Translation, Technology, Training – or Romanticism and Fear

Horror stories – when I taught translation technology to university students, I had always started the semester with those. At least three of them. You could ask, weren’t my students frightened enough already? I happen to have the same answer as Aragorn gave Frodo & co., when they first met in the Prancing Pony: Not nearly frightened enough.

The stories I told my students were about translation jobs that simply couldn’t be done without help from technology. Translations of thousand-page books to be upgraded to a new edition in six weeks, editing, proofreading, printing included. Millions of words of automotive manuals to be translated into twenty-plus languages in three weeks. Tens of thousands of words of highly specialized tender documents to be translated over a long week-end, reviewing included, with no compromise possible about the hour of delivery. And the list goes on.

The purpose of these stories was to put technology in perspective for students who had never translated a single word for money before. And when I was to introduce a particular feature of technology, I’d always tried to remember to point to a practical problem where it helped.

If the translation school had used a healthy approach to acquaint students with technology, I wouldn’t have had to do that. Actually, my subject – Introduction to translation technology – shouldn’t have existed at all.

I think – I fear – there is a wider gap between translation and technology at universities than at the actual workplace. This ensures that freshly graduated translators will lack practically all the essential non-language skills they would need in a professional environment. Even if they attended a class on translation technology. (I’m not even sure about the language skills, but that really depends on the school. The technology gap doesn’t.)

What has this got to do on a blog with a historical perspective? It’s simple: the gap I complain about is the result of the same rationalistic approach that created the gap between technology and human beings all over the world, in every area. In previous posts, I have already written about this, here, here, and here.

We still cherish this romantic image about translation – that it’s a solitary, creative activity, art in short. We still start teaching about translation like this – telling all about language nuances, the philology of it, and nothing about the actual work. And when we realize that students will receive jobs that are fundamentally different from a classroom assignment, we haste to ‘augment’ their skills by throwing in a class about technology, or another about project management. All this in the firm belief that students can actually be told how to adjust to a professional environment, and they will remember and smoothly adapt when they get there. The problem is, they can’t be told, and they won’t remember nor adapt.

Recently, in a panel at the memoQfest conference, a debate ensued about teaching translation technology. What made me write this post was that the debate was still stuck at emphasizing the need for technology training, without realizing the more fundamental problem in various education systems (practically all of them). To support my argument – in addition to building on my ten-plus years of teaching experience –, I have also looked at a couple of articles about technology and translator training.

In fact, there is not a plethora of publications about approaches to teaching technology to translation students – though I admit there might be a number of publications I haven’t seen or I have overlooked.  Some of those that are available – including quite recent ones – don’t do much more than explain the significance of CAT tools (translation environment tools) in translators’ careers, and express the wish for teaching them. Examples are Kalantzi (2002) and Šavelová (2013).

Others, like Drugan (2004), draw up a detailed proposal on how to teach translation technology as a separate subject, module, or even a separate degree. Some universities do offer such studies. Examples include Swansea (Wales, UK), San Diego (California, US), RMIT (Australia). I proposed the same, not more, in a presentation also from 2004, describing my own teaching activity, and also my wishes about technology in translation education.

These examples show that university education is often very compartmentalized. Each subject, skill, area of expertise exists in its own silo, in splendid isolation from all the others. Yet only a few scholars point this out. One of them was Anthony Pym: in a 2006 article, he and his co-author José Ramón Biau Gil wrote that “Translation technologies are often taught in one class, and translation in another”, mentioning that this is one of the things that can go wrong in translator training. (In fact, the entire volume he and his peers edited about the topic is quite worth reading.)

Interestingly enough, Pym and Gil’s article was the only one I found that was complaining about the compartments in university education. (Maybe I wasn’t searching long enough – but it was relatively easy to find writings of the other kind.) The rest were, so to say, at a lower level of the translators’ Maslow hierarchy.

There are a few exceptions in the world, places that offer project-based education. Lucky students at these schools will learn technology while on the job, because the university creates a simulated environment similar to professional working conditions. While Mitchell-Schuitevoerder (2011) describes the approach in general, Université de Rennes 2 – following the initiative of Daniel Gouadec – put it in practice in their Tradutech module. The description of the course explicitly mentions a “simulation de travail de traduction en conditions professionnelles” (simulation of professional working conditions for translation).

Some other organizations, including the excellent Localization Research Centre in Limerick, provide project-based training that is centered on technology. These courses are easier for students with an engineering background. Those arriving from the realm of humanities – most ‘traditional’ professional translators – will find these a bit of a challenge. Which is why I say they don’t give a satisfactory answer to the problem at hand, however outstanding they are.

When translators begin to work in a professional environment, be it for a translation company, or as a freelancer for direct clients, they will learn the technology on the job, not a minute earlier – and the hard way. What pains me is that schools could prepare them with the proper skills, so that they avoid the struggle – yet they don’t. Or at least most don’t. The ones I used to work for definitely didn’t. (Some I know about show signs of improvement, though.)

Because I co-own a company that produces translation technology and offers it to universities for free, I often hear complaints that the university has no funds to set up a computer lab; to hire an engineer; or to pay for the software (yes: at first, some simply don’t believe us when we say it’s free). So, on the surface, it looks as though it was all about the access to technology.

But I think the problem lies elsewhere, and it is more fundamental – and it explains the insufficient access to technology, too. It’s the age-old rationalist approach to the structure of education – and not just university education – that started with the ‘seven liberal arts’. I say rationalist because humans approached teaching by breaking down the realm of knowledge into separate logical units, and built up several isolated materials. I also say rationalist because then humans assumed that other humans, presented with these materials, will be clever enough to connect the dots, and combine the separately acquired masses of knowledge in their work. Some did – but most didn’t.

In addition to the isolation of subjects, a greater evil emerged in the Romantic era: the separation of art from science and technology [see Ashley-Smith (2000)]. It’s not natural that an artist – a painter, a musician, or a literary scholar – should look at technology as alien or evil. Think of Leonardo da Vinci, his paintings, his sculptures – and his machines. Yet suddenly, these two found themselves in two very distant realms. Their methods diverged. And they gradually lost the power and the will to communicate. This is true for their representatives, too.

This romantic separation prevails in the mindset of today’s population. It’s quite paradoxical, too, at an age when technology is ubiquitous and almost impossible to avoid; at an age when children quickly become proficient in using some forms of technology (but not others). This mindset produces a range of emotions quite close to hysteria: we crave and admire technology, and at the same time, we fear and hate it. This is how my French teacher at university (an engineering school) could display open hatred towards engineers, all of them. This is how a student of mine at a translation studies PhD school could say he wouldn’t touch a computer while in class and definitely never outside class, either. This is why many scholars who finally get to teach translation technology also write and speak a lot about the omnipresent technophobia in students and in teachers.

The separation of art and technology deforms the organization of the school. Technology matters tend to belong to a different organizational unit than translator training. They don’t understand and don’t care about each other’s problems, and they are at a loss when they need to communicate and co-operate. This affects the budgets of the institutions, too: we can safely say that the separation of subjects actually causes the lack of access to technology. And it also causes technophobia.

The result? Like I said, graduate students leave university without acquiring essential skills. In a way, the years they spend at school is a waste of time – because university fails to teach the most important skill: to combine knowledge and acquire new skills. But it could be otherwise. This is why I think it was an ingenious move that the Finnish government recently decided to soften the boundaries between subjects in elementary school. I wish this would propagate to higher education and to other countries sometime in the future.

Right now, I’m proposing something much easier. In fact, I’ve been telling this to all universities where I ever taught (mostly in Hungary). Make translation technology a standard tool in the translation class. If technology is taught separately, but students don’t get to use it to complete actual translation assignments, they won’t learn it. Many times I saw my students remember nothing from the previous week because they couldn’t practice on real-life assignments. This, of course, requires translation tutors who are proficient in technology and experienced with real-life translation jobs. I admit that such people might be difficult to hire.

My apologies to those universities where this approach is already in place. They should come forward and publish a lot about their experience. At least a lot more than now.

There’s more. The ultimate learning experience is one that spans several of the ‘subjects’, and connects new knowledge with familiar real-life scenery. My favorite example is the ‘airport visit’, available in my city (I don’t know about other places). This is a behind-the-scenes tour of the facilities of a full-service international airport, showing takeoffs and landings, explaining about air traffic control, and a tour of the airport fire station. The first time I took my then eight-year-old son to such a visit, I could see he learned more in those three hours than over an entire week at school. Not to mention how much he enjoyed it.

Let’s now reverse the argument about the translation technology class. We could say that the end of the training is to learn to translate, with technology as a standard tool. But technology is not a side issue: for most translation students, translation technology poses a real barrier. So, to introduce technology to people who love and master language, why not use an environment they know and like – a real-life translation task, or a lot of them for that matter? One thing is clear: one cannot teach translation in isolation from technology, and technology in isolation from translation – when out there in the professional world, they are so much dependent on each other.

For technology makers and education alike, it’s a moral obligation to put technology to the benefit of translators as early as in the beginning of translation training. In an earlier post, I wrote it was a moral obligation of engineers to create technology for the benefit of human beings, to be controlled by human beings – and not the other way round, not even in perception. Education must also show technology in its true context, so that students can properly understand its value in their work. Only then will technology serve the benefit of those who (are required to) use it.

Finally, I managed to dig up an ancient paper of mine called Technology in the Translation Class. I presented this paper at the ‘IV Jornadas de traducción and interpretación’ conference at the Universidad Europea de Madrid, Spain, in February 2004 – several months before my friends and I started our own company, and began to produce human-centered translation technology. The conference website and the proceedings are no longer available, so I’ve uploaded the paper to the storage space of this blog – click the title to read it: Technology in the Translation Class.


Jonathan Ashley-Smith (2000): Science and Art: Separated by a Common Language? Conservation Journal of the Victoria and Albert Museum, Autumn 2000, Issue 36.

Joanna Drugan (2004): Teaching CAT Tools. University of Leeds.

José Ramón Biau Gil, Anthony Pym (2006): Technology and translation (a pedagogical overview). In: Pym, Perekrestenko, Starink (eds).: Translation Technology and its Teaching. Intercultural Studies Group, Universitat Rovira i Virgili, Tarragona, Spain. pp. 5-20.

Dimitra Kalantzi (2002): Teaching MT/CAT tools in Greece: The State of the Art. In: Proceedings of EAMT-2002.

Rosemary E.H. Mitchell-Schuitevoerder (2011): Translation and technology in a project-based learning environment. Presented at the Tralogy I conference, Paris, France.

Jana Šavelová (2013): Current Trends in Teaching Professional Translation. In: Teória a prax prípravy budúcich translatológov a učiteľov anglického jazyka. Banská Bystrica, s. 8-14. – Banská Bystrica : UMB FHV , Belianum, 2013

2 thoughts on “Translation, Technology, Training – or Romanticism and Fear

  1. Perfectly logical, Balázs. Make the technology a natural part of the process, emphasize its role in supporting tasks to be accomplished rather than wasting time in a feature-focused teaching approach and some of this sick imbalance can be addressed. While some of the examples you give of project are examples of the sort of thing I encourage people to walk away from, nobody really gains anything useful from the exclusion of technology as an integral part of a translation curriculum. I look with horror at the local undergraduate and graduate programs where I live and where the idiot who headed the translation studies program for the past two years completely denied the existence or value of the commercial translation market and told his students it is not possible to make a living as a translator, and I sometimes think that the installation of guillotines on campus might be the first good step toward academic reform…..


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