Information technology in the translation classroom

Belinda Maia, Ph.D.,
Universidade do Porto,
Faculdade de Letras,
Apartado 55038,
4150 Porto, Portugal.

This paper describes the author's experiments with integrating the practical use of information technology into classroom procedure in translation classes. The objective will be to show how, with no specific training in information technology except that which an enthusiast can acquire with hard work, it is possible to develop one's own teaching skills and one's students' sense of initiative by making the best of what information technology is available in one's institution. The results of the first year of this experiment is described in a paper given in November, 1997 at the Seminar "Corpus Use and Learning to Translate" at Bertinoro, in Italy, and can be found at Since then, we have learnt more from experience and had time to elaborate and work on the various aspects of the work discussed there.

The first point to be considered is the methodology used both in translation classes and in the preparation of translations as homework. The students are expected to work straight onto the computer, beginning by taking the electronic form of the text and then aligning the translation with it as they go along. The objective is to encourage them to make them aware from the beginning of how competent use of the computer can speed up the whole process of translating. The process of aligning the text will also lead them on naturally to the use of translation memory software.

In the preparation of translation they may use traditional reference material, but they are also expected to use on-line databases like EURODICAUTOM and the wide variety of glossaries on the Internet, as well CD-ROMs and other electronic material. There are various reasons for heightening the students' awareness of the material available electronically. Most monolingual dictionaries have their limitations as far as technical language is concerned, and bilingual dictionaries even more so - particularly in the case of Portuguese where the inability of the Portuguese and Brazilians to agree over spelling conventions has effectively restricted the production of new dictionaries. Besides this, so much terminology-making is progressing so fast - often in a disorganised fashion - that it is essential that today's translation students should be made aware of this phenomenon so that they can learn to cope with the situation and contribute to some order in the field.

One problem that it is difficult to solve using dictionaries, and even thesauri, is the problem of correct collocations for words. This is often true when dealing with one's mother tongue, but is even more so when one is trying to select the right word in a second language. By providing them with access to general and specialised corpora with a concordancing programme like WORDSMITH, or by using on-line access to the British National Corpus, one can train them to recognise collocations and choose the right word for the context.

The translation classes which form the testing ground for the work considered here are directed from their mother tongue to the foreign language, so the texts chosen tend to be of the more technical kind which they are expected to do on the translation market, often chosen from texts actually translated by colleagues doing work experience. However, since the curriculum prescribes general rather than special language translation, the emphasis is on teaching them HOW to specialise in any field, rather than covering any pre-selected area. In order to achieve this, students work on individual projects which involve them in collecting electronic as well as traditional paper texts and forming glossaries around a theme of their choice.

Up till now they have been encouraged to choose themes in an area of specialisation which usually requires them to resort to the help of experts in other disciplines. This has produced interesting situations in which they co-operate with friends and family in discovering new interests - but the braver ones have gone off into fields where their enthusiasm has earned them the help and goodwill of strangers.

Searching for relevant texts and collecting specialised corpora forms part of the process which leads to the extraction and production of specialised glossaries. This exercise develops their capacities to analyse different types of text and to assess degrees of technicality, type of rhetoric and style. The Internet plays a valuable role here because there is so much information which they can acquire easily and economically, which formerly required their investing in expensive paper versions - if or when this was available on the local market. The students also frequently find ready-made glossaries which, although often very limited, provide a starting-point for their own work, and a yardstick against which to measure this work. It is also a useful introduction to the possibilities offered by IT in the formation of terminology databases. In the future, it is hoped that the work we have done so far will allow us to co-operate at a more formal level with other institutions.

The methodology described encourages the student to see how the use of the tools offered by IT can speed up the process of translation. It also shows them how the storage of acceptable texts and their translations, and the formalisation and standardisation of terminology, can contribute to higher quality and consistency among texts and translation in a particular field. These are important factors in the world of real-life translation today.

From a more academic point of view, one of the big debates among those responsible for constructing translation curricula is whether to concentrate on producing good 'general' translators, or whether to teach specialised translation. The methodology described above would seem to fit in with the objective of teaching translators how to specialise by involving the trainees directly in the process. It also avoids the problems of either obliging a particular translation course to cover an unrealistically wide selection of texts, or of concentrating exclusively on one subject area. This is a perspective which we feel needs to be considered and which we hope we can build on by exchanging views with others with similar ideas.