Wednesday, January 19, 2011

Translation in US Higher Education Institutions

When I came to the United States in 1999 hoping to pursue a career in academia as a translation scholar, reality introduced itself to me pretty quickly. It was not that, like in most countries, scholars had to be ready to relocate to any place with a faculty opening. Rather, it was that there were no openings at all; just a handful of universities offered translation programs or courses. For example, the only faculty position available in one major university that I talked with was for a specialist in 17th Century French Literature. While my proficiency in French was close to that of a native speaker, and I had an academic background in French literature, this opening, and others that I found, was not even close to what I was looking for. As a result, freelancing and language teaching was what I did for several years.

Fortunately, around this time acquiring a second language started to be a stronger concern. Was it because of globalization and market competitiveness? Certainly! Then, the events of September 11, 2001 increased this concern, and translation and interpretation grew in importance and attention. This brought about more recognition of the need for highly qualified interpreters and translators.
More and more colleges and universities started to offer translation and interpretation courses and even full-fledged programs at the graduate and undergraduate level—both face-to-face instruction as well as on-line. Universities offering full-fledged programs now include Kent State University (Masters and doctorate), the Center for Translation Studies of the University of Illinois (Masters, certificate, and on-line); New York University (Masters of Science in Translation—entirely on line); and the University of Texas Brownsville (graduate certificate in Spanish translation). There is also the Monterey Institute of International Studies, which in 2005 signed an affiliation agreement with Vermont-based Middlebury College.

While there has been some progress, results are still mixed. Keeping track of higher education institutions that offer translation programs is a difficult task; some of them offer translation as a language acquisition method, while others offer only courses (which are sometimes not offered regularly). Translation programs at some other institutions have been short-lived because they were based on the skills of a single faculty member (which doomed the programs upon the retirement or death of the faculty member) and lacked the institution’s commitment and support. Since a reality check is the best tool against disappointment, the truth of the matter is that translation is not yet perceived as serious scholarly work. This situation is described in further detail in the article “Translators Struggle to Prove Their Academic Bona Fides", published on January 17, 2010 in the Chronicle of Higher Education.  The American Translators Association (ATA) reprinted the article in the December 2010 issue of the ATA Chronicle. There is no doubt that the article addressed a sensitive topic that touched a nerve with scholars and practitioners alike.

Nevertheless, there is room to hope that the progress translation education has made in recent years will last. A much celebrated step in this direction is the fact that translation and interpretation have finally been included in the Occupational Outlook Handbook of the United States Department of Labor’s Bureau of Labor Statistics.  The handbook, which is updated every other year, provides a description of the nature of the work, training and other qualifications required, job outlook, earnings and wages as well as a list of resources for the profession.  While more job opportunities and better earnings remain in the realm of projections, there is reason to hope that translation is on its way to acquiring a higher standing.

The issue of the hour is certification as a way to assure translator and interpreter skills. Certification, however, was set in place before training and education, which results in extremely low passing rates in certification exams. If colleges and universities were more in touch with their communities and paid more attention to job market needs and trends, they would realize translation and interpretation offer an opportunity for them to play an important role in filling the void that exits in this growing field. Translation is a discipline that lends itself to serious scholarly work and its development benefits from the work of scholars and practitioners.

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