Competency-JA2017

Can Competency-Based Education Enhance Translator Training?

The growing demand for qualified translators highlights the importance of effective translator training. Whereas many academic programs deliver uneven results, competency-based education provides a promising framework for more consistent outcomes.

How do people become translators? What do effective translators need to be able to do? Do academic translator training programs do a good job of teaching such skills? If not, how might they be improved or reconceptualized? As a university professor who engages in translation work and teaches courses on the subject, I spend a lot of time thinking about questions like these, particularly now that more and more of my department’s students are expressing an interest in the translation option of our foreign language major. Fortunately for them, the language services industry is expanding and the demand for qualified translators is on the rise. But the question remains: How can we maximize the effectiveness of university translator training programs?

While planning a presentation on this topic for the 2017 conference of the Mid-America Chapter of the American Translators Association (MICATA), I decided to start by asking attendees what they thought we should be teaching. After all, who better than professional translators to identify the competencies needed for success in their industry? As I continued to plan the presentation, I realized that translator training might be a good fit for another topic I’ve been researching for a while: competency-based education.

What Is Competency-Based Education?

Competency-based education (CBE) is an innovative approach to teaching and learning that has been gaining traction in universities throughout the U.S. and beyond. It differs markedly from traditional approaches in higher education. Instead of measuring learning in terms of credit hours and letter grades, CBE programs focus on student mastery of specific competencies. The role of faculty members—or subject matter experts (SMEs) as they’re called in CBE lingo—also changes. Rather than teaching content, assigning homework, and grading exams, faculty involvement centers on program design. In CBE approaches, the role of SMEs shifts from teaching and testing to drafting program competencies (preferably with industry partner input), identifying or creating measures for assessing them, and selecting learning materials, activities, and platforms. Students move through these mostly online programs at their own pace, progressing as quickly as they’re able to demonstrate mastery of competencies, usually on performance assessments requiring them to complete some kind of real-world task. In some programs, learning “coaches” or mentors are employed to advise students, provide formative assessments, and evaluate summative assessments. Because students in CBE programs graduate or receive a credential only after demonstrating mastery of all competencies, proponents are fond of saying that in traditional education, time is held constant while learning is variable. But in CBE, learning is constant while time is variable.

After explaining CBE fundamentals like these to attendees at my session at MICATA’s conference, I invited them to help me brainstorm some of the competencies they would expect well-prepared graduates of a university translation training program to have.

I clarified that for the purposes of CBE, competencies are defined as knowledge, skills, and dispositions or attitudes, including so-called soft skills, such as time management, flexibility, and professionalism.

At first, attendees seemed a bit surprised that a university professor was asking them what he should be teaching. But before long a robust discussion had broken out, with attendees eagerly sharing their thoughts about what it takes to be an effective translator. Many expressed interest in identifying competencies and helping with other program design aspects by continuing to collaborate online after the conference. The discussion I started at MICATA—and hope to continue with readers of this article—centers on the following question: With its emphasis on teaching and assessing real-world skills or competencies, could CBE have the potential to enhance the effectiveness of translator training?

The Pathways Translators Take

Any discussion of the need for better translator training should take into consideration how people actually become translators and what kind of training they receive along the way. Although there are as many pathways into the profession as there are translators, I think it’s possible to condense most kinds of experiences into two broad training and professionalization routes we might call the “proficiency plus circumstances” and the “formal training” pathways.

Graduates of the “proficiency plus circumstances” pathway are individuals with advanced proficiency in two languages—often bilingual immigrants or heritage speakers—who at some point decide to try their hand at translating or interpreting. What begins as a couple of favors or sporadic jobs develops into regular freelance work, a new source of income, and an expanding professional network. Although “proficiency plus circumstances” translators bypass formal training, they nonetheless learn through on-the-job experience and professional development programs. This certainly describes my own experience. I developed proficiency in Spanish by living abroad before earning advanced degrees in Spanish and becoming a university professor. Despite never having taken a course in translation, I received plenty of requests to do translation and interpreting jobs. I began teaching a course on translation at my university and worked for several years as a Portuguese>English translator for a large Brazilian investor relations firm. Eventually, I discovered MICATA and ATA, and this contact with working professionals has made my teaching much more industry-focused.

By contrast, graduates of the “formal training” or academic pathway undergo a good deal of classroom training. They typically start out as college students who decide to major in a foreign language. Some of these students take a translation course or two, while others—perhaps concerned about post-college work prospects—complete minors or undergraduate certificates in translation. A handful go on to complete master’s degrees in translation or translation studies. At various points along the way, these academic-track translators-in-training begin the process of professionalization, mixing paid jobs in with class projects. While some end up in careers unrelated to the languages they love, others join the ranks of the language services industry, putting the quality of their academic preparation to the test.

Do Training Programs Make the Grade?

The fact that many talented, hardworking bilinguals have followed the “proficiency plus circumstances” pathway into successful translation careers appears to call into question the very need for formal training. However, all translators—including those with strong natural language aptitude—can benefit from academic training as long as it’s truly effective. Whether existing academic translator training programs serve candidates well is an open question. Without a doubt, some programs do, in fact, offer up-to-date curricula, focus on real-world skills, and assess those abilities reliably. Many others, however, are less effective than they could be.

Drawbacks common to many university-level translator training programs—be they master’s programs or undergraduate majors, minors, or certificates—include:

  • Having been cobbled together from existing courses, meaning that they’re not designed “from the ground up” to produce qualified translators.
  • Including too many courses that have nothing to do with translation or translation-related issues.
  • Overemphasizing theoretical aspects and literary translation while neglecting real-world domains (e.g., medicine, law, business, and technology).
  • Relying on instructors with limited real-world experience and industry familiarity.
  • Failing to recognize the skills candidates already possess, or not granting credit for prior learning.
  • Taking a long time to complete, which increases cost.
  • Assessing students’ ability to perform real-world tasks unevenly.

Again, not all programs have these kinds of shortcomings, most of which reflect limitations inherent to traditional approaches to higher education. Often, program designers with the best of intentions are impeded by institutional policies or departmental politics. But conditions in higher education are changing in ways that favor new approaches. As education costs skyrocket, students are increasingly concerned about the alignment of academic programs and the demands of the job market. Savvy foreign language departments are realizing quickly that business as usual—lots of literature and culture classes—is a recipe for dwindling enrollment and program cuts. All this as the demand for qualified translators is forecast to increase sharply.

In such a context, competency-based training approaches have the potential to be an effective and efficient means of producing qualified entry-level translators. A well-designed CBE model might successfully avoid many of the drawbacks of traditional university-level programs by:

  • Involving industry professionals in the development of competencies to ensure that what programs emphasize are up to date.
  • Using backward design principles to build programs focused on relevant learning goals.
  • Using rigorous assessments to reliably determine what candidates are able to do in real-world contexts.
  • Focusing instruction and learning activities on topics that prepare students for assessments.
  • Recognizing skills incoming candidates have already mastered to reduce the time it takes to complete the program.
  • Allowing students to move through at their own pace, potentially reducing costs.

An Invitation to Collaborate

Academic translator training programs still have a place, but we owe it to the students we’re training to ensure that they’re focused on the linguistic competencies and professional dispositions they’ll need to be successful as they begin their careers. One of my purposes in writing this article is to invite readers to come together to help me “crowdsource” the contours of a sound competency-based translator training program design. This may sound like a complicated and lofty goal, but I believe it’s attainable and that this kind collaboration has the potential to produce remarkable results.

If you’re with me, the first step in our collaboration will be to identify general program-level competency clusters, such as language proficiency, theoretical concepts, business and marketing know-how, technical writing skills, and indispensable “soft skills.” The next—and possibly most important—step is to break these down into specific competencies—the knowledge, skills, and dispositions candidates must demonstrate to receive a credential. Once these have been established, we’ll move on to identifying or creating the assessments candidates will complete to demonstrate mastery of each competency. Finally, we’ll work together to identify meaningful sequences of learning materials and activities.

I understand if you’re skeptical or if you just can’t take on one more volunteer project. But if you’re interested in being a part of this experimental program design project, I welcome your help. To participate in the first phase, simply email me at jasjol71@gmail.com and indicate the email address you use to access shared documents on Google Docs. Once everyone who wants to help is on board, we’ll get started. I hope this overview of competency-based education has been helpful, and I look forward to working with you soon.


Jason Jolley teaches Spanish at Missouri State University in Springfield, where he is head of the Department of Modern and Classical Languages. He has a PhD in Spanish from The Pennsylvania State University. His teaching and research interests include translation, Latin American literature and culture, and self-directed language learning. He has worked extensively as a freelance translator specializing in financial documents. He maintains the YouTube channel Professor Jason Spanish. He serves on the board of directors of the Mid-America Chapter of the American Translators Association. Contact: jasjol71@gmail.com.

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