Monday morning is looking up: ProZ just announced the winners of this year’s Community Choice awards. Congratulations to everyone who earned this recognition from their colleagues! I’m excited to share the “best podcast” award with my friend and colleague Eve Bodeux for our podcast Speaking of Translation. Note to our husbands: OK, we do sometimes talk too much, but sometimes people do listen! I’m also flattered to have won in the “best blog post” category, for Why do some freelance translators fail?. It’s gratifying to be recognized for these contributions, and to know that these resources are useful to the industry!
In general, I think that MOOCs are a great option for motivated learners with a specific goal. The course offerings are far more specialized than what you’d find at a local adult education center or community college, and the price (most often free) is certainly appealing. You can work on your MOOC anywhere with an Internet connection, at any time of the day or night. Many MOOCs consist of online video lectures: great because you can pause the video, rewind it, look up a quick Wikipedia entry of a concept you don’t completely get, and so on. For example my MOOC goal is to learn more about the science behind the international development documents I translate, so I’m currently taking Epidemics: the dynamics of infectious diseases, offered by a team from Penn State.
The range of MOOCs is really staggering: right now on the Coursera home page, you can sign up for courses ranging from Jazz Improvisation (taught by professors from the Berklee College of Music), to Bioinformatics Algorithms (UC San Diego), to a French course on business valuation (HEC Paris). The schools that offer these courses are top-notch, and thus they present an opportunity to take a course that is logistically and financially out of the reach of many people. MOOC providers are also getting more savvy about what their students want: in the course I’m currently taking, you can get a certificate of completion (for getting at least an 80% on all assessments) or a verified certificate with distinction (for getting 100% on all assessments). Coursera’s newly launched signature program has already earned over $1 million, focusing on students who want to earn a credential from their MOOCs.
In just these two experiences, I’ve learned that all MOOCs are not created equal. The first MOOC I took was a general public health class and it was fine. It was certainly more interesting than reading a public health textbook, especially since I do not have a strong formal science background. However, the course was not really created for the online learning format: most of the video lectures were taken with a camera in the back of the room during the professor’s live lectures, and they were uploaded in fairly long segments. In addition, the fact that the in-person students seemed a little disengaged from the material (professor would ask questions and have to wait for answers, or no one would answer) detracted from the experience. By contrast, the Epidemics MOOC that I’m currently taking is outstanding. The class has a huge team of instructors and developers, and was obviously developed specifically for this purpose. The videos are short (about 6 minutes each) and have excellent animations that accompany them. The videos are narrated by a bunch of different people, so they don’t get monotonous. In addition, the staff seems to be spending a huge amount of time contributing to the online discussion boards for the class. So, a huge shoutout to the Epidemics MOOC staff!
In my opinion, here are some caveats about the MOOC experience: if, like me, you’re doing a MOOC because you realize that, uh-oh, you should have paid better attention in those “throwaway” core classes in college? You’re in the right place. I was too busy thinking lofty literary thoughts in college (and graduate school for that matter) to worry about the difference between macroparasites and microparasites. Now, I’m regretting that impulse, but Coursera has come to the rescue. In addition, I think that some of the classic criticisms of MOOCs, such as “there’s no interaction with the instructor,” “all of the assessments are multiple choice and graded by computer,” and so on, also apply to many of the courses one would take as an in-person student at a large research university. Many of my friends who went to such universities were largely taught by grad students during their first few years. If you took an in-person course with 250 students in a lecture hall, you would not get personal attention or individually-graded assignments, and you’d be paying a lot more than $0 for the experience.
Personally, I do not see MOOCs as a substitute for a solid, in-person, general education. I would not encourage my own daughter to bypass an undergraduate degree in favor of MOOCs. I agree that the human interaction element of education is important, and I even agree that grad students can be excellent teachers. But for those of us who already have that general education and want to fine-tune our knowledge, I think that MOOCs are a great solution.
Here’s a very common question from my beginning translation students: “Do I need a…(Bachelor’s degree, Master’s degree, translation certificate, translator certification, etc.)” with corollaries such as “Am I better off getting a foreign language MA or a translation certificate?” “If I don’t have a Bachelor’s degree but I’m ATA-certified, is that OK?” and so on.
I can answer all of these questions with two words: it depends. There you go! That’s somewhat tongue in cheek, but it does really depend on your background, your goals, who you work for and what you do. And in this post, I’m talking about the norm, not the exception; I know a couple of self-taught conference interpreters who have tons of work, people without Bachelor’s degrees who are doing fine, and lots of people who are not ATA-certified and still make a squadrillion dollars a year. But here I’m talking in general, and I apologize in advance if this gets long!
Also, there are some very notable exceptions to these observations. For example let’s say that you want to be a court interpreter at the state level. In many U.S. states, the only pre-requisite to take the court interpreter exam is that you have to be 18 and legally eligible to work in the US. In theory, even a smart and motivated high school student could study for and pass the exam. And once you’re certified, everyone generally is paid the same rate. So in that case, and for that specific job, there may be absolutely no advantage to having a Bachelor’s degree.
Do you need a Bachelor’s degree? Yes, in most cases, I really think that you do. As with the court interpreter scenario above, of course there are exceptions. But at least in the US, I think that if you don’t have a Bachelor’s degree, you are seen as A Person Who Did Not Go to College; whereas whether you have a BA, MA, PhD, law degree, whatever, you are A Person Who Went to College. Corollary: if you’re not 18 and your parents aren’t going to fund this educational endeavor, is a Bachelor’s from an online university better than, say, a high school degree or an Associate’s, plus a certificate from a reputable translation certificate program? Honestly, I don’t really know. First, you’d need to find a reputable translation certificate program to accept you without an undergraduate degree, but that might be doable if your language skills are strong.
Are translation/interpreting MA programs worth the investment? You had to ask a tough one, didn’t you… Here’s my opinion: before you undertake a graduate degree, ask yourself, “What do I want to do, that I cannot do now, that I can do if I earn this degree?” If your answer is that you want a job as a staff translator or interpreter at a high-level entity such as the U.N., Department of State, European Union, etc. then yes, I think that a translation/interpreting MA, preferably from the top program in your country, is probably a good investment. If you are completely convinced that you want to do conference interpreting, ditto: go for the interpreting-specific MA if possible.
On the other hand, consider this: in the US, tuition, fees, meals and housing at a private university will run you about $50,000 a year; an MA will generally last two years. Schools in Europe generally charge less in tuition, but the cost of living in the European capitals will bump the total cost up significantly. And you also have to consider the issue of lost income, especially if your other option is to simply start freelancing right away. Statistics tell us that the average full-time freelance translator/interpreter in the US earns about $75,000 per year. So during those two years, you’ll forgo some $150,000 in income, giving you a total investment of about $250,000 in your degree. That’s a pretty big number by anyone’s standards, but it’s probably worth it if your heart is set on a staff position at a major international organization; hopefully you’ll get an outstanding education, you’ll be taught by highly experienced professors, you’ll make great contacts, you’ll probably have a leg up in terms of internships, and so on.
However, in my opinion, and I apologize if this verges on “rant” territory, most translation/interpreting MA programs do not offer nearly enough education in business and entrepreneurship, given the career paths that a lot of their students will take. Will some of their students work on staff at places like the UN for their entire careers? Sure. Are there enough of those jobs open every year to employ the majority of graduates? I would say not. So, realistically, a lot of people with translation/interpreting MAs, even from top-tier schools, will become freelancers. A lot of people who earn translation/interpreting MAs want to be freelancers, whether in-house jobs are available or not. And if I invested a quarter of a million dollars in that type of degree, in an industry that is highly freelance-oriented, I would expect a top-tier education in language entrepreneurship in addition to my language skills education. Here’s an example: several top-tier music schools in the US have music entrepreneurship centers. The University of Colorado here in Boulder has one. So does Manhattan School of Music, with the lead-in, “In today’s marketplace, musicians need more than artistic excellence: they need the added edge of entrepreneurial skills to create opportunities and build successful, sustainable careers.” Substitute “linguistic” for “artistic” and I think you’ve got the idea of what our industry needs; and to my knowledge, none of the major translation MA programs in the US or Europe are really addressing this. (End of rant!)
How about certification? Being certified, by ATA or any other national translators association, will never be a negative. Compensation surveys tell us that ATA-certified translators earn more than non-certified translators. I have also heard from several translation companies with government contracts that they are under more pressure to use ATA-certified translators whenever possible. If a client is browsing the ATA online directory, they will probably contact the certified people first. So I think that the ATA exam is absolutely worth attempting if it’s in your budget. However, translator certification, in any country, is not like the bar exam for lawyers or the CPA exam for accountants. Lots of people make lots of money without ever becoming certified. I would consider certification a definite plus, but not a must.
Translation certificate programs? Translation certificate programs are great, because they teach you how to actually translate. They’ll help you avoid the litany of mistakes that I, and lots of other beginning translators, committed early in our careers. They’re also a good deal less expensive and less time-consuming than graduate degree programs. Most translation certificate programs are taught by practicing translators and interpreters who teach in their areas of specialization, so you’ll get real-world feedback from the instructors. Caveats: expect to pay $700-$1,500 per class, and don’t assume that completing a translation certificate program will enable you to pass the ATA certification exam.
What about subject-area degrees or training? I think this is the cutting edge in terms of credentials in our industry. Subject-area knowledge has always been important, but I think it’s becoming more so. For example, translation now seems to be a popular option for career-changing lawyers: possibly because lawyers have some of the lowest job satisfaction rates and some of the highest rates of substance abuse and depression of any white-collar profession. Whatever the case, if you’re already established in the profession and want to take your credentials up a notch, subject-area training would be my pick. Whether you do free, online courses through an entity like Coursera or enroll in a full-on graduate program in your specialization, I think it would be energy well spent.
I’m an enthusiastic podcast listener. I find that after reading all day at work, it’s nice to switch to some audio media for some down time. I listen to podcasts while I’m exercising, when I need a mental break during the work day, while I’m keeping my daughter company during homework time, when I’m lying around before bed and sometimes even while doing mindless household chores like folding the laundry. I also find that listening to French podcasts is a good way to keep up with French current events and to work on my French listening comprehension. Here are a few of my favorite podcasts, and I’d love to learn about yours! I subscribe to all of these on my iPod using iTunes, but I’ll give you their websites n case you just want to listen to them online!
- I’m only slightly obsessed with This American Life, a public radio show that features weird and wonderful stories on a different theme each week. The show is professionally produced but focuses on regular people and their interesting experiences. For example this week’s episode is entitled “The Right to Remain Silent,” and profiles people who had the right to remain silent, but didn’t.
- When I feel like something a little more cerebral but still fun, I listen to Freakonomics Radio. This podcast is hosted by the authors of the Freakonomics books, who look at “the hidden side of everything,” but in a very engaging way. The most recent episode asks what would happen (in economic and social terms) if the 50 wealthiest Americans each gave $50,000 to 50 low-income families.
- Another good one in the “nerdy but fun” department is NPR’s Wait Wait…don’t tell me news quiz podcast.
I also subscribe to a few French podcasts. If you’re learning French (or any other language), there are lots of great language-learning podcasts out there. One that I would particularly recommend for intermediate French learners is The News in Slow French. If you’re fluent in French, this podcast will drive you crazy (because…it’s…very…slow), but if you’re somewhere between beginner and fluent, I think it would be great. The hosts cover one important news story, then discuss a few grammar points.
For those proficient in French and wanting to keep it up, I recommend:
- RFI’s Le journal en français facile. Despite the name, the French in this podcast is pretty normal, but just read at a slightly slower speed than the regular news. In addition, RFI provides the script for each show, so that you can read along if you want to. A very good podcast for improving your listening skills.
- My favorite French podcast is probably France Inter’s Le téléphone sonne. It’s very similar to NPR’s now-defunct “Talk of the Nation.” The host picks a topic, invites various commentators into the studio and then takes live phone calls. I love this podcast because it combines a current event with the challenge of listening to a lot of different voices and accents. For example yesterday’s show focused on the new school schedule in France: moving from four days to four and a half, and adding extra-curricular activities to the week. Various parents and teachers called in on the pro and con sides, and then the commentators responded.
- I also subscribe to France Inter’s La revue de presse. I like it because it’s short (under 10 minutes) and covers a lot of material in that time. However because it’s so fast-paced, it’s often challenging to follow if you don’t know the background to all of the stories. But definitely worth a listen!
Anyone else have favorite podcasts that you’d recommend? Language-related or otherwise?
Speaking of Translation is a little sideline venture that my friend and colleague Eve Bodeux and I launched a number of years ago. In Internet terms, we’ve been around for about a century, since one of our fist podcasts was a wrapup of the 2008 ATA conference. We started out with a podcast and produced six episodes, then moved to conference calls and we’ve now produced six of those, which you can listen to on our website. In each call, we interview someone interesting in the translation industry, and we don’t use these calls to promote anything other than the fact that we like to talk. The recorded conference call topics are:
- An overview of international payment methods
- Finding direct clients at industry conferences
- Freelance sabbaticals abroad, part I and II
- Jost Zetzsche answers (almost) all your translation technology questions
- Insider tips for a successful freelance business
The exciting new development is that in addition to streaming the recordings off our site, you can now download them as well (in mp3 format). So wherever you go, you can take Speaking of Translation with you! If you have ideas of future topics you’d like us to cover, please e-mail us at firstname.lastname@example.org
Inspired by Judy Jenner’s post about her first three months of co-working, here’s an update on my own co-working situation.
Brief background: about this time last year, I came to a few realizations.
- Next year (now this year), my daughter would be starting middle school and would be getting more independent.
- My husband, who used to work at home, now works at an office.
- A lot of my longtime friends who used to work part time or be home full time are now working full time or are busy with other things. Of course I still see them, but they aren’t around as much during the day.
- After 10 years of working at home, I needed a change. What used to seem peaceful and blessedly quiet started to seem isolating and lonely. I realized that I had to take action when I saw a really cute outfit in a store (second hand, naturally!) and then thought “Where would I ever wear that? It’s not like I see anyone during the work day.”
And well, I’m a doer. So I decided to do something about this situation and find myself an office outside the house. Fortuitously, Boulder has no shortage of co-working spaces for all flavors of freelancers, and after touring four or five of them, I found “the one,” in a beautifully renovated old building right in downtown Boulder. I’ve been happily working there/here for the past nine months, so here’s a quick FAQ about the experience.
Q: How do you like co-working in general?
A: Three words: I love it. It gets me out of the house, it gives me some semblance of a boundary between home and work life, it forces me to get my work done in a defined period of time, it gives me an excuse to wear something other than workout clothes and it gives me interesting people to talk to. When I get up in the morning, I feel like I have some place I need to be, which is a feeling I enjoy. I ride my bike to my office, which is also nice: it’s a 20 minute, not too strenuous ride, just enough to get the blood pumping in the morning and the afternoon. When I get home in the afternoon, I feel like something happened during the day; I feel like I have something to talk about, other than “I sat in the office/guest room, then I washed some dishes, then I sat in the office/guest room some more.” Admittedly, a lot of these factors probably have more to do with me than with the objective realities of freelancing, but there you go. Those are my reasons!
Q: How much does the office cost and what do you get?
A: I pay $350 a month for my own desk, and I keep all of my work stuff there. I also get use of the building’s conference rooms, unlimited coffee and tea (plus they wash the cups…that alone is worth $350 a month) and I can eat in the building’s social club for an extra fee.
Q: Who else works there, and did you know them ahead of time?
A: My building has private office suites and a group work room. I have a desk in the group work room; there aren’t any other translators here, and I didn’t know anyone else in the building ahead of time. I really like both of those aspects: it’s interesting to work around people who do totally different jobs than I do (IT, PR, law, corporate writing, etc.) and it’s just enough social interaction. I have something in common with a lot of the people in the building, but I can also get work done without feeling like I have to socialize.
Q: Are there any negatives?
A: So far, not really. I feel that the improvement in my enjoyment of the work day and my increased productivity are well worth $4,000 a year. In fact, this year is on track to be my highest-earning year ever, despite the fact that I took a month off this summer. So I think that my perception that I’m getting more done in the same amount of time is probably accurate.
Q: Any advice for other people considering co-working?
A: Make sure you find the right spot, because all offices are not created equal. The first place I went to look at was everything I *didn’t* want in a co-working space: in a basement with no natural light, empty vodka bottles in the kitchen (seriously) and more of a tech-startup vibe than a word nerd vibe. The office where I ended up has the feel of a really, really nice library with a great garden and a lot of nice art. So the physical space has a lot to do with it; at least more than I thought at the outset.
Other co-workers, any thoughts??
On Tuesday, September 24 at 12:00 noon New York time, Eve Bodeux and I will host the next in our series of free Speaking of Translation conference calls. This edition’s topic is International payments: an overview, and if you send or receive payments across borders, you should definitely listen in! The call will last 30-45 minutes, it’s totally free other than any phone call charges (and no sales pitches for any of our services), and you can even submit questions for Eve to answer. Here’s the full description:
Call description: It costs money to make money, but in this call we’ll help you figure out how to spend as little as possible on international payments while keeping as much as possible in your pocket. Eve Bodeux, a frequent speaker on the topic of international payments, discussed this with Speaking of Translation back in 2009 and there have been some (good and bad) changes since then. She will fill us in on the pros and cons of current options including ACH, wire transfers, foreign bank accounts, checks, international currency transfer services and PayPal. She’ll also discuss some considerations related to exchange rates and taxes. If time allows, we’ll take questions from the audience.
As an added bonus, Eve and Corinne will preview the upcoming American Translators Association annual conference, which will be held from November 6-9 in San Antonio, Texas.
To join the call: A few minutes before 12:00 noon New York time, dial 209-647-1600, then enter access code 178865 and press pound (#). If you live outside the U.S. or if you pay by the minute for long-distance calling, the least expensive option is probably to purchase Skype credits and use the Skype “Call Phones” function. This should cost less than 3 US cents per minute.
In addition, you can listen to the archives of our Speaking of Translation podcast and conference calls for free at any time. No charge, no sales pitches, just fun discussions about translation industry topics!