Plus ça change ... The Impact of Globalization and Technology on Translator/Interpreter Education

Originally presented as the keynote address at the 18th Conference of the Interpreter and Translator Educators Association of Australia, Melbourne, October 29, 1999.

Holly Mikkelson

Monterey Institute of International Studies

"Time is the continuous loop, the snakeskin with scales endlessly overlapping without beginning or end ..." Annie Dillard


Change is a fact of life; but that doesn't mean we have to like it. There are two kinds of people in the world: Those who divide the world into two kinds of people, and those who don't. I'm one who doesn't. In fact, I prefer to think in terms of continua rather than pigeonholes. Most of us have ambivalent feelings about change: We dread it and we take delight in it. We scream in terror on a roller coaster ride, and promptly get in line to do it all over again. But often, as we get older, we find ourselves thinking about news stories we've read documenting amusement park disasters, and we worry about aggravating existing neck and back problems, and we wonder about those young hooligans operating the ride, and whether they've followed all the safety precautions, and we may talk ourselves out of getting on that roller coaster.

Well, we've been on quite a roller coaster this century, and as we approach the milestone of the year 2000 (which, when you think about it, is pretty arbitrary - all it is is a change in numbers on Western calendars, and I'm sure the world will look exactly the same on January 1 as it did on December 31, all the Y2K hype notwithstanding) we hear a cacophony of voices, some predicting doom and gloom as mankind destroys the environment and automates all the sensuality out of life, others proclaiming the wonders of technology and the universal prosperity that awaits us. But no matter what the calendar says, we have always had prophets of doom and heralds of good times ahead. As Maritain said,

At each epoch of history the world was in a hopeless state, and at each epoch of history the world muddled through; at each epoch the world was lost, and at each epoch it was saved (1958), 19.4.

History is much messier than historians portray it to be. When you look at raw data, it's hard to identify when one era ended and another began. People living in the year 100 B.C. didn't know that that's what year it was; those who fought in the First World War didn't know their war would be called that. We're always in the middle of one cycle or another, and we don't know what it is until it's over. My point is that there's no reason why this particular time is better than any other to take stock and assess where we've been and where we're going, but the year 2000 has a nice ring to it, and it's as good an excuse as any to gather for a conference like this and put our profession under a microscope. What I'd like to do is examine some of the changes that have taken place recently in translation and interpretation, and in education - some of them truly monumental - and without indulging in too many clichés about global villages and information superhighways, perhaps draw some conclusions.

Beyond the Global Village

I come from a country not unlike Australia, in that it spans an entire continent (east to west, anyway) and was characterized for many years by an insular attitude toward the rest of the world. We Yanks call ourselves Americans, as if we were the only country in the Americas, and as the richest country in the world, we expect everyone else to dance to our tune. Or at least we have until recently. My compatriots and I are, however, beginning to wake up to the facts that we aren't the center of the universe, that English isn't the only language in the world, and that if we want to sell our products to people around the world, we need to speak their languages.

The United States is famous as a "melting pot" for immigrants from all over, but we've always expected newcomers to learn English as soon as possible so that they will assimilate and forget their old ways. That attitude is still prevalent in the U.S., but another trend has emerged. We've discovered that 1) even though they left their countries of origin, immigrants are actually rather fond oftheir old ways, including their language; 2) there are lots of different levels at which someone can "know" a language, and for many purposes, conversational English is not enough; and 3) even if many of our residents don't speak fluent English, they still need to buy things, and appealing to them in their own language is a good marketing strategy. Moreover, although few native-born Americans are bilingual, most parents now want their children to be bilingual, recognizing that knowing another language will open up more opportunities for them.

The upshot of this is that despite the "English only" movement and xenophobic ballot initiatives, which are manifestations of citizens' resistance to government-imposed multiculturalism, languages other than English are flourishing in the U.S., as are the translation and interpretation industries. In addition to civil-rights-oriented campaigns to recognize minority languages and academic-oriented efforts to preserve dying languages, which may be accepted only grudgingly by the man in the street, there is a commercial interest in communicating with potential customers who can keep the bottom line healthy and preserve jobs. Thus, while public-sector T&I services may be provided in a miserly fashion, over the objections of cost-conscious taxpayers, in the private sector they are gladly extended to anyone with money to spend.

Not everything is coming up roses, of course. Americans are still appallingly ignorant about world geography and other cultures and languages. Users of T&I services have to learn the hard way that translating and interpreting are complex tasks that can't be performed by the niece who spent a summer in France or the busboy in the Chinese restaurant. I may rejoice at the signs in Spanish, Arabic, Chinese, or Vietnamese that are so ubiquitous in the business districts of my country, but I cringe when I see the crude translations of more complex messages and documents, including application forms and user manuals.

So rather than a single trend or an unwavering march toward a single objective, we are seeing a variety of competing trends. Language purists throughout the world are right when they decry the constant bombardment by English in music, movies, television, and the internet. English is indeed becoming the universal language of commerce, an essential language to know if you want to get ahead in the world. Other languages are not taking this lying down, however. We are also seeing a proliferation of legislation, policies, and research aimed at protecting and promoting minority languages. It is not uncommon to hear officials in both the public and private sectors express frustration at the constant discovery of previously unheard-of languages that have to be accommodated ("I thought you wanted it in Serbo-Croatian, and now you're telling me I need one version in Serbian and another in Croatian?" and "Does every single piece of legislation promulgated by the European Union really have to be translated into Icelandic, when it is spoken by only 260,000 people, practically all of whom speak at least one foreign language?" and "What ever happened to Esperanto? Why can't we all agree on just one language to speak?").

Who will win these conflicts between linguistic purity and creative borrowing, between standardization and diversity, between globalization and balkanization? Probably no one. Thanks to our cantankerous nature, we ornery humans will resist both the pressure to keep our languages pristine and the homogenizing McDonaldization of our daily lives. On balance, then, translators and interpreters can rest assured that there will always be a need for their services, in one form or another. Which brings us to the next topic on the agenda, technology.

Technology: Boon or Bane?

New technology, like all change, is greeted by each generation with a mixture of joy and fear. Joy, because it promises to make our lives easier, and fear, because we don't know whether it will eliminate our jobs or otherwise destroy our way of life. Interpreters and especially translators have seen major new developments in the last 10 years that both make our lives easier and threaten to destroy our way of life. When I first started out as a freelance translator and interpreter back in the paleolithic era in 1976, I did my translations on a typewriter (but it was electric!) and sent work back and forth by mail. Translation clients usually expected to wait a week or two to receive a finished product from me. I drove, or sometimes flew, to my interpreting assignments, and communicated with all of my clients by mail or telephone. If I had to do research for an assignment, I consulted the dictionaries on my shelves or drove to the local library.

Today, I prefer to communicate with everyone by email, or barring that, fax or telephone, with "snail mail" being the absolute last choice. God forbid I should have to go track someone down in his office and speak face to face with him! My translation assignments arrive by fax or email; I use word-processing software, online dictionaries, database management tools, accounting software, and other computer aids in an almost paperless environment; and clients expect instant turnaround. Although I still have shelves full of hardcover dictionaries that I continue to consult, and I still find myself driving to the library a lot, I now have instant access to just about every resource in the world through the Internet. Many of my interpreting assignments involve conference telephone calls, and I know colleagues who are routinely interpreting video conferences. But I'm still basically doing the same work, and it sometimes takes me longer to transmit a file on the Internet than it once took to stuff it in an envelope and put a stamp on it.

If we look at the pros and cons of the latest technology, we find that they are fairly evenly balanced. Here are the pros:

  • It eliminates the drudgery of our work, freeing us for more creative tasks.
  • It increases the individual translator's productivity
  • Thanks to increased productivity, more things are being translated than ever before.
  • It enables us to reach clients all over the world rather than being confined to a local market.
  • It increases the availability of T&I services in languages of limited diffusion, thereby enhancing the job opportunities of interpreters and translators in those languages.
  • It creates jobs that didn't exist before (software localization, voiceover and subtitling for videos, etc.).

And here are the cons of modern technology:

  • It eliminates the human touch of face-to-face contact and knowledge of local markets and industries.
  • It increases competition from cheaper providers in third-world countries.
  • Deadlines are now tighter and expectations of instantaneous results are higher ("You just plug it into the computer and it comes out translated, right?").
  • Our own expectations are higher, so we get impatient with slow modems, problems getting online, files that take forever to download, software glitches, etc.
  • We are now so dependent on our computers that when the computer crashes or the electricity goes out, we can't just resort to pen and paper.

A recent editorial in The Economist points out that Internet technology is no panacea. Although online commerce has taken the world by storm, it will never replace face-to-face communication entirely:

The Internet is not a dominant technology but rather a network of people. It is a rich and highly flexible means of communicating that is rapidly achieving pervasiveness because more and more people find it easy and convenient to use. But it is those people's preferences that will count; and for most people, shopping is more than just a means to an end. Even if the Internet provided a perfectly efficient way to shop it would not provide a satisfactory alternative to the physical enjoyment of sniffing a ripe melon, say, or trying on a cashmere sweater. (21 August 1999, p. 13)

On balance, then, technology will always be an auxiliary tool, and certain human elements of our work will always be prized. The translator who has intimate familiarity with a certain company, its in-house jargon, the quirks of its personnel, and the whims of its customers, will always produce better work than a faceless stranger halfway around the world. Machine translation is getting better and better, but there will always have to be a human editor to catch those bizarre errors that computers sometimes make. And there's nothing like having a living, breathing interpreter present in the room to see people's faces and experience the same environment they're experiencing, rather than a disembodied voice over the telephone. So technology is not a panacea, and it shouldn't be used for every job. As my colleague Chris Langewis always says, "You don't need a 747 to go to the grocery store."

Impact on Training

How has technology affected the way translators and interpreters are taught? Let me count the ways:

First of all, the traditional university of ivy-covered halls and chalk dust, with sprightly youths living in dorms and engaging in fraternity hijinks, is no more. There is no longer a cloistered sanctuary that has a monopoly on information. Those once highly-coveted pieces of sheepskin have become obsolete; the potential employer doesn't care which ivory tower you got your degree from, he just wants to know whether you can perform the job. On-the-job training and continuing education are the name of the game; indeed, it was recently reported that each senior manager at General Electric has been assigned a young techno-geek from the lower echelons of the company to provide a crash course on information technology (The Economist, 18 Sept. 99). Online education is booming, with degrees being awarded to students who have never set foot in a classroom. Part-time students who are mid-career professionals or retirees outnumber young adults on the rolls of many universities.

The world of academic publication has been turned upside down, now that everyone and his uncle has a web page and can publish any amount of drivel - or brilliance - without all the bother of peer review or editing. The term caveat emptor has never been more relevant. As a result, the academic hierarchy has also been turned on its head. The highest paid professors may not be the ones with the most impressive lists of publications and honors, but the ones who manage to snag the most foundation grants, or who have the juiciest contracts with private industry. More and more, universities are pursuing "town and gown" partnerships that will breathe new life into their emaciated budgets. As they strive to fulfill the requirements of their new paymasters, faculty may find themselves fudging a bit on traditional academic standards.

A recent article by Don Olcott in Syllabus (April-May 99), a publication aimed at promoting the use of technology in education, discusses the challenges posed by "increased (demands for) accountability by the public, legislatures, and new student 'consumers,'" coupled with "shrinking public financing for higher education at the same time student enrollments are increasing." Olcott notes the tension between preserving the valuable traditions of the academy and keeping up with current trends in society, but he dismisses doomsayers' predictions that technology will ultimately eliminate the university campus altogether. "Higher education's future ... carries with it great challenges, immense opportunities, and yes, a high degree of uncertainty," he says. "What it does not carry with it is eventual obscurity or obsolescence." He is confident that preserving historical traditions and embracing new innovations do not have to be mutually exclusive, and I'm inclined to believe him.

What about T&I education? Has it undergone the same changes as the rest of the education establishment? In a word, yes. The most obvious innovation is the use of computer technology in training translators. Employers of recent graduates expect them not only to be comfortable with word-processing and database management software, but also web authoring, manipulation of graphics files, localization, translation memory, and other high-tech tools. Just a few years ago I was telling my students that it was mandatory for them to have a word processor, a decent printer, and a dedicated fax machine if they wanted to become freelance translators. Now the average grade-school student has that kind of equipment, and the ones who have trouble staying up to date are stodgy old professors like me. Incoming students have to show us how to use email and set up a web page for the class. In our field, as in others, there are plenty of dinosaurs who see no need to change their ways. In an article on software localization training in a recent issue of the American Translators Association's Chronicle, Sue Ellen Wright tells of a "forward-thinking colleague" who advised a European translator trainer to introduce localization skills into his courses, only to be scolded by the professor: "Young man ... I have been teaching translators for the last 20 years. Don't try to tell me what needs to be included in a translation curriculum!" (ATA Chronicle, August 1999).

Not only is it a challenge for faculty to keep abreast of the latest technological developments that their students will be expected to deal with, but campus labs and classrooms must be updated constantly. The only way to accomplish this on our limited budgets (did I mention that our funding is contantly being cut in the middle of all this turmoil?) is to establish partnerships with leading firms in the information technology and communications industries, whereby in exchange for donated hardware and software, we serve as beta testers or provide consulting or student interns. This is a great way to keep our faculty and students in touch with the latest developments, but there's a danger that the preoccupation with the gadgetry will detract from our real mission, the teaching of translation skills.

Interpreter training has also seen new technological developments, though perhaps not as revolutionary as those in translation. Simultaneous interpreting equipment is more flexible, versatile, and high-quality than ever before, but we must continue investing in upgrades to avoid training our students in the use of obsolete technology. We must also adapt our curricula to the ever-changing needs of the market, providing instruction in voiceover, subtitling, telephone interpreting, and videoconferencing, and preparing our students to work in new environments. The distinction between translation and interpretation is becoming increasingly blurry as T&I professionals shift constantly between the written word and spoken or visual communication.

The reality of limited budgets for educational institutions is another factor inducing us to make changes in our curricula. To keep up with changes in the market, we must add new languages to our offerings, yet we can't afford to expand our faculty, library holdings, and facilities commensurately. Consequently, we need to be increasingly creative in developing multilingual instructional materials and methodologies. We also need to take advantage of distance-learning technology to enable us to reach more students without stretching our physical facilities beyond capacity, and to make a wider variety of faculty and courses available to our students. To accomplish this objective, we need teacher training so that we can adapt our pedagogical methods to new media. For some time now it has been possible to offer translation courses online, and recently there have been attempts to train interpreters at a distance. We have a lot to learn from others in this regard. I am particularly impressed with the strides Australia has made, and I hope to take some new ideas back home with me.

So is technology good or bad for T&I education? Of course, the answer is "yes." It is a boon to us, but it can also be a bane if we don't use it wisely. Given the rapid pace at which technology becomes obsolete, if we become overly concerned with acquiring the latest gadgets and analyzing current market trends, we run the risk of training tomorrow's translators and interpreters for today's markets. We must never lose sight of our real goal, which is to teach students the basic concepts and techniques of translation and interpretation. And no matter how much high-tech wizardry is applied to the task, the essential process of transferring a message from one language to another remains unchanged. In her article on localization, Sue Ellen Wright quotes a German localization expert who started out as a literature student, who states, "I find that the problem solving and research skills that I have gained from a solid education in the humanities have been a great asset." If we teach students to think properly, to identify and solve problems, they will be able to function in any environment. That is the real legacy we must give them.


In conclusion, I would like to remind you of the words of William Cullen Bryant: "Weep not that the world changes - did it keep a stable, changeless state, 'twere cause indeed to weep."

I consider myself a cynical optimist, or maybe an optimistic cynic; I like contradictions; I like ambiguity; I like irony. The cynic in me doubts that mankind will ever achieve the perfect world promised by some of the champions of high technology, while the optimist in me takes heart in the fact that fickle human nature will defy any attempts to push us where we don't want to go, or make us move faster than we're ready to, or stop us from indulging in some new fad . As Don Olcott puts it, "Technology will continue to be a powerful force in shaping our institutional destinies, second only to our most valuable resource, human creativity." How's that for a philosophy for the new millennium?