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How our STB students have become heavyweight champions in virtual teamwork

This post is also available in: Nederlands (Dutch)

Koen Kerremans (EMT representative, Master of Arts in Translation, Vrije Universiteit Brussel, Belgium)

Allow me to first briefly explain what I mean by the abbreviation ‘STB’ in the title of this article. ‘STB’ stands for ‘Simulated Translation Bureau’. It is a pedagogical concept implemented for several years now within the Master of Arts in Translation at Vrije Universiteit Brussel (VUB). In this setting, students are divided into several groups. Each group forms a fictitious translation company – consisting of one project manager and approximately six translators/revisers – and works on a translation project for a real (non-profit) client. Students go through several critical phases of a translation project – from project pricing and preparatory work to the final delivery of the translation(s). In this way, they learn to see the links between various aspects of a translation workflow (including tools) taught separately in other courses. This pedagogical approach is now offered in many translation training programmes, albeit implemented in different forms.[i] The photograph below shows STB students from VUB at work in pre-corona times.

In 2018, together with co-author Gys-Walt van Egdom, I wrote a chapter on ‘Professionalisation in Translator Education Through Virtual Teamwork’ for Mousten et al.’s handbook entitled ‘Multilingual Writing and Pedagogical Cooperation in Virtual Learning Environments’.[ii] We pointed out the importance of implementing and facilitating virtual teamwork in translation education and illustrated from our teaching practice how this concept of virtual teamwork can be realised in the context of STBs in interinstitutional collaborations. In such settings, students from different translation training programmes work on shared translation projects in which they take on different roles: e.g. project manager, translator or reviser. The cases that were described in the chapter involved collaborations between students from partners in the ‘International Network of Simulated Translation Bureaus’[iii], more specifically students from Vrije Universiteit Brussel, Zuyd Hogeschool Maastricht and the University of Antwerp. Since then, virtual teamwork within the INSTB network has increased even more due to collaborations with, among others, translation students from the University of Swansea and Dublin City University.

In all these collaborations, however, the communicative aspect was mainly limited to exchanging instructions and files via e-mail, with very occasionally an online meeting between the student project managers of the institutions involved. Compared to now, virtual teamwork back then turned out to be only a ‘light version’.

Also, between students within the same team at VUB, the virtual aspect remained somewhat limited to exchanging e-mails, sending instant messages via a popular social media platform, or sharing an online document. Because weekly meetings were held on campus, there was no need within each student team to switch to a more advanced form of virtual teamwork. Even in 2020, this was not yet the case because the course module was being organised in the same way as before: namely by having weekly meetings of about three hours on the university campus. The students had almost finished their projects when the first lockdown due to the coronavirus became a fact in Belgium (mid-March 2020).

The module ‘Translation Bureau Simulation’ at VUB is offered in the second semester (starting in February), just before the students start their internship in an organisation of their choice. This module consists of an introductory lecture in which students receive practical information about the course’s objectives, the division of the groups and roles (project manager, translator, reviser), the ‘real’ translation projects they will be involved in and how they will be evaluated. This is followed by seven weeks of practical classes in which students work in teams to complete various sub-tasks that lead to the final translation products. These sub-tasks are currently:

  1. drawing up a price offer;
  2. searching for project-related text material in source and target languages;
  3. creating a translation memory based on previous project-related translations;
  4. compiling a multilingual term bank for terms in the source text(s);
  5. translation and revision in a computer-assisted translation tool;

All classes always take place under the supervision of the two lecturers involved in the module. Each session starts with a weekly scrum meeting which everyone attends. In addition, the lecturers offer support and additional tips during the practical classes in case individual or team members experience problems with one or more of the sub-tasks. Consequently, there is a high degree of interactivity during the sessions. Moreover, as a lecturer, you need to show a lot of communicative flexibility. Sometimes it is necessary to talk to the whole group, other times only to a specific translation team or individual students (while other students are working on their projects or conferring with each other).

At the end of the module, during a final meeting, the students have to present their experiences as a team in their translation projects. Finally, they each submit a learning portfolio with personal reflections on the various sub-tasks. The lecturers evaluate each student’s learning process.

Last academic year, out of necessity, it was decided in the first semester that Translation Bureau Simulation would be taught entirely online from February 2021. The important question or pedagogical challenge was how to create a learning situation that (taking into account the limitations of online teaching) imitates as closely as possible the practical classes that took place on campus until the previous year. To realise this, we made some choices in advance.

For instance, in contrast to previous years, we decided to determine the translation projects in advance so that students could start with the preparatory tasks and division of roles straight away.

We also decided to limit the range of software tools that students could use during the module. This made it easier to provide remote technical support in case of problems with the installation and/or use of specific tools. For instance, for translation project management, a single cloud-based solution – i.e. Memsource[iv] – was chosen in contrast to previous years, allowing the teacher to maintain a good overview of the status of a project and each student’s progress.

Also important was the choice of the communication platform that would be used, in addition to the learning platform at VUB. We eventually chose Microsoft Teams because this platform is also used on a broader scale at VUB. We set up a Teams channel for the course and then created a separate subchannel for each translation team. In this way, we initiated the weekly meetings in the general channel. Afterwards, the students could continue to discuss and cooperate in their respective group channels.

In retrospect, this platform also proved to be ideally suited to facilitating the communicative flexibility required of lecturers in this course module. For example, it was easy to switch between channels during meetings or have individual conversations with students while other students worked or conferred. Sub-tasks were still submitted via VUB’s learning platform.

As the weeks progressed, it became clear how quickly the students (and teachers) had adapted to the new way of working. Everyone was present during the weekly scrum meetings. The platform offered the required degree of flexibility to involve all students or support them individually. Preparatory documents were swiftly created and shared. Switching between different collaboration tools was easy and everyone was well aware of their tasks and responsibilities within the team.

Of course, there are also downsides to this 100% virtual way of working. For example, spontaneity is somewhat lost during online meetings compared to meetings on campus and it also takes more effort to involve the somewhat quieter students. On the other hand, this way of working has also proven to offer benefits to our pedagogical approach and we therefore definitely want to retain certain aspects of it in the future.

After all, we are proud of our heavyweight champions in virtual teamwork. They have more than earned their title!


[i] Buysschaert, Joost et al. 2018. ‘Embracing Digital Disruption In Translator Training: Technology Immersion in Simulated Translation Bureaus’. Revista Tradumàtica. Tecnologies de la Traducció 16: 125-33.

[ii] Kerremans, Koen, and Gys-Walt van Egdom. 2018. ‘Professionalisation in Translator Education Through Virtual Teamwork’. In Multilingual Writing and Pedagogical Cooperation in Virtual Learning Environments, eds. Birthe Mousten, Sonia Vandepitte, Elisabet Arnó, and Bruce Maylath. Hershey, PA: IGI Global, 291-316.



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