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 wordsintransit.org.

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

Translation blogs and social activism

Recently, I’ve been revising a paper that I started working on last summer. It explores translation blogs, a topic that drew my interest when I began researching translation networks. While my earlier research focused on how bloggers demonstrate competence through their blogs, I now intend to study various aspects of translation blogs, including which blogs are most influential, what motivates bloggers, and how blogs are used by translators.

Over the summer, when I studied seven months of postings on twenty-five translation blogs, I found that more than 60% of the posters used their blogs to share language-related news, while more than half offered translation tips of a practical or professional nature, and 40% reviewed articles, books, or software (although clearly some translators used their blogs for all three of these purposes). More recently, as I began to review additional blogs for my paper, I came across several instances of translators using their blogs to support a cause and/or to encourage others to do the same. While the blogs in my initial sampling did voice their opinions on contentious issues (crowdsourcing by for-profit companies, professionals accepting lower rates in a down economy, reverse-auction sites), they did not directly urge readers to engage in a particular action; however, the expressive and persuasive nature of many of the posts on these topics (see this post on reverse auctions, for example), showed the blogger’s opinion and encouraged readers to agree with him or her. A more direct call to action, though can be found here on Una Vita Vagabond. Although translation is only one of many topics addressed by the blogger, he is a translator, and he has written three posts describing the reasons for and encouraging others to sign a petition against ProZ for the way it operates its job posting system, where clients and not freelancers set the rates for projects.

Since I still have a few months before the conference where I’m planning to present this paper, I’ll now be considering how often translation blogs are used for activist purposes, and trying to determine whether a blogger’s influence affects how often he or she writes persuasive posts to directly or indirectly encourage readers to act in a certain way. I’ll post more as my research continues.

Participatory web and social translation

In a recent article in Slate Magazine, Chris Wilson writes about “the myth of Web 2.0 democracy”, citing a number of research projects that have studied user-generated collaborative knowledge systems such as Wikipedia, Del.icio.us and Digg. As Wilson argues, these sites, which seem on the surface to be excellent examples of participatory democracies, where users collectively contribute to and maintain the content, are actually oligarchies run by a small number of users. Between 2003 and 2004 on the Wikipedia site, for instance, 50% of the edits were made by administrators, who make up a small percentage of Wikipedia users. Some graphs analyzing Wikipedia trends can be found here.

This finding doesn’t surprise me, as my own research revealed that translation networks function in much the same way: only seven percent of TranslatorsCafe members had ever posted a message in the discussion forum between January 2003, when the site was founded, and March 2007, when I wrote an article for Meta about how interactions occur in translation networks. Likewise, just under five percent of members had ever posted a question, answer or comment to the terminology forum between April 2006, when the forum was introduced, and February 2007.

What I did find more interesting, however, were the results of a conference presentation from the 2007 Computer Human Interaction conference in San Jose, which studied whether Wikipedia is maintained by an elite group of users or by “the wisdom of the crowds,” that is, whether a small group of people is creating and maintaining most of the entries, or whether a larger number of people are making a small number of edits to many entries.

The researchers found that while the elite group of users was initially responsible for the highest number of edits, this trend has since shifted:

In the beginning, elite users contributed the majority of the work in Wikipedia. However, beginning in 2004 there was a dramatic shift in the distribution of work to the common users, with a corresponding decline in the influence of the elite (Chi et al 2007: 8).

They found a similar trend on the del.icio.us website, leading them to conclude that the shift in work distribution from the elite to novice users may be a typical phenomenon for online collaborative knowledge systems. They explained this trend in the following way:

For such systems to spread, early participants must generate sufficient utility in the system for the larger masses to find value in low cost participation. Like the first pioneers or the founders of a startup company, the elite few who drove the early growth of Wikipedia generated enough utility for it to take off as a more commons-oriented production model; without them, it is unlikely that Wikipedia would have succeeded. Just as the first pioneers built infrastructure which diminished future migration costs, the early elite users of Wikipedia built up enough content, procedures, and guidelines to make Wikipedia into a useful tool that promoted and rewarded participation by new users (Chi et al. 2007: 8).

What might this mean for collaborative translation projects like those I’ve been discussing for the past few months? First, it points to the need to study exactly how participation in social translation projects change over time. Global Voices, for instance, published a survey of its volunteer translators in October 2009, noting that of the 108 people who had provided a translation in September and responded to the survey, a little under half had started working on translations for the site in 2009, while 38 others had been volunteering since 2008 and another 15 had been involved since 2007. Further research into how participation rates have changed over time would help show whether participants in social translation projects are actively involved for long periods of time, whether an elite group remains involved for a short period and is then replaced by novice users, etc.

Second, these results indicate that in large social translation projects, only a small number of volunteers may, in fact, be participating at any given time. Do motivations vary among the elite/very active and novice/less active users? Both of these questions also need to be answered.

Chi, Ed, Aniket Kittur, Bryan A. Pendleton, Bongwon Suh & Todd Mytkowicz. (2007). Power of the Few vs. Wisdom of the Crowd: Wikipedia and the Rise of the Bourgeoisie. alt.chi 2007. [Online: http://www.viktoria.se/altchi/submissions/submission_edchi_1.pdf].

McDonough, Julie. (2007). How Do Language Professionals Organize Themselves? An Overview of Translation Networks. Meta, 52(4), 793-815. [abstract] [Full text (html)] [Full text (PDF)].

Social translation

On my last jog, I listened to a podcast from CBC Radio. In it, Nora Young, host of Spark, interviewed Ethan Zuckerman, who runs Global Voices Online, a community of bloggers working to make blogs from around the world available in various languages. The focus of this interview was on what Zuckerman referred to as “social translation”, or crowdsourced translations. He described how Global Voices Online had been translated into twenty languages by bilingual volunteers who strongly felt that the content of various blogs was so important that it should be available to a wider audience. The podcast is available on this webpage.

I found this interview very insightful, as I’ve grown very interested in crowdsourced translations over the past year. Brian Harris has some very interesting posts with examples of this translation practice: Here’s one about crowdsourcing of Haitian text messages, another about Plurk, a Canadian rival for Twitter, one about crowdsourced translations of The Economist magazine in China (an example that was also mentioned by Zuckerman on the CBC podcast), and a final one describing Traduwiki, a site where large texts are broken up into short segments for anyone to translate. A commenter on Brian’s blog also left a link to Translated By You, a website similar to Traduwiki.

I’ve become so interested in social/collaborative/crowdsourced translation because I think there’s significant potential for academic research in this area. First, because the people translating for these projects are often not professional translators but bilinguals who want to help disseminate content, there’s a good opportunity to see whether peer-reviewed volunteer translations by people with varying translation skills and training are as acceptable as translations produced by trained professionals. Second, because the volunteer aspect of social translation leaves room for analyzing the motivations behind those who participate in the project, and translator motivations are one of my research areas. Some websites have established a non-tangible reward system, where translators are recognized for their work by getting a special mention on their profile page, but other websites offer no rewards, and volunteers are presumably translating the content because they want to make it available. Invariably, the people responsible for these projects are very positive about social translation and enthusiastic about how the phenomenon can help make content available for free. Which leads me to the last aspect of crowdsourcing that could be researched: the attitude of professional translators toward collaborative translation initiatives. Various translation blogs have discussed the issue, including The Masked Translator and Musings from an Overworked Translator. The posts have been particularly critical of for-profit companies relying on crowdsourcing to translate their websites for free, but many are open to the idea of providing volunteer translations to non-for-profit organizations. I’m going to spend some time this summer organizing my thoughts on this issue, and then I’ll start preparing a questionnaire to send out to participants of collaborative translation projects to find out why they wanted to participate. That should give me a good idea of where to go next.

Anyone with links to crowdsourcing translation projects not listed here is welcome to email me or add a comment. I’d love to hear from other researchers working in this area.

Applied research

Now that the 2009/2010 academic year is really underway, I’ve been so busy that I haven’t had much time for blogging, much to my dismay. On my desk are several books I’ve been meaning to read and discuss while I prepare my next paper on website localization, but I haven’t had time to do much more than flip through them. Needless to say, my article hasn’t progressed beyond the vague contemplation stage that precedes any actual research. I know only that I want to look through the websites of another fifty or so companies to see whether any of them have localized for Quebec, and that I also want to explore whether English Canadian and US culture vary enough to merit separate localization strategies. I’m hoping December will be a little more productive, since I’ll have a temporary respite from teaching and what seems to be an endless number of tests and assignments that need to be marked.

On another note, I was very happy to learn today that the article I presented at last year’s CATS conference, and which will be appearing in the July 2010 issue of the Journal of Specialised Translation, is being consulted while the Association of Translators and Interpreters of Ontario (ATIO) reviews its code of ethics. Because I analyzed seventeen codes of ethics from professional translator associations and studied the questions raised by translators in an online discussion forum, I was able to highlight several places where the codes of ethics did not necessarily address the ethical challenges translators faced in their practice. The fact that ATIO members may find my research useful reminds me that I often prefer to do applied research because I like seeing practical results arise from my efforts. So now I have one more thing to add to my December to-do list: plan out another applied study of translation networks to balance out the theoretical article on localization and Canadian websites.

Virtues and translators

While studying the codes of ethics from seventeen professional translator associations (e.g. ATA, ATIO, OTTIAQ, ITI, SATI), I came across an article by Andrew Chesterman that explores how professional virtues could apply to the translation profession. That led me to consider how the codes of ethics/codes of professional conduct might shed some light on what virtues an ethical translator requires.

What quickly became clear, though, was that no two professional associations agree upon the set of virtues required by an ethical translator. That’s because no codes endorse the same set of principles and only two principles—confidentiality and competence—were included in all seventeen codes. And, since confidentiality and competence are required of almost any profession in which services are provided to the public, they are not translation-specific traits. But, while there is clearly no single set of virtues professional translators are expected to have, the codes of ethics do show what virtues are typically considered desirable for professional translators.

First, several virtues are considered essential by virtually all seventeen profession-oriented networks: discretion, so that translators do not divulge confidential information, sound judgement, so that translators can effectively determine whether they have enough competence to complete a task well and integrity, so that translators will advise clients when they are not competent enough to accept a project, and will behave as professionals at all times, adopt good subcontracting behaviour and not accept bribes. Likewise, a good number of codes emphasize the virtue of reliability, so that translators complete the projects they have been assigned and do not arbitrarily abandon clients mid-assignment, and cooperativeness so that translators will share their knowledge with colleagues, recommend colleagues for jobs and avoid disloyal competition. Finally, as Chesterman suggests (2001: 147), commitment to the profession is necessary, and seems to be accepted as a basic tenet of all seventeen codes of ethics.

So far, though, these virtues are not specific to the practice of translation: professional accountants and engineers, for instance, are also expected to have similar character traits, according to some of their codes of ethics (e.g. IMA, AICPA, and NSPE).

What’s interesting is that the consensus about virtues begins to dissipate when the codes address ethical principles directly related to translation. In fact, the more closely a character trait is related to translation, the less consensus can be found in the codes of ethics. For instance, do professional, ethical translators require persistence, resourcefulness and carefulness (cf. Pincoffs 1986: 84) or determination (cf. Chesterman 2001: 147) to ensure they accurately convey the ST information? Only twelve of the seventeen codes address the principle of accuracy at all. What about honesty, truthfulness and fairness (cf. Chesterman 2001: 147), virtues required for translators to disclose conflicts of interest and convey information exactly as it was related in the ST? Only seven codes have an impartiality principle, and only six include stipulations about accurately conveying untrue statements, informing clients of ST or TT errors, and not distorting or manipulating the truth. Likewise, with respect to rates, only half the codes include stipulations about working for reasonable rates or for rates that do not fall significantly below those common in the market. Thus, not all profession-oriented networks agree that fairness and reasonableness are virtues required of professional, ethical translators, and none specify that ethical translators should volunteer their services for charities or non-profit organizations, for which character traits such as benevolence, generosity and/or altruism would be necessary. Finally, since so few codes discuss a translator’s ethical obligations with respect to immoral or illegal texts, guidelines are lacking here as well. Do translators need courage to refuse unethical texts? What about empathy for the groups that might be harmed by the texts that will be used for illegal, immoral or dishonest ends?

Clearly, the codes of ethics do not really clarify the question of what virtues a translator should have or should try to acquire if he or she wants to achieve excellence while facilitating cross-cultural communication. Discretion, sound judgement, integrity, reliability, cooperativeness and commitment, character traits endorsed by nearly all seventeen codes, are likely to be required in any profession. Such virtues could be considered essential for translators—at least as far as professional associations are concerned. While the other virtues, namely persistence, resourcefulness, carefulness, determination, honesty, truthfulness, fairness, reasonableness, benevolence, generosity, altruism, courage and empathy are not directly mentioned in all of the codes, they do arise in several. These virtues are probably important then, even if they’re not considered essential by all professional associations.

Chesterman, A. (2001). Proposal for a Hieronymic Oath. The Translator, 7(2), 139-154.

Pincoffs, E. L. (1986). Quandaries and Virtues: Against Reductivism in Ethics. Lawrence, Kansas: University of Kansas Press.

Blogging about bloggers

For the past few weeks, I’ve been researching translator blogs as part of a larger project on how translation competence is perceived and demonstrated by translators who work largely online. While reading recent postings from about thirty blogs, I noticed that translation blogs seem to operate as a translation network. Many of the bloggers had frequent contact with one another–either passively, by reading the postings of others, or actively, by reading posts, writing comments, citing other blogs, and occasionally by inviting other bloggers to write guest posts. At first glance, the ties among many bloggers didn’t seem much different from the ties among members of some of the translation networks I studied for an earlier project.

This is something I’d like to explore in greater depth once I’ve finished my current article. Social network analysis would be useful here to help determine how bloggers writing about translation are tied to one another and how one blogger’s postings are influenced by another’s. I’m also interested in the way opinions about the same topic evolve through the blogs. So for instance, if I track all the postings about LinkedIn attempting to crowdsource translations of its website, what trends might I find? Do blogger opinions change over time? How do these opinions differ from one blogger to the next? Does the story originate one one particular blog, and if so, does this happen on a regular basis, making one (or several) bloggers more influential than others? There’s definitely some room here for more research. Any thoughts?