Training Translators: Ethics and Education
Many professions in the US, such as medicine or education, have a standardized process through which its practitioners gain the practical experience needed to work independently in their field. For aspiring translators and interpreters, however, there are a multitude of paths to gaining mastery, some formal and some informal.
As many of us in the field have learned, translation and interpreting are skills above and beyond bilingualism: they involve an understanding of culture and ethics; written translation often involves high level writing, editing, and analytical skills, along with creativity and insight into language, while consecutive interpreting can feel like a memory game and simultaneous interpreting is partially a matter of practice, alongside what feels like pure talent for listening and speaking at once.
In my experience, a shortcoming of translator and interpreter training is a lack of hands-on mentorship beyond the classroom. In addition, becoming a freelance translator requires not only language skills, but business know-how. For interpreters, it can be hard to get a foot in the door because interpreting can be a high stakes practice, so there are serious consequences if inexperienced interpreters fail to provide quality services. However, the same could be said for doctors or nurses, and yet there are practicums embedded in training for those professions.
As a graduate of the Masters in Translation Studies program at UMass Amherst and a member of Just Words Coop, I have had the opportunity to collaborate with UMass students seeking to build their translation and interpreting skills, through practical projects in the community. These students are enrolled in language or translation classes that have a service learning component, so they spend about 20 hours throughout the semester volunteering with local businesses and organizations.
Two years ago, I worked with a bilingual (English/Spanish) undergraduate who had informal experience interpreting for family members, but wanted to deepen her skills. With some academic training under her belt, she was still reluctant to take on long stints of simultaneous interpreting. However, she was comfortable with shorter periods, so I paired her with our more experienced interpreters and she was able to provide 5 or 10 minute breaks for them. Between these breaks, she was able to listen, gaining knowledge through observing a professional interpreter in action.
Another student that year was an Italian translator. I knew we were unlikely to receive requests for Italian translation that semester, so instead that student helped us to revise and format a training manual for bilingual phone responders on the Sanctuary in the Streets immigration hotline. Because this program involved work with undocumented community members, we had to address issues of confidentiality, navigate legal topics, and understand ethical considerations.
In 2020, I worked with translation students in Portuguese and Spanish. The semester began with some standard translation projects, including a personnel policy for a local non-profit and an infographic about a legislative initiative. Students collaborated with each other on the initial draft of their translation, and then their work was proofread by professionals. Midway through the semester, though, the stakes became much higher as the world shut down due to COVID-19. Suddenly we were receiving requests for urgent translations of public health notices and information on unemployment assistance. Students rose to the challenge, bringing in additional collaborators and delegating work to complete projects overnight.
This year, our two service learning students are English/Japanese translators. Since Just Words does not typically receive Japanese translation requests, we had to find other projects beyond translation. Instead, students have helped us with website updates, as well as developing materials for clients on rates, sliding scale payments, and policies. Perhaps most importantly, they are also compiling a client handout on how to be interpreted, offering instructions for the organizers and speakers at events that offer interpretation.
While some of our service learning students have had the opportunity to practice their translation or interpreting skills directly, others have received real-life practice dealing with ethics or marketing. For all of them, I hope that reaching out beyond the classroom has given them confidence to move forward in their profession, as well as contacts in their field whom they can reach out to in the future.