Friday, June 22, 2012

Mentors and Apprentices

Over at his blog The Liaison Intepreter, Lionel Dersot describes a beginner he met recently:
He is Japanese. He is excellent at French, and communication, that is, he speaks naturally, and fast, and understands a great deal about everything. Incidentally, he spent years as a barman in a café back there [in France?]. He is new to translation and interpretation. He has been working part-time as a kind of assistant for a veteran terp/translator.
This is a reminder of an alternative route for progressing from Native to Expert Translator – an alternative, that is, to taking formal courses. The definition of Expert Translator on this blog (enter essential definitions in the Search box on the right) expressly recognises mentorship as that alternative. Another word for it is apprenticeship, which of course is very old.

It's not peculiar to translation, though other professions have it better organised. My brother was an engineer. He began his career when he was 16 as an apprentice in a large firm of manufacturing engineers in England. At the same time he went to night classes, and he finished up as a partner in a famous firm of consulting engineers. He didn't have a university degree, but he had a series of professional qualifications obtained by examination from the Institution of Structural Engineers. He told me that times had changed in his profession, however, and that nowadays engineers at his level were expected to have a degree, especially since the UK joined the European Union and the British norms had to adapt to it. There were pros and cons. On the one hand, the university graduates were well prepared on the theoretical side; but on the other hand they lacked practical experience and judgement and still needed another kind of 'apprenticeship' before they became full operative and responsible.

Administrative and technical translating, at least in the more 'developed' countries, has been going the same way over the past 50 years. Here's an example. When I started teaching in the 1960s, the executives at the Translation Bureau of the Government of Canada looked down politely on a university degree in translation and didn't consider it a worthwhile qualification. (According to Sarah Dillon, see References below, the attitude persists in some quarters.) To understand them, one must recall that they themselves came from a generation that started in translation when such degrees were a novelty and only available in very few places. Instead, the Bureau recruited beginners by its own examination and placed them at the lowest rank in the service (TR1). There they were put to work under an experienced senior revisor (TR3 level) who, if he or she acquitted the role conscientiously, acted as a mentor. And nowadays? Like all the large employers of translators in Canada, the Translation Bureau asks for a degree.

Elsewhere, there are now 19 universities in Spain alone that offer translation licenciaturas (roughly equivalent to Honours BAs).

Still, from the developmental viewpoint, the one-on-one mentorship and the apprenticeship experience remain valid forms of training for the few who can find an available mentor or employer, and it's a pity the translation profession doesn't organise it better. The truth is, most professional translators don't want to lose time on it. Yet a university student whom I took on as a summer assistant once said to me, "I've learnt as much in the past month as in the whole year in this school." Doubtless an exaggeration, but...

Sarah Dillon. Apprenticeships for translators. There's Something About Translation blog, 2011. Click here.

'Apprenticeship programs put learners under the direct supervision of the experienced'. Source: Apprenticeship Programs for Education in Washington.


  1. Thank you for the reference to my blog. A. was a barman in Paris and his easy going and quick interaction put him apart in the standard landscape here. However, the ecosystem that inhibits directness will eat into his competences. I totally agree with your remarks on mentoring and the not much bright state of it.

  2. I've been studying agriculture, then spent 6 years in UK. Now I'm freelance translator and interpreter.Never thought I will do it in my life!!!

  3. Good! You probably also didn't think that translating and interpreting were so important and so widespread.

  4. I can relate to your post when you mentioned that some university graduates are only good in theory but practically they're not as good as compared to those undergraduate but are exposed to the real thing.

  5. Great and good.And i think your blog awesome and contain a lot of information Thanks for sharing ....

  6. The summer assistant is right - in practise you can get far more knowledge than just learning only theory.