Unique undergraduate program complements many disciplines, makes UI graduates more competitive in their fields

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Monday, February 5, 2018

If you want to know how to say the word “gift” in another language, chances are Google Translate can give you a quick answer. However, if you want to know how to say “the gift that keeps on giving,” a word-for-word translation might not convey the right meaning. Sometimes it takes a real person to get the message across.

“Machine translators, such as those on Google and Facebook, have gotten better, but they’re often garbled and breed misunderstanding,” says Denise Filios, associate professor in the Department of Spanish and Portuguese at the University of Iowa. “Language has gaps that we fill in with contextual and cultural knowledge. That’s so human. It’s how our brains work. At some point machines may get there, but not anytime soon.”

Luckily, the University of Iowa is here to help. Its Translation for Global Literacy minor builds on the UI’s long history of translation excellence—including the founding of the first translation workshop in the US, established in 1962—and gives nonmajors the opportunity to share in that history. The UI’s translation minor is one of a handful of such undergraduate degrees offered across the country.

Unlike students who go through the MFA in Literary Translation program, students who earn the minor likely won’t immediately begin a career in translation; the minor focuses more on translation as a phenomenon than a practice.

“As an undergrad, it’s hard to have a certain level of proficiency in order to really do justice to translation,” says Aron Aji, director of the UI’s literary translation MFA program. “However, what we are doing here, as the title suggests, is translation for global literacy. Some scholars call translation the new epistemology. It’s the new way to understand the world. Our students become aware of how multilingual an environment we inhabit and how our ability to coexist hinges on our ability to understand each other’s languages.”

Claire Jacobson, a UI senior from Iowa City, Iowa, who is working toward a BA in French and Arabic as well as the Translation for Global Literacy minor, says she particularly values that aspect of the track.

“It’s said that a liberal arts education isn’t about learning information, it’s learning how to think,” Jacobson says. “Translation isn’t necessarily about transferring one language into another language; it’s about learning to think like somebody else.”

While the minor can prepare students to pursue an advanced degree in the field, it’s primarily designed to give those who study in it an awareness of translation as a practical, cultural, and ethical practice in a variety of disciplines. Filios, who also is the coordinator for the minor, says part of what makes the program unusual is that it’s interdepartmental. Students are required to take courses in at least two departments, and many take courses in more than that.

“I have a student now whose course of study includes classes in sociology, political science, English, Spanish, and, of course, translation,” Filios says. “The idea is that students can define what they want to do with the minor and design their studies around that.”

According to Russell Ganim, director of the Division of World Languages, Literatures, and Cultures, Translation for Global Literacy complements many disciplines. Along with those majoring in foreign languages, the minor can benefit students pursuing international studies, business, communication studies, marketing, history, and English, making them more competitive in their fields.

“Translation is a universal language,” Ganim says. “It improves cultural proficiency and intercultural communication. Translation automatically indicates a cultural and artistic appreciation that enhances any type of relationship, be it a business or economic relationship, legal relationship, government, medical, et cetera. That’s what a program like this provides. It’s sort of where research and creative activity come together. It allows students to pursue their own interests, and it’s an opportunity not many other universities provide.”

Jacobson agrees that even a basic understanding of translation can be useful in a variety of fields.

“It’s like writing. Writing is a ubiquitous skill that everyone needs, even if they’re not going to be a writer,” Jacobson says. “Anytime you talk with someone who is not a native English speaker, even if the two of you don’t speak anything but English, just having that cultural awareness will help.”

In fact, students in the minor aren’t required to be fluent in a second language. Christian McConnell, a UI senior from Temecula, California, has taken a few classes in Japanese but describes himself as “monolingual.” As an English and creative writing major who also is working toward a minor in nutrition, McConnell discovered translation while exploring potential career options. He’d become interested in video game localization, the preparation of video games for sale in a new region or country. The process includes translating text and adjusting, cutting, or adding content that appeals to specific cultural sensitivities.

McConnell took a translation workshop, which led to his participation in the Translate Iowa Project, a student organization dedicated to undergraduate translation of students’ writing, whether poetry, fiction, or nonfiction. Now president of Translate Iowa, McConnell works closely with the writers and translators. He says collaboration is key—as well as asking many questions.

“We work through a piece word for word, idea by idea,” McConnell says. “I try to understand where an idea came from and ask questions. You can never assume there is a direct parallel for something, but you give options and work together to find the best one. I’ve grown a lot through these collaborations.”

McConnell’s translation work at the UI came in handy during a summer internship with NetEase Games, a Chinese mobile gaming company. While reviewing a game translation, McConnell noted a few problems with verb tenses. He understood exactly what had happened thanks to his work on an earlier translation project at UI. The short story, written in Mandarin, played with time—or as McConnell described it, had “flashbacks nested in flashbacks”—and caused some trouble for the translators. Luckily, McConnell had learned that, unlike in English, Mandarin verbs don’t change tense.

“Because of this past knowledge, I could see where the game translation may have run into trouble,” McConnell says. “You build on these experiences. Especially for someone in my position who is only intimately familiar with one language, everything else has to be learned, and you learn through asking.”

Students can now earn credit toward the Translation in Global Literacy minor by participating in the Translate Iowa Project, although Jacobson and McConnell say that’s not what initially drew them to the organization.

“The idea was there are a lot of people on our campus whose voices aren’t being heard because they aren’t native English speakers,” says Jacobson, the group’s vice president. “Someone might speak English well enough to get through their classes, but the language in which they feel and express themselves best is not English. Our hope is that Translate Iowa can be a platform for those voices too.”

Twenty-five students have declared Translation for Global Literacy as a minor during the 2017–18 academic year, up from four in fall 2016. Faculty say they’re impressed with how quickly the program has grown in three years and are excited about its future. Filios says she’d eventually like to see it develop into a major, while Ganim and Aji say they expect the MFA and undergraduate programs to become more integrated. Though graduate and undergraduate students often interact through activities outside the classroom, Aji says he can see MFA students taking a more formalized role in the minor program, such as overseeing capstone projects.

As for translation technology, while it’s useful for translating a word or common phrase, it has a long way to go before it entirely replaces human translation. However, Aji says experienced human translators will be crucial to its improvement.

“Google depends on good translation,” Aji says. “For example, if you take a famous poem and type it in Google, it will give you a perfect translation because it will find one that has been done. But if you type in a sentence that has not been widely translated, it will give you a clunky word-for-word translation. If we are going to depend on machine translation, it is our responsibility to populate the web with good translations so the algorithms have better material to work with.”