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Some thoughts on collaborative learning, individual competition, and translation training

Tuesday, August 30th, 2022

By Laura Tallone, translation trainer at the Master’s Programme in Specialised Translation and Interpreting (ISCAP, Porto Polytechnic, Portugal)

You need to be over 50 to remember this

Translators who got their training in the 1980s will certainly remember the scene. A group of translation students take turns to read out passages of their target texts before their teacher, who, eyes shut, listens attentively and sometimes nods. A nod is good – it means that the student’s version is close to that of the teacher. Occasionally, the teacher’s corrections and suggestions are interrupted by a student asking for validation of an alternative version, but comparing too many versions is time-consuming, therefore discouraged, as students need to translate as much as possible (practice makes perfect) and the texts are long. Every class is the same routine, with students showing the results of their individual struggles with words. As long as they have a decent product to show, nobody really cares how they get there. There is no teamwork, no Project-Based Learning, no cooperation. It is “every man for himself”, and competition is fierce. You may even hear a muffled little giggle from the back of the room if someone gets it really wrong.

Fortunately, those days are over

Translation training has definitely moved away from what came to be known as the “transmissionist” approach[1], and teachers no longer provide the authoritative version of any translated text. On the contrary, students are encouraged to consider several, equally adequate, possibilities for the same source text. Rather than the actual product, it is the translation process that is focused on in the class – the reasoning behind a certain choice is sometimes more important than the choice itself.  Translation mistakes are therefore incorporated as learning opportunities, instead of just dismissed as errors.

Instrumental to these dynamics are collaborative learning strategies, in which students play an active role, taking responsibility for their own learning process and acquiring a set of essential competences (translational, interpersonal, technological…) along the way. Although there is a wide variety of collaborative learning activities, most translation teachers find it useful to make students work in groups of two or more, using project-based assignments that try to replicate actual workplace conditions. Active discussion and brainstorming are encouraged as problem-solving activities that publicly unfold learning. Assessment is often based on students’ portfolios, and conventional tests are eliminated whenever possible. When grading is unavoidable, it takes into account self- and peer-assessment, the degree of the student’s engagement, and his/her contribution to the cooperative effort.

Have we gone from one extreme to the other?

What about individual work and competition? They have not disappeared from the classroom, but are radically reduced. Considering that the job market is increasingly competitive and that translators must still be able to work alone, under tight schedules, and take responsibility for their own translations, are we really preparing students to be successful professionals? After all, many translation companies require applicants to sit for an individual translation examination as part of their recruitment processes. Are young graduates up to it? And, perhaps more importantly, do they feel they are?

We still have more questions than answers, so more research on this topic is welcome!

In 2021, ISCAP´s MA in Specialised Translation and Interpreting (MTIE) celebrated the International Translation Day with an event that included the 1st MTIE Technical & Scientific Translation Award. Of national scope, it was open to all Portuguese translation students and young graduates up to 29 years of age, who were given two hours to translate around 500 words. In addition to the fairly good prizes (CAT tool licences worth several hundred euros each for the first two prizes, plus a €300 cash prize for the winner), the contest was endorsed by DGT and the Portuguese Association of Translation Companies (APET), which ensured the winners increased visibility before potential employers. It was also an opportunity for aspiring translators to put their skills to the test, without the negative aspects of failing, as it was an extracurricular activity with no bearing on academic results. The timing was also ideal, as the school year was just starting. A win-win situation, we believed. Registration was open for two months, and the information sent to all higher-education schools in Portugal offering translation programmes. With hundreds of potential participants, who could choose to translate from English, French, German, Spanish, or Russian, we expected a flood of applications. By the end of the registration period, however, there were only 18 competitors.

A few days before the registration period closed, I met a former student who had just graduated. After greeting her, I showed my surprise at not seeing her name among the candidates for the translation award – perhaps she had not seen the emails? “I have,” she replied, “but it’s not for me. Too much stress”. I was astounded. Was hers an isolated case, or was this feeling shared by her colleagues? Is stress avoidance preventing students from taking up new challenges? Does lack of competition in the classroom have anything to do with it?

Some answers may hopefully be found after the second edition of the MTIE Translation Award, to be held next September, when a questionnaire is distributed among translation students and young graduates. Unlike other, scarce, literature on this specific subject[2], the reasons and motivations for not participating can be probed. Whatever the results, we are not going back to the dreary classroom of the 1980s – that goes without saying. But it would not be the first time some adjustments must be made to our teaching methods. Translation training (like all training, in fact) has to adapt to the world outside academia, and that world is constantly changing.

Photo by krakenimages on Unsplash

[1] Kiraly, D. (2001). Towards a constructivist approach to translator education, Quaderns. Revista de traducció 6. Available at https://www.raco.cat/index.php/QuadernsTraduccio/article/download/25282/25116/0

[2] See, for example, Piotr Szymczak’s 2016 paper, Translation Competitions in Educational Contexts: A Positive Psychology Perspective.

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