Is it worthwhile to go to graduate school for translation or interpreting? Does it depend on whether you want to study translation, interpreting, or both? Does it depend on your location? Age? Language pair? Now that I’ve finished my conference interpreting Master’s degree, I thought I’d revisit this topic with some new information. For background, I had a Bachelor’s in French and English (from 1993; so long ago that only a paper version of my transcript exists!), and a Master’s in French Literature, but I did not have a T&I-specific graduate degree until this year, when I did the Glendon College/York University Master’s in Conference Interpreting program. More on that here, and here.
Most importantly, you’re not too old
Let’s get one factor out of the way. If your brain still works, you’re not too old. There goes one excuse! I started my MCI at age 48, and you can read this guest post by Joseph Welch, who went back to graduate school for translation at age 63. In my MCI program, I’m not sure there was anyone who entered the program directly from undergrad, and there were several people around my age and older. So, scratch age off the list.
Was it worth it for me?
For my purposes, absolutely, yes, doing the Glendon MCI was worth it, for the following reasons:
- I think that conference interpreting is one of those areas where the degree makes a difference; it’s true that there are successful conference interpreters who don’t have an MCI, but I think it’s more the norm than it is in translation.
- It’s also true that you could improve your interpreting skills a lot simply by practicing for hours and hours a day, as you are forced to do in an MCI program. But honestly, very few people have the time and discipline to do that. I’m a pretty disciplined person and I wouldn’t have been able to do that, plus you would get no feedback from someone who actually knows what they’re doing.
- The Glendon program was pretty perfect for me. I wanted a practical (rather than theoretical) program, and all of the Glendon instructors are practicing interpreters, so it really fulfilled my personal goals. The pandemic offered the opportunity to do the program entirely online, and it was very affordable (around US $19,000) by US standards.
- I felt that (and this is more about my own imposter syndrome than anything else, but it was a factor) I would never have the confidence to dive into the conference interpreting world without a full Master’s in conference interpreting. Again, this more about me than anything else, but I didn’t want to be looking for conference interpreting work and saying, “I have my court certification, then I took these other classes, then I did an internship.” I just wanted to be able to say, “I have my Master’s in Conference Interpreting from…”
What’s your “why”?
If you’re considering a T&I graduate degree, I think the first step is to ask yourself why you’re considering doing this, because it’s a big investment of time and money. Also, in my experience (which admittedly is not universal), T&I falls in a bit of a weird grey area where you generally pay the tuition yourself because there are not things like teaching assistantships or graduate stipends (unlike programs in the Humanities where you’re unlikely to be paying full freight yourself), but you aren’t going to have multiple six-figure job offers waiting for you when you graduate (unlike something like medical school, where it’s clearly worth taking student loans).
Glendon does their tuition in three payments, fall, winter, and spring, so I was able to just pay the tuition in cash by economizing on other expenses. Personal opinion, I did not want to do a program that involved student loans (I hate debt), and I believe that Glendon is the least expensive AIIC-endorsed program, at least in North America.
My “why” was pretty tangible: because I will never have the confidence to do this until/unless I dedicate myself to studying it for a whole year and pass a really hard set of exams proving that I can do this. For me, the path to an MCI was pretty clear.
However, I don’t know that the decision is that clear for everyone. I honestly don’t know that freelance translators with a T&I Master’s make more money than people without one, or are more in demand. I’m not saying that they don’t make more money or aren’t more in demand, but I don’t know that it’s a significant difference.
I also feel that T&I programs, by definition, are there to teach you to translate and/or interpret. That might seem obvious, but here’s what I mean: they don’t generally teach you to run a freelance business, which is a huge part of the equation. In my program at Glendon, we got some very good advice about the interpreting market, and we all did presentations about the interpreting market in our various regions of the world. This is probably more than many T&I programs include, and I think it’s still a long road to launching and running a successful freelance business if you’ve never done it before.
Realistically, there just aren’t that many options for people who live in North America and want to find an in-house job as a translator or interpreter. People with a Master’s from a reputable school probably have a leg up on the few in-house jobs that do exist, but it’s just not a realistic expectation that you will finish a T&I graduate degree and have multiple — or perhaps any — in-house job offers waiting for you. In my experience, most people who fail as freelance translators or interpreters do so not because of the language aspects of the work, but because they can’t force themselves to market aggressively enough to find good clients, or they can’t manage the clients they do find, or they just don’t have the discipline to be productive without a boss. And a T&I program is not going to help you with any of that.
All this to say, make sure you have a specific goal in mind before you select and apply to a program.
Consider all options
If you’re considering a T&I Master’s, make sure that you put all options on the table. Here’s where age, and perhaps more correctly, stage of life do enter into it. For me, “all options” meant the four AIIC-endorsed MCI programs in North America that offer French (MIIS, U. Maryland, U. Ottawa, and Glendon), because I am just not in a position to move to another country by myself, and I couldn’t find any international universities offering online programs.
However, if you’re in a more portable phase of life, I would definitely look at international programs, not least of all because your language skills will improve a lot from living in one of your source language countries. Programs outside the US tend to be a lot less expensive in terms of tuition, but this can be offset by the higher cost of living in a large city, particularly in Europe. This was my experience when I looked at the programs in Geneva and Paris: tuition, very affordable; cost of living in those cities, not so affordable.
What about online programs?
Having done a fully online program, I can say that a) of course I would have loved to be there in person, and b) the online program was a lot more doable financially and logistically. I think that’s probably true of any fully online program. Glendon has always done Year 1 of their program online, so they had the online course system very well organized. I wish we had been able to go interpret in the lab and theater that Glendon has, but that also would have added a layer of expense and logistics that I was glad not to have to deal with. Personally I felt that I got a lot out of the online program, but I also made a huge commitment to attending every class and practice session, interpreting for lots of live events at York University, etc. which made a big difference.
Readers, any other thoughts on T&I graduate programs?