Designing a Competency-Based Translator Training Program: Progress, Challenges, and Next Steps

Here is an update on a collaborative effort to design a competency-based translator training program. Read on to learn about the group’s progress to date, insights gained, challenges faced, and next steps.

This is an update on a project I proposed in an article on this topic published in the July–August 2017 issue of The ATA Chronicle.1 In that article, I discussed two common pathways into the profession: proficiency plus circumstances and formal training.

Graduates of the “proficiency plus circumstances” pathway are individuals with advanced proficiency in two languages—often bilingual immigrants or heritage speakers—who at some point decide to try their hand at translating or interpreting. What begins as a couple of favors or sporadic jobs develops into regular freelance work, a new source of income, and an expanding professional network. Although “proficiency plus circumstances” translators bypass formal training, they nonetheless learn through on-the-job experience and professional development programs.

By contrast, graduates of the “formal training” or academic pathway undergo a good deal of classroom training. They typically start out as college students who decide to major in a foreign language. Some of these students take a few translation courses, while others—perhaps concerned about post-college work prospects—complete minors or undergraduate certificates in translation. A handful go on to complete master’s degrees in translation or translation studies. At various points along the way, these academic-track translators-in-training begin the process of professionalization, mixing paid jobs in with class projects. While some end up in careers unrelated to languages, others join the ranks of the language services industry, putting the quality of their academic preparation to the test.

In my 2017 article, I pointed out several weaknesses of traditional academic translation programs, such as:

  • Including too many courses that have nothing to do with translation or translation-related issues.
  • Overemphasizing theoretical aspects and literary translation while neglecting real-world domains (e.g., medicine, law, business, and technology).
  • Failing to recognize the skills candidates already possess, or not granting credit for prior learning.

I also summarized the basic elements of competency-based education, including:

  • Involving industry professionals in the development of competencies to ensure that what programs emphasize are up to date.
  • Using rigorous assessments to reliably determine what candidates are able to do in real-world contexts.
  • Recognizing skills incoming candidates have already mastered to reduce the time it takes to complete the program.

I argued that a well-designed competency-based translator training program could be an effective and affordable means of meeting the growing need for qualified translators.

I concluded by asking that volunteers who might be interested in collaborating to design such a program contact me directly. I was extremely pleased with the response: more than 15 readers came forward and offered to help. These volunteers included an ATA Board member, other university educators and researchers, and several experienced freelance translators.

After hearing from them, I started the proverbial ball rolling by setting up a virtual workspace on the Google Drive platform. I then created a Google Doc encouraging participants to get to know each other by sharing their contact information and professional bios. We then began working more or less simultaneously—using a combination of email and Google Docs—on a series of interrelated tasks. We determined the project’s ultimate goal, mapped out its phases and steps, defined key concepts, identified translator competencies, and created a bibliography of resources relating to competency-based education and translator training.

The pace of our work has been slower than I expected, mostly because we’re all extremely busy with our day jobs, but also because collaboration, research, and consensus-building take time and effort. We’ve made progress in certain areas, while in others our momentum has slowed to a crawl as we’ve debated the most appropriate ways to frame or define key constructs.

Defining Goals

One relatively simple task we were able to accomplish was to determine the overall goal of our project. We decided our goal would be to work collaboratively to develop an entry-level competency-based training program by translators for translators. Our designation of the targeted level of competency as entry-level will require us to carefully define what that means, perhaps relying on established performance standards, such as the Interagency Language Roundtable Skill Level Descriptions for Translators.2

Another area in which we’ve made progress has been mapping out the phases and steps of our project. To provide the group with a starting point, I proposed the following three phases aligned with the backward design model I outlined in my original article in The ATA Chronicle:

  1. Identify the broad competency clusters and specific competencies candidates must demonstrate to receive a credential.
  2. Identify or create assessments to evaluate mastery of the desired competencies.
  3. Identify learning experiences and instructional resources that prepare candidates for the assessments.

As our work has progressed, this admittedly broad model has been refined and expanded by team members.
Several of the steps we’ve added relate to accomplishing the first phase. I had initially—and very naively—assumed that we could identify competency clusters and specific competencies for our project using a guided brainstorming procedure involving project members and other translation and interpreting professionals who might be consulted at regional and national conferences. However, a few more experienced colleagues challenged this informal “let’s just brainstorm” approach. Instead, they proposed we adopt a more research-based approach and carefully define what we mean by “competencies” and consider previous work done in this area, including results of a job task analysis conducted by ATA (more on this below).

Competence, Competency, and Competencies

Realizing the importance of getting this part of the project right, the team has spent considerable time wrestling with questions such as:

  • What are competencies?
  • What view on competencies should guide the design of a competency-based translator training program?
  • What is the best way to determine which competencies to include in such a program?

Although I was familiar with how competencies are defined in U.S.-based approaches to competency-based education (CBE),3 I was somewhat surprised to learn that there are several competing conceptualizations or definitions of professional competencies, particularly in the literature on vocational training. The team has fellow volunteer Heather Glass to thank for this insight. Heather is something of a specialist on this topic, having written her master’s thesis on efforts by the Australian government to develop competency standards to underpin CBE training programs for translators and interpreters. Heather shared her thesis with the group and recommended other research articles that explore various takes on ideas such as competence, competency, and competencies.

One such article was written by Terrence Hoffman, a researcher in instructional design, for the Journal of European Industrial Training. Hoffman contends that competency has not been clearly defined. His survey of previous literature on the topic shows that competencies tend to be defined in one of three ways: 1) as observable performances, where the “focus is on the output, or tasks, to be completed,” 2) as “a standard, or quality of outcome,” or 3) as “the underlying attributes of the person, such as their knowledge, skills, or abilities.”4 These conceptualizations place the most emphasis on the tasks people are supposed to do, how well they are expected to do them, and the personal attributes required for competent performance.

According to Hoffman, since the first two approaches are task- and output-focused, they’re best suited for performance assessment, whereas the third approach, with its emphasis on input, lends itself to the development of instructional programs. Hoffman reiterates this latter point in a statement that very aptly describes the attributes-based focus of CBE programs in the U.S.: “By describing the existing knowledge, skills, or attitudes of competent performers, the inputs needed for the development of a learning program can be defined.”

A compelling alternative to this task-based versus attributes-based dichotomy is the integrated view put forth by Paul Hager, professor emeritus of the arts and social sciences at the University of Technology Sydney, who stresses the importance of context. He writes that “competence can be summarized as contextualized capability involving an integration of assorted practitioner attributes.”5 In such a model, “an occupation can be represented as a set of competency standards in which key occupational tasks are integrated with the attributes required for their performance.” An integrated view on competencies suggests that although the instructional focus of CBE programs should be on inputs or attributes—commonly referred to as knowledge, skills, and dispositions (KSDs)—it’s important to consider essential occupational tasks and relevant professional standards when defining, assessing, and teaching them.

Consistent with this view that integrates tasks, standards, and attributes, I’ve proposed the following definition to my fellow team members: competencies are the knowledge, skills, and dispositions that enable a practitioner to perform a set of key occupational tasks with a specified degree of competence. For our purpose, this definition raises a series of related questions, such as:

  • What are the key occupational tasks performed by translators?
  • What KSDs are needed to perform these tasks?
  • What constitutes entry-level mastery of these KSDs?

Answering the first two questions suggests the need to consider the results from an appropriately focused job task analysis. ATA Past President Caitilin Walsh, who chairs ATA’s Education and Pedagogy Committee, reminded our group early on that ATA conducted a job task analysis from 2009 to 2011 that produced data that might be useful to our efforts. The focus of that study, as stated by researchers Geoff Koby and Alan Melby in a 2013 article, was to “define the job of a professional translator by identifying the knowledge, skills, and abilities (KSAs) needed to perform professional translation services competently” in an effort to “strengthen the validity of [ATA’s] certification exam.”6 The procedures used by the researchers to gather information (focus groups and a survey) yielded 36 KSAs, as well as 16 personal attributes (e.g., being “open-minded” and “culturally sensitive”)—far too many items for a single exam to assess.

Arguably, the results uncovered in ATA’s job task analysis are most useful when viewed as a preliminary roadmap for designing an instructional program. I say preliminary because I see them as informing a new job task analysis whose purposes would be to identify the essential tasks and related competencies for a training program targeting entry-level competence. Given the high number of items ATA’s job task analysis yielded, an important issue researchers would need to consider when designing the study would be the degree of detail to encourage when eliciting input regarding essential tasks and related KSDs.

Next Steps and a Renewed Call for Volunteers

I would like to conclude by summarizing the outcomes attained by the project team thus far. In the year or so since we began working together, we have:

  • Clarified our project goal.
  • Revised and expanded its phases and steps.
  • Identified previous research that has and will continue to inform our actions.
  • Settled on a definition of competencies that is consistent with CBE program design.
  • Identified possible steps in a protocol for developing competencies.
  • Shared initial findings with and sought input from translation and interpreting professionals.

Our next steps include conducting a job task analysis to identify the essential tasks translators perform and the KSDs needed to carry them out with entry-level competence, developing or identifying translation standards consistent with that level of competence, and deciding on a philosophy to guide our approach to assessment.

Despite the slow pace of our work and the challenges inherent in collaborating on a large-scale project, I remain convinced—and this experience has so far demonstrated—that many heads are indeed better than one. It’s in that spirit that I would like to renew my original call for volunteers. If what you’ve just read sounds interesting and you would like to contribute to our ongoing effort, or if you simply have some input or information to share, please feel free to contact me at jasjol71@gmail.com. I look forward to collaborating with more of you!

Notes
  1. Jolley, Jason. “Can Competency-Based Education Enhance Translator Training?” The ATA Chronicle (July/August 2017), http://bit.ly/Jason-Jolley.
  2. Interagency Language Roundtable Skill Level Descriptions for Translators, http://bit.ly/ILR-skill-level.
  3. Competency-based education (CBE) is an innovative approach to teaching and learning that has been gaining traction in universities throughout the U.S. and beyond. It differs markedly from traditional approaches in higher education. Instead of measuring learning in terms of credit hours and letter grades, CBE programs focus on student mastery of specific competencies.
  4. Hoffmann, Terrence. “The Meanings of Competency,” Journal of European Industrial Training (July 1999), 275–286, http://bit.ly/Hoffmann-competency.
  5. Hager, Paul. “The Integrated View on Competence.” In Competence-Based Vocational and Professional Education, Technical and Vocational Education and Training: Issues, Concerns, and Prospects (Springer International Publishing, 2017), 23, 203–228, http://bit.ly/Paul-Hager.
  6. Koby, Geoff and Alan Melby. “Certification and Job Task Analysis (JTA): Establishing Validity of Translator Certification Examinations,” The InternationalJournal for Translation and Interpreting Research, Volume 5 (2013), http://bit.ly/Koby-Melby-JTA.

Jason Jolley teaches Spanish at Missouri State University, where he is head of the Department of Modern and Classical Languages. He has a PhD in Spanish from The Pennsylvania State University. His teaching and research interests include translation, Latin American literature and culture, and self-directed language learning. He has worked extensively as a freelance translator specializing in financial documents. He maintains the YouTube channel Professor Jason Spanish. He serves on the board of directors of the Mid-America Chapter of the American Translators Association. Contact: jasonjolley@missouristate.edu.

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