It’s been a while now since the last post published on this blog, but I have been thinking for a while about sharing my experience as a distant student of the Master in Translation Studies at The University of Birmingham (UoB) and last week I finally sat down to it, also thanks to a nice conversation with a colleague who got in touch to enquire about the programme. I know I normally post in Italian, but I’ve made an exception in this case because the programme is not only for Italian speakers and I want to reach as many potential students as possible.
Just a few disclaimers before I dive into the subject: The first one is that I consider money a delicate subject and I don’t like to talk about it much. That said, I understand that many people might be thinking of starting an MA but they need to delay it for economic reasons and that some ideas on funding could be helpful. For this reason, I will share some aspects of my experience in that sense as well.
The second one is that you will not have any of the “you don’t need an MA to work as a translator” from me. Not because I think it is not true but because I believe that each case is different and I cannot tell you what you need or want.
The first thing to do if you are thinking about starting an MA is to ask yourself how it would benefit you and what skills you already have that mean that maybe the course is not useful for you. My situation and background are peculiar and, after weighing all the pros and cons, I considered that an MA was the best choice for me. If you are interested in knowing more about that conversation with myself and the things I considered before I made my decision, I can share that part as well in a different post.
In this post, I am assuming you have already done that kind of analysis, have decided you need or want to do a master's degree, and want to know more about the one offered by UoB. I will try my best to share my experience as a distant learner. Please remember that I started in October 2020 and graduated in July 2022. Some things have changed during my attendance and I mention them, while others might have changed after I left and I am not aware. The information I share refers specifically to my experience and I would suggest you check online and get in touch with the university team directly if you need more up to date details.
Distance learning options
UoB offers two different paths for distance learning (this is the official page):
- Standard route, which takes 30 months to complete, 4 months per each module
- Accelerated route, which takes 18 months to complete, 2 months per each module
Both options give you 6 months for the final project and both options are taught, which (it might seem obvious) means that you have lessons and are not just doing independent research. There is also the option to do research but I don’t know how it works and I won’t go into it. THe option I chose is the accelerated route, which requires an average of 25 hours of study per week and is only available if you start in October.
The course got a makeover in October 2020 to be more compliant with the European Master's in Translation (EMT) framework criteria, of which it was part until a few years ago. The programme is not part of the EMT official courses any more, but the teaching still follows the framework and each module is shaped to teach a number of competencies required by it. You can find a downloadable version of the competencies following this link.
Student loan and scholarship options
Let’s talk about money now. The accelerated route is the only one that allows you to apply for a student loan with Student Finance; the reason is that you can only apply for the loan if your course takes no more than double the standard duration to complete. As the full-time duration of the MA in Translation at UoB (taught, in person) is one year, only courses of up to 24 months are eligible for the loan. If you need more details, this is the official page.
One more thing about the loan: If you choose the accelerated route, bear in mind that you will have to pay at the beginning of each module (October, December, February, April, June, August, then October for the final project). This is important because, for postgraduates, the loan is paid to your account and not directly to the university as it happens for undergraduates. As it only gets paid three times a year (October, February, and June), even if you request the full amount and you have the scholarship (which covers the first invoice and two thirds of the second one), you will have to advance part of the money before you get it from Student Finance.
Another thing that I discovered after I started my application process is that, when starting in October, you can also apply for a £2,000 scholarship that provides some support with your tuition fees. The terms and conditions for 2023 say starting date September-January and there are two rounds of applications, while when I applied the only application time was April; it might be worth checking with the university if you are interested in the scholarship. If you obtain the scholarship, bear in mind that the accounts department might not apply the scholarship to your invoices and you have to request it. I won’t go more into detail about this, I think it is pretty clear online (this is the page), but feel free to ask if you have any queries.
Lessons and assignments
The programme has six modules + the final project. Each module is divided into eight units with recorded lessons and some activities. Every week there is also a live lesson to discuss the study material, go through the activities, and prepare for the module assignment. There are normally two times for the lesson, one in the morning and one in the afternoon, to accommodate students from all over the globe and also the teaching times of the teacher. You can study at your own pace but it seemed that most of my cohort was following a similar pattern of two units per week to leave the second month to revise and work on the assignment.
You also have weekly drop-in sessions with the programme lead. They are optional 1-1 sessions also on Zoom in which you have about 10 minutes to ask questions. As they are for all students, they are a bit busy and you might have to wait to be let in the virtual room, but they are useful if you have a last minute question or if you think your tutor will not be able to reply to your email in time for example.
The format might have changed slightly as most of my lessons took place during lockdowns, but I think the general structure has remained pretty much the same. I can tell you that the programme leads are different to what I had because they changed halfway through the course for me, and some of the modules are not taught by the same people that taught me, so I won’t go into detail about the individual people. All I’ll say is that I had the chance to be taught by both the current programme leads, the one for the distant students and the one for campus students and I can guarantee you are in good hands no matter what you choose.
You will also have a personal tutor assigned depending on your language combination and this person will help you with the assignments. I will talk more about it towards the end when I introduce the final project.
All submissions are digital through the same portal as the one for teaching and the assignments are graded within 20 working days from submission. You need to include a cover page with your assignments and you need to indicate what comments you received in your previous submissions, what changes you have made in the current one to ensure the feedback was taken onboard, and what are you expecting to learn in the current assignment.
When you receive your assignments back, you will get a cover page listing the main comments about what you can improve on a general level, but you will also get your assignment with specific comments, almost by paragraph, pointing out what you did well and what you could correct.
But let’s go back to the modules. Of those six, four are compulsory subjects and two are optional, let’s see them in detail.
1) Translating for business (compulsory). It is a general introduction to translation, don’t forget that your cohort might come from very different backgrounds and might never have done translation before. This doesn’t mean that it will be a lot of theory without any translation practice. The module starts with an introduction about the translation industry (I know some colleagues dislike this term but it is the one used in the module and I am keeping it) and then discusses different aspects of the profession while also exploring some translation fields such as retail, official documents, press releases, travel, and tourist texts.
· Final assignment - 1,000-word translation of a text that belongs to one of the fields introduced in the modules and a 3,000-word commentary on your translation, always referring to what you learnt in the module. Both parts are marked (and are worth 25% and 75% of the total mark respectively).
2) Translation Technology (compulsory). The first introduction to CAT tools. The university provides the licence for Trados and Memsource but they also introduce some other tools and encourage you to try as many as you want (and can access online) to see which one is best for you. As most of them are not free, you are never asked to purchase anything. This not only applies to licences for digital tools but also to books and texts for translation and for studying. All the books and chapters mentioned in the lessons are provided to you.
· Final assignment - 1,000-word translation of a press release and a 3,000-word commentary on your experience with the tool. The translation is not marked in this case, only the commentary about the process of producing the translation with the tool.
3) Theoretical and Analytical Skills (compulsory). A pretty self-explanatory title, this module is dedicated to the different theories developed in translation along the centuries while exploring how to approach a text for translation (the brief, the text analysis, the choice of a strategy). Some of the aspects explored are the functionalist theory; Nord’s TOSTA; the foreignising/domesticating dychotomy as seen by Nord, Venuti, and more; and feminist translation.
· Final assignment - 4,000-word source text analysis creating a plausible brief, using Nord’s TOSTA methodology, and a presentation of the overall strategy chosen based on the brief. The source text can be chosen from any field and can have any length as it won’t be translated, it will only be analysed.
4) Specialised Translation (compulsory). This module focuses on some of the main fields of specialisation (scientific texts; technical texts; legal texts, institutional and commercial texts, to use the terminology used in the module; and literary texts, fiction and nonfiction).
· Final assignment - Two 1,000-word texts from different fields and a 2,000-word commentary comparing the two. All parts are marked (each translation is worth 25% and the commentary is worth 50% of the total mark).
Before the end of the fourth module, we were asked to choose our optional ones and I have to admit that this is where the programme was a bit poor; we had two modules to complete and the choices were only three, so there is not much variety, but they are interesting nonetheless. I believe there is now a fourth option. The options for me were:
- Professional Development
- Multimodal Translation
- Contemporary Translation
I chose the first two and I will talk about them more in detail. About the third one, I don’t know much more than it is a more in depth analysis of the current translation theories, it is a progression from module three and it is basically compulsory for those planning to go for a dissertation-type final project. The official description for Contemporary Translation (at the bottom of the course’s page, under "Modules") says: “This module considers the problems faced by translators from a theoretical point of view. It examines current theoretical thinking in the field of Translation Studies, including cultural theories, sociological theories, political approaches, among others. The module emphasises the role and position of translation (and translators) in processes of identity construction, language/cultural planning, and in the spread of political and religious ideologies.”
5) Professional Development. I have to be honest, I didn’t want to do this module. If I had chosen just what I really like and what I knew would get me a better grade both in the assignment and as a final, I would have gone for Contemporary Translation. That said, one of the reasons why I decided to do an MA was to have a better insight of the market, the whole industry, and to learn how to market myself, so I chose the module that I knew would be more useful.
It is a practical module but the only one that doesn’t involve translation in any form whatsoever. It is focused on building a CV and a digital presence, mainly on LinkedIn but also on other social media platforms; it also analyses the different career paths available to those with language skills and a language degree, not just translation. It is the only module that also touches on the subject of interpreting and it explores career options such as project management, working as a freelance translator or working in-house in the private or public sector and in international institutions, teaching, and more. The only downside I found is that it does not explain much about working in-house as a translator, probably because the people involved (and the special guests) don’t have much experience in this sector. As I was interested in learning more about this career option, I found it a bit lacking for my needs but that might be completely different each year depending on the people involved, both internal and external.
· Final assignment - a 4,000-word portfolio that includes these components:
- A self-evaluation statement (1,500 words) analysing the specific path you would like to pursue, the skills you already have and those you need to develop to achieve your goal;
- A reflective report (1,500 words) analysing the actions already taken in preparation for your career, what you have learnt from them and what you could have done differently to obtain an even better result;
- A CV and a cover letter (500 words each).
6) Multimodal Translation. Maybe not the clearer title in this case, the module is dedicated to audiodescription, subtitling, and close-captioning.
· Final assessment - You can choose between two different types of assignment:
- Policy-based (3,500 words), which analyses a real-life case of audiodescription, subtitling or close-captioning in a country where your target language is spoken. The portfolio needs to describe the situation, the policy in place, its limitations and the future developments;
- Practical, which could be two audiodescriptions of museum exhibits or painting (750 words each) or live captions of one or two clips (up to 10 minutes in total) plus a 2,000-word commentary of the result analysing the features of the texts, the obstacles encountered, and possible solutions.
The final project
After completing your six modules, you will start your final project. You have six months to complete the final project, but you are requested to start planning for it around the time you are completing your fifth module. This is when you are asked to fill a very short form explaining what kind of final project you are choosing and the possible subjects.
You have two options, both of 15,000 words:
- Dissertation, a more theoretical research project. If you are thinking of going directly to study a PhD, you are encouraged to choose this option.
- Extended Translation project (ETP), a practical project with two components (the translation of a source text of about 7,500 words and the commentary to the translation, also 7,500 words). The ETP can also replace your translation exam to upgrade your ITI membership to become an MITI, which is worth considering if that is applicable to you.
I chose to do an ETP for several reasons, including the possibility of upgrading my ITI membership as I am already an Associate (AITI). If you are interested in knowing more about this, see the ITI page dedicated to the Qualified translator assessment (this is the link) under "Route 2".
Going back to the course, the initial instructions said that students are assigned a tutor that will support them during all the assignments but then they will be assigned a different tutor for the final project depending on the subject and path chosen. I had the same tutor for both and so did most of the students in my cohort, and in my case it was a blessing, Lorraine was the best and I am eternally grateful I got to share my student path with her.
The relationship with the tutor is also extremely different during the assignments and during the final project, although this might depend on the tutor. In my case, for the assignments we had only email correspondence, while for the ETP we had Zoom meetings. I know there is a set amount of revision they can do, but you will receive an introductory email from the university introducing the team, including the finance point of contact, the course manager, the course lead, and your tutor.
As a general rule, I think you are expected to have at least one contact per month with your tutor (it is your responsibility to get in touch) and, apart from general instructions and suggestions, they can read and comment on one full draft of each assignment. This means that you have to have a quite final version of it around one week or 10 days before your deadline. This is not an official recommendation, it is just my opinion if you want to limit your stress and have enough time to receive your tutor’s feedback and make all your changes accordingly.
Your tutor will not be the person marking your assignments as they are marked anonymously by two markers. As your tutor has already seen the draft, it would not be anonymous anymore and it is extremely rare that they happen to mark your assignment.
In the case of the final project, it is completely different because your tutor will also be your first marker. The relationship is a bit different but it follows a similar pattern to the one for the assignments. You are assigned 5 hours of supervision separate from the marking of the final draft. In my case, we decided to use Zoom instead of just emails because we were both in the same time zone and it was easier for us, but it really is something that gets agreed between the two.
The whole point of the programme is to teach you how to work independently and how to improve your translation skills but also how to grow as a researcher, and this is even more the case when it comes to the final projects. The tutor will not influence your choice of texts or your analysis, all they will do will be to direct your work once you have already started.
I think this is about it for the course, so I will leave you with this photo I took on campus this summer featuring the stunning clock tower affectionately called Old Joe. I hope you found this post useful to clear your doubts, but please get in touch if you have any more questions and I will try to help if I can.