Mastering Scientific Translation


Different cultures and languages have always fascinated me. After graduating in chemistry from the University of Trieste, the decision to move from my native Italy to England was not a difficult one to make. It offered me the opportunity to learn another language and experience another culture, at the same time allowing me to develop my scientific career. As an undergraduate in Italy, I had been working on small-molecule crystallography; studying for a Ph.D. in protein crystallography at Imperial College, London, was a natural progression.

Toward the end of my Ph.D., I was offered the opportunity to continue working in academia as a postdoc. Somehow this didn't really appeal to me. Having been actively involved in research for over 5 years, I felt the time had come for a change of direction. On my return to London for my Ph.D. viva, I saw a new course advertised at Imperial College, a master's degree in Scientific, Technical and Medical Translation. I made enquiries and realised that it might offer me the change I was seeking. I did not want to waste my scientific background but rather to combine it with challenges in other areas. The master's seemed the perfect way to link my strong scientific background with my interest in languages. I hope that it will also offer me the opportunity to pursue one of my other passions: to be able to travel and support myself financially, as a freelance translator.

I began the course in October 2001, and so far it has not been a disappointment. It provides a good balance between practice and theory: Practical translation activities score highly on the agenda, but so do more theoretical courses, dealing with linguistics and translation theories. Ask a few professional translators to define translation, and one of the most likely answers would be "an art." Although, on balance, I tend to agree, I also believe that a sound theoretical understanding of translation problems can give translators one more arrow to their bow.

Students on the course also benefit from the emphasis on computer-assisted translation. During the last decade, electronic tools have become of invaluable assistance in technical translation. Translation memory (TM) is one such tool, the basic idea being that no sentence should ever be translated twice. TM software pairs each sentence with its translation in a database and automatically proposes the original translation when a similar or identical sentence recurs, thereby preventing retranslation and, at the same time, ensuring consistency. Various TM systems are available on the market. The course provides the opportunity to work with all the different systems and assess their relative strengths and weaknesses. Covering a wide range of different programs (Trados, Déjà Vu, STAR, SDLX, and IBM Translation Manager), rather than simply focusing on just one or two, is undoubtedly a huge advantage, whether the future holds working in-house or as a freelancer.

One of the unexpected features of the master's has been learning how important modern technologies are in the everyday life of a translator. Like most laymen, prior to embarking on the course, I thought a professional translator only needed a good dictionary and little else--a word processor at most! How naïve! I soon realised that electronic tools (such as dictionaries on CD-ROMs, software packages, and, last but not least, the Internet) are basic necessities for today's translators.

One of the more challenging aspects of the course has been our termly team project assignment involving role-playing. This simulates work experience in a real translation company. Each student has a chance to assume different roles in different projects, for example, project manager, desktop publishing specialist, terminologist, translator, checker, and so on. Team co-ordination and the ability to meet tight deadlines are vital. With no fewer than seven different languages represented on the course, chances are that "project managers" will find themselves coordinating translation projects into languages other than their own, a task which they could easily be faced with in their professional careers.

The master's provides students with potential job opportunities, as translation companies regularly advertise to course participants. Ideally, I would like to start working as a freelancer, either in the United Kingdom or in sunnier climes such as Italy or Spain. Realistically, though, I will probably need to gain some experience working for a translation company, which will also be a good way to come into contact with possible future employers. This will be particularly valuable when I am finally in a position to establish myself as an independent translator (hopefully no later than a couple of years after taking up an in-house job). Another intriguing possibility is working for an international organisation. I have recently applied for an internship with the Translation Service of the European Commission, and with a bit of luck, I might be working in Brussels this October (fingers crossed!).

Scientific and technical translators are in great demand, and you do not need a degree in languages to become one. In fact, in my experience, having a scientific background is of more benefit. If you are thinking about leaving active research and seeking a new professional career, a postgrad course in Scientific Translation could be just the ticket!

Find links to more training opportunities from our feature Resources page.

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