Brian Mossop

14 Monteith St, Toronto M4Y 1K7


tel: 416-973-1142

fax: 416-973-3325


Title: School, practicum and professional development workshop: toward a rational sequence of topics


Affiliations: York University School of Translation & Government of Canada Translation Bureau

School, practicum and professional development workshop: toward a rational sequence of topics



Almost the entire literature on translator training is concerned with translation schools. The other two types of formal training available--the practicum and the professional development workshop (PDW) for practising translators--receive next to no attention

[i]. These two forms of training exist because it is not possible to become a fully proficient professional in a classroom setting. Achieving proficiency–that is, acquiring the ability to produce translations in specialized fields with adequate speed and quality–takes about five years of full-time practice. Practicums and PDWs help speed up the learning process. PDWs are especially useful for those who work alone rather than as staff translators, and thus do not benefit from informal on-the-job training by a senior translator.


Currently there is little connection among the three types of formal training, in Canada at any rate. Practicums are organized by translation schools, but the actual content of the practicum is up to the professional translator who supervises it. As for PDWs, these are organized not by schools but by professional associations such as the Association of Translators and Interpreters of Ontario and by the federal government’s Translation Bureau.


In this article, I suggest that a more co-ordinated approach to training is required. I look at the various areas of know-how which translators must master (research, revision, computer tools etc) and the sequencing of topics within each area over the years of training. I attempt an initial answer to the questions: at what point in time should each area of know-how be the focus of attention, and what would be the best sequence of topics within each area over the entire period encompassing translation school and the first five years of so of professional practice?


That a sequence is needed is perhaps not obvious. Students in the final year of translation school frequently express the wish that they had had this or that course (documentation say, or terminology) earlier in the program. In other words, they wish they had learned all the skills simultaneously in their first year. But a sequence is needed because it is important to focus students’ attention on different matters at different stages. For example, in the introductory course, the focus should be on attending to the message of the source text. This is the time when students must unlearn harmful notions (translation as a linguistic exercise in SL grammar and vocabulary) and learn that translation is about communicating a message to a particular audience. At this stage, a focus on research or on the use of information technology would just be distracting.


Students also complain, upon returning from a practicum, that they had not been prepared in class for this or that aspect of the workplace. But the purpose of a practicum should not be merely to get practice in things one has learned in class; it should be to learn things that cannot be learned in class.


The title of the article refers to a rational sequencing of learning topics. One rationale for placing a topic at a given stage would be practicality. For example, translation school is clearly not the place to learn the problems of handling long texts (achieving consistency, timing research and so on). Students’ course load is such that they can devote only a few hours a week to translating, and teachers cannot mark one or two dozen 10,000-word translations every week! Some instructors do ask students to translate one long text over an entire semester, and while such an exercise has its uses, a single text does not afford much of a learning opportunity. Better to leave the problems of long texts until the practicum[ii].


Practicality would of course not be the main rationale for a learning sequence. The main rationale, I suggest, should be learnability at a given stage in the learning process. Unfortunately we have only anecdotal evidence on this matter, grounded in the experience of individual instructors and former students and trainees. What is needed is evidence about learnability from systematic studies of outcomes--successes and failures with different sequences of topics. Perhaps something could be learned in this regard from professions with a longer pedagogical history. But that is for the future. This article will be based on my own experience of twenty years teaching undergraduates at York University’s School of Translation in Toronto, supervising practicums at the Canadian Government’s Translation Bureau, and leading PDWs for translators’ associations and for government translation departments at both the federal and provincial levels.


Table 1 suggests a sequence of topics in six areas of know-how. These six areas are not intended to exhaust what translators need to learn. For example, successful practice calls for a certain amount of theoretical knowledge: practitioners (not just future researcher or teachers) need to learn concepts and terms for discussing and thinking about translation, and they also need to learn the history of translation in order to develop a self-concept as translators working in a specific historical situation.


None of the six areas shown on Table 1 can be fully mastered at school: graduating students will not be able to interpret source texts or perform research both quickly and well because there is not enough time at translation school to practice and gain the necessary confidence. Consequently what students can acquire is knowledge of what the problems in these areas are. Translation school is thus not to be seen as some poor imitation of the workplace; rather it is a place where future translators focus on principles, methods and problems.


The second and third columns of Table 1 divide translation school into two stages, junior and senior. The reason for the junior/senior division is that, ideally, there will be a practicum somewhere around the middle of the program. If it were possible to arrange a practicum for all the students at the same point in the program, then the objectives in the senior part of the program could be based on the assumption that students have acquired a certain know-how during the practicum.


Even better, there would be two or three practicums, as in a co-op program. Ideally, one of these would be in a one-person business, one in a translation company that channels work from clients to freelance translators, and one in the translation department of a corporation or government ministry. Some translation schools have tried to organize simulations of practicums on campus, but this is not ideal. There needs to be a clear distinction in the student’s mind between the study and practicum phases of learning. The study phase should be a period of reflection on the problems of translation. Class exercises and home assignments should be designed to help with this reflection, not to give practice in translating texts quickly for waiting customers[iii].


Professional development workshops, covered in the last column of Table 1,  are half-day to two-day sessions on a single topic. Sometimes they are introductory (eg HTML for translators who wish to translate Web pages for their clients), but for the purposes of this article, the more interesting ones concern matters with which the participants are already familiar. They afford an opportunity to discuss–using exercises–topics such as self-revision, research and poorly written source texts.


Let us now turn to the six areas of know-how.



First area: interpreting the source text


The time for focussing on this area, I suggest, is the very beginning of the learning process. That is why it is bolded in the 'junior undergraduate’ column. The most important goal for beginners is learning to attend to the message behind the wording and learning to read very closely. To ensure that students see that interpreting is a task separate from that of composing the translation, exercises like writing summaries of TL texts can be used.


There is not much of a distribution of topics for this area on Table 1. The only other entry is under PDWs: a workshop on the problems of interpreting bad writing is worthwhile once a translator has had a year or so of experience in translating poorly written source texts (PWSTs), that is, texts in which the poor wording makes the meaning uncertain, even to a reader who is an expert in the field.


One implication of placing the problems of PWSTs in the PDW column is that at translation school, and possibly during practicums, texts should be reasonably well written, at least for marked assignments. However that does not mean students should never hear of PWSTs. I sometimes bring samples of such texts to class from my workplace, and even do ungraded PWST exercises with senior students. More generally, it never hurts to give short ungraded exercises on topics that will be the focus of higher stages of the learning process. Students should hear about all the problems of translation, even if there are no formal learning objectives for many of them. If the instructor is a professional translator, he or she can make students aware of the various problems of working life by telling anecdotes based on personal experience.



Second area: composing and communicating


The time to focus on composing the translation and communicating the message to readers is, again, translation school. It takes some students quite a while to grasp the difference between rendering vocabulary items or sentence structures  and actual translating--writing a readable text in language appropriate to the genre--as well as the difference between a purely linguistic exercise and a communicative task that calls for analysing the use to which the translation will be put we well as its future readership. A course in business or technical writing in the TL can help students focus on aiming messages at defined readerships.


The problems of document production, and how translation fits into it, can best be considered during a practicum in industry or government.


A PDW is the appropriate place to look at the problems of composing the translation when the source text is poorly written.



Third area: research


In this area of know-how, I have distributed the learning topics over all four levels of formal learning. At the junior undergraduate level, research should be a very minor area of work. Students need to acquire basic library skills if they do not already possess these. Since basic library skills now include the ability to use the Internet, this is a good time to learn to make simple searches using on-line term banks and Internet engines. However there is no point in emphasizing terminology and documentation work at this stage since students should not be translating specialized texts (more on specialization below). Rather this is a good time to learn how to extract maximal information from dictionaries, and to see the limitations of bilingual dictionaries. A good dictionary exercise consists in looking up, first in several unilingual dictionaries and then in several bilingual dictionaries, common SL words for which there is no word of equal generality in the TL (for example: French animer or favoriser, whose meaning can be grasped from French definitions but whose translation requires a great many different English words, only a very few of which are given in bilingual dictionaries).


The senior undergraduate stage is the time to focus on research, with the emphasis on finding and using documentation for concepts, for terms and for phraseology. Students should become aware that documents are the ultimate source of useful information, including terminological information (a good term bank, after all, is based on careful documentation searches).


In the practicum column, I’ve placed contacting subject-matter experts, because this is the stage when it is most practical to learn techniques for eliciting correct information from experts. Once again, I do not mean that undergraduates should never be told about contacting experts or should never try it. It is simply that this is not the best time to tackle this matter.


At the professional development stage, a useful topic is how to make research efficient–how to eliminate unnecessary research. This is not at all an appropriate topic at the undergraduate level, where I think research should always be maximized: practice in research is good for students even if they are doing searches which, from a professional point of view, are unnecessary. More generally, what is pedagogically suitable for students at translation school will not always be to copy professional practice. This applies to every aspect of translation.



Fourth area: checking and correcting


The professional tasks covered by this fourth area of know-how are self-revision, revision of others’ translations, quality control, and pre- and post-editing for machine translation. My experience attempting to teach revision to senior undergraduates in the early 1980s led me to conclude that revision is too difficult for people who have had so little practice translating and consequently have not yet acquired a concept of what is acceptable–a concept against which the draft translation can be assessed (Mossop 1992). I found that even the top students are at sea: they don’t understand which changes need to be made and which ones are unnecessary; they make far too many unnecessary changes; they miss essential changes; they tend to substitute their own translations rather than ask whether the draft translation is alright as is. If instructors want their students to develop the critical ability that will eventually help them revise (and if they want to help students learn to appreciate the merits of other people’s translations), a good exercise is doing translation assignments in pairs.


This warning against teaching revision at translation school is not meant to exclude exercises that start from a text/translation pair. Students might be given a source text together with a translation containing examples of interference from the SL, and asked to identify the interferences and discuss their possible impact on TL readers. Such exercises are designed to help students translate better, not to prepare them for the professional task of revision.


An appropriate checking/correcting skill for junior undergraduates is copyediting of TL texts, that is, checking them for linguistic correctness and consistency of layout. Then, at the senior level, they could move on to style editing of TL texts (checking that they read smoothly and are in language suited to the readership). The TL texts used for this purpose should be originals at the junior level, but at the senior level they might include texts written in the TL by SL speakers, or even TL texts which happen to be translations.


The time to start focussing on checking and correcting translations is the practicum. The supervisor should ensure that trainees take a systematic approach to checking their own translations (self-revision). Now obviously even juniors need to be told to go over their translations, and they can be given hints about how to do so (eg read the translation aloud). However, considerable practice in translation is required before it’s worth reflecting on what exact procedure to use when checking one’s own work. Self-revision is quite a complex matter, partly because it depends on one’s own personal translating style.


As for revising other people’s translations or serving as a quality controller, the time to focus on these activities is at a PDW held several months after participants have begun to revise juniors, inter-revise with peers, or perform quality control work. This is an area in which it is better to try one’s hand at a task before taking formal training in it.



Fifth area: information technology


A favourite theme in translation pedagogy today is the need for students to learn computer skills. But just how important is this? It is worth bearing in mind that while translation has been computerized, it has not been automated. The computer does not itself check and correct, perform research, compose or interpret; it merely speeds up these activities. A student who cannot translate with pencil and paper, and with reference works in the form of printed books, will not be able to translate with the latest computer aids. Furthermore, the time it takes to acquire the four areas of know-how already discussed is enormous compared to the time it takes to acquire the computer knowledge that is needed to function as a professional translator in today’s market. That is why, on Table 1, none of the four stages of learning is bolded to indicate a focus on information-technology know-how; no focus is needed.


What junior undergraduates need to know today (late 1999) is basic Windows, basic Word or WordPerfect, basic Internet searching and basic e-mail. Seniors should in addition learn to create a personal terminology database in electronic form. Perhaps in the near future, basic knowledge of HTML (to translate Web pages) will also be a necessity.


The more advanced computer aids (which keep changing, and at any rate do not take very long to learn) can be mastered later, during a practicum or PDW. Students should of course be told about these more advanced tools, such as translation memory software. However, given the limited time available in an undergraduate program, there is no point in more than a brief introduction, especially if the tools are not available for use on campus. More generally, instruction in using any computer tool is pointless unless the learner is going to start using that tool immediately (the day or week after the instruction).


Some may argue that it is unfair to send graduates out into the world without a course specifically on computer aids to translation. This assumes that translation school is the only type of formal learning, whereas my argument is that it should be seen as just one of three types.



Sixth area: business know-how


The only business-related activity shown at the undergraduate level on Table 1 is participation in the activities of a translators’ association, as a student member. By attending meetings of practising translators, students will gain a sufficient preliminary idea of translating as a business. (They should not, however, attend the PDWs sponsored by these associations; workshops should presume the kind of knowledge that can only be acquired from full-time practice.)


If a course is given by a professional translator, especially one who is self-employed, he or she can tell the students anecdotes about client relations (and other business issues). But there should be no formal learning objectives related to translation as a business. There are a limited number of course hours available at translation school, and they should not be used on matters which serve no purpose at this stage.  To put it in a nutshell: there is no point in knowing how to set up and run a translation business if you cannot translate. Better to spend the time taking a course in biology or economics, or whatever field is the topic of the student’s specialized translation course.


The time to start acquiring business know-how is the practicum, when the trainee is actually working in a business setting. During the practicum, trainees should have an opportunity to be in contact with clients. At school, they will have learned that clients are the people who set the specifications for a translation job, but the practicum is the stage when they actually learn what it means to work for a specific client.


Some might argue that role-playing scenarios could be used at translation school, with instructors playing the role of clients. This seems highly artificial: the instructor has probably never been a client, and the students have never been suppliers of translations. Role-playing seems better suited to a PDW, where participants have actually had business experience. Once again, everything does not need to be learned at translation school.


The time to really focus on business issues is the PDW. Professional associations of translators are the appropriate bodies to run workshops on the legal, accounting, marketing and other aspects of the translation business.


One topic which is sometimes discussed as a business issue, but is not mentioned on Table 1, is ethics. That is because ethical questions are part and parcel of several areas of know-how. For example, the translator’s duties to report faithfully the author’s message, and to make the reader’s work as easy as possible, should figure in discussions of interpretation and composition. Of course, there are also duties owed specifically to clients, and these would be part of the business area: confidentiality regarding the content of texts submitted for translation; acceptance of only those texts which the translator is competent to handle.



Other aspects of learning


Table 2 sets out a proposed development over time for three aspects of the learning process: the respective roles of speed and quality, the use of specialized and non-specialized texts, and assessment versus diagnosis.


Speed versus quality

At translation school, the focus should be on quality. To state the obvious, if you cannot translate well slowly, you cannot translate well quickly. It would be nice if time-limited tests could be eliminated, but university administrations are unlikely to accept this. As a compromise then, speed should not be a factor in any marked work other than tests. Unmarked time-limited exercises can of course be given, and are certainly worthwhile as a means of forcing students to make up their minds about how they will translate any given passage.


The practicum is obviously the time to get practice in meeting client deadlines. In this context, speed is not artificial, because a text must be ready by a certain time on a certain day. As a part of training in meeting deadlines, the supervisor should give the trainee several texts (with various deadlines) to be dealt with at once, and also, if possible, make the trainee part of a team of translators working on a large translation project.


Translating quickly takes years of practice. That is because speed is a matter of confidence: through long practice, one gains familiarity with subject matters, documentation and client wishes, as well as a much expanded comprehension of the source language, and the result is that one can save time on research and self-revision and, more generally, make decisions quickly.




A specialized text is one that calls for conceptual and terminological knowledge that a typical translator does not possess. Thus a text about clouds and rain in a grade-school science book is non-specialized while a text on this same subject in a meteorology journal is specialized. At the junior undergraduate level, only non-specialized texts should be used, so that students can focus on comprehension, writing and communication. At the senior level, specialized texts should be used, so that students have to conduct research.


During the practicum, both specialized and non-specialized texts are suitable. Non-specialized texts, if available, make it easier for trainees to focus on speed.


PDWs can be used to introduce practising translators to specialties in which they are about to start working (eg medical or financial translation, software localization).


Assessment versus diagnosis

All translation requires assessment of some sort. Even a beginner has to decide whether a proposed translation of a given passage is alright or should be changed. More obviously, revisers have to make assessments of the specific wordings the translator has chosen. Finally, teachers are required to provide assessments of student translations in the form of marks. Diagnosis is a different matter. This is the process of identifying the general weaknesses and strengths of a translator’s work. During the undergraduate and practicum stages, students and trainees are, inevitably, diagnosed by others. It is not until the final stage of learning that people become capable of self-diagnosis and diagnosing others. Diagnosis is a suitable topic for PDWs.


Since university administrations require the assignment of marks, diagnosis tends to be subordinated to assessment. The instructor can try to identify the general weaknesses and strengths of a student, but that does not provide a basis for assigning a mark. Marks can only be based on the particular wordings the student has written on individual assignments. In this regard, it may be beneficial for instructors to adopt a different attitude toward juniors and seniors. Juniors may benefit from ‘pedagogical’ assessment, that is, assessment which overlooks certain kinds of mistake, and does not just subtract marks for errors but also adds marks for good work on difficult passages (a difficult passage is one which most of the class had difficulty with)[iv]. Seniors on the other hand may benefit from at least some ‘professional’ assessment, that is, assessment which overlooks no mistakes and adds no marks for good work. Alternatively, this type of assessment could be left to the practicum, when the supervisor can make clear to the trainee just how well he or she is doing with respect to achieving professional standards.



Issues for future consideration


One matter that has been considered here only in passing is the types of activity which are suitable at the various stages of formal learning. Activities would include actual practice in translation, lectures, readings, and graded or ungraded exercises which are not translations (eg writing summaries, using dictionaries, finding documentation, preparing terminology fiches). Presumably different types and mixes of activities are appropriate to different stages of learning. For example, at the junior level, many instructors give priority to non-translational exercises as opposed to actual practice in translating texts.


A further important issue is the appropriate relationship between the leader of a learning activity and the participants. For example, PDWs are often disguised therapy sessions at which people who normally work in isolation discuss their practices in order to relieve themselves of the anxiety represented by the question “do others know something I don’t know?” The role of the leader is not so much to instruct as to help participants formulate their experience.





I have argued that formal translator training should involve three forms of learning. Some may be inclined to reply that practicums and professional development workshops are not readily available. In many places, this is certainly true. However if the response to this problem is to try cramming all formal training into the translation school curriculum, then there will be no motivation for the profession to develop the other two types of training.

York University School of Translation & Government of Canada Translation Bureau




MOSSOP, Brian (1992). “Goals of a Revision Course”, in Cay Dollerup & Anne Loddegaard (eds), Teaching Translation and Interpreting: Training, Talent and Experience. Amsterdam-Philadelphia, John Benjamins, pp. 81-90.

Table 1



area of


junior undergraduate

senior undergraduate


professional development workshop


attending to the message of the source text



understanding poorly written source texts

communicating &


analysing the communicative task (translating for specific user & use); writing a readable text in language appropriate to the genre

document production process in industry

composing translations of poorly written source texts


using dictionaries; basic library skills

finding documentation (paper & electronic) for concepts, terms and phraseology

contacting subject-matter experts

making research efficient

checking & correcting

copyediting TL texts

style editing TL texts

systematic self-revision

criteria and procedures for revision/quality control; pre/post-editing for MT

information technology

basic WordPerfect or Word; basic Windows; basic Internet; basic e-mail

creating a personal terminology database

concordance, bitext, and translation memory software; translating Web pages (HTML editor), presentations (eg PowerPoint), spreadsheets (eg Excel); desktop publishing (eg Pagemaker); advanced word processing functions



participate, as student member, in activities of translators’ association (except PDWs)

contacting clients

operating a one-person business; managing a translation service



Table 2




junior undergraduate

senior undergraduate


professional development workshop

quality vs speed


quality & speed



non-specialized texts

specialized texts

both specialized and non-specialized texts

orientation in specialties new to the translator

assessment vs diagnosis


assessment (marking)

‘professional’ assessment

diagnosis of trainees’ weaknesses and strengths

self-diagnosis; diagnosing others



[i]Two other types of formal learning--the graduate diploma and the master’s degree--are not considered here because, for the foreseeable future, these will continue to be a minority interest: most translators will not want to, or need to, pursue such a program of study.

[ii] Long texts are not to be confused with complete texts. Even if students are translating only 200 words, they should receive the full text from which the extract is taken. Otherwise they will be unable to make a proper textual and communicative analysis before translating (see “composing and communicating” below).

[iii]Once it is accepted that the classroom is not a pale imitation of the workplace, the effect is quite liberating. For example, students being trained to handle technical, financial or other pragmatic texts can be given class exercises in literary translation–an excellent way of honing interpreting skills and appreciating the difficulties of finding le mot juste.

[iv] ‘Pedagogical’ assessment could also include marks for using the right procedure even if the result is wrong. Certain aspects of procedure can be assessed by asking students to prepare diaries describing how they went about translating specific passages of a text.