Translation in Modern Language Degree Courses

A Focus on Transferable Generic Skills

By Costanza Peverati (Università Cattolica del Sacro Cuore, Italy)


Since the 1990s, the academic study of translation has expanded exponentially, both in terms of translator training programmes and as component of modern language curricula with a view to enhancing communicative skills. The latter phenomenon, though undoubtedly an improvement on the ostracism translation was typically subject to, is not entirely problem-free. The article will briefly touch upon a number of shortcomings identified in the specific context of Italian higher education, in particular the marked polarization between philological and vocational impulses. Special focus will be then placed on an alternative approach to the teaching of translation in modern language degrees that is assumed to overcome the mentioned dichotomy and enhance student employability and personal development. This approach envisages the teaching of communicative translation with an explicit focus on the transferable generic skills this practice provides access to. After a conceptual contextualization of these learning outcomes, the suggested model of translation pedagogy will be discussed in terms of the implications it yields as far as actual implementation is concerned. Although the problem statement refers to the specificity of the Italian context, the proposed pedagogical approach is believed to have value as well as application potential in other environments as well.

Keywords: foreign language teaching, translation teaching, translation pedagogy, formazione interpreti e traduttori, translator and interpreter training, vocational training, transferable generic skills, employability

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1. Translation and language teaching in higher education: a love-hate relationship

In Foreign Language Teaching (FLT), translation has always been subject to a mixed press. After occupying centre stage for more than a century—as part of the Grammar-Translation Method—it was fiercely attacked and marginalized as soon as more monolingual and communicative approaches gained momentum and the reasons for learning a language shifted from mastering formal structures to interacting with real speakers. If this was mostly the case in secondary education, translation never truly ceased to be used as an FLT tool at tertiary level, where it began a shadow existence as language teachers’ “forbidden friend” (Zojer 2009: 32).

This survival within higher education is probably the reason why translation in FLT continued to attract scholarly interest even after its banishment. In the 1980s, extreme positions gave way to more balanced analyses which created the conditions for the gradual reappraisal of this teaching tool (cf. FIT/UNESCO 1983; Titford and Hieke 1985; Hurtado Albir 1988; Duff 1989). A central claim was that, if used in ways other than Grammar-Translation and as a complement to monolingual methods, it could well foster language learning at different levels. In the 1990s, particular emphasis was placed on the need to teach translation as a skill and a form of authentic communication in its own right, following the principles and processes that govern all translatorial activity in the real world (cf. Sewell and Higgins 1996; Ulrych 1996; Klein-Braley and Franklin 1998). The new millennium marked the legitimized comeback of pedagogical translation. In Europe, this was fostered by the publication of the Common European Framework of Reference for Languages (Council of Europe 2001), which acknowledges translation as a constituent part of a learner’s communicative competence, more precisely as an expression of the learner’s mediation skill. Further impetus has also come from an unprecedented body of literature that casts new light on translation’s role in the development of linguistic, communicative, and intercultural competence and explores a wealth of alternative translation activities as rich sources of communicative practice (e.g. Königs 2000; González Davies 2004; Balboni 2010; Niño 2008; Salmon 2008; Witte, Harden, Ramos de Oliveira Harden 2009; Zanettin 2009; Cook 2010; Di Sabato 2011; Lertola 2012).

The pendulum seems to have definitively swung back to translation, not only as a tool suitable for philological studies but also as an essential skill in contemporary society, where intercultural mediation has become the key to success in many fields. As a result of these shifts, its teaching at university level has registered an exponential growth. In what follows, this trend is discussed in relation to the specific context of Italian modern language degree courses.

2. Translation in modern language programmes: the Italian case

Until the Italian university reform of 1999,[1] translation played an ancillary role to language teaching, which in turn was subordinate to what was considered to be the by far more important study of literature. Since the reform, language curricula have undergone profound changes that have accorded translation education a much more autonomous and central status. Chief among these changes was the separation of language and literature, hitherto offered in combination, and the establishment of a new category of scientifically homogeneous disciplines (settore scientifico-disciplinare) called the equivalent of “Language and Translation”, which groups together all subjects concerning the analysis of language and the study or practice of translation. Another consequential innovation was the establishment of degree courses aimed at qualifying students for a wider range of career options in sectors characterized by intensive interlinguistic contact, where translation skills certainly constitute an asset.

As a result of these structural changes, translation skills and their application recur explicitly and massively among the learning outcomes and career prospects of most Italian modern language programmes, both at Bachelor and Master level. Similarly, translation practice—often theory too—features largely in course descriptions as a syllabus and examination component. It should be pointed out however that, despite this pervasive presence, translation teaching appears to be generally unregulated, with course duration and distribution in the curriculum, text-types tackled and directionality varying greatly, even from language to language within single faculties. Moreover a number of scholars report widespread methodological disorientation, mostly due to a superficial awareness of what translation is all about (Mazzotta 2007: 134; van Geertruyden 2008: 6-7) and to translation’s twofold identity of independent skill and language-teaching technique at the same time (Di Sabato 2007: 51).

Maybe the strongest impact of the Italian university reform on translation teaching in FLT, however, is linked to the vocationalization of language studies. As briefly mentioned above, post-reform language degrees aim to train multilingual professionals able to operate not only in the traditional areas of linguistic/literary research and language education, but also in strongly internationalized sectors like tourism, business and marketing, diplomacy, media etc. In these contexts, graduates may well be asked to translate a variety of documents to facilitate interactions. These shifts, coupled with the growing focus on the process and the communicative dimension of translating as a way towards enhanced linguistic proficiency (Balboni 2010: 181), have led to a situation where the divide between modern language faculties and translator training institutes (T&I) is no longer as hard and fast as it used to be. In particular, the former have increasingly introduced courses and modules that present translation as a skill in its own right, with a professional dimension (Ulrych 2005: 4; Stewart 2008: online).

These approaches can be welcomed as an attempt to efficiently address contemporary communication demands and to create the much invoked dialogue between camps that have long been kept apart: FLT and Translator Training on the one hand, translation as language-focused practice and as authentic communication on the other (Fraser 1996: 121; Carreres 2006: 12). Yet, under certain circumstances, they risk generating forms of vocational education whose appropriateness and efficacy is open to question, as discussed below.

3. Vocational translation in modern language curricula: a critical analysis

In modern language programmes, professionally-oriented approaches to translation can assume a variety of forms ranging from a course design grounded in functionalism (e.g. Colina 2003; Laviosa and Cleverton 2003) to sheer work-based offerings, like introductory modules to the translation profession (e.g. Schäffner 2004; Lombardi and Peverati 2008; Brusasco, Caimotto and Martelli 2011) and projects organized around the undertaking of authentic tasks (e.g. Peverati 2009). These initiatives are expected to enrich the learning experience in many ways, fostering a communicative approach to translation and raising awareness of some professional good practices. Yet, in some respects, they may conceal a number of shortcomings, especially those more closely simulating real-life scenarios.

Drawing on the literature and on personal experience, it is our contention that such courses in modern language degrees risk generating false expectations and unrealistic assumptions. Although they are often presented as offering “minimal basic competencies useful to operate in the translation market” (Brusasco, Caimotto and Martelli 2011: online, italics and translation ours), it is claimed that students—still at the stage of “unconscious incompetence” (González Davies 2004: 40)—may believe that what they are receiving is a sufficient toolkit to face professional translation tasks. And although it is stressed that students must be encouraged to get further training should they wish to enter the profession, such steps are not always easy to monitor.

Another shortcoming regards syllabi. These tend to condense a wide variety of contents and activities into a relatively short time frame, so that proper input assimilation is quite hard to obtain. Moreover, vocational courses and modules—as they are generally structured—prepare learners to tackle a necessarily limited inventory of translation-related issues which, although potentially generalizable, are bound to remain largely case-specific. Bernardini (2004: 22) deems this type of training-based instruction incompatible with the process of teaching/learning translation and the translation profession. In her view, both areas are deeply rooted in education rather than training, and therefore require an approach geared towards the development of the cognitive capacities and predispositions needed to deal with the most varying situations: a long-term goal which “clearly cannot be relegated to short accessory courses” (ibid.).

This consideration highlights another weakness of vocational translation in modern language degrees, i.e. its place in the curriculum. In T&I programmes, curricular components tend to be planned so as to prepare and support the teaching of translation as a profession (e.g. translation-relevant language and subject-areas, terminology, translation technologies, translation theory). In foreign language degrees, however, this “consistency of intents” (ibid.: 26) is not necessarily respected: curricula aim to provide sound linguistic knowledge combined with program-specific subject matter (with the latter sometimes outweighing the former); professional translation is not a decisive factor in curriculum design, and vocational modules are often organized as additional, one-off courses, whose contents and aims are only loosely related to those of the surrounding curriculum. They thus risk being offered in a curricular void, with language-oriented translation classes being the only related contents. Given this background, we agree with Carreres (2006: 4) that caution is needed when drawing close parallels between language departments and T&I institutes because, although the purposes underpinning translation courses in the two environments have been gradually converging, what is undoubtedly different are their curricular compositions.

Due to their poor curricular contextualization, the vocational courses in modern language degree programmes discussed here can turn out to be incompatible with student profiles, which in turn may negatively impact the overall learning experience and its output. Personal experience has shown that such courses tend, for instance, to be over-challenging with respect to translation skills and language proficiency. Students often bring with them the imprints of formalistic transcoding experienced at some point in their language instruction, such as over-reliance on dictionaries, excessive adherence to the source text, and lack of top-down processes. This approach normally produces translations that hardly ever meet the quality standards imposed by vocational courses. Requirements are often disproportionate also with regard to language proficiency. Even at advanced stages, students are often still in the process of acquiring or honing their language skills. This can hamper an agile generation and selection of functional correspondents as well as activities like dictionary look-up and parallel text processing. Such difficulties generally intensify with the particular directionality and text-type that frequently characterize these courses, i.e. translation into the foreign language and promotional material: inverse translation is largely acknowledged to constitute a comparatively more challenging task; on the other hand, promotional texts (e.g. tourist brochures) tend to be very demanding in terms of the perlocutionary effect they need to exert on the reader and potential costumer. In other words, they generally require considerable rewriting and interventions geared towards the attainment of a high level of idiomaticity, creativity, appealing and involving style, etc. Given these considerations, doubts arise about how appropriate similar vocational initiatives are. Kelly’s (2000: 161) view on the issue appears enlightening. She argues that

professionalisation of training must take into account that for the students this is a learning experience and, as such, care must be taken not to ask too much of them, too soon. Professional demands regarding quality of the finished product, or the time in which the translation is produced, must be subordinate to the actual learning process, especially in the early stages of training.

On a more general level, these vocational trends are to be seen against a much wider problematic background concerning overarching curricular orientations and the translation profession itself. Firstly, vocational translation courses pursue the acquisition of knowledge and skills specific to one single occupational profile: the professional translator. As such, their field of application is quite restricted, whereas language students—as is largely the case in the humanities—are likely to enter a wide range of jobs where translation skills may or may not be required. Secondly, vocational courses tend to regard and present translation only as “a professional type of knowledge” (Calvo 2011: online) characterized by a high level of expertise. In so doing, they ignore the fact that translation represents a skill-set that can be acquired at different levels of expertise, some mandatory in T&I contexts, others fully acceptable in different non-T&I curricula. More problematic still, however, is the concept of the translation profession itself. It may legitimately be wondered whether there is such a thing as a clear-cut translator profile that course design and teaching practice should target. The answer is not straightforward, especially at a time when translators are required to engage in many more activities than mere translating, like project management, postediting, documentation, technical writing, desktop publishing, to name but a few (cf. Pym 2003: 487). In light of the pitfalls discussed so far, the question arises as to how best to deal with the vocational forces that dominate translation teaching in modern language degrees, in Italy as well as wherever this situation applies. A proposal is attempted in the next section.

4. An alternative proposal: translation and transferable generic skills

A possible way round the weaknesses of vocational translation in modern language curricula—in Italy and elsewhere—might be a shift of focus from translation as a mostly “professional type of knowledge” to translation as a “transferable type of knowledge” (Calvo 2011: online). In our view, this means considering translation as a curricular component that not only enhances linguistic, communicative, and intercultural proficiency, but also fosters the development of a wide range of skills that can be applied in a variety of professional settings and that can contribute to an individual’s personal fulfillment in multiple ways. It is argued that these skills—here referred to as transferable generic skills—may stand language students in better stead when it comes to finding jobs or moving between them than the skills acquired in strictly vocational translation courses. Moreover, since they are believed to bring significant benefits in broader life spheres, an investment in these skills is assumed to be more fruitful in the long run than short-term job-oriented initiatives in translation teaching.

Since the mid-1980s, increasing attention has been paid internationally to what are variously called generic, transferable, or 21st century skills, generic attributes or capabilities, generic or key competencies and hybridized cognates, and to their role in education viewed as preparation for work and life. What exactly this array of labels refers to is not straightforward. The notion has long been shrouded in conceptual ambiguity, mostly due to terminological proliferation, inconsistent usage, and a lack of sound theoretical and empirical underpinnings (Barrie and Prosser 2004: 243-244). In recent years, a large body of scholarly work has brought more definitional clarity and shared ground, even though a number of central issues still remain contested and unresolved. In broad terms, the notion of transferable generic skills can be taken to refer to a varied set of abilities and attitudes inherent in all education at a certain level (Villa et al. 2008: 28), relevant in diverse walks of life (OECD 2005: 7), and potentially applicable across different cognitive domains and social situations (Bridges 1993: 45). As described below, typical examples of these skills revolve around key human activities like communication, working with others, gathering and managing information, and problem-solving.

Each descriptor used to define these skills carries a slightly different connotation, which highlights individual aspects of their nature. Among the most recurrent ones, the adjective key suggests an idea of relevance to all individuals, which is linked to the valuable benefits these skills can bring for both economic and social purposes (OECD 2005: 7). Another widely used adjective, generic, emphasizes instead the quality of these skills of characterizing and supporting study in a wide range of subject-areas and degree courses (Bennett, Dunne and Carré 1999: 76). In other words, it points to their being transversal, or common to any discipline and curriculum—to quote other typical descriptors—and to their utility across a large number of contexts (Chapman and O’Neill 2010: 110). The adjective generic is thus to be interpreted in terms of “widely shared” and by no means in its other meaning of “not specific”. Early advocacy of these skills seemed to privilege the latter semantic trait (Jones 2009: 176), depicting them as non-disciplinary entities that can be taught separately from content and applied to any subject. Later theoretical developments, however, have mainstreamed the view that generic skills do distinguish themselves from discipline-specific knowledge (i.e. contents, theories, laws, technicalities), but their very existence and the form they assume in each particular instance is significantly shaped by the knowledge area and situation within which they are deployed (Hager 2006: 38).

This widely accepted feature of generic skills has fuelled a lively debate regarding their presumed transferability. The term transferable refers to the fact that these skills are applicable across disciplines and settings, in particular from education to the workplace (Bridges 1993: 45). Several scholars (e.g. Hyland and Johnson 1998: 168-169; Bolton and Hyland 2003: 18) have deemed it fallacious to suggest that such skills can be content/context-bound and portable across situations at the same time. Whitston’s (1998: 313) wording of this objection is to the point:

We might suppose working with others involves common skills, whether those others are friends helping to paint a house, students working on a project, or colleagues at work. Such assumptions may not, however, be very firmly based. The behavior of students collaborating on a seminar presentation and that of employees participating in a project team are shaped by quite different circumstances. The power relationships specific to the corporation, for example, are absent from the academic exercise. It is extraordinarily superficial to imagine that just because these situations share some common social processes—interpersonal reactions, group roles—they can be treated as, in some senses, the same.

One of the very few scholars to have challenged this argument is Hinchliffe (2002: 200-201), who points out that such criticisms of the transferability claim are conceptually flawed because they rest on a notion of transfer as the direct and literal application of the same techniques and knowledge units across domains, as is the case with word-processing or arithmetic skills. This “replicative transfer”, as Hager and Hodkinson (2009: 620) refer to it, is unlikely to occur in the more opaque field of generic skills and attributes, as these cannot be reduced to sets of fixed procedures or rules.

Given the major theoretical and methodological challenges involved in studying learning transfer, the debate on the transferability of generic skills has made little progress, except for isolated contributions on the conditions that may facilitate transfer (e.g. Billing 2007). As a result, the transferability claim has either been taken for granted or abandoned altogether. Some margin for reconsidering the issue in less sceptical terms is offered by the more expansive theories developed in reaction to highly limited understandings of transfer. Of particular interest is Bereiter’s (1995) notion of dispositional transfer, which highlights the transfer potential of dispositions and habits of the mind (e.g. moral reasoning, creativity), both abounding in inventories of generic skills. Particularly interesting is also Hatano and Greeno’s (1999: 647) work that reframes transfer in terms of “productivity”, that is “the extent to which learning in some activity has effects in subsequent activities of different kinds”. Similarly, Bransford and Schwartz (1999: 68) introduce a new emphasis on the notion of “preparation for future learning”. In both cases, the authors suggest regarding and measuring transfer by looking at the ability of already acquired knowledge to facilitate new learning in new situations and at the individual’s capacity to abstract and generalize learning. These views certainly do not make transfer research any easier but at least they do not exclude the possibility of looking at generic skills as possibly transferable learning objectives.

Unlike the adjectives seen above, the terms skills, competencies, and attributes tend to be used rather interchangeably to refer to a variegated bundle of qualities, dispositions, abilities, and understandings. More than by actual semantic specificities, their usage is often regulated by passing trends, so for instance competence is taken to be more inclusive than the term skill, which in turn is associated with routinisable, procedural operations alone and with an employability-oriented agenda. Attributes is preferred instead to refer to broader lifelong learning pursuits. Our preference is for the term skills because, compared with attributes, it has wider currency both in popular usage and in the literature and because it is comparatively less clichéd and “polluted” (Pym forthcoming) a term than competence. Overall, we have selected the descriptor transferable generic skills (henceforth TGS) because the two adjectives are well-suited to our argument for an alternative approach to translation in modern language degrees, one that stresses the wider applicability of the learning emerging from it.

The ever-increasing international emphasis on TGS can be attributed to a number of factors. At first, the main driving force was preeminently economic: in the early 1990s, the rapidly changing labour market required attributes that traditional instruction had hardly ever catered for explicitly, such as entrepreneurship, communication, team-work, problem-solving, etc. Universities were thus put under intense pressure to design curricula nurturing these skills, with a view to enabling students to gain employment and make productive contributions to the economy at large. The move to nurture TGS also gained momentum as part of a broader socio-economic agenda grounded in the philosophy of lifelong learning. Promoted in particular by international bodies like the EU, the OECD, and UNESCO, this agenda centres around the development of human capital through education and training as a key towards sustained economic growth but above all towards personal fulfilment and social inclusion. TGS have been assumed to constitute valuable assets for the attainment of these goals and have carried the force of higher education policy-making in several countries. Finally, the growing interest in these skills also rests on pedagogical grounds, as educationalists have acknowledged them to be fundamental in supporting effective learning throughout one’s life and in facilitating student-centred approaches to teaching and learning (Hager and Holland 2006: 3-9).

This increased focus has resulted in a proliferation of TGS models and related pedagogical recommendations. The vast majority are the fruit of small-scale initiatives within single higher education institutions and are meant for local use (e.g. Bennett, Dunne and Carré 2000). Others have emerged from inter-institutional research-based projects supported by international bodies and have aimed at providing direction on a much broader scale. In what follows, the discussion will be limited to the latter.

A model worth mentioning is the one devised within the OECD project Defining and Selecting Competencies (1997-2003), also known as DeSeCo. DeSeCo’s goal was the construction—in a lifelong learning perspective—of a theory-grounded frame of reference relevant to the development and assessment of so-called key competencies, i.e. competencies assumed to be important for all individuals to meet complex demands in a wide spectrum of contexts and eventually lead to the attainment of highly valued outcomes in terms of successful life and well-functioning society. The project’s efforts resulted in the following model of interrelated competence categories (Rychen 2003):

1 interacting in heterogeneous groups

1a. The ability to relate well to others

1b. The ability to cooperate

1c. The ability to manage and resolve conflicts

2 acting autonomously

2a. The ability to act within the big picture

2b. The ability to form and conduct life plans and personal projects

2c. The ability to assert rights, interests, limits and needs

3 using tools interactively

3a. The ability to use language, symbols and text interactively

3b. The ability to use knowledge and information interactively

3c. The ability to use technology interactively

The first category covers the sphere of relationship management, focusing in particular on the critical abilities needed to engage in productive relationships with others (1a) and to successfully function in a group (1b, 1c). The second category refers to the broader competence area of life management and includes the essential abilities to understand the context one lives in and act accordingly (2a), to set goals and work towards them (2b), and finally to commit oneself in defence of one’s interests (2c). The abilities in the last category fall into the realm of information and communication management, intended not only as the mastery of procedural skills but also as an understanding of how tools change the way of interacting with the world and enable to accomplish broader goals.

In the wake of the DeSeCo undertaking, the European Union launched a similar project as a tool towards the so-called Lisbon Strategy. The Lisbon European Council of March 2000 set for the EU the ambitious goal of becoming “the most competitive and dynamic knowledge-based economy in the world, capable of sustainable economic growth with more and better jobs and greater social cohesion” (European Parliament 2000: par. 5). There was broad consensus that education had to play a crucial role in the fulfilment of this objective and that lifelong learning represented the fundamental framework within which all concrete steps should be taken. Among these, special emphasis was placed on the development of key competences, intended as those that all individuals need for personal fulfilment and development, active citizenship, social inclusion and employment. Following the explicit mandate of the Council, a specifically appointed expert group worked on the issue and devised the European Reference Framework on Key Competences for Lifelong Learning (European Parliament and Council 2006), comprised of the following eight domains:

1 Communication in the mother tongue

2 Communication in a foreign language

3 Mathematical literacy and basic competence in science and technology

4 Digital competence

5 Learning-to-learn

6 Social and civic competences

7 Sense of initiative and entrepreneurship

8 Cultural awareness and expression

Besides a general definition of each one of these rather self-explanatory competence domains, the EU Framework includes a description of the knowledge, skills, and attitudes that are considered essential in relation to every single competence area.

A final model worth reporting on is the one elaborated within the European Commission project Tuning Educational Structures in Europe (González and Wagenaar 2003). Developed as a tool for the implementation of the Bologna process and at a later stage the Lisbon Strategy, this project saw over a hundred European universities engaged in a five-year project (2001-2005) aimed at providing reference points for the development of comparable curricula in terms of contents and pedagogies. The work involved five research strands, the first being on generic competences or transferable skills. A thorough literature review, followed by expert group discussions and a large-scale consultation with graduates, employers, and academics resulted in the following model (Villa et al. 2008: 23-24):

1 Instrumental competences:

• Capacity for analysis and synthesis

• Capacity for organisation and planning

• Basic general knowledge

• Grounding in basic knowledge of the profession

• Oral and written communication in your native language

• Knowledge of a second language

• Elementary computing skills

• Information management skills (ability to retrieve and analyse information from different sources)

• Problem solving

• Decision-making

2 Interpersonal competences:

• Critical and self-critical abilities

• Teamwork

• Interpersonal skills

• Ability to work in an interdisciplinary team

• Ability to communicate with experts in other fields

• Appreciation of diversity and multiculturality

• Ability to work in an international context

• Ethical commitment

3 Systemic competences:

• Capacity for applying knowledge in practice

• Research skills

• Capacity to learn

• Capacity to adapt to new situations

• Capacity for generating new ideas (creativity)

• Leadership

• Understanding of cultures and customs of other countries

• Ability to work autonomously

• Project design and management

• Initiative and entrepreneurial spirit

• Concern for quality

• Will to succeed

Essentially, the first competence domain is a composite bundle of cognitive, methodological, and technical abilities needed to understand and manipulate thoughts, intervene on the environment (communication, decision-making, problem-solving), and use technology. The second domain refers to diverse processes of social interaction, while the third covers a combination of knowledge and sensibilities that allow individuals to understand and manage whole systems.

Despite the apparent heterogeneity of these three models, on closer inspection they show broad areas of overlap that make them comparable. Besides contents, an aspect they certainly share, though to different degrees, is a relatively low level of operationalization: not unlike most existing TGS repertoires, they feature lists of skills or competence domains that are not sufficiently detailed. This lack of conceptual clarity, coupled with a number of institutional factors and a still limited understanding of the teaching, learning, and assessment of these skills, has been identified as the main reason behind the slow progress the TGS agenda has registered so far. The overall picture in higher education systems around the world is indeed one of patchy implementation and generalized inertia (Drummond, Nixon and Wiltshire 1998: 23-24, Green, Hammer and Star 2009). This is lamentable if we think that TGS are acknowledged as already inherent in academic teaching and learning. Their integration would thus imply no radical changes in curricular contents and overall organization, but rather pedagogies able to focus on them explicitly in connection with subject-specific matter. Although significant efforts have been made in this direction (e.g. Bennett, Dunne and Carré 2000; Fallows and Steven 2000; Bath et al. 2004; Kember, Leung and Ma 2007), the field is still in its infancy and based on anecdotal evidence. In order to support TGS-recognizing policies fruitfully, further research is needed, together with adequate staff development and top-down coordination. To return to our initial claim, a translation education within modern language degrees that foregrounds TGS and transferability both in terms of curriculum and course design may not only provide a fruitful alternative to current translation teaching approaches, but could also represent an opportunity for advancing scholarship and experimentation in the context of these increasingly valued learning outcomes. This is all the more promising if we consider that the intersection between Translation Studies and the discourse of TGS is still rather unexplored territory, and that remarkably close parallels have been identified between the two fields, as discussed in the following section.

5. Transferable generic skills in Translation Studies

Although by now the discourse of transferable generic skills has developed a well-established tradition in current higher education ideologies, it has not penetrated every single disciplinary domain with the same force. Translation Studies is an example. The areas where it has timidly surfaced are mainly theories of translation competence and translation pedagogy, and the intersection of the two. Of the many scholars who have addressed the debated issue of translation competence, the first to include a discussion of the skills examined here is Kelly in her Handbook for Translator Trainers (2005). When dealing with issues of curricular design for translation programmes, the author presents a multicomponential model of competence areas desirable in translation graduates, which she intends as a basis for the essential phase of establishing learning objectives. In her comment to this model (ibid.: 34-35), Kelly highlights a remarkable parallel—or rather, a full match—between the skills she includes in it and the generic competences drawn up by the Tuning project. In a later contribution (2007: 136), she elaborates on this position and graphically illustrates the identified parallels, as shown in Table 1 below:

Major areas of translator competence

Generic competences

(González and Wagenaar, 2002 [sic])

Communicative and textual (in at least two languages and cultures)

Oral and written communication in the native language

Knowledge of a second language

Capacity for analysis and synthesis

Cultural and/or intercultural

Appreciation of diversity and multiculturality

Ability to work in an international context

Understanding of cultures and customs of other countries

Subject area or thematic

Basic general knowledge

Professional and/or instrumental

Grounding in basic knowledge of the profession

Elementary computing skills

Information management skills

Ethical commitment

Research skills

Concern for quality

Attitudinal and/or psychophysiological

Capacity to learn

Capacity to adapt to new situations

Capacity for generating new ideas (creativity)


Ability to work autonomously

Initiative and entrepreneurial spirit

Will to succeed

Interpersonal or social


Interpersonal skills

Ability to work in an interdisciplinary team

Ability to communicate with experts in other fields

Appreciation of diversity and multiculturality

Ability to work in an international context

Ethical commitment

Strategic or organizational

Capacity for organization and planning

Problem solving

Decision making

Critical and self-critical abilities

Capacity for applying knowledge in practice

Project design and management

Concern for quality

Table 1. Links between Kelly’s translation competence model (2005) and the Tuning project’s model of generic competences (2003)

In Kelly’s view, this “striking idiosyncrasy” (2005: 34) of tertiary translation education providing access to such a wide range of generic competences while developing subject-specific skills constitutes an invaluable pedagogical asset that uniquely characterizes this discipline. Embracing the spirit of much current thinking on higher education, especially at European level, Kelly claims that, in times of rapid social and professional change, universities can no longer exclusively insist on disciplinary contents and strictly professional know-how. Rather, they should commit themselves to helping students “learn how to learn, becom[e] flexible critical citizens prepared for several major career changes during their working life” (2007: 135). In other words, universities should avoid “professional typecasting” (Calvo 2011: online), aiming instead for the attainment of general and holistic educational goals. In this respect, Kelly claims that translation as an academic discipline may have the edge on other sectors. This peculiarity is all the more significant, she goes on to argue, in light of the recent proliferation of translator training programmes and the ensuing saturation of the market in many countries: this trend implies that an increasing number of translation graduates risk entering the working world armed with highly specialized knowledge and skills that may be of little use to them in the pursuit of their careers. Yet the fact that the study of translation exposes students to areas of competence theoretically applicable to a wide range of contexts, considerably reduces this risk. We believe that this very aspect is germane to translation teaching as part of modern language education, for the reasons discussed in section 3 above.

To our knowledge, Kelly remains the only scholar to have explicitly discussed translation competence in relation to TGS, hence attributing to it the dimension of transferability. Some corroborative data can be derived from comparing Kelly’s model and other multicomponential models of translation competence (e.g. PACTE 2003; Göpferich 2008; EMT Expert Group 2009): the extensive areas of shared ground emerging from the comparison suggests that the observed parallels between translation-specific skills and generic competences—as defined in the Tuning project—are not exclusive to Kelly’s conceptualization of the former but can be found in others as well. And any analysis of whatever has been written on translation competence or translator expert behaviour reveals analogies with at least one of the Tuning project’s generic competences. For example, a substantial body of literature identifies problem-solving as an essential aspect of the translation process (e.g. Wills 1992; Pym 2003), and problem-solving also features among the Tuning project’s instrumental competences. Affinities also surface when comparing models of translation competence with the other TGS taxonomies seen in section 4. So, for instance, the three key competencies subsumed under DeSeCo’s first category “interacting in heterogeneous groups” can be associated with what in some conceptions of translation competence has been referred to as the interpersonal dimension, i.e. the ability to liaise with other participants and stakeholders in the translation process and to manage diversity and conflict. These matches, either across the full spectrum of TGS repertoires or between a limited number of items, can be regarded as data substantiating Kelly’s claim that translation as an academic discipline represents transferable, holistic learning because it offers access to a wide range of widely applicable skills, which also happen to be deemed fundamental for personal development, social participation, and lifelong learning.

Of the modest number of scholars who have addressed the issue of transferability and generic skills in translation education, some take the perspective of translation as part of modern language programmes. Sewell (2003), for example, describing a BA translation module at the Birkbeck College of the University of London, discusses twelve skills trained during translation tasks and emphasizes their applicability to a variety of professional settings. These skills range from those more typically linguistic in nature, thus portable to other tasks involving language use (e.g. reading accurately, being aware of register and text-type, post-editing one’s own and other people’s work) to skills that are useful and prized in a wider spectrum of contexts, like the ability to question and research problematic or unknown elements, manage time effectively, and justify one’s decisions and actions, to name but a few.

Other scholars refer more specifically to the field of translator training. One contribution worth mentioning is that of Kearns (2008), who tackles transferability from the standpoint of curriculum studies. The author maintains that a central aspect of curriculum design for the training of translators is needs and situation analysis. This type of assessment, far from being a way of merely vocationalizing academic studies, takes stock of a much wider array of factors than the job market alone, including stakeholders as diverse as learners, graduates, academics, the academic institution, and society at large. In other words, it represents a societally and individually relevant way of shaping the curriculum, which goes far beyond the trite dichotomous reading of curriculum orientations in terms of vocational versus academic. Convincingly arguing against this dichotomy and in favour of a cross-fertilization of educational philosophies and curricular orientations, Kearns claims that just as institutions “have the right to academic freedom, they also have a responsibility to students to provide them with an education that will address issues and circumstances which they will encounter in their lives” (ibid.: 205). It is here that he sees skills transferability as crucial. In other words, he believes that a key issue to be addressed by needs and situation analyses is the extent to which “the skills (knowledge) imparted by [the] curriculum are (is) transferable” (ibid.: 207). Arguing along similar lines, Calvo (2011: online) believes that transferable projections of translation skills would represent an innovative approach to a curriculum development sensitive to the fundamental issues of flexibility and employability.

Kearns’s and Calvo’s considerations, specifically referred to the context of translator training, appear extremely relevant to our discussion of translation teaching within language programmes presented at the beginning of this article. We believe that a focus on the transferable and generic dimension of translation practice might help overcome the tension between academic and vocational impulses that dominates the sector, promoting an approach that caters for both the cultivation of the individual pursued by classical humanism and the professionalizing agenda underpinning much current higher education. Also, a curricular focus on TGS may represent an alternative to the incongruities of extreme vocationalism discussed above, as well as a means to implement employability and flexibility-led policies.

These views on possible alternative approaches to translation education represent the theoretical bedrock and rationale of a research project the contributor is currently carrying out as part of her doctoral studies. The state of the art of the investigation and the challenges posed by an empirical investigation of the field of study are addressed in detail elsewhere (Peverati forthcoming). In the remainder of this article, special focus will be placed on the implications of the suggested proposal in terms of the preliminary actions and relative research needed for its concrete implementation.

6. Implications

Save very few exceptions (Niamh 2005; Chouc 2009; Sánchez Nieto 2009), the explicit integration of transferable generic skills into translation teaching within language education still represents largely uncharted territory, or at least this is what emerges from the literature. This may well be linked to a number of interrelated factors that several scholars (e.g. Chanock 2004; Hughes and Barrie 2010) have acknowledged to be at the heart of the as yet limited uptake of the TGS agenda worldwide. Drawing on this literature, attention will be now turned to some preliminary actions that we deem absolutely necessary for a TGS-saturated translation pedagogy to be implemented as well as investigated empirically.

An essential first step is, in our view, to achieve a deep understanding of the TGS that are assumed to be accessed through communicative translation exercises in the field of interest. As already mentioned, existing inventories of these skills tend to contain abstract umbrella terms that hardly ever amount to useful operational parameters for teaching practice or research. Further, such inventories appear to ignore the peculiarities of each field of study, thus providing one-size-fits-all reference tools. The awareness of these weaknesses, coupled with a growing consensus on the belief that TGS are shaped by disciplinary knowledge, has prompted an increasing body of research aimed at devising accurate and meaningful TGS profiles for single academic disciplines (e.g. Jackson and Chapman 2012). To our knowledge, no such thing has been done within Translation Studies. In this light, we believe that a fundamental precondition for the suggested approach to translation education is a clearly articulated profile of the TGS we expect to be realistically developed in this field. This requires substantial consultation with curriculum developers, subject experts, practitioners, students, and graduates, as well as careful review of relevant literature resources.

Another key starting point, we believe, is the informed development of practical guidelines on teaching and learning strategies that are appropriate for fostering the identified skills in the context of interest. These are not to be intended as step-by-step tips on classroom methodology or ready-to-use syllabi, but rather as suggestions to orient a TGS-recognizing translation pedagogy that will inevitably be interpreted in ways that accord with context-specific features. Equally significant is a thorough reflection on assessment criteria and standards. The belief is widely held (Hughes and Barrie 2010: 327) that explicit and formal assessment is one of the key determinants of the implementation and effectiveness of any TGS-oriented pedagogy, as it fosters full commitment to these learning outcomes from all the stakeholders involved, as opposed to superficial, purely declarative compliance. Considering the highly complex nature of the learning outcomes described as TGS (Hager 2006: 17-31), their assessment is unlikely to be amenable to conventional procedures. This implies the need to acquire new knowledge in the field and to explore appropriate methodologies through trial and error (Knight and Page 2007: 11-61; Chapman and O’Neill 2010: 117-121), bearing in mind that it is practice that can serve to sharpen theoretical understanding. These are only the initial steps that need be taken with a view to implementing the suggested model of translation pedagogy in modern language degree courses. Considering the challenges such preparatory work poses and the range of areas it touches upon, it is bound to turn into a highly interesting, interdisciplinary endeavour.



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[1] Introduced with Ministerial Decrees 59/99 and 270/2004.

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