When CPD becomes Compulsory Passive Diversion

20-07-2015

Continuing Professional Development or CPD is commonly defined as “the means by which people maintain their knowledge and skills related to their professional lives.” That sounds reasonable enough – you acquire your skills and then make sure they don’t go rusty by regularly brushing up on them.

But what constitutes CPD? For a responsible professional, it would be nigh on impossible to avoid CPD. As a translator, I do a lot more than “maintain” my knowledge; with every job I improve it, often by conducting thorough research or through exchanges with other colleagues or contacts working in areas I have specialised in. Professional translators are a little like doctors or lawyers, most of us can translate any fairly general document, but anything more specialised requires in-depth knowledge, research and/or further training. A translator's understanding of a subject should ideally be commensurate with that of its author. Simultaneously, we must ensure that we do a lot more than simply “maintain” our language skills which generally, by the very nature of our work, are also constantly being improved.

In the past, CPD was something that translators engaged in privately; thanks to generous volunteers, some novices also had the benefit of being on mentoring schemes. For many professions, from the British Medical Council to The Worshipful Company of Farriers, CPD is now a recommendation or requirement. However, some professional associations have revoked the mandatory requirement, viewing it as a box-ticking exercise.

In recent years, the translation profession has seen a dramatic proliferation in courses, talks, books, conferences and webinars – a whole industry has mushroomed around the provision of CPD. There is arguably more freely available information out there than ever before, yet packaged-up and paid-for CPD still keeps coming. As yet, none of the professional associations I belong to stipulates that CPD is obligatory, although one is a little contradictory by stating in its Code of Professional Conduct that I am “required” to undertake CPD, while almost in the same breath (on its website) telling me that it is not mandatory. For years there has been talk of CPD becoming compulsory and some translation associations already award points for “accredited” courses, others stipulate a set number of hours instead. I’m not certain if hours have a direct correlation to points or if there is a more complex yet logical mathematical formula for calculating the intrinsic value of one piece of CPD over another. 

Another professional association I belong to encourages CPD and has an optional scheme whereby members are required to “engage in relevant CPD”, and once a year review what they have learned over the previous 12 months then set their development objectives for the coming year. The system aims to be methodical and measurable – an annual self-appraisal. They do not award points, but does this make the process any less relevant than some of the ‘courses’ on offer? In my opinion, it is when you introduce a system of accreditation and logging of points that questions need to be raised.

To be clear, I am not arguing that CPD is not highly desirable; we have a responsibility to our clients to expand our knowledge and ensure our skills are razor-sharp. I am also confident that many CPD courses are robust and provide immeasurable benefits to those attending them. I like the idea that my doctor or lawyer is attending conferences and is au fait with the latest medical innovations and research or changes in legislation. Equally, as a buyer of translation, I think I’d probably quite like to know that the person doing my medical translation had progressed beyond flash cards and “la plume de ma tante” and knew the difference between osteoarthritis and rheumatoid arthritis. But would I be more comforted to know that this knowledge had been acquired through years of experience or learned by sitting through a one-hour conference talk or webinar delivered by another translator, with no further evaluation that anything had been absorbed? This barrister makes an excellent point about what can happen when a nominal value is ascribed to CPD and it is simply being purchased to satisfy a body’s regulatory requirement.

Aside from trying to evaluate what each CPD unit or course should be worth, is it not also important for the association accrediting the courses to question who is delivering the CPD? In my profession, these courses are still largely delivered by other translators, which can result in the blind leading the blind. Can these individuals point to their peer-reviewed publications to support their position on a particular subject? Is there any academic rigour to what they are delivering? Has their course been accredited by a reputable outside body or academic institution or are any offering courses leading to regulated qualifications? Without this, the whole process risks becoming the target of commercial interests and dragging down professional standards by providing spurious courses delivered by unqualified individuals.

Furthermore, what topics constitute CPD? I can understand that anything which improves my subject knowledge and linguistic skills or that enhances my duty of care to my client has a legitimate case for being considered as CPD. However, why is working regularly and full-time in one’s field exempt from accreditation, whereas business, marketing and even “well-being” courses are currently classified as CPD and earn you points? I presume yoga will be next. I’ve been practising yoga for over 30 years and while I can certainly vouch for its many benefits, I would not expect a client to accept that as hard evidence of my ability to produce a high-quality translation.

Not only have some bodies failed to define what constitutes formal or informal CPD, but CPD requirements for someone entering the profession and aiming to specialise in medical translations will be vastly different to those of a translator with 40 years’ experience in literary translation. You cannot have one-size-fits-all CPD requirements. Moreover, I have not yet seen any CPD offering that focuses exclusively on language aptitude. Judging by some of the terminology queries I see cropping up on translators’ e-groups, I fear that subject knowledge is overtaking language or indeed translation skills as an inherent requirement for a competent translator. If there is one form of CPD that I would consider essential for any translator, it is frequent visits or preferably extended periods of residence in one’s source and target language countries. Curiously, at present neither seem to qualify for any CPD points at all, yet for some associations balancing your inner yin and yang does.
21-07-2015
Steve Vitek
Yes, the biggest problem with "Continuous Professional Education" is that the bodies who want to educate us and certify us as well educated, such as the American Translators Association, are self-appointed and not necessarily qualified to do what they are trying to do.

Which means that the whole thing is basically a joke if you look at it objectively. The main purpose is clearly to force ATA members to do what the ATA wants them to do, no matter how nonsensical the activity might be.
21-07-2015
Lisa Simpson
You're right Steve and, more worryingly, the providers aren't all qualified either. At its worst it's become a money-making exercise: selling knowledge and the promise of financial gain in lieu of learning on the job and just plain experience.
14-08-2015
Lisa Simpson
A few translators have recently filled me in on the lamentable situation in the Netherlands in which “certified translators” must clock up a set number of CPD points in order to retain this status. These points can only be awarded through courses/webinars run by “accredited” providers. A golden opportunity for businesses looking to fleece translators ;-)

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