“We Need Real Textbooks” – Meet the ‘Student-Translators’ of Albania

chris-vanderzeeThis article first appeared in Magazine Way in two parts. *All names have been changed in order to protect identities. 

Marie Notcheva ©

It’s an ‘open secret’ in some Albanian universities that professors use students to translate large volumes of academic material. These makeshift textbooks are then used for the next year’s courses, often sold at a profit to the instructors. Working without pay, these student-translators are expected to produce texts from often poorly-written material in addition to their regular course of study. Refuse, and the professor may fail them for the year. The result? Textbooks that are full of errors; exploitation of already-exhausted students; and a degradation of the translation industry itself. One Tirana student is speaking out.

Last June, during university final exam season, I received the following message from “Elvis”, a third-year Tirana student in a medical field:

“Marie…..you said something about how important it is to correctly translate a text related to medicine. A mis-translated word in medicine is fatal. Teachers in my university tell their students to prepare projects, and that ‘project’ contains information in English. What the student must do is to translate it into Albanian. That is all. Nothing else. And they are all medical articles. What they do with these translated projects is they publish their own book next year containing this information, which these students translated into Albanian. They are just students; I am a student, and I have been told 4 times to translate medical articles from English into Albanian. Imagine how dangerous it is to translate a medical article. One mistake in medical books may cost a life. This is how it happens in Albania. All the time. You have to translate it, otherwise the teacher will fail you or remove a grade from you.”

Knowing I am a medical and courtroom interpreter in the United States, and have also accepted many translations over the years, Elvis was asking my advice on how to address the delicate, ethical issue of using untrained students to translate professors’ material – to be published under the professor’s name, usually for profit.

Without “repercussions”.

Evidently, when a university professor “asks” a student to do a “favor” not included on the course syllabus, the student is not, realistically, in a position to politely decline – if he values a passing grade.

Never mind that these students are not being paid anything for their efforts.

Not the Modus Operandi Everywhere…Yet Still a Problem

It should be noted that while instructors at certain universities do utilize student translators, and then keep records of students who purchase their books (penalizing the ones who don’t with lower grades), this is not common practice in private universities or at the University of Tirana, which has a reputation as being among the best.

“Lediana”, a third-year Finance major in Tirana University’s Economics faculty, points out that there are very good and professional-level instructors at accredited universities. She has never encountered this problem, and the incidence of using students to translate is relatively low.

“The professors who teach in the University of Tirana, Polytechnic University, Faculty of Sciences or Arts University of Tirana mainly ask some Master’s Degree candidates for translation, not the Bachelor Degree students. They ask their best students and in return give them higher grades or make them exempt from some course projects.

“I want to add that they don’t tell students what they are really doing; often they just ask them to translate 20-30 pages as a course project,” she explains.

Elvis concurs: “It is so common in [the general medicine university] it’s like a routine. Basically, that’s what we call a “project”. Imagine….most of these books I have studied might have been translated by students. It’s crazy.” His friend, a student in Durrës, notes the same problem – while she has never been approached to translate, her textbooks are full of errors. “My sister, who doesn’t even speak English, has been asked to translate some books for her teachers because they know I can do it,” he adds.

A Precedent is Hard to Break

According to “Blerta”, who earned her Bachelor’s Degree at the University of Tirana’s Faculty of Social Sciences in 2003 (and her Master’s Degree in 2006), the practice of using students to translate professors’ work was more wide-spread in years past.

“At that time, the Dean of the university, who was a professor of psychology had several published books made entirely from student translations. He would give a chapter to each, and it was considered “course work” you submit before entering the exam. You couldn’t say “no”.  Personally I liked doing it, because the extra reading helped me (also internet access was so limited), but it was difficult in terms of terminology. Once he said he would pay us $10/ page, and I planned to buy furniture at home as a gift for my parents who were paid very low rates. Of course he never gave us any money.”

She also cites numerous cases where professors gave students the option of translating for them, with the “reward” being exemption from final exams for their efforts. Across the board, however, professors are known for publishing the students’ work under their names – errors and all.

“In one case, the head of the sociology department translated a huge book, “Introduction to Sociology” by Anthony Giddens. It was around 400 pages, all translated by her students. I have read that book, and you could tell it was translated but not edited – from chapter to chapter the same term was translated in different ways.”

All of the students I interviewed for this article cited the problem of error-filled textbooks.

“Text books I have to say have so many grammatical errors! But not all of them,” says Lediana. There have been perhaps 2-3 books in the 3-year Bachelor’s program I have attended. But as I said, this is true only for the best universities. Luckily I study in the Faculty of Economics which is rated as the most fair and professional one. I have never been asked to translate anything, nor have any of my classmates. Maybe the Master’s students may have experienced that scenario, but all I have heard are words from other students or seen some really bad book translation and assume they have been translated by students.”

Several years ago, Elvis’ college, the University of Medicine (UMT), split off from the University of Tirana – bringing with it all sorts of problems. Diplomas were delayed, and when they were finally awarded, graduates found they were worthless – the university was not accredited with any educational institution. However, the biggest practical problem, according to Elvis, remains the coerced student translation – resulting in dangerously-inaccurate textbooks.

“I might have been learning many wrong concepts during all these years, because students like me translated them in order not to fail the class. Crazy people work in my school. If you read my textbooks, you will find unlimited grammar mistakes. It’s as if the whole book was run through Google Translate. It is so terrible…not to mention that there are books that they did not used “ë” or “ç” letter at all.”

In one biology textbook, Elvis said, he found over 100 mistakes in only a few pages of text. Evidently the source document was in English, and the harried student tasked with translating it into Albanian ran it through Google Translate. “Instead of saying “quhen” – ‘are called’, it was written “qihen” which means ‘are being fucked’”, he laughed.

1This is what some of Tirana’s future doctors and nurses are being given as academic material.

When Volunteerism Becomes Exploitation

 Interestingly, many of the students I have met studying in Tirana speak and write English almost on a native level. If students genuinely wish to “volunteer” their skills by translating their teachers’ books, is that really a problem?

Yes. Time constraints, pressure, technical terminology and the sheer principle – using students to do qualified, professional work which – compromise the quality of the textbooks and put students in an unfair ethical situation. The professors hold persuasive psychological power over them, and they know it.

In the United States, interpreting and translating are both highly-regulated fields, especially when legal or medical wok is involved. Although the certification process is different, organizations such as ATA (American Translators’ Association) and NAJIT (National Association of Judiciary Interpreters and Translators) exist, in large part, to ensure qualified, professional translators are providing service; to uphold a standard of ethics in the profession; and to protect the rights of professional translators. Translating 3,000 words per day is considered a very respectable day’s work (keep in mind the average textbook has over 100,000 words).

Going Rates for Translation

When I last bid for a translation project online, perhaps 15 years ago, Bulgarian translators were working for $.03/word, and Albanians for as little as $.02/word. Although there is no minimum standard wage for translations, the industry average here in the United States is between $.10 – $.12/word (although most freelancers charge more for a minimum fee when given small projects.) For large-volume translations, such as books, the per-word rate might be lower, as most professionals use software such as TRADOS to catch repetitive word recognition. Straker Translations, a firm specializing in Albanian translations with a significant online presence, charges between $.13 – .19/word, depending on language pair and turnaround-time.

By contrast, a professional translator who works in Tirana told me that (depending on textual difficulty and turnaround time), 900 lek would be considered a fair rate there (about $7.30).

Please note: Translation is real work; requiring a certain set of skills. We all like to be paid for what we do; and no one translates for free.

Unless, of course, your university professor so highly esteems your language skills that he asks you to – as a “personal favor.”

“Hello Marie,” began Elvis’s recent voice message.

“It happened again…a teacher of mine gave me a text, over 100 pages of medical information. It’s a project of an Asian student. He is using it to teach, and he asked, “Elvis, can you translate the first chapter? And then we will continue.” I actually translated those first 8 pages in about one hour, several days ago but I haven’t yet sent him the document, because I want him to realize that translation takes a while and that I’m busy. If I sent the e-mail as soon as I had the translation, he will think, ‘oh, that was quick!” Now, he is demanding that I meet him tomorrow and give him the work I’ve completed.”

The implication was that Elvis would be unable to refuse the remainder of the project, as he had already done several pages. I suggested he might refer his professor to a certified Albanian <-> English translator to take it on, either in Tirana or the United States. “Are you kidding me?” he laughed. “In Albania no one would pay for translations. It would be his entire salary…they choose Google Translator over everything.”

The quality control issue extends beyond academic texts. “Albina”, a translator who graduated from University of Tirana several years ago, told me that while she personally has not encountered students being coerced into translating for professors, she does know of publishing houses that hire students for book translation.

“This has seriously damaged the quality of foreign literature being translated into Albanian,” she said. “When people who simply ‘know English’ are hired to “translate” or “interpret”, it really devalues translation as a profession.” Elson adds, “Trust me when I say that Albanians do not hire translators at all. Not even editors. They say, ‘Oh you speak English. You can help me with something’. We reply, “But my English is not proficient enough,’ and they counter with, “That’s not a problem at all”. Elvis then qualifies his statement a bit: “Well, not all Albanians. Teachers at my school who happen to write the books and the subjects for us.”

Need for Reform

According to a student in the UMT’s pharmacy faculty, the first reform that must be made is editorial. “The head of each department should, at the very least, be checking the books for obvious errors before approving them for the students,” he said. Of course, as he added, the students should not be given material in English in the first place; but with so much of academia’s literature being produced in English, it is not feasible to expect original research to be published in Albanian at the same rate. The source texts are not the problem; the means of translation and distribution is. “I am surprised that the professors do not check the translation before using it as a final material,” Albina said. “I thought that if it is something the school needs officially, they would always hire professionals…but apparently not.”

I suggested the universities might allocate a budget for translation of necessary textbooks, to ensure quality and not put students into an unethical situation. Since the industry rate is several times lower in Albania than in Western Europe or the United States, the work would be done locally but not necessarily in-house. Master’s Degree candidates, as Lediana pointed out, might be better equipped to take on such projects, but should always be compensated for their work – from the university’s budget; not from the professor’s pocket.

Most importantly, students need to find their voice. The longer such accepted practices are allowed to continue, the more difficult it becomes to stem this sort of unethical behavior. Quality standards and principles of professionalism are hard to maintain when cash-strapped educational institutions, exhausted students and underpaid professors need to get through the day. In the end, however, all suffer from these (and similar) shortcuts. A future generation of doctors, nurses, and other profession deserves a quality education – which is, in large part, contingent upon quality translation of technical literature. The era of using students and Google Translate must end, if all Balkan universities are to be on a global playing field.


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