First in Translation

A unique new center in LAS prepares students for a booming field.

Tough economic times can be hard on recent college graduates. As Elizabeth Lowe describes it, however, there’s such a recession-defying demand for students coming out of a new, tiny center on campus that employers are calling to say, “Thank you.”

Signs of the growing need for foreign language translators and interpreters are literally on display. Behind those humorous Chinese-to-English street sign translations in China, for example—“Slip and Fall Down Carefully,” or “Do Drunken Driving”—is a serious effort by the nation to accommodate tens of millions of foreign visitors whose numbers have nearly doubled since 2001. (China has since sought to curtail prominent translation gaffes.)

Lowe, director of U of I’s new Center for Translation Studies, notes that the U.S. federal government has more than 10,000 jobs for linguists that they cannot fill, and the U.S. Department of Labor predicts a 22 percent increase in corporate translators over the next eight years.

“I’ve had people come to me from the U.S. State Department, the United Nations, from various organizations in the European Union, saying, ‘We’re so glad that you’re starting a program. We desperately need people. We can’t fill our jobs,’” Lowe says.

While part of the trend comes from increasingly globalized national and economic affairs, it’s also a matter of law. In 2000, President Bill Clinton signed an executive order that requires federal agencies, and those receiving federal funds, to ensure that people who are not proficient in English can access their services. Many local and state laws require similar provisions.

Translators and interpreters are needed in security, nongovernmental organizations, courts, health care, international publishing (the Center for Translation Studies partners with Dalkey Archive Press, an independent publisher on campus), and—in a “huge” area, Lowe says—the software industry, as companies such as Microsoft adapt their products for worldwide consumption.

The U of I’s School of Literatures, Cultures, and Linguistics, along with top administrators, created the Center for Translation Studies in 2007, making Illinois the first major research university in the country with such a program. Students who enroll in the program must be proficient in a foreign language, but they may remain in their major of choice while earning a general certificate in translation that qualifies them for more specialized programs.

Lowe says they hope to add a master’s program in interpretation (translation is text-based, and interpretation is oral).

For now the center is relatively small. Teaching duties are spread amongst Lowe, two lecturers, and a visiting professor housed in the Foreign Languages Building. Other professors may also teach courses that count toward the certificate. Roughly 50 students are enrolled in the program at any one time.

Though the program is young, Lowe can already recite success stories. One graduate landed a job with the European Union, and two others received Fulbright Grants to teach in Turkey and Austria. One is publishing her translation of a Korean novel, and another plans to become a medical interpreter. Another is teaching language in Teach for America, a highly coveted position for college grads that places them as teachers in underserved schools.

U of I senior Samantha Duckett enrolled at Illinois uncertain of her future but became focused on translation after a touch of serendipity. As a sophomore she was meeting with her academic advisor when the fax machine beeped and out came a flier for the Center for Translation Studies.

Intrigued, Duckett switched her major to international studies and is now on track to earn the translation certificate by spring 2011, with the ultimate goal of becoming a conference interpreter at the United Nations.

The Center for Translation Studies teaches a variety of languages, Duckett says, adding that the staff is networked, experienced, and teaches modern techniques. (One of her few criticisms is that the center could do more to publicize itself.) She hopes to earn a master’s degree from the center when its graduate program begins.

Even as demand blooms for translation and interpretation, the center is adjusting for challenges that already are looming in the industry. One of these is computer translation applications, which, until now, have been the source of many of the confounding and humorous translations seen on doors, street signs, and menus everywhere. The American Translators Association reports that police in London, England, used computer software to translate a sign warning pickpockets that they are being watched by undercover police. To Spanish speakers, the translation read, “The pickpockets are kept. Police of the inner deck that works in the area. In July three the pickpockets received prayers of the prison over of four years.”

While computer translations will undoubtedly improve (they are a subject in the center’s course offerings), Lowe predicts they will always lack an element that only human translators and interpreters possess. Translation and interpretation has been called an art in which you’re also conveying cultures, current events, and prevailing moods that are difficult to put into words.

Marketers in Germany created a billboard selling shaving cream that played off the memory of Martin Luther King Jr. Their pitch line, “I have a cream,” made at least one Internet site of translation bloopers, and revealed how translations need more than proper grammar and syntax to convey the right message.

“Meaning changes constantly. And knowledge is changing constantly,” Lowe says. “There’s no way that a human programmer or a group of human programmers can be feeding the computer all that data as fast as knowledge is generated. The human translator will never be replaced.”

By Dave Evensen
Winter 2011