Although an MA in Translation Studies is a relatively new course offered by higher education institutions, it seems that it has become an almost essential qualification for up-and-coming translators today. The requirements for many in-house roles, and, indeed, freelance opportunities, is an MA in Translation Studies coupled with two or more years of work experience in the industry. This can be somewhat restrictive for many people trying to forge a new career in translation without these jumping-off points. A common conundrum is the need to work to save up for the rather costly Master's programme, but needing the MA to obtain some relevant translation work. And, even with the postgraduate degree, many budding translators still lack the required amount of translation experience needed to secure a job in translation.
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As a young translator with both a few years of translation-related work experience and an MA, I am very familiar with the advantages of having this qualification, but, equally, I am aware of the alternatives available to professional translators unable or unwilling to follow this path. I would like to consider the question, “Should I do an MA in Translation Studies or not?”. Having asked myself this very question two years ago, and heard many of my friends and colleagues ask the same thing, I feel that there can never be enough information and advice on this subject. But this is exactly what this article is, my advice, which has been generated from my own personal experience and beliefs and, therefore, may not apply to everyone pursuing a career in translation. It should, however, serve as food for thought for newcomers and put even more ideas about translation training out there!
There is no doubt that employers and clients look kindly on formal education in translation. It suggests that the graduate has a solid foundation in how to translate, much in the same way that a law firm would expect employees to have a law degree so that they are familiar with the basics of legal practice. However, I was once told by a friend of mine, a lawyer, that of out of his entire law degree, he used perhaps 30% of all the knowledge he had acquired at university as a qualified lawyer. This is also the case with the MA. The course involves a lot of general theory, which, while incredibly interesting and useful for more academic pursuits, will probably become lost in the mist of the mind over the years. Just like any other degree, the MA does not guarantee that its holder is an expert, it simply offers them a foundation of understanding. In order to become a translation expert, one must practise this art, seek exposure to more information and continually add to one's knowledge base.
Not only this, but a translator must develop their specialisation. The MA is designed to expose students to the different aspects of translation, which ensures that the course is incredibly diverse and absolutely fascinating, but does not produce translators who are ready to work in a specific area. There are two common results of this problem. First, the graduate excessively lists his or her specialisations as every area in which he or she has ever written a short translation for class. While tempting, this looks both unprofessional and unbelievable, and may result in the provision of shoddy, inaccurate work in a very technical field. This can destroy new translators' reputations very early in their career. The second possibility affects the more humble graduate who does not claim to have any specialisations, just a good academic background and general knowledge. Ultimately, it is very difficult for him or her to find a job in the real world of (predominantly quite technical) translation.
Does this then mean that, although the MA is very interesting, it may be better to focus on professional experience? It seems that in many cases, MA graduates have to start from scratch in order to develop a specialisation and fulfil the minimum requirement of working years. Perhaps by moving on to the world of work immediately after having completed an undergraduate degree, budding translators can save money and even start making some more. It is certainly true that having a non-translational role in a specialist company can provide the technical vocabulary and understanding required to be able to offer specialised translation services in the future. The more specialised knowledge a translator has gained over the years, the more accurate his or her translations in these fields will be. Not only that, but there is also great demand for translators with specialised working experience, and the pay can often reflect this. So far, so good, except that in the current economic climate, finding any job is simply not that straightforward. Although the worldwide economy is slowly improving, there are many people in need of work, people with years of experience, and they are often hired over new workers who have just graduated from university.
It is at this point that I can extol the greatest virtue of doing an MA. Yes, it is expensive, yes, you will still have to work hard to become a great translator, but it is an excellent opportunity. Not only would employers appreciate seeing the qualification on your CV when you apply for a job in translation, but it may have even be one the contacts from the postgraduate programme who recommended you for that position. At a time when jobs were scarce, I was very pleased to secure two translation jobs thanks to the kind words of one of my professors and the connections of another. It may come at a cost, but the MA offers invaluable networking opportunities, which, while useful to everyone, are all the more important to new freelancers whose careers will be kept afloat by contacts. And, even if the professors cannot personally provide you with work, they can offer mentoring, references and support. Many professors in the MA programmes are veteran translators whose acquaintance in this line of work is always worth making. Furthermore, their time and advice can give you some idea and inspiration of what you want to do and how you can achieve it. There may still be some element of trial and error in your career, but it is great to have such role models.
The MA may still not be right for everyone and there are other ways of becoming a great and sufficiently experienced translator. As previously discussed, professional experience may make you more than qualified to translate in your chosen area. You may have worked in a particular area of specialisation prior to translating, or you may have been translating for so many years that you have more than enough expertise to pique the interest of employers and clients alike. Alternatively, you may have read an undergraduate degree in something other than languages, which, combined with linguistic skills, has given you your edge in this industry. If you would still like to have a qualification to serve as evidence of your translation ability, the DipTrans, offered by The Chartered Institute of Linguists, and the MITI exam, offered by the Institute of Translation and Interpreting, are also available. These are significantly cheaper than the MA and command equal respect. There is, however, a much lower pass rate than in the MA programmes, especially in the case of the notoriously difficult DipTrans, at only 30-40%. This is certainly something to bear in mind if you intend to sit these exams instead of doing the MA in order to save money alone, as, after a few fails you would find yourself slowly encroaching on the cost of the Master's (depending, of course, on where you would have undertaken the programme!). They are, however, great alternatives that can be studied for at home and around a current job, making them ideal for existing translators who want a little extra something on their CVs.
It is clear that there are a number of different paths that can all lead to a successful career in translation. I, for one, thoroughly enjoyed doing an MA in Translation Studies and feel that it has both prepared me for being a translator and provided me with a lot of support. However, the cost cannot be ignored and some people may need to start working immediately after finishing their undergraduate degree and continually through their lives in order to support themselves. This does not have to create an impasse to achieving a successful career in translation, as working can provide technical expertise and alternative courses can be undertaken. What is most important when considering whether to do an MA is the availability of information concerning the different options, which is what I hope to have provided to some extent. In order to answer the question, “Should I do an MA in Translation Studies or not?”, one need only consider his or her resources, requirements and strengths and adapt his or her training accordingly. Those with the time, money and academic orientation could consider doing an MA, whereas those who prefer to start working, or are already working, could focus on developing their technical knowledge before taking an alternative exam in their own time.
There are lots of options and, despite how it may seem to new translators trawling the Internet for jobs, I can safely say that an MA is not the definitive answer - you can create your own answer!