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Don Kiraly's A Social Constructivist Approach to Translator Education
Posted on Wednesday, September 19 @ 06:00:11 EDT
Topic: Translation Education

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KIRALY, Don. A Social Constructivist Approach to Translator Education. Empowerment
from Theory to Practice
. Manchester, UK: St. Jerome Publishing, 2000. 207 pp.
With his A Social Constructivist Approach to Translator Education. Empowerment from Theory to Practice, Don Kiraly, from the School of Applied Linguistics of the University of Mainz in Germersheim, Germany, fills a critical gap in translator training methodology. As the author suggests in his "Introduction", in many countries (Brazil included) the prevailing pedagogical trend in this kind of course is transmissionist. According to this view, there is little place (if any) for designing courses that are based on the specific needs and characteristics of the main stakeholders in the process: on the one hand potential clients and on the other, the students themselves. Needless to say, the underlying assumption in this view—i.e. that students are not subjects, but objects of their own learning—has harmful effects on their critical spirit, learning autonomy, and professional competence.

There is a historical reason for what Kiraly calls the "standard pedagogical practice" in translator training, namely the paradoxical "youth" of this ancient profession. First, the appearance of academic courses dedicated specifically to the study of translation—and especially to translator training—is relatively recent throughout the world and second, the translation market is among those that have changed most rapidly and dramatically following consolidation of the use of the computer and the advent of the World Wide Web and globalization.
The fact that translator training courses have existed only for a few decades allows us to assume that a methodology for the training of translators and translation teachers has not yet been properly developed. Indeed, examples abound of intuitive, "impressionist" methodologies, based for the most part on models imported from other areas and on the standards adopted by the institutions offering such courses. Without further discussing the inappropriateness of such methodologies, they do not contribute to establishing systematic procedures which guarantee some degree of efficiency in training translators for the real world. In other words, there seems to be a lack of educators in these institutions who can do research on their groups and assess the ever-changing knowledge and skills needed by their students, in an attempt to create an environment that fosters a professional competence based on reality.

On the other hand, it is necessary to be sensitive to the evolution of the profession in order to determine an adequate weight for topics such as translator tools or the ability to work in groups within the syllabus of translator training courses. Translators have witnessed a dramatic change in the parameters and praxis of their trade during the past 10 or 15 years. Translating was indeed a solitary activity, but nowadays even the practice of strict "literary" translation has lost its character of isolation: with new media, new tools and new resources, the four walls have become the world. New translation tasks involve versatility in satisfying a number of requirements extrinsic to translation per se, among which collaboration and proficient use of state-of-the-art hardware and software rate as strategic in terms of professional survival. (A much welcome chapter on the efficient use of electronic tools—"Knowledge Construction and the Translator's Workstation"—is provided.)

As regards specialization, the question is not so much mastering a given area of knowledge before starting to work, as being able to gather the necessary knowledge in different areas as the need arises, along with developing an acute sensitivity to textual types and norms. Since apprentices are no longer able to predict the areas in which they will be working after they graduate, it becomes crucial for them to adapt to the demands of an ever-changing market. Thus, the ability to detect new themes and learn how and where to quickly and efficiently research them becomes an essential asset for professionals, whether they are translators or not.

This points to a need to reassess the curricula of both translator training and translation teacher training courses. And it is here that Kiraly's book is instrumental. According to his social constructivist approach, "people have no choice but to create or construct meanings and knowledge through participation in the interpersonal, intersubjective interaction that the philosopher Richard Rorty has called 'the conversation of mankind'". For Kiraly, the validity of any pedagogical approach depends on our ability as teachers to identify and justify the belief system on which our educational decisions are based, from syllabus design to classroom activity planning and learning assessment. The most important of the implications therein are the need to reconsider the role of students and educators and the adoption of a fresh view of the function and nature of assessments, with a resultant reorientation of the aims of such courses.

The method suggested by Kiraly is presented in nine chapters which, in addition to revealing a solid theoretical basis, provide a good many examples and case studies collected throughout his many years of experience in translator education and foreign language teaching. Everything—including alternatives to the issue of performance assessment, which is tackled in a chapter all of its own—is presented in as clear and intelligent a fashion as the method itself, which is proposed as a starting point for teachers and students' reflection and practice and impresses for its logic, pragmatism and, above all, viability.

In this context, the greatest goal of the trainer is to empower students and enable them to develop their "professional selves", to raise their awareness of their responsibility as active participants in a complex communicative process the importance of which, following globalization, is being increasingly acknowledged. Thus the method aims at "scaffolding" learning, while making it possible for students to cultivate the necessary competence to live up to a whole series of old and new translator's tasks.

In order to achieve this goal, Kiraly proposes a change in focus not so much from the teacher to the student as from teaching to the learning process itself. Teachers then become guides, consultants and facilitators, paving the way for learning events that allow students to become full-fledged translators. According to Kiraly, such events involve presenting students with translation activities that are real—or at least realistic—, so that an autonomy that is both an individual and a group phenomenon can be fostered.

Applied to the field of translator training, the concept of learning through authentic action, which is a cornerstone in social constructivist education, means that to acquire professional translator skills requires acquaintance with equally professional translation tasks, under real constraints, but with the collaboration/supervision of a professional translator. For Kiraly, besides being typically very far from the real world, "classical" classes in translation practice tend to be clearly inauthentic, unmotivating and disempowering. In this respect, conventional classroom activities would tend to be hybrid in the sense of being ascribed to one community (e.g. professional translators), but in fact implemented in another (the academic community).

To avoid this, the method tries to make learning a "situated" experience, i.e. related both to the students' previous knowledge and to the targeted professional behavior. The best way to achieve this, according to Kiraly, is to make the publishable translation project the mainstay of classroom practice, immediately after an introduction to translation studies in which students raise their level of awareness of the nature of translator competence, understood as a complex linguistic interaction that is highly individualized and dependent on social and cultural contexts, as well as cognitive and intuitive processes.

Kiraly proposes the "translation project workshop" as a means for debate and situated, interactive, and empowering construction of meaning by all of the participants, including the teachers, who should play the role of facilitators. When criticism, discussion, negotiation and collaboration become the main ingredients in the appropriation of knowledge in all subdomains of translator education (including the linguistic component), apprentices are more likely to have confidence in what they say and how they say it, which is a prerequisite for the production of professional quality texts in any area.

In brief, the principles of the method developed by Kiraly are:

  1. Since the most valuable learning experiences are also authentic, it is crucial to situate them;
  2. Learning experiences which fall under this category are always imbued by multiple perspectives;
  3. Truly collaborative work is an essential part of every learning experience;
  4. The aim of each class should be elaborating multiple and viable solutions to problems that emerge naturally from authentic projects (instead of a correct solution);

  5. Instead of teaching students the correct answers (the truth), the teachers should make it their pedagogical task to create a basis (scaffold) for learning from the beginning of the course and then gradually release control over the learning environment to the students themselves;

  6. Classes should be thought of as workshops for social and cognitive learning so that the students, who are on the periphery of the translator community, can gradually appropriate this community's discourse until they become full-fledged, competent members of the same.

The author stresses the importance of the practice of translation not only for his professorial activity but also for writing the book itself: "It has been by translating professionally that I myself have learned (and continue to learn) how to translate". Since one of the main tasks of the social constructivist teacher is to represent the community in which the apprentices wish to take part, translator trainers should be active translators or, at least, have ample professional experience in the area. This way, it will also be easier to take real projects to the classroom (with the clients' approval) or help students get such projects, enabling them to do just what professionals do: translate real texts, for real clients and real readers/users. Given the persistent distance between academy and the larger community, the implications are considerable. For example, in Brazil (and, I suspect, in many other countries) besides not being translators, many translator trainers do not make a point of giving their students realistic tasks.
A Social Constructivist Approach to Translator Education is geared primarily to current or prospective translator trainers who are not content with the dominant educational models and seek an alternative to promote efficient and rewarding approaches to translator education, both institutionally and personally. For program administrators, it is a stimulus to reassess the desired attitudes and qualifications not only in the translators their institutions form, but also in their teachers, as well as the kind of training both should receive. And for translation students, this book brings an invitation to rethink their roles and responsibilities in their wish to become competent professionals, and to view learning as a lifelong journey.

By Marta Rosas | Published  06/9/2005

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