October 16, 2020

MS in Translation & Interpreting Faculty Spotlight: Tom Alwood

Q: How did you get into translation? 

A: I think like a lot of people in the translation industry, I more or less fell into it by accident. Granted some people have a passion for translation and have an ambition to become a translator, but this is usually an interest in literary translation. Very few people ever dream of working in the commercial translation industry. 

In my case, I was doing a PhD in Roman History and as a way to support myself, I responded to an advert by a startup translation company looking for English language editors. I started getting involved in all areas of the business and found I really enjoyed project management. That, and the worsening academic market in the early ‘90s, meant that I basically drifted into the translation field full time.

Q: How did your interest in translation’s relationship to technology develop?

A: When I started in the field in the ‘90s there wasn’t much translation technology yet; we tracked projects in Excel and all translations were done in MS Word or WordPerfect. But as the company I was with grew, so did the need for internal project tracking systems and translation memory tools started appearing. I actually got into the technology because no one else in the company was interested, and again by happenstance I found I enjoyed working with developers and tools. This led me into a specialization in developing translation management systems and in implementing translation memory (and other CAT tools) into workflows.

Q: What does a regular day look like in your work as a consultant?

A: My mornings are usually spent working with clients in Europe and then I transition over to North American clients in the later morning. My actual work depends on the client I am consulting for. Some I help develop their own internal technologies which means working with developers and doing testing and debugging. Other clients I help implement commercial technologies (both TMS and CAT tools as well as MT) so that means doing a lot of configuring and training users. And of course, since we are dealing with tech, a lot of my time is spent helping to figure out why tools are not working the way they are supposed to! 

Q: The MSTI curriculum now requires a course in technology and the translator. Can you speak on why it is important for all of our graduates to have this foundation?

A: If a translator is going to work in the commercial translation industry, they now have to know about translation technologies, especially translation memory tools. Clients will expect translators to know how to use these tools and translators need to know them to maximize their own earning potential. It is odd, but right now in the world translation services have never been more in demand but consumers are less willing to pay for it. Translators have to work more efficiently using technology to counter this downward pressure on pricing.

Q: Since the pandemic in March, has this cultural shift to working entirely online changed your work? How have you observed its effect on the translation industry at large?

A: I have been a consultant working from home for 10 years now and almost all of that has been remote, so for me the pandemic just means everyone else is starting to work the way I already have been! I can see how this has been painful for some companies, but one of my main activities is helping companies to put into place systems that allow for remote work, so most of the companies I work with have actually been ahead of the curve. Business volumes for most companies seem to have remained fairly steady, depending on the sectors they work in. Manufacturing and tourism clients have naturally decreased their translation activities but in most other fields the demand remains strong. Overall the pandemic has been a sharp kick in the pants for companies to make sure they have their technology platforms in place and everyone, both internal users and external translators, is trained to use them.

Q: Do you have any advice for MSTI grads?

A: One thing I like students to be aware of is the range of jobs available in the translation industry. Some students are shocked to learn that most professional translators work freelance and very few have full time staff positions. But there are full time jobs to be had in translation companies if you can broaden your skill sets to include project management, quality control, and, yes, technology.

Q: Anything else you’d like to share?

A: Technology is hard to learn and sometimes the mindset of people attracted to translation is more artistic than technology oriented which makes it especially hard for them to embrace. But just like learning a language, once you learn how to use a tool it makes learning additional tools that much easier. Don’t go in resenting technology; see it as a necessary professional skill you need to master.

A translation and interpreting degree can help you to take charge of your career, whether you are new to the field or already working in the language professions. Apply for CALA’s newly renamed MS in Translation & Interpreting, a fully online, 36-credit graduate program.

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