CPD: the Continuous Professional Debate

CPD is about becoming the best translator you can be. Or at least getting closer. It can be exciting and rewarding. It brings better jobs, better clients, more money and more satisfaction. But it’s not just an individual thing.

CPD is also the key to giving our profession a sorely needed status boost by proclaiming a collective commitment to raising our game. To showing ourselves as a professional community that’s serious about standards and about the duty of care we owe to clients.

Promoting our profession’s status and raising standards go hand in hand, as two raisons d’être of the translator institutes and associations.

Ensuring we’re up to it

How does our profession ensure that translation practitioners are up to the job? Currently, by endorsing translators as competent professionals once they’ve met a standard, e.g. by passing the MITI exam.

And what’s wrong with that? If you’re clutching your freshly framed accreditation in your hot little hand, not much; it feels pretty good. But then what? With the present system, you certify someone as competent and then leave them to their own devices for a few decades until they retire. Experience certainly can make you a much better translator. If you work at it.

But can practice alone keep you on top of your game? Time can also bring rustiness, complacency and bad habits – how many have you picked up behind the wheel since you passed your driving test, for example? Without continually challenging and reappraising ourselves, we risk stagnating. Our subject areas evolve and change, as do our languages – if we don’t keep up, we may go the same way as benighted ex-MEP Godfrey Bloom, who thinks that “slut” still means a slovenly housewife.

To be taken seriously, be seen to take CPD seriously

So it looks like some CPD is not only advisable but actually necessary – for everyone – even just to keep ticking over. And to get better and better, we need more.

A profession that doesn’t insist on CPD is saying it’s all right not to do any. If we don’t mandate CPD, we risk giving the wrong impression, especially for a profession that needs to raise its standing as much as ours. To echo what the Law Society Chief Executive said when the Solicitors Regulation Authority scrapped the requirement for solicitors to do 16 hours of CPD, “At a time when it is almost universally accepted that undertaking CPD is the mark of a professional, the abolition of the requirement may send the wrong signal to employers and clients.” So, to be taken seriously, a profession that wants to raise its game and its profile surely needs to make CPD an essential part of its practitioners’ careers. Somehow.

And that’s the tricky bit. For here we have a dilemma. If you don’t mandate CPD, it’s effectively OK to do none; if you do mandate it, various practical problems start to complicate the picture (to say nothing of the resistance in the ranks).

Relevant CPD

First, what kinds of CPD should the profession and our institutes be looking at? There are courses and resources that help translators to be more efficient and productive, to market and sell our services more effectively, and to plan our business strategy more imaginatively, liberated from psychological blocks. This kind of CPD seems to elicit a certain biliousness in some quarters online, even though it can be useful and fulfilling, but none of it actually helps us to produce better translations. If your plumber has been on a business coaching course, are you interested? If your accountant has learned how to improve her website, could you care less? Thought not.

Business and soft-skills training can form part of a balanced CPD diet, but there’s no need to make them compulsory. What makes a difference to our clients is our source and target language skills, our writing skills, our proofreading rigour, and our subject and terminology knowledge, so those areas seem the logical and proper areas to prioritise.

Learning from the pros

Not that any of this implies we should confine ourselves to an inward-looking focus on translation skills alone – or look only to other translators for our training, gold mines of information though they are.

Courses, webinars or books by professional lawyers or marketers, scientists or engineers, copywriters or business experts provide a vital element of our development. Those guys are the pros in their fields.

Getting enough of a good thing

If the translation profession did mandate CPD, how could we go about it? How much is enough? How could we measure that?

The colour-by-numbers approach of setting annual CPD points targets is counterproductive, like any ill-thought-through blunt instrument (league tables, anyone?). The absolute value of a book, course, webinar or conference is unquantifiable, precisely because it depends on the individual translator – what’s valuable for me now might not be for you, ever. How many DE>EN physics translators would benefit from a course on sales copywriting in Italian, for example? The CPD points method creates a perverse incentive to take the easiest courses with the most points. A dubious use of time. A box-ticking exercise, as Simon Berrill recently put it.

In the absence of a line manager, the only person who knows what CPD I need and how much is yours truly – or someone who understands what I do and has examined my personal circumstances closely (more on that in a bit).

From well-meaning exhortation to CPD with teeth

And another thing. If we made CPD compulsory, we’d need to verify whether translators are doing it. What sense would there be in introducing a rule but failing to enforce it? We’d be back with the same problem of sending the wrong messages.

But how could that work? Perhaps every translator could submit a CPD record and plan, which is how the Chartered Linguist scheme operates, and I actually quite enjoy that as an audit exercise. But I doubt if the institutes have the resources to audit everyone, and anyway we don’t want them to become snoops or nannies. Then there’s the question of whether the outside world would see a self-assessment, self-regulatory, “honesty box” system as of any value.

Embracing the inevitable

Self-regulation of some sort, I contend, is inevitable, so let’s see what we can make of it. An element of trust in people’s integrity is essential in any profession: the whole concept of assessment revolves around it. For who can accurately evaluate a professional’s competence but another member of the same profession? Who can mark my MITI exam but a fellow translator? Who can assess the merits of an academic article but another academic working in the same field? Even if the idea of translators certifying translators has its limitations, the whole business of assessment would be meaningless without this trust.

Learning from the profs

Speaking of academe, the peer review system for scholarly publications is well established and accepted, even though it, too, depends on the honesty of individuals. Maybe our profession could usefully borrow the concept of peer review.

Translators could pair up and scrutinise each other’s CPD records in a form of two-way appraisal, to add an element of objectivity to our CPD. Still too self-regulatey for ya? Well, if academics can be trusted to refrain from merely scratching each other’s backs (i.e. from letting one another’s substandard work pass scrutiny), why couldn’t translators? The peer-to-peer approach could get around the logistical problems inherent in attempting to officially vet every course or every kind of informal CPD.

Putting it all together

Ultimately, CPD isn’t only about us. Besides helping to enrich our professional lives and further our careers, it also helps us deliver even better translations and can contribute to elevating our profession’s status.

To achieve that, let’s have a CPD system that’s not only robust and meaningful but also allows translators to retain the discretion we need. A system that concerns itself only with directly relevant kinds of CPD and that is based on peer-to-peer appraisal rather than some fatally flawed points system. Let’s have a profession-wide, joined-up, grown-up debate, not just defensive individual responses along the lines of “I’ve got 94 years’ experience, therefore I know best” or “The institutes’ ideas are rubbish, but I’m not offering any of my own”.

Let’s have a constructive discussion about CPD based on a determination to raise standards, individually and collectively, to benefit the profession as a whole, our clients and – especially – the good folks who actually use our translations.

For another post of mine on using your imagination and your network of colleagues to supercharge your CPD, hop over to the eCPD blog.

Thanks to @HelenOcleeBrown for a spot of timely editorial consultancy on an earlier draft. All views are my own.