In September 2007, Princeton University launched what it hailed as “the largest, most extensive effort in the country to educate students about the important role that translation plays across academic fields and in cultural understanding.” We check it out.

By Stafford Hemmer

Officially, as News at Princeton reports, the Program in Translation and Intercultural Communication seeks to “allow students to develop skills in language use and in the understanding of cultural and disciplinary difference. Translation across languages allows access to issues of intercultural differences, and the program will encourage its students to think about the complexity of communicating across cultures, nations, and linguistic borders.”

Certificate, certified—and totally certifiable

In the blush of its novelty, Sandra Bermann, chair of Princeton’s Comparative Literature department and a member of the program’s Executive Committee, eagerly elucidates that “words like democracy or constitution mean different things in different parts of the world,” reflecting the optimism of yet another translation certificate program to arise in American academia. “Certificate” and “Certified” also mean different things in different parts of the world, too. 

In order to call oneself a “translator” in a country like Germany, for example, one is required to study the discipline at a University and/or pass certification examinations administered by the state or federal government. In the USA, by contrast, no such government-sanctioned qualifying body can recognize a “certified translator” who can offer “certified translations.” It falls upon many US-based translators to educate clients about what constitutes certification, and even then, fellow translators have still had to ask each other—more than once on the NCTA list, for example—”How do I certify a translation?” A not-insignificant concern when dealing with clients who need transcripts, diplomas, immigration documents, divorce decrees translated … you get the picture.

Certainly the ATA imprimatur is a powerful endorsement, despite the deserved criticisms about the quality, nature, and prevarication of its testing practices. Still, ATA is merely a private, non-profit organization, acting on its own interests and on behalf of its members. A truly objective, government-run certifying body, administering U.S., or better yet, international, standards, is woefully absent in this country.

What about that Berkeley program?

To those of us NCTA members who graduated from the now defunct Certificate in Translation and Interpretation Studies Program offered by the University of California at Berkeley (through its Extension campus), whether as students, instructors, administrators, or conspirators, the philosophy, approach, structure—and optimism—behind the new Princeton program is hauntingly familiar. Princeton’s curriculum lends itself to ready comparison with that of Berkeley/Extension. For Princeton undergraduates already proficient in at least one foreign language, the newly christened “Program in Translation and Intercultural Communication” brings the art of translation to the plethora of disciplines represented by the 17 departments involved in the program. Berkeley’s students, who demonstrated their language proficiency upon application, benefitted from a program structured by professionals in the fields of both translation and interpretation, along with a renowned university’s staff and administration representing diverse fields of study.

Like Berkeley, Princeton offers a two-year program which began this fall with one of two core courses entitled “Thinking Translation: Language Transfer and Cultural Communication” (also called “Issues in Translation”), followed, in the succeeding semester, by the collective “Senior Seminar in Translation and Intercultural Communications.” Berkeley’s infamous first semester “Survey of Linguistics” managed to weed out just under a third of the first cohort’s initial 66 participants. The seemingly directionless second-semester course did little for student retention. This drop-out rate is unlikely to happen at Princeton, because that program is not designed for adults seeking continuing education credentials on top of their busy home and work lives, but instead for current undergraduates (mostly juniors and seniors) who are complementing their degrees in the humanities, sciences, or engineering.

The rest of the program also resembles Berkeley’s program structure: in the second year, the Princeton students gradually refine their course of study first by selecting from a menu of courses in “Translation Practice”—such as “Cultures and Critical Translation”—followed by a final semester of additional, pre-approved electives that are likely to be language- and discipline-specific. And, just as with the Berkeley program, the Princeton undergrads complete the program after submitting a “Senior Thesis.” One other requirement of the Princeton program is that participants must spend between six weeks to one year abroad, whereas most of Berkeley’s enrollees had already studied abroad when they themselves were undergraduates, or lived abroad when they were being raised.

So what happened?

There are important differences between both Princeton and Berkeley that augur well for Princeton’s future. The reasons for Berkeley’s past are too complex to cover here. Princeton runs an executive committee of department members or chairs. Berkeley’s program was ultimately controlled by the Board of Regents for the University of California—making it virtually impossible for administrators to respond to important program changes or student demands, simply because they could get not get on the Regents’ quarterly meeting agenda.

The Princeton program also offers the structured environment of an undergraduate setting, with students eager to succeed, whereas the Berkeley program had to be fit in with the responsibilities of work, family, and the rest of everyday post-graduate, real-world living. It was frustrating to see so many Berkeley students who held immense potential to be so discouraged for a number of reasons—whether they had been out of college for too long, whether they had to commute three hours each way for class twice a week, or whether they were simply enraged at the administration’s inability to advocate for the changes the program needed. The program was terminated in 2002, after graduating a mere three cohorts. May Princeton enjoy a greater success.