modules, reflecting the growing demand for MT specialists and MT post-editors within the language industry.

For example, at the University of Surrey (UK), MA translation students are given both theoretical and practical classes on MT, in which they learn the basic principles of MT technology, practise MT error analysis, and are introduced to the processes of pre- and post-editing.

For translation students, being able to effectively interact with MT technology will indeed serve them well when they enter the translation marketplace. For one thing, an aptitude for MT affords translators greater flexibility in terms of the services they are able to provide. For example, in addition to offering traditional human translation services, MT-proficient translators are able to provide a range of MT-related services, such as post-editing, adding another potential revenue stream to their business. Make no mistake, a successful freelance translator is also a successful business owner.

Translators as Business People

Many factors have conspired to make the language industry a challenging environment for aspiring translators to compete in. Take the fact that the language industry is unregulated; this means that anyone who speaks two or more languages can, in theory, start marketing themselves as a translator, even without formal training. And, as translation marketplaces gain more popularity, the barrier to entry is now lower for people to access potential clients. This, in turn, creates a market that is more crowded, and one where knowing and advertising your USPs as a translator is key to standing out.

To prepare linguists for the realities of the working world, some universities are encouraging translation students to take business modules designed to develop their entrepreneurial skills and help them understand how to differentiate themselves as professionals. At the University of Surrey, for example, all students in the MA Translation program receive compulsory business classes taught by bonafide business leaders and entrepreneurs. These classes focus on market research, client acquisition, client retention, networking skills, and techniques for marketing.

Student translators are also encouraged to think about their online presence. For instance, is presenting themselves as “freelance translators” on LinkedIn really the best strategy? Is using titles such as “language consultant,” “cultural mediator,” or “linguistic data specialist” a more accurate way to convey the true nature and value of what they do? 

Staying in Touch With Industry

Many universities have made the effort to ensure that their students are equipped with the right skills to enter the modern-day translation marketplace. However, the language industry is constantly evolving. If universities intend to continue teaching relevant content that has practical, real-world applications, they must keep abreast of industry trends and challenges and adapt their courses accordingly.

To achieve this, collaboration and partnerships are crucial. Building relationships with LSPs, technology providers, and translation buyers can help create a channel for universities to stay in tune with industry demands and better understand the skills the market requires. These relationships also benefit LSPs as they gain access to the next generation of language talent.

Tess MacDougall is currently completing her internship at Slator.