The curious case of the sleep-walking students

This seasons must-have for the serious student

This season's must-have for the serious student

Here in Sheffield we’re just coming into the exam period and the crowds of students swarming in and around the various university libraries makes them resemble Red Cross food distribution centres as they desperately try to commit every last piece of useful information to memory before the exams. It also marks the start of what I’ve come to know as “sleep-walking student season”  because take a stroll into our main library and you’ll see students wandering around as if dressed for bed. Seriously! You couldn’t make this up. The library in question is a very swanky and award-winning 24 hour study centre which even has a shower room – it really is a marvel of library design even if it is a bit like the set of Friends. But wander in late at night or first thing in the morning and you’ll see the occasional smug-looking student with a book in one hand and a takeaway coffee in the other shuffling around, bleary-eyed and waiting to be noticed in their slippers. Not even sensible, discreet old man slippers, don’t you know, but the kind of fluffy animal slippers teenage girls wear at slumber parties. More recently the ante has been upped somewhat and pyjamas now make an occasional appearance.

Proud students on their graduation day

Proud students on their graduation day

I’m not one to criticise students for showing commitment to their studies. Heaven knows so many of them seem to think that they don’t need to study… I mean, like, hello… I’ve paid, like, mega-bucks for this degree – why should I, like, study or whatever? It is actually quite heartening (if a little sad) to see students in the library on a Saturday night but this slippers malarkey seems to be an exercise in “über-studentness”. It’s almost like they are saying “I’m more of a student than you… I SLEEP here. I’m so committed to my studies, I’m so much more intelligent than you.” God be with the days when the sign of a true student was a supermarket trolley full of really cheap booze, experimenting with Mother Nature’s medicine cabinet, a funny accent, puking in a front garden on the way home from the pub and joining the Socialist League of Paragliding Rabbits and Scarecrow Restoration Volunteers.

A cynical man might be tempted to ask whether the fact that they have to spend so long in the library that they need to wear their jimjams and slippers means they’re a teensy bit dim, like a 5 Watt light-bulb. That their poor old brains aren’t wired up properly so that they can’t get information into their heads in anything approaching a reasonable period of time. But I’m not that cynical. In fact, I like the fact that students are still as weird, silly and downright bonkers as ever. It’s what makes universities interesting places to work and I don’t think I’d like it if they suddenly started acting normal. If they start coming to class like that I might have to change my mind though…


An easy target for cash-strapped universities

A recent article by Melanie Newman in The Times Higher Education makes for grim reading about the state of higher education in the UK. The article reveals a raft of job losses, voluntary redundancies and recruitment freezes at four more institutions which is causing alarm among staff. Nothing new you might say. Indeed this is pretty much par for the course across the university sector but one particular example, if it is true, is especially worrying. Newman writes that the Centre for Translational and Comparative Studies at the University of Warwick is set to close following an internal university review. With Susan Bassnett, who heads up the centre, approaching retirement and the failure to find a replacement for her, it looks quite certain that the centre will be shut down, although no final decision will be made until July of this year. The article quotes an unnamed academic who says that student recruitment for MA programmes hosted by the centre has been halted.

Unions are blaming this development on the university’s preoccupation with money from research funding, or in the case of the centre, the lack of it. It seems that the way in which universities’, with their current business model, evaluate the usefulness or, regrettably, the profitability of various disciplines whereby huge value is placed on external research funding is not only inequitable but downright inappropriate. Sure, a department offering translation and languages , for example, may not capture massive research grants but it will attract students to the university and this brings in money. Possibly a lot more than any research grant. By offering translation programmes we create additional demand for languages at an institution and this serves to reinforce the system.

All of this begs the question of whether Translation Studies (and languages in general) is seen as financial deadwood by universities. Is it an easy target for university bean counters looking to shave a few zeroes off university expenditure? The move to close the translation section at Warwick could be regarded as a opportunistic cost-cutting exercise but more cynical souls could be forgiven for wondering whether universities see translation and languages as nice to have, but not, strictly speaking, necessary; an expense that doesn’t return on the investment. The argument that researchers need to pull in external funding is one with which all academics are familiar but we all know that the humanities and languages in particular are never likely to attract the same level of funding that the biosciences and engineering disciplines seem to do so effortlessly. There simply isn’t the same pool of money to drawn from so when you look at funding revenue you’re not comparing like with like.

Money matters aside, it is unthinkable that a university could conceive of jettisoning languages and translation. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not trying to propose some form of soft-minded, woolly, right-on, touchy-feely model of education where we defend and indulge useless academics who can’t get a job in the real world and allow them to research and teach ridiculously obscure and – let’s be honest here – pointless topics like the effects of wallpaper on the linguistic and cultural identities of bilingual Russian hedgehogs between 18-27 August 1892 (incidentally, if this is your research area, shame on you, wasting all of that precious research funding!). It’s just that some subjects which need to be taught have an intrinsic value for a country and an economy which is less obvious and which cannot be measured solely in terms of grant capture. Translation Studies is one of these subject areas but the lack of high levels of visible revenue in comparison with other disciplines shouldn’t be seen as evidence of a discipline which isn’t pulling its weight and it certainly shouldn’t be used as an excuse for questioning its continued existence. Let’s just hope that the Warwick case is just an isolated case of financial opportunism.


Freelance Translation: Teaching Students to Create their Own Jobs

First published as: Byrne, Jody (2003) “Freelance Translation: Teaching Students to Create Their Own Jobs”. In: Daniel Gouadec & Daniel Toudic (eds) Traduction, Terminologie, Rédaction. Paris: La Maison du Dictionnaire,

Abstract: With the majority of translation graduates failing to find in-house translation positions, this paper asks the question of whether we should train students to create their own employment opportunities as freelance translators. This paper contains the results of student employment surveys and outlines the typical skills which need to be incorporated into translator training programmes.

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