The topic of apprenticeships, work placements or internships for translators interests me for several reasons, not least because I believe on-the-ground learning alongside more experienced peers is a vital part of education in any field.
But it’s particularly interesting in translation because of the way in which our industry is organised. Most translators work freelance because unless you want to go the civil service route, there are very few inhouse positions for native English translators involving primarily translation work, as opposed to project management, terminology, or other translation-related tasks.
This makes it difficult for newcomers to the profession to find obvious opportunities to learn from their peers.
Yet professional associations and universities can and do already play an important role in plugging that gap, even if the options aren’t as formalised as they are in other industries. When the issue came up at the recent ITI / eCPD Virtual Coffee Morning on International Translation Day 2011, it struck me how unaware many of the participants were of these opportunities.
Most universities have links to business and industry that are ripe for the taking. And if they don’t, the fact of being a student opens doors to local businesses that you would never discover as a working professional.
My first degree in Ireland included a compulsory 6-month work placement, and the option of either a second 6-month placement or a study abroad period. This offered ample opportunity to make our mark in the world of work, and put us head and shoulders above other graduates who hadn’t had this opportunity.
(Incidentally, the study abroad option was popular even for students who did not study a second language – another advantage Irish graduates have over most other anglophones :)).
My second degree in London had an optional work placement, but I decided to pursue a subject I wouldn’t have the option of studying outside of a university structure. But then I also organised a couple of work placements for myself for good measure too.
Most valuable of all, I deliberately chose a translation degree which included plenty of hands-on translation work with practising translators – in addition to experienced tutors, thankfully. Practising translators may be a goldmine of “real world” advice, but they’re not always the easiest people to learn from. This way we had the best of both worlds.
The university also organised numerous talks and workshops with high-profile professionals. I’ve seen many of the topics covered in those talks crop up again and again over the intervening ten years or so. How’s that for an investment in your career?
When I hear established translators denigrate the value of a formal education in translation (usually because it’s not the route they’ve taken), I’m certain these are just some of the many benefits that they just don’t understand.
I graduated in both instances with a clear idea of the realities of working life, some solid albeit basic professional experience and, crucially, a couple of door-opening references and contacts. More than enough to give me a leg up to the next rung on the career ladder.
Of course not everyone comes to translation with a formal education in the field, or indeed from a “real world”-oriented university. This is where professional associations play a role.
For example, the ITI runs a hugely successful scheme for newcomers called the Professional Support Group. As part of that, they offer opportunities for prospective translators to work closely with an established professional in their language pair.
I’m sure many of the larger professional bodies run similar schemes, and if they don’t, it’s not hard to become a regular face, introduce yourself to some established translators and develop your own network of willing and able helpers (as part of a reciprocal arrangement, of course). I know it’s not hard, because I’ve done that too.
Yet how many translation students ever bother to join their local associations? How many newcomers to the profession actively manage their network of fellow professionals? It’s like the flip side of translators who network only within their own peer group, and then wonder why they can’t find direct clients.
The importance of managing your own learning
Ultimately, it’s not the job of a university, professional association, or indeed anyone else to find work placements for prospective translators. No-one is going to be handed a placement on a platter, just as no-one is going to be handed the perfect job – so why shouldn’t aspiring professionals have to put in a little legwork to find one?
As Philippa Hammond put it in her excellent post, Where do all the translators go?:
… We don’t want to deny that to make a living as a professional translator or interpreter requires a lot of hard work and dedication, but what career worth having doesn’t require a bit of hard graft? …
I believe a large part of the problem is the way in which many translators, both newcomers and more established, understand what a work placement, internship or apprenticeship should entail.
In an age of remote working, portfolio careers and job hopping, we should view on-the-job learning in wider terms than just turning up to an office for a couple of mind-numbing days, weeks or months of work. Instead, we should be looking at combining face-to-face networking and meet-ups with remote collaboration and guidance, including pro-bono translation services where appropriate.
Crucially, this needs to be managed by the aspiring translator, not by an association, more experienced peer or university, no matter how well meaning their intentions. Everyone deserves a hand up, but do we really need to encourage more of the victim mentality that Philippa referred to in her post?
A structure like this would more closely reflect the realities of the business in which we work today, especially given that being “good” at translation is just a small part of what one needs to learn to become a successful translator.
Let’s face it – if you’re not able to organise an internship for yourself, you’ll struggle to survive in a profession where almost everyone works freelance.
Smart translators actively manage their own careers, and this starts from our very earliest days on the job.