The Big Translation Degree (or Certification) Scam If you are hiring a translator based merely on his academic background, you're playing with fire.

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I’ve been reading lots of articles extolling academic degrees and certificates in Translation, saying that whoever lacks these cannot be relied upon for professional translation tasks. Well, I strongly disagree with them.

There are very fine translators who lack academic background in Translation, certificates, who loathe membership to associations, but, nevertheless, have what tons of such mega-educated, certified and “membershipped” translators most often than not lack: INBORN TALENT and LIFELONG EFFORT.

I can tell that from my 20-year experience as a professional translator in Brazil: every single semester, young, high-school graduates flock by the thousands to universities and colleges that offer degrees in Translation, with little more to their name than the indigent foreign language skills acquired in their K12 years (or in money-grab FL schools, for that matter – “one at every corner in town to better serve you suckers”).

These wannabees enter an undergrad Translation course sincerely thinking it’s a “little-more-expensive-and-longer FL course – down here, only English and Spanish). Even worse, they can barely write a cohesive 500-word essay about ANY subject, even passing the college admission tests (ENEM, FUVEST, you name it) with “flying colors” in the mandatory essay (i.e., the quality of review and scoring by the official bodies are HIGHLY questionable, too.)

Translating means, down to nitty-gritty, being able to write REALLY well and being fond of READING (i.e., imitating the style of fine authors), which is a lifelong effort, and many young students think “Okee-dokee, my Portuguese (or FL) teacher gives me writing assignments every now and then, I return the best s*** I can, and, if I get a B- or C, that’s fine.” They actually hate reading and writing , or keep these activities to the bare minimum, just to barely “make the cut”. “Oh, but I love translating song lyrics, maybe someday I can be a fine translator”. That’s the spirit.

Fast-forward, four (or so) years later: these intellectual indigents get their degrees in Translation & Interpreting, brandishing their fresh diplomas in the faces of the poor no-grads, no-certs, and making a hell of an impression on translation agency owners or direct clients, hoping to get their first professional translation jobs.

Then, when they come across a seasoned no-grad, no-cert, but highly-talented translator, able to deliver nearly perfect translations on any imaginable subject, they sneer at him, often blinding him with science, dropping names of high-profile professors, theorists, linguists, quoting Saussure and Chomsky right and left, and invoking translation theory principles, all to discredit and disqualify the battle-hardened translator.

That’s the painful truth, fellas!

11 thoughts on “The Big Translation Degree (or Certification) Scam If you are hiring a translator based merely on his academic background, you're playing with fire.

  1. Congrats on publishing your first article, Andy! Quite a controversial topic you have in here 🙂 But I like it 🙂

    Personally I think education is essential in any profession because it lays the foundation for your future development. Although I understand that in our profession in particular we have people coming from different backgrounds and there’s no such thing as a “single path to becoming a great translator”.

    I definitely agree with you about the talent and the hard work that is required in order to make it this industry. They’re the bearing walls of your business and I think without it it will be really difficult to excel at this craft.

    Even though I strongly believe that education is an essential element I always acknowledge that there are multiple paths and I respect people regardless of their background.

    I think clients understand that too. After all talent and polished skills give quality and clients understand that quality is the most important thing when it comes to buying translation services.

    I’d love to see what other Open Mic readers think about this issue!

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  2. Good rant, Andy! 🙂
    A bit of my own statistics: 9 out of 10 translators fail the test of the translation agency I used to worked at. So I, too, don’t believe in degrees. As we say in Russia, your degree only means that you had a chance to learn something.
    But I really believe that, in order to become good translators, people need to learn the theory, at leat in the English-Russian pair. When somebody tries to translate from English to Russian without any actual knowledge of the theory, it always ends in disaster.

    Also, don’t you think that “translator able to deliver nearly perfect translations on any imaginable subject” is a fiction? Ha. And why not “absolutely perfect” then, instead of “nearly perfect”?))))

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    1. “Your degree only means that you had a chance to learn something” – so true! Also true: not all programs are created equal. Some programs will let students slide just for the sake of keeping good statistics.

      In order to improve the “quality” of future graduates colleges and universities need to challenge their abilities and push them over their limit. To the point where they would want to quit.

      Theory is awesome, but practice with real-life examples and materials is much more valuable in the long run.

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      1. Dima, you just haven’t seen the results of such practice, when the person makes same mistakes over and over and doesn’t even realize there’s anything wrong.
        Let’s agree that theory and practice are equally important 🙂

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  3. Elena, Dmitry, thanks a lot for your feedback on the issue, and I have a few remarks on it, but since I have a tight deadline to meet now, I’ll leave it for later today.

    However, just as an “appetizer”: my rant is primarily focused on the Brazilian translation industry, which reflects the lousy quality of our educational system (it’s in shambles, as a matter of fact).

    I’ll elaborate on that.


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      1. Yes. So when I need to improve the theory of language and translation, I would rather read some textbook and reflect on my experience.
        And personally, I like to find something new from my own discovery. I found I am not good at learning from other’s words – including textbooks. Sometimes I found the textbooks’ thought just belongs to the author, and I also have my own ones! Why I listen too much other’s opinion which I don’t feel or think that way? If the content of the book is objective knowledge, it is ok or good, but if it is subjective or personal opinions, I have my own ones.

  4. Looks like those grads are a product of ignorance, rather than of education…. I completely agree with what Elena and Dmitry have already said. Being a product of translation education myself, I see my “titles” as added value, but I have learned at the very beginning of my experience that translators are made on the field and not on books – especially because nowadays it’s hard to find an education system or program that really teaches you what it means to be one! Btw, I too would love to see a discussion on the topic on the forum Dmitry linked to 🙂

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  5. Maybe we should rather emphasise language/translation skills and not having a language degree or not. Yes, I do have a degree in language, and I definitely do not see it as a waste of time or money. But I studied because I love languages and for no other reason. However, there are people who believe that if you can understand one language you can translate/interpret it into any other one that you can speak. This is what we have to fight against. If you don’t have the skill to find the correct word for a specific context, nothing, not even a degree, will make you excel. And if the client doesn’t know the target language he or she will not know whether you’ve messed up their project or not. Whether you put them in a negative light because of a poor translation of not.


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