Translation internships

This past June, I attended a conference in Edmonton that focused on Canadian labour and social movements. Although I enjoyed the conference quite a bit and was particularly intrigued with how academics, labour unions, social activists (and even a few “trouble makers”) gathered together at the same event to share research, stories, and calls to action, I didn’t blog about it earlier because it wasn’t a translation-focused event. (My talk, which was about how and why Left-leaning Canadians translated Quebec sovereignty texts into English in the 1970s, 80s and 90s, was the only one that looked at translation). Yet the conference did lead me to carefully consider (and sometimes reconsider) various social issues that are relevant to translation. If you’ve read my blog posts before, you’ll know, of course, that crowdsourcing, and the ethics of crowdsourcing in particular, is one of my research interests, so it shouldn’t come as a surprise that the conference had me once again pondering the effects of unpaid or underpaid labour on the translation profession. But later, as the new academic year started and I took over our various internships programs, I started to also think about ethical questions related to internships for translation students.

The problem that I wrestle with as I try to find internships is that generally, I can’t offer an internship to every student who applies for one. This is usually because although many Toronto-area translation companies have been generously taking on interns for a number of years, many smaller companies and individual translators (who make up a large portion of the translation market) find working with an intern difficult to coordinate: how, for instance, can they be sure they will have work for the intern every week? How will supervising an intern fit into their schedules, which might be full due to travel and other commitments? Since there are only so many large translation service providers who might be able to accommodate a intern or two, this leaves me having more students than internships nearly every term.

And this problem is actually more complex, because although about half of our internships are paid, the other half are not, leaving students who cannot afford to do unpaid work unable to take advantage of an opportunity to get more translation experience, and leaving me with the problem of offering paid work to some students and unpaid work to others. These kinds of challenges (unpaid internships, and internships that are not available to everyone) are not unique to translation, as this article in Canadian Lawyer demonstrates, but they are something I’ll be spending more time thinking about. I may be overestimating the interest in internships: some students are pursuing a degree in translation without intending to become translators and therefore may not be particularly interested in professional experience in the field. Others may not be concerned about unpaid work because they value the experience an internship provides. To find out more, I plan to survey our students later this year, to see what they think about internships, both paid and unpaid. My hope is that the results will help me feel more confident that the internship programs I coordinate are benefitting as many students as possible, as fairly as possible. I’ll blog more about it when I have some of the results.

In the meantime, I’d be very interested in hearing from others who run an internship program: what has your experience been with the internships? What do students think about unpaid work? Are internships mandatory, and therefore equally accessible to everyone? Do you have any ethical concerns about translation internships? If so, do you have any ideas about how to address these concerns?

What translators can learn from the F/OSS community

Looking through my blog archives late last year, I was disappointed to discover I’d posted only seven articles in all of 2013: usually my goal is to get at least one post up every month, and last year was the first time since 2009 that I hadn’t been able to achieve that. So my goal for this year is to blog more frequently and more consistently. And with that, here is my first post of 2014:

In November, I came across a blog post that hit on a number of issues relevant to the translation industry, even though it was addressed to the Free/Open-Source Software (F/OSS) community. It’s called The Ethics of Unpaid Labour and the OSS Community, and it appeared on Ashe Dryden’s blog. Ashe writes and speaks about about diversity in corporations, and so her post focused on how unpaid OSS work creates inequalities in the workforce. As she argues, the demographics of OSS contributors differs from that of proprietary software developers as well as the general population, with white males overwhelmingly represented among OSS contributors: One source Ashe cites, for instance, remarks that only 1.5% of F/OSS contributors are female, compared to 28% of contributors for proprietary software. Ashe notes that lack of free time among groups that are typically marginalized in the IT sector (women, certain ethnic groups, people with disabilities, etc.) is the main reason these groups are under-represented in OSS projects.

These demographics are problematic for the workforce because many software developers require their employees (and potential new hires) to have contributed to F/OSS projects. And while some large IT firms do allow employees to contribute to such projects during work hours, people from marginalized groups often do not work at these kinds of companies. This means people who would like to find paid employment as software developers probably need to be able to devote unpaid hours to F/OSS projects so they have a portfolio of publicly available code for employers to consult.

So how is this relevant to translators, or the translation industry? It’s relevant because the same factors affecting the demographics of the F/OSS community are also likely to affect the demographics of the crowdsourced translation community. People can volunteer to translate the Facebook interface only if they have free time and access to a computer; likewise, people with physical disabilities that make interacting with a computer difficult are likely to spend less time participating in crowdsourced projects than people with no disabilities. And since, in many cases, the community of translators participating in a crowdsourced project will largely determine how quickly a project is completed, what texts are translated and what language pairs will be available, the profile of participants is important.

Unfortunately, we don’t have a lot of data about the profiles of people who participate in crowdsourced (or volunteer) projects. The studies that have been done do hint at a larger question worth exploring: O’Brien & Schäler’s 2010 article on the motivations of The Rosetta Foundation’s volunteer translators noted that the group of translators identifying themselves as “professionals” was overwhelmingly female (82%), while the gender of those identifying themselves as amateurs was more balanced (54% female). The source languages of the volunteers were mainly English, French, German and Spanish. My own survey of Wikipedia translators found that 84% of the respondents were male and 75% were younger than 36. Because both these projects show that people with certain profiles participated more than others, it’s clear there’s a need for more research. If we had a better idea of the profiles of those who participate in other crowdsourced translation projects, we would be able to get see whether some projects seem more attractive to one gender, which language pairs are most often represented, and what kinds of content is being translated for which language communities. And we could then try to figure out whether (and if so, how) to make these projects more inclusive.

Since it’s still a point of debate whether relying on crowdsourcing to translate the Twitter interface, a Wikipedia article or a TED Talk is beneficial to the translation industry, let’s leave that question aside for a moment and just consider the following: one of the benefits both novice and seasoned translators are supposed to be able to reap from participating in a crowdsourced project is visible recognition for their work. Online, accessible users profiles are common in crowdsourcing projects (as in this example from the TED translator community), and translators are usually given visible credit for their contributions to a project (as in this Webflakes article, which credits the author, translator and reviewer). If certain groups of people are more likely to participate in crowdsourced projects, that means this kind of visibility is available only to them. If we take a look at where the software development industry is headed (with employers actively seeking those who have participated in F/OSS projects, putting those who cannot freely share their code at a disadvantage), translators could eventually see a similar trend, putting those who are unable (or who choose not) to participate in crowdsourced projects at a disadvantage.

I think this is a point worth considering when crowdsourced projects are designed, and it’s certainly a point worth exploring in further studies, as it raises a host of ethical questions that deserve a closer look.

Words in Transit

I spent some time thinking, recently, about internships opportunities for translation students. In a previous post, I discussed an article by Sébastien Stavrinidis outlining some of the challenges to arranging internships for students. I proposed a new type of internship where students would volunteer to translate texts for humanitarian organizations and professional translators would volunteer to revise these translations, allowing students to gain work experience without having to relocate… something that is currently difficult for anglophone students studying translation in Toronto. It also would be a way to apply crowdsourcing to internships: in a traditional internship, students are revised by one or two translators, but in this kind of internship, students would receive feedback from various revisers, and the program would grow as more translators, students and organizations agreed to participate.

While talking with some of my students a few weeks ago, after they’d submitted their group projects (a translation for Action Contre la Faim), I decided that I would really like to pursue my internship idea. The students who spoke to me described the translation project very positively: they were excited that their translations would actually be used (instead of just being filed away somewhere) and they also felt happy to have helped a humanitarian organization.

So last week, when I probably should have been more spending time marking essays and assignments, I launched the website, which will be the main forum for bringing together students, professionals and non-profit organizations. I’ve already contacted a few students about participating in the project, and I’m in the process of contacting other translators and Quebec-based NPOs. In about a month, I and two colleagues will start the non-profit organization that will operate the Words in Transit initiative, and we’ll run it for a year on an experimental basis. I’ll be blogging about the initiative both here and on the Words in Transit website, so check back soon for more details.

If you’re interested in participating in the initiative, please let me know. You’ll find more details about how you can get involved here.

A new type of internship?

The last issue of Circuit, the magazine published by the Ordre des traducteurs, terminologues et interprètes agréés du Québec, included an interesting article by Sébastien Stavrinidis discussing the experience of three interns from Concordia University. As the coordinator of undergraduate and graduate translation internships at Concordia, Stavrinidis noted that the economic crisis has led several employers to stop recruiting students or to offer little or no training to those they have hired. He mentions two cases to illustrate the problems that can arise during the search for employers willing to take on interns. In the first, a student was taken on by a company that agreed to also hire a freelancer to revise the student’s work (but usually did not), and in the second, two students did an internship at a translation company in France but were not revised or given much feedback.

Students from my introductory translation course at Glendon often ask me how they can get more translation experience. I was never asked this question when I taught at the University of Ottawa, and I suspect this is because anglophone translators can find more employment opportunities in the national capital region than in Toronto. While it’s true that full-time positions for French to English translators at translation companies in Toronto are few and far between, there are many opportunities for anglophone translators who want to live in Toronto but work for clients in other cities, provinces or countries. And volunteer opportunities are also plentiful, if translators want to donate some of their time and skills to non-profit organizations.

Since students need to receive a lot of feedback on their work, they need to have someone revising their translations. This poses a problem, as Stavrinidis notes, because companies often can’t afford (or are simply unwilling) to invest the time and money needed to train a student translator. One solution to this problem could come from the volunteer translation sphere. I strongly believe that short-term, non-paying internship opportunities could be created for students to allow them to translate authentic texts for non-profit organizations while being revised by experienced translators. Networks of professional translators who volunteer for NGOs already exist. I’m thinking, for instance, of Traducteurs Sans Frontières, which is composed entirely of translators with at least two years’ experience who have volunteered to translate texts for humanitarian organizations. Now, I don’t see why this idea couldn’t be extended to translation schools: students could translate texts and professional translators/revisers who want to participate in this project could volunteer to revise the translations.

Networks of volunteer translators already exist, so it’s not unreasonable to think that professional translators might be willing to volunteer to revise 1000 or 2000 words here and there, provided the texts are required not by for-profit companies, but rather by humanitarian organizations. Students would benefit, since they’d be getting real-world experience, and so would the non-profits.

What do you think of this idea? Are there any translators who would be interested in organizing something like this? Any non-profits that would be interested in participating?

Update (17 May 2010): I’ve recently launched a not-for-profit initiative along these lines. If you’d like to find out more about it, please visit

Stavrinidis, Sébastien. (2010). Des Stages rares et difficiles à gérer. Circuit: 106, p. 19.