Online Translation Courses: One Translator’s Experience

by Amy Russell and Kerilyn Sappington

In the past couple of years I’ve seen more and more advertisements for translation courses and even entire certificate programs taught online. As a product of a traditional, face-to-face T&I program, I’ve often wondered how students evaluate this type of “distance learning.” last fall, when colleague and fellow Chinese-English translator Kerilyn Sappington told me she had enrolled in an online translation course offered by the University of Hawaii at Manoa, I couldn’t wait to find out what she thought of it. After the term ended Kerilyn graciously answered my questions about her experience.

The course Kerilyn took is titled IT411M Translation Techniques (English-Mandarin) and lT411J Translation Techniques (English-Japanese). The Mandarin and Japanese courses are taught together. The course is offered by the University of Hawaii at Manoa, Center for Interpretation and Translation Studies. The course is twelve weeks long and costs $185. Anyone who passes the screening exam is eligible to sign up. There were around twenty students when the course began, but that number dropped by perhaps one third.

AR: Could you describe how the course worked? Did you have to log in at certain times? Were there assignments you had to turn in?

KS: We did not have to log in at certain times. There was no fixed “lecture” time or “live” classroom setting. Generally we went to the syllabus/calendar area of the web site and received a list of assignments. A typical unit would consist of a source text (English or Mandarin or Japanese). Assignment one would be to analyze the language of the text, paraphrase it, look for areas that might be difficult to translate. We would post our analysis to the forum/bulletin board area of the web site. In assignments two and three of the same unit, we would proceed to translate selected paragraphs from the text, and then we would be asked to respond to the other students’ work on the bulletin board forum. The final assignment would have us rewrite the translation incorporating the other students’ comments. Most communication took place in this bulletin board area. Occasionally the instructors or students would use email to communicate with each other. It could be bothersome to scroll through the messages from the students in the Japanese section, as these messages were not relevant to those of us in the Mandarin section, and vice versa.

AR: What did you think of the discussions with the other students online?

KS: Week One, we all posted descriptions of ourselves and what brought us to the field of translation. I found it fascinating to learn about other translators and relate it to my own professional development. Some students had been translating for many years. Some were completely new to translating. We had interesting discussions about choosing the translation field versus falling into it by happenstance, about the qualities of an ideal translator, etc. As we got further into the course, we mainly discussed specific points in the texts we were translating. Sometimes issues would come up regarding the field of translation in general.

AR: What did you think of the texts that were used for the assignments?

KS: I found that overall the texts used for the assignments were not similar to the actual translation work I do, although we began with a birth certificate, and I have translated many of those. Subsequent assignments included texts on depression, Office 2000 and genetic engineering. Perhaps because I translate into English, my usual workload is not in these areas.

AR: How did the instructors provide feedback on your work? Was it helpful?

KS: Feedback came to us from the other students and from the instructors. Sometimes we were paired with other students to work on a translation as a team, and we gave each other ongoing feedback. The feedback was useful, especially when it specifically detailed problem areas in the translation and at the same time provided direction for future improvement.

AR: What was the most valuable thing about the course?

KS: The most valuable thing about the course was the opportunity to interact with other translators and people interested in the translation profession. I liked the sense of camaraderie and sharing ideas with those of like mind. The earthquake In Taiwan took place a few week into the course and all the students were supportive of those who had friends and family affected by the earthquake. The articles and discussions about the qualities of an ideal translator were valuable. I would have liked more readings of this nature. The actual translation assignments and feedback were valuable, but I did not have time to really get the most out of the class assignments. Text analysis and discussion of cross-cultural differences in communication were also valuable.

AR: Bottom line: would you recommend this course to another translator?

KS: I would recommend this course to another translator only if they have the time to work on the assignments and follow up on all the feedback and recommendations. It is difficult to get very much out of the course otherwise. Because the course did not have many supplemental readings or work other than translation practice, I could not get much out of the course with the constraints on my time. Thus I recommend this course to a translator new to the profession.

In my opinion, doing the coursework has the same instructional value as working on actual, paying translations. It seems to me that most translation courses take this approach: learn by doing.

AR: In your view, what should a translation course offer?

KS: In graduate school, I took three courses in Chinese linguistics. Sociolinguistics and pragmatics in particular were useful tools for looking at how different languages express concepts in different ways, and specific grammar points, such as how Chinese syntax reveals the focus of a sentence. I want a translation course that applies linguistic and sociolinguistic methods of analysis to the work of translating, analysis that clearly explains the concepts involved when we communicate in one language and when we translate from one language to another. Once the concepts have been identified, they can be used to develop specific techniques to aid translation. If possible I want translation training to put a name to the process I use each time I translate a text. I think that understanding at a theoretical level will help me in the practical work of translating texts.

To find out more about this course, contact:
(Ms.) Jung Ying Lu-Chen
Center for Interpretation and Translation Studies (CITS)
Department of East Asian Languages and Literatures (EALL)
University of Hawaii at Manoa
Tel: (808) 956-4420 Fax: (808) 956-2078
WWW homepage:

For the CITS program brochure visit: 
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