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How our STB students have become heavyweight champions in virtual teamwork

Tuesday, June 29th, 2021

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.



My Distance Learning

Sunday, January 24th, 2021

By Reka Eszenyi, EMT co-representative Department for Translation and Interpreting, Eötvös Lóránd University, Budapest (ELTE)

The title above is taken from the book recently published by our department on the lessons we learnt from the spring semester of 2020. We run MA courses in translation (EMT) and interpreting, conference interpreting (EMCI), audio-visual translation and distance learning courses in translation, revision, and terminology.

The circumstances of courses that normally required the presence of students and teachers radically changed in March 2020. We realised this was the new normal in our classrooms, at least for the unpredictable, but hopefully only near future. We carried on with teaching and learning, and lots of new skills, tricks and lessons were learnt in this extraordinary period. And we kept asking ourselves, and our students questions on how distance education should be given in courses where personal presence is much needed and appreciated. What is the optimal amount of tasks that brings the students to the competence levels required and is still optimal as workload for the tutors? What should the mode of instruction be? Synchronous, asynchronous of a combination of the two? What platform(s) should be used? How should exams be organised so that they test students in a valid, fair manner, granting all participants equal opportunities? And how do our choices and preferences fit into the institutional framework of the university?

These questions, and some answers given to them contributed the backbone of a volume of studies we published at the end of 2020. The topics include classrooms, platforms and exams, translator, audio-visual translator, interpreter and PhD training as well. One of our authors, Szilvia Kovalik-Deák describes the shift from presence to online as follows:

The classroom was filling up with students. Everyone was talking at the same time, a routine before class. Someone came up to me and inquired about a translation problem. The place was bustling as usual. Then I turned to my students and asked the same question I had always asked, namely how they felt on that beautiful spring day. We were talking in French, our common language for work. I asked each member an individual question, which was the signal to focus their attention on class. With this, the seminar based on interactions between lecturer and student, student and student started. (2020:6)

The screen is filling up with faces. We are chatting a few minutes before class, as usual. The students are not speaking at the same time but there is a chance for everyone to say a couple of words. I can see one of my students’ cat stretching lazily and jumping off the desk. Bence has forgotten to switch on his microphone again, so I remind him to do so. Then, as always, I turn to my students and ask how they are feeling themselves on this beautiful, spring day. We are talking in French, our common language for work. I am asking each member an individual question, which is the signal to focus their attention on the class. With this, the seminar based on interactions between lecturer and student, student and student starts. Slightly differently, but anyway, almost as usual… (2020:16).

Some colleagues compiled questionnaires to find out the usefulness of the tools they employed in the course to make up for the lack of personal, presence contact, like fora, or recordings, while others used artificial intelligence to test students’ progress. We have learnt that courses in subtitling, translation projects or conference interpreting can all be given in the online mode, at an acceptable standard. I am not sure if this is becoming the new normal, but in each case, all our online attempts and effort had elements we will stick to once we return to our real classrooms. These include the vast amount of tasks and assignments neither printed nor sent by e-mail but uploaded to learning management systems and drives, the new platforms and applications we learnt to use that can successfully complement presence classroom communication, using artificial intelligence to assign and correct tasks that can be done without human assistance, and last but not least the enormous flexibility and motivation form both the students’ and the instructors’ part that made and makes our courses work in these extraordinary times.

The closing article in the book lets the students’voices be heard. By answering open-ended questions, they describe their experiences of the spring semester of 2020.

I think we managed to get the most out of this situation. So, high-five to everyone!!! :* (Robin, 2020:189)

Our book was published in Hungarian at the end of 2020 and is expected to come out in English in May 2021.

Corona and EMT – crisis or kairos?

Tuesday, September 1st, 2020

By Konrad Fuhrmann, European Commission Directorate-General for Translation, EMT-Team

All culture is the response to a crisis – that is in general terms, how the historian Arnold Toynbee described historical evolution. The immediate answer of the EMT Network to the challenges of the Covid-crisis was a sort of Corona-culture of teaching translation under the new special circumstances, which nobody could even think of.

In a first moment, all efforts made since October 2019 by the newly elected network – setting up the new Board, fixing priorities, planning the next network meetings – seemed to be thwarted or at least badly damaged by the insidious virus and the measures taken to fight it.  No physical meetings anymore, no direct networking, no spontaneous ideas of future collaboration during the coffee breaks … Corona hit the very heart of EMT!

However, after the first shock, after a short stay in the intensive care bed, figuratively speaking, EMT recovered instantly to full strength and used its networking resources to break the isolation of lockdown and other restrictions. Admittedly, the network meeting in March had to be cancelled without discussion, but then the ‘cancel culture’ finished immediately and gave place to a very creative debate: methods of distance-learning, use of digital tools and internet resources the network had already discussed as a secondary topic, overnight advanced to the centre of interest. A Corona – distance teaching & assessment group in Yammer started an intensive exchange of best practices, tricks and recommendations in order to tie up a parcel of emergency relief measures. Responding to the crisis, the network turned into a safety net designed to cope with the challenges of the crisis. The virus has increased a general trend to use more distance teaching, to apply new digital tools for teaching and assessment. As one of the participants of the Corona-group put it, the pandemic has simply precipitated the crisis in language teaching and assessment and produced answers, which once will become mainstream.

Six working groups, on EMT’s visibility & outreach, technological competence, L2-translation, audio-visual translation (AVT), CATO and PSIT, have been set up and are meeting regularly online. Contrary to all pessimistic expectations, on-line coordination has been working very well.

What comes next? In this period of utmost uncertainty, detailed plans B are, of course, indispensable. For the time being, it is clear that the next network meeting 29-30 October will be organised virtually with only the speakers coming to Brussels. The programme includes reporting on the results of the working groups and other EMT activities as well as breakout sessions: virtual meetings with DGT heads of language departments and debates on future topics. Technically, this will be a big challenge for the EMT team, which has to deal with different new tools in order to organise virtual plenary sessions with on-line interpreting and breakout sessions with another tool. This will be also a sort of dress rehearsal for plan B solutions in the future. We still hope that the Network meeting in March 2021 in Leipzig can be organised more or less normally, but that is all but sure. It is clear that even the best virtual solutions cannot replace the liveliness and spontaneity of physical meetings, the random talks in the coffee breaks. However, the current crisis is a good opportunity to carry out our plans B, to practise using new tools, in order to be better prepared for future epidemics, eruptions of volcanoes and other calamities, which may affect the work of EMT. Let us meet the challenge and fully develop the Corona-culture of EMT!


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