Education for Literary Translation

20 Nov 2017 9:14 AM | Elise Kruidenier (Administrator)

by Jennifer O’Donnell and Tim Gregory

On November 8, 2017, the NOTIS Literary Translators had a roundtable discussion on Education for Literary Translators with Tim Gregory and Jennifer O'Donnell, and co-founder of the NW Literary Translators group, Shelley Fairweather-Vega, acting as host.

 Tim Gregory is an Arabic to English ATA accredited translator who is working on transitioning into more literary translation. He’s currently completing his MA in Translation with the University of Illinois and team-teaching one class on technology at Bellevue College in their Translation and Interpreting Certificate program.

Jennifer O'Donnell is a Japanese to English translator with an MA in Theory and Practice of Translation from SOAS, and is also studying Translation and Interpreting at Bellevue College. Jennifer is a Bilingual Logistics Coordinator for an export company and runs her translation business J-EN Translations on the side.

We asked everyone in the room to introduce themselves and share their own translation education experiences. The majority had learned translation and about the translation business the long way – either as a bilingual or a language student, and then, to quote one attendee, “making all of the mistakes we have to make and then figuring out how to make a living at it.”

Tim’s Experience Completing the MA in Translation with the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign

Tim has found the program at UIUC to be what he expected and hoped after reading up on the curriculum and requirements. The MA in Translation and Interpreting is divided into three tracks: Translation for the Professions, Literary and Applied Literary Translation, or Conference and Community Interpreting. Tim is focused on the literary translation track.

There are general courses in translation theory, ethics, practice, and technology that cover much of the basics of translation and tools used by translators, but little in the way of practical advice on things like freelance business models, setting rates, creating invoices, tracking projects, and so on, even though several of the instructors do freelance translation work.

If a student works with French or Spanish, they will find that many of the professors in the program work in those pairs as well and can provide in-depth feedback on translation assignments. Even when the professor does not share the student’s language, however, they provide excellent feedback on the structure and readability of a translation. In some cases, Tim has found this to be a particular strength of the program.

Once beyond the general courses, specialization and electives kick in. These classes take the students through the process of translating literature including poetry and short stories, with final projects like creating a literary magazine (for the class only, not for publication).

The school offers translation or elective courses for the following languages: French, German, Japanese, Chinese, Russian, Spanish, and Arabic. If a language-specific translation course is not available, students can take one of the electives instead. Later, they will have the opportunity to work with a mentor who is a professor in their language, if appropriate, as part of their capstone project for the MA – or select a mentor from outside UIUC with approval from the capstone coordinator.

The MA capstone project can be just about anything of substance related to the translation field, but a translation alone would not be sufficient. A paper written about a lengthy translation, creation of a specialized terminology database, development of a translation-related class, or appropriate research have all been used by students in the past.

Jennifer's Experience with the MA in Theory and Practice of Translation from SOAS

Jennifer did not have a great experience with her MA. She joined the program because it was at a very prestigious school for languages and international culture, but she found the MA to be sorely lacking.

The program was half theory and half practicing translation, with little to no feedback or direction. She was not taught how the theory applies to practical daily translation, and with no feedback on translations, she felt like her translation skills didn't improve at all.

When she graduated, she struggled a lot, not just because of the lack of translation skills, but also due to the lack of business know-how. Without any guidance to the freelance business, she had to turn to the internet and other translators. Then when she moved to Bellevue, the Bellevue College T&I certificate program to make up for the education she felt she missed.

Education in the Business Side of Translation

Many people at the event agreed that educational programs for translators often lack business training.

This concerns not only how to determine rates, of course (which is mostly a US-based hang-up because of the ATA/FTC antitrust issues), but also how to find and work with clients, create invoices, set up a business and so on.

Some favorite resources that were shared which counter this lack of education include Corinne McKay’s How to Succeed as a Freelance Translator and her online courses and podcast, as well as Tess Whitty’s Marketing Tips for Translators podcast. Both are good resources for the business-running side of translation.

Bellevue College Translation and Interpreting Certificate Program

The Bellevue College curriculum introduces translation and interpreting skills at a good pace, honing on everyone's skills before allowing people to focus on their language pairs. They emphasize the importance of knowing that translation and/or interpreting needs to be a good fit for you before you put the time, effort and money investing in the skills.

A lot of business acumen is included in the Bellevue College curriculum, and the Tech for Translators class that Tim team-teaches not only covers TM tools, but also general computer and word processing skills, including an introduction to opensource operating systems and tools and lessons about using technology to organize translation workflow.

Despite satisfaction on that front, the students who had attended BC were disappointed that the program there does not address literary translation. Tim promised to propose adding a literary elective and possibly a writing skills elective when the BC board next meets.

Education in Writing Skills

We then discussed education in writing skills as part of a translator’s education.

Tim described the Translator Journal exercise in Dr. Patricia Phillips’ Writing for Translators class and how it has evolved for him from a 5-minute daily practice of high-speed, no reference translation practice into learning to mimic different authors’ voices. He shared these exercises as something everyone could do for themselves to improve as translators and writers, in order to avoid always translating into one’s own voice.

Everyone agreed that having peers review your work is great at helping hone your skills. That's why the NOTIS Literary Translation Feedback Forums (the next one is coming up on December 21) are a great experience for all participants.

After input from one attendee who is going through an MFA program with “very low residency” in New Jersey (and residency locations around the US), we may even have sparked a movement to (through NOTIS, most likely) create a literary translator’s retreat somewhere in the area in the next year or two. This would include a week of time to translate, combined with workshopping, guest speakers, readings, and peace and quiet, similar to the week-long Middlebury Bread Loaf Translators’ Conference in Vermont, USA.


Link Roundup:

Higher Education (MA and non-MA) Programs:

Literary Translation Resources

Translation Business Resources:


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