US: Lost in Translation

Harold F. Schiffman haroldfs at
Tue Apr 24 15:07:29 UTC 2007
>>From the issue dated April 27, 2007

Lost in Translation


Everette E. Jordan cannot find enough translators. Mr. Jordan, who runs a
federal center that helps translate a backlog of documents for the CIA,
FBI, and other government agencies, says that because the United States
does such a poor job training translators and interpreters, recruiting
enough help is impossible. So the director of the National Virtual
Translation Center has turned to students for help. The center, itself
only four years old, started a program about a year ago to send
unclassified government documents to translation professors at several
universities to give to their students as course work. The documents
include newspaper articles, online hacker journals, and threat letters.
The professors then return the translated documents to the center, and the
students receive course credit.

The idea, says Mr. Jordan, is to both help with the government's
translation backlog and start partnerships with university programs to
increase the nation's long-term supply of translators and interpreters. To
that end, he has aggressively courted universities, offering them
internships for their students and help developing basic curricula. He
ultimately hopes to offer federal grants and contracts to expand
university translation departments. But the center's translation programs
are missing an essential element:  money. Mr. Jordan says that he has not
yet been able to secure any substantial support in the federal budget for
expanded partnerships with universities, and that his program "has yet to
get off the ground."

"There isn't any money put into it yet," he says. "It's not for [lack of]
trying." Officials at university translation programs say they would be
happy to work with the center to expand their offerings. But they say the
center's limited attempts at partnerships reflect a familiar problem:
Despite the attention focused on the nation's failings in translation
after September 11, 2001, few federal grants and contracts for translation
and interpretation studies have followed.

'Good Intentions'

"The good intentions are there it's just that the money isn't," says
Elizabeth Lowe, director of the translation program at the University of
Florida. "To expand curriculum to do the innovative kinds of enhancements
that would really make a difference, we need external funding." The lack
of federal financing is often matched by universities themselves.
Programs in translation and interpretation studies, which stress the
skills and mind-set needed by translators in addition to fluency in the
languages themselves, have no established constituency at most colleges.
They often compete for resources with traditional literature departments
and with other disciplines for a place within the liberal arts.

Francoise Massardier-Kenney is the director of the Institute for Applied
Linguistics at Kent State University, one of only two comprehensive
programs in the country to offer a master's degree in translation studies.
She says the university declined to help translate documents for the
virtual-translation center, citing an already full curriculum. Efforts
like the document exchange program, she says, are like "little bandages on
individual problems." The number of students who graduate each year from
an American university with master's degrees in translation or
interpretation is probably about 100, says Gregory M. Shreve, director of
Kent State's department of modern- and classical-language studies.

Increasing the number of translators will require confronting the problem
systematically, says Mr. Shreve. The greatest need of many university
translation programs, he says, is more faculty members. Building up the
infrastructure to recruit and train professors to offer new languages
would require a sustained investment, he says, and a coherent national
language policy that took translation seriously. "Where do I get someone
who can teach Farsi professionally and run a program?" says Mr. Shreve. "I
need really skilled faculty, and that's hard to find." Mr. Jordan agrees
that the government has not put nearly enough money into translation
studies. He says lawmakers often want to produce more translators
immediately in critical languages like Arabic, Farsi, and Chinese. But
training a good translator, he says, takes six to eight years.

He ticks off a list of needs that will be more difficult without enough
translators: recovering from major disasters, providing good health care,
preventing terrorist attacks, and nation building. "We're really not going
to be ready if we don't put in enough money," he says. Marie-Line Sephocle
is director of the simultaneous interpretation program at Howard
University, one of only a few such programs in the country. She says Mr.
Jordan "is one of the rare supporters in the entire government for our
programs." In the 12 years since the program was started, she says, it has
received no outside money. In fact, she says, the university initially
would not finance it either, so some of the professors paid for the
start-up costs out of their own pockets.

Since then, the demand from students has grown to more than what the
program can support. Ms. Sephocle says she constantly receives visitors
interested in how the program works: other professors, ambassadors, and
legislators. "They all marvel at it," she says. "They say it's exactly
what we want.  And then they don't follow up." Section: The Faculty Volume 53, Issue 34, Page A28


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