A Study on Student Translators’ Digital Literacy | January 2018 | Translation Journal

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A Study on Student Translators’ Digital Literacy


With the development of the Internet and smart devices, translators have become more dependent on the Internet for information searching during the translation process in order to correctly understand and render the source text. This paper attempts to explore the digital literacy of student translators, including how and where they search for the intended information, and whether they evaluate the credibility of the collected information. The research employs questionnaires and screen recording to observe the translation process of 15 student translators. Results of this study may indicate the current digital literacy of student translators. It is hoped that this study will present readers with an understanding of digital literacy as well as its relation with translators, and thus serve as a reference for both translators and translator-training institutions.

Keywords: translation, digital literacy, screen recording

1. Introduction

In the digital age, the Internet has become increasingly accessible. Coupled with the development of smart devices and mobile Internet connection, it is possible to access the Internet almost anytime anywhere. Searching for information has never been easier.

In 2009, former president of the United States Barack Obama highlighted the need "to be adept in the skills necessary to effectively navigate the Information Age" because informed and educated citizens are essential to the functioning of a modern democratic society (The White House, 2009). Translators, who have to render texts that cover all types of topics and languages, are also required to collect abundant information for their countless decisions during translation. They need to look for information from credible sources when faced with unfamiliar topics, concepts or terms, and also have to find information efficiently to shorten the time for translation thus, knowing what information is needed and where to obtain the required information is an indispensible skill for translators.

Shen (2011) studies the information needs and searching behaviors of fiction translators through the framework of information literacy. She found that fiction translators require a variety of information to satisfy different needs, including language structure, translational knowledge, theme knowledge, and cultural understandings. Shen also found that "whenever fiction translators have any information needs, most of them search for information on search engines first[1]" (Shen, 2011: 87, translated by the author). Nevertheless, the participants in her study faced several problems while searching for information online, such as being unable to find sufficient information, overwhelmed by search results, or misled by inappropriate information. Therefore, whether translators are competent to search for information skillfully and engage in online activities is yet to be examined.

This study attempts to observe the information searching process of student translators and uncover whether there are digital literacy skills that need to be improved. Based on the objectives, this study aims to answer the following questions:

  • Do student translators know how and where to find information? Do they evaluate the credibility of the information they obtained?
  • How digitally literate are student translators? What may be the digital literacy skills that student translators need to improve?

The expected outcome of this study is a discovery of student translators' digital literacy level as well as an evaluation of their information searching process. It is hoped that the findings can identify the problems of student translators' digital literacy skills, add more materials to the related field of translation research, and ultimately provide references for improving translators' translating efficiency and quality.

2. Literature Review

During the translation process, translators are often faced with texts encompassing a wide variety of issues, themes, and specialized knowledge. Therefore, to correctly understand the source text and produce a quality target text in another language, it is essential for translators to know not only where but how to obtain information of quality. According to the European Master's in Translation (2009), a partnership project between the Directorate-General for Translation of the European Commission and various European universities, translators should possess six equally important competences, which are language competence, thematic competence, technological competence, information mining competence, intercultural competence, and translation service provision competence (see Figure 1).

digital literacy 1

Figure 1. The EMT Translator Competences Chart (made by the writer)

Among the six competences, three are closely related to information searching: information mining competence, thematic competence, and technological competence. Information mining competence comprises of several skills such as using technological tools to dig into archives. Thematic competence is the ability to find information to better understand the themes of a document, while technological competence means the effective use of a range of software and tools to assist in translation. In other words, thematic competence focuses more on the ability to seek information, and technological competence stresses more on the ability to utilize different tools in the process of translation or information searching. To gain a better understanding of the needs and searching process of information, the concept of information literacy should first be mapped out.

2.1 Information Literacy

Information literacy means the ability to efficiently seek, access and evaluate information. The phrase first appeared in a report written by Zurkowski for the National Commission on Libraries and Information Science in 1974. According to Zurkowski, information literacy means the techniques and skills required for "utilizing the wide range of information tools as well as primary sources in molding information solutions to their problems" (Zurkowski, 1974: 6). Since then, efforts have been made to better define the concept of information literacy. The United States National Forum on Information Literacy (NFIL) defines information literacy as "the ability to know when there is a need for information, to be able to identify, locate, evaluate, and effectively use that information for the issue or problem at hand" (NFIL, 2012).

The American Library Association (ALA) defines information literacy as a set of abilities to "recognize when information is needed and have the ability to locate, evaluate, and use effectively the needed information" (2000: 2) and proposes five standards to assess the information literacy level of students (ibid): (1) The information literate student determines the nature and extent of the information needed. (2) The information literate student accesses needed information effectively and efficiently. (3) The information literate student evaluates information and its sources critically and incorporates selected information into his or her knowledge base and value system. (4) The information literate student, individually or as a member of a group, uses information effectively to accomplish a specific purpose. (5) The information literate student understands many of the economic, legal, and social issues surrounding the use of information and accesses and uses information ethically and legally.

Based on previous studies, Won (2003) defines information literacy as the ability to "effectively and efficiently search, assess and utilize information for problem solving" (2003: 1), and proposes a procedural model for information literacy. The model consists of four parts: confirmation of information needs, information acquisition, information evaluation, and information utilization. The first step is to confirm the information needs and understand what type of information is required. Common types of information include texts, images, videos, and numeral data. The second step is to search for the information needed. Won (2003) suggests seeking information from various sources such as libraries, the Internet, and other media such as broadcasts, governmental publications or conferences. The third step is to assess the credibility of the information found. For example, it is important to avoid outdated information and identify between opinions and facts. For the fourth step, utilization of information, Won (2003) suggests several ways to use the acquired information, such as taking notes, writing reports, or holding exhibitions.

With the development of new technologies, people can search for information from new sources (e.g. online forums, cloud storage platforms) and devices (e.g. tablets, smartphones), and thus a new term, digital literacy, emerged with a concept different from information literacy.

2.2 Digital Literacy

Digital literacy covers skills including how to find, use, evaluate, create, and communicate information through the use of digital technologies. Gilster (1997) first proposed and defined the term digital literacy as "the ability to understand and use information in multiple formats from a wide range of sources when it is presented via computers" (1997: 1). Prensky (2001) observed the shift of students' information sources as well, and named the generation who were born into the digital world "digital natives" (Prensky, 2001). Prensky believes that digital natives, who have spent their entire lives using and surrounded by digital devices, are fundamentally different from their predecessors in the ways they think and process information. Furber (2012) defines digital literacy as "the basic skill or ability to use a computer confidently, safely and effectively" (Furber, 2012: 17), and believes that digital literacy is "an essential skill for all in the modern age" (ibid: 21). Furber also found that being raised in a digital, media-saturated world does not necessarily mean they are digitally literate, and thus warned that it is dangerous to consider digital literacy "a subject unnecessary to be taught and learnt" (ibid: 21).

The Open University, a publicuniversity and one of the biggest universities in the UK for undergraduate education in terms of student numbers[2], defines digital literacy as the skills and capabilities of "using digital technologies to achieve personal, study and work-related goals" (Digital and Information Literacy Framework, 2012). The Open University also provided the Digital Literacy Skills Checklist (2012) for students to evaluate their own digital literacy skills. There are four categories of a total of 30 skills. The four categories of skills are Understanding Digital Practices, Finding Information, Using Information, and Creating Information. For each skill, there are three options to choose from: very confident, quite confident, and not confident. The checklist was designed to help students measure their level of confidence in a range of digital literacy skills. 
The Open University believes that, in a digital age, these are skills not only useful in peoples’ personal lives, but can be invaluable at work and essential to employability (ibid). 

2.3 The Difference between Information and Digital Literacy

Based on the studies reviewed, information literacy and digital literacy both emphasize the skills and competences regarding information searching, and the importance of evaluating the credibility of the information found. However, there are two main differences between information literacy and digital literacy: (1) the source of information and (2) the usage of the latest digital devices. The first difference is that digital literacy emphasizes the information found online (e.g. websites or digital files) and through digital devices (e.g. applications on smartphones and photos taken with cameras). Information literacy, according to Spilka, "could refer to traditional print media and does not necessarily refer to technology or to digital forms of communication" (Spilka, 2009: 7). The second difference is that, other than finding and using information, digital literacy skills includes a variety of competences concerning the usage of digital devices and the activities online, such as basic knowledge of computers, the ability to engage in online forums and communities, and an understanding of issues raised by the development of technologies.

As summed up by the Open University, the essential difference between information literacy and digital literacy may be that

"digital literacy includes the ability to find and use information (otherwise known as information literacy) but goes beyond this to encompass communication, collaboration and teamwork, social awareness in the digital environment, understanding of e-safety and creation of new information" (Digital and Information Literacy Framework, 2012).

Translators nowadays mostly work with computers and seek information online, and digital devices such as smartphones and tablets are also useful tools for translating, word processing or information searching. As described by Gilster, digital literacy is "information literacy in the digital age" (1997: 31). The use of a variety of digital devices such as computers, smart phones, tablets and mobile applications is not discussed in information literacy. Therefore, this study examines the participants' information searching process through the framework of digital literacy.

3. Methodology

The study employed a questionnaire and screen recordings to explore student translators' digital literacy in Taiwan. After evaluating their own digital literacy level through 30 questions listed in the questionnaire, the participants translated the selected materials in groups while being screen-recorded by computer software and observed by the writer for the non-textual factors involved.

The participants in this study were college students enrolled in the course Introduction to Translation offered by the Department of Foreign Languages and Literatures at National Taiwan University. The students were in the second semester of the course at the time the study was conducted thus, the students have gained a basic understanding of translation, but have not accumulated many practical experiences in translation. A total of 16 student translators enrolled in the course, and 15 of them agreed to participate in the study.

The texts used for the translation task were four promotional and advertising texts randomly selected from the Internet. The advertisements were about chicken essence, 4G Internet service, mobile application, and dumplings respectively. The participants had to translate the Chinese contents, such as product names and slogans, into English.

The questionnaire used in this study was obtained from the Open University (see 2.2). The study used the checklist as a questionnaire to let participants answer their level of confidence for each skill and evaluate their own digital literacy level. By analyzing the answers among each category, it is possible to uncover how confident they are in using these skills, and provide a better understanding of the digital literacy of student translators.

An important tool used in this study is screen-recording software. Many observational studies have been conducted to study translators' translation process because it gives researchers the capability of "accessing the black box and gaining a better understanding of what goes on during translation" and thus "advance the field of study, open new areas of research, and improve the way translation is viewed and taught" (Lauffer, 2002).

4. Results and Discussion

According to the questionnaires, 38% of participants were very confident in their digital literacy skills, and 44% were quite confident (see Figure 2). It may be inferred that student translators are generally confident in their digital literacy skills. Nevertheless, according to the results of screen recordings, it is likely that they may be overconfident in their digital literacy.

digital literacy 2b

Figure 2. The overall confidence level

The following sections discuss the digital literacy skills related to translation. The discussion follows the order of the four categories in the questionnaire, which are Understanding Digital Practices, Finding Information, Using Information, and Creating Information.

4.1 Understanding Digital Practices

For translators, one of the most important skills in this category is to choose the right tools to search for required information. Different digital devices have their own advantages and disadvantages. For example, smartphones and tablets have higher portability and provide highly customized searching experiences through personalized settings and configurations, while personal laptop computers are less portable but provides stronger computing capability. Knowing when to use what kind of tools may greatly shorten the translation process and improve the translation quality.

According to the videos recorded, all participants went to online dictionaries such as Dictionary.com or Oxford Online Dictionary for definitions or synonyms. It is also worth noting that, while using computers to search information and type up the translated text, eight of the 15 participants continuingly switched to their smartphones to look up English vocabularies. This may greatly be due to the fact that, by using the dictionary applications on their smartphones, participants did not have to go through an extra procedure (i.e. search for online dictionary websites on search engines). Simply by touching the dictionary's application icon on their phones, they could enter the word they want to look up in the dictionaries they were already familiar with. Another reason why student translators may prefer using smartphones to look up vocabularies may be that, according to one of the participants, most dictionary applications allow users to build up their own word list for English learning. For example, an application provided by Dictionary.com allows users to build customized word lists and quizzes for English learning. Clearly, using dictionary applications on smartphones provides a more customized user experience and allows people to memorize new words in addition to looking up definitions, and may thus benefit student translators' learning process.

In the questionnaire, when answering the question "choosing the right tool to find, use, or create information," seven participants gave a positive response, seven neutral, and only one gave a negative response. Also, all participants were very or quite confident in "Using online tools and websites to find and record information online" (see Figure 3). These results corresponded with the actual translation process recorded.

digital literacy 3


Figure 3. Confidence level in choosing digital tools

Another important digital literacy skill in this category is to understand one's digital footprint. Digital footprint means a person's traceable digital activities, contributions and communications. In "Explaining what happens to information you put online: your digital footprint," only two participants answered “Not Confident”. Nevertheless, at the end of the translation session, five participants left the classroom without logging out their Google or Facebook account. They were not aware that strangers are able to post any information on their social network or work account. For translators, underestimating the importance of digital footprints and security may cause problems such as leaking clients' email, or confidential documents. In this light, the overconfidence in digital practices of the participants may jeopardize their account security, digital identity, and even their career life.

4.2 Finding Information

The ability to search for information online is essential to translators in the digital age because, compared with printed media, online information is more up-to-date and easily accessible. Therefore, knowing where and how to obtain information online may greatly enhance the efficiency and quality of translation tasks. Nevertheless, search engines generally display hundreds of millions of search results for all types of queries. Therefore, knowing how to limit the numbers of search results and how to filter search results quickly are also important skills to translators.

According to the videos, when it comes to finding information online, the participants fall into two categories. In the first category, the participants entered whatever words that came to their minds into the search engine without effective strategies. For example, when looking for the English phrase for 財神 (cái shén, the god of fortune), one participant simply entered the phrase "財神" in Google. The search results showed only advertisements, images and Chinese definitions of財神, and the intended information was not found, because the participant neither added additional keywords such as "English" or "gods" nor used filters such as "websites in English only" to refine the search results. This type of participants would then ask their team members to look up the information they failed to find, or add other words as additional search terms to narrow down the search results soon after the failed attempt. However, if the participants had thought more thoroughly about what type of information they needed, they may finish their translation tasks with greater efficiency.

In the second category, before searching, the participants would think for several seconds about what information was needed and where to find it. For example, when translating the advertisement for chicken essence, one participant used the movie title "藥命效應" (Limitless) and "wiki" as query, found the English Wikipedia web page of the movie, and use the plot description as the parallel text. The movie Limitless is a thriller film in which the protagonist takes a drug that drastically improves his brain functions. Therefore, the participant looked for phrases that were used to describe the effects brought by special supplements to complete the Chinese-to-English translation task. By taking some time to ponder about what, how and where to search before typing the search queries, translators may acquire information that are more suitable for their translation tasks with efficiency.

Another important indicator to assess online information searching skills is to observe the ability to use search operators or advanced search functions to refine the search results. By 2008, Google has indexed more than one trillion websites (Google Official Blog, 2008) and there may be hundreds of thousands of search results for each query. Therefore, translators have to filter the results to improve the efficiency of translation tasks. When using Google, for example, the symbol "-"can be put in front of a word to exclude words from search results, and queries can be typed between quotation marks to search for an exact match of phrases (Google Search Help, 2017). Google also provides various filters, such as language, region, last updated date, domain, and file type, to help people narrow down search results on its Advanced Search page (ibid).

According to the questionnaire, 12 participants were very or quite confident in "Using advanced search options to limit and refine your search." Nevertheless, according to the screen recordings, only two participants applied abovementioned symbols or filters when searching for information. The results implied that the participants might be overconfident in their information searching skills, and corresponded with Lauffer's statement that observational studies are useful when researchers conduct studies with the attempts of "understanding what translators actually do compared to what they are assumed to be doing" (Lauffer, 2002: 59).

After limiting the number of search results, there may still be thousands of matching results. Knowing which sources are credible and knowing how to skim web pages are two skills that can be used to quickly filter a huge number of search results. It is strongly believed that renowned news websites are more credible than paparazzi magazines or personal blogs, and referential websites such as online dictionaries or encyclopedias are often more reliable than community-driven forums. Nevertheless, all news websites are more or less biased, and information on Wikipedia may not be 100% accurate either because anyone can edit the contents. Therefore, to avoid mistranslation, translators must understand which sources are reliable, and how to evaluate the credibility of the information obtained.

According to the questionnaire, 10 participants were confident in filtering large numbers of search results quickly, and 13 participants were confident in skimming web pages to quickly get to relevant information. As shown in the videos, most participants did omit several seemingly unreliable search results and found the information they need in only a few minutes. However, 12 participants tended to read whole web pages when looking for certain information only three participants used the searching function to quickly locate the information within pages. It can be inferred that, while the participants were good at picking reliable sources from large numbers of search results, they could still further work on the skills to skim within web pages to quickly locate the information required and thus shorten the total time spent on translation tasks.

4.3 Using Information

After collecting information from credible sources, translators have to evaluate the credibility of the information collected in order to not produce target text containing false information or inadequate wordings because "increasingly, information comes to individuals in unfiltered formats, raising questions about its authenticity, validity, and reliability" (ALA, 2000: 6). According to the questionnaire, two participants were not confident in the skill "Assessing whether an online resource or person is credible and trustworthy". When the participants were actually translating, all of them did evaluate the information they found, but did not evaluate every piece of information they found. In fact, one of the participants made a major mistranslation as a result. When looking up the English word for 農曆 (nóng lì, the lunar calendar), the participant searched the term "farmer calendar" on Google, and saw approximately 30 million search results. The large number made him believe that "farmer calendar" was the English term for 農曆 and thus put it in his translation without further evaluation. Should the participant further searched the term with Google Images, the participant would see that a farmer calendar is apparently not a calendar for farming, but calendars featuring attractive male farmers. This type of mistake may cause serious damage to professional translators. By improving one's digital literacy skills, the risk of making this type of mistake may be greatly lowered.

When participants shared their findings with their group members, there were mainly two types of discussion: face-to-face discussion and computer-mediated discussion. Three groups discussed face-to-face, and three groups discussed mainly through computers. The first type of collaboration, discussing face-to-face, was more traditional, with each member finding information online independently. They would then discuss what they have found, and one of their group members would integrate their opinions and type in a unified text file. Working in this way may be less efficient because it was inconvenient to share what they have read in a few words and it was time-consuming to organize every group member's opinions in the end. The second type of collaboration was made through the Internet among the three groups using this method, two groups shared information through Facebook Messenger, an online instant messaging service, and one group collaborated in real-time by using Google Documents. By using messaging services, group members could share information instantly. They were less affected by ambient noises because they mainly discussed through typed text. By using real-time collaboration platforms such as Google Documents, all group members edited the same text file at the same time, and whatever changes made would be reflected on all of the group members' screens. Therefore, every group member could easily share the information they have found, and keep track of the sentences the other members were working on, which may be more efficient than face-to-face discussion.

4.4 Creating Information

In addition to collecting and evaluating information, people with digital literacy should also create or share information online to further increase the amount of information on the Internet (the Open University, 2012). For the translation task in this study, creating information means translating four promotional and advertising texts. For translators, creating and contributing information to the Internet may be sharing one's glossary or experience publicly, discussing problems related to translation with others, or adding comments to other people's translation online.

There are several online communities and forums for translators to share their thoughts and problems related to translation. With the aid of the search function, novice translators may easily find issues that have been discussed previously or have been solved if they are faced with similar problems. Not only will the translator's problem be solved, future translators who are faced with similar problems may find this discussion through search engines as well. According to the questionnaire, Creating Information is the category that participants were least confident in. To encourage discussions on the Internet and increase the amount of information online, student translators should learn how to create information and contribute to online communities aside from finishing their own translation tasks.

5 Conclusion

This paper points out the important role of digital literacy in the translation process and presents a discovery of student translators' information searching process. The findings of this study point to three particular types of trainings needed. First, student translators should understand the significance of digital literacy. There are different types of websites, search engines, media, and forums on the Internet, so student translators not only have to understand where to find information efficiently but also how to properly interact with other translators on different platforms. Second, student translators should be equipped with advanced knowledge about search engines. Professional translators are often faced with professional texts with terms or documents that may not be easily found with the basic search functions. Therefore, it is vital for student translators to learn how to access archives or give advanced commands on search engines to search for information that is more difficult to find. Third, student translators should create more information online by joining discussions or asking questions. By identifying the conditions and problems of student translators' current digital literacy in Taiwan, it is hoped that this study can contribute to the related field of translation research, develop an awareness of the significance of digital literacy skills for translators, and ultimately improve translators’ efficiency and ability.

This study records the translation process of student translators with an attempt to unveil their digital literacy and searching process. Nevertheless, much research still remains to be done to gain a better understanding of the information searching process of translators and improve the training and practices in this field. Future researchers may conduct similar studies with a wider variety of participants. Also, as the four texts used in the translation task were all promotional and advertising texts, it may be of interest for future research whether the results would be similar when tested in different text types. Moreover, this study has shown the value of screen recording in collecting rich empirical records. The screen recording method may be useful in other types of translation studies such as economics or legal translation. Hopefully, as there is more and more research about the searching process and digital literacy of translators, translators can learn how and where to find appropriate information with efficiency.


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