Review of MA Theory and Practice of Translation at SOAS, University of London

soasToday’s guest post has been written by Jennifer O’Donnell on her MA in Theory and Practice of Translation at SOAS and it is part of this blog’s series on MA courses in Translation and Interpreting (currently divided into European and Non-European sections). If you have done an MA relatively recently and would be interested in writing about your experience to help future students, then please get in touch. You’ll find more information about writing for this blog here and a list of all guest posts here

As far as I was concerned, the School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS) was one of the best language schools in Europe. It was a school that stuck in my mind as prestigious, hard to get into and seriously driven to improving the understanding of other cultures and languages. Actually studying there was… not what I had imagined.

I had wanted to do an MA in Translation for a while, but it had always been a plan B for if my plans after University didn’t work out. For certain reasons they didn’t and I decided to enroll in the program and begin the path on becoming a translator. My MA began in September 2014 and focused on Japanese-English translation.


These are the subjects I took; I cannot comment on the other modules provided by the school nor for different subjects.

  • Translation Theory
  • Japanese to English Translation
  • English to Japanese Translation
  • Translation Technology: SDL Trados Programs, AntConc, Aegisub
  • Japanese Literature
  • Dissertation (6000-word translation, 4000-word commentary)

The course is split into 2 terms of 10 weeks (with a reading week in the middle) followed by an exam term and then the summer is for dissertation (due in September). So out of the year you get 18 weeks of classes, with 7 hours of classes a week (126 hours of classes for an entire year). Then exams in May.

Although you might think you have a lot of free time, you’re still expected to do a lot of reading and work hard on your translations.

Translation Theory

This was the core module that was held for both terms and that everyone taking the MA attended. This meant a mix of students who specialized in all kinds of languages and backgrounds. This makes seminars interesting because of everyone’s different perspectives. The lectures were taught by the MA convener.

However, although the lectures and seminars were interesting, they were very academically focused and it wasn’t made clear how relevant it was to our translation modules or the translation industry. They were also often very dry.

Translation Classes

We had classes on translation, Japanese to English and English to Japanese, with a good mix of Japanese students and English students. Each week we would have a 2-hour lecture and 1-hour seminar, focusing on a different type of text each week (journalism, technical, tourism, etc.).

However, there wasn’t enough time to go in-depth into each topic. We translated a document for the seminar and would discuss it, but an hour wasn’t enough time to discuss the translations either. Although we covered a lot of topics, it felt very fast and we were never taught how to translate texts, just what we did wrong in that specific translation.

Translation Technology

This was one of the most useful modules. It was a 2-term class that was created by a PhD student called Burcin Mustafa for the last 3 years. He taught us how to use Trados 2014 and term management programs, going over useful skills for working in translation, including project management and working in teams.

However, the university chose not to have him teach the course for the second term, and removed a lot of the aspects of the course that were initially advertised. The second term was instead taught by the Theory lecturer, but I felt he was unaware of the aim of the module or how the programs worked. This meant we spent 10 weeks on a subtitling program you can learn how to use in 1.

Japanese Literature

This was a 1-term class where we read translations of modern Japanese texts analyzing them in their historic contexts. It was incredibly interesting and had a good mix of analysis, history and cultural context. When the lecturer missed a class, he did his best to re-organize it and help us study for the exams.

The School

The school itself was a lot smaller than I had imagined. It was very liberal and very studenty, and did not have the professional atmosphere I had expected. If you have completed your student life and want a professional, driven atmosphere, then this might not be the school for you. If you like getting involved in worldwide events and liberal agendas, then this might be more of your thing.

The library is very big and has a wide range of excellent books! But the lighting’s really bad and it’s hard to find seats when you want to study.

Information is badly circulated at SOAS. I only found out when the dissertation needed to be handed in shortly before the deadline, and I had received no clear guidelines for how to do the dissertation. Lots of information is emailed out for careers events, student support and from the union, but I found it was not very well laid out. There was also the mix-up with class teaching during the second term due to bad communication. And even though I did Japanese, I received NO emails from the Japan department, only linguistics. I ended up missing a lot of Japanese-related guest lectures that I would have found interesting. I also received no information for my graduation and actually missed it because I didn’t know when it was being held.


There was an incident this year where one of the buildings (Dinwiddy House) was overrun by mice and cockroaches and was very dirty. It constantly had water outages followed by flooding. Broken locks. Broken washing machines (even the new ones). Constantly broken lift. Despite a renter’s strike and continued problems, the company Sanctuary Students did little to solve the problems. Postgraduate students were constantly disrupted as strangers were allowed to live in apartments over the summer, and they were never informed that there would be strangers in their homes.

I lived off campus 1-1.5 hours away but I had friends that lived in Sanctuary Students accommodation. I’m shocked that SOAS are still continuing to recommend this accommodation to future students. So I strongly suggest you avoid SOAS recommended accommodation and make the extra effort to rent somewhere else.

Summary of MA Theory and Practice of Translation at SOAS

Needless to say I was disappointed mostly by the lack of vocational training received at SOAS. After graduating and beginning as a freelance translator I had to re-learn how to translate (I took a summer school in translation, I had to teach myself (with the help of others) how to market myself, write a CV for translation, how to get accepted by agencies, how to get work. Basically how to make a career out of translation.

The lecturers did want to educate us, and they worked incredibly hard. However, I think it was the administration side that let them, and us students, down. Poor choices made by higher-ups in terms of course content and appropriate lectures, and lack of communication between them, the lecturers and students caused a lot of issues and drove the quality of teaching down.

Despite my not-entirely positive experience, I still felt I learnt a lot and my translation did improve. It has driven me to work even harder to achieve my goals and improve myself.

I think if you are interested in becoming a linguist, a lecturer in translation and/or languages, then SOAS is the perfect place for you. It is very, very academically focused. If you want to become a translator, then I strongly suggest another MA program.

jennifer-odonnellI’ve been studying Japanese since I was 17. It started as a hobby and turned into a passion. My BA was in Social Anthropology at Kent University, with a year studying at Kansai Gaidai in Osaka. I love Japanese so much that I help others study it through my site Japanese Talk Online, and I have created Memrise flashcard courses on Japanese with over 20,000 users. I’m always working on my Japanese, studying, reading Japanese books, playing Japanese games, but I plan to start learning Korean next. I’ve worked translating technical documents for an automotive company, as well as business, academic, cultural, tourism, video game, etc., related documents as a freelancer. I plan to become an interpreter as well as translator just because I love learning so much.

For more information on Jennifer O’Donnell and her services, please see her LinkedIn profile and follow her on Twitter.

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2 thoughts on “Review of MA Theory and Practice of Translation at SOAS, University of London

  1. Undoubtedly the most honest of these blogposts series. Thank you!

    However, if that is of any consolation to you, the usual way of teaching practical translation is made of trial and error. There are not that many “techniques” to be taught. And most universities do not really teach freelancing (at least in a formal way) and focus on the craft (I’ve been in 3 translation schools/universities).


    1. Hi Ms. Matoussowsky,

      I’m Jennifer, I wrote this review. Thank you for your comment! I do understand that the usual way is trial and error, but I still feel there are little things that can be done to help improve translations and the industry.

      I spent a summer school at City, University of London, and it was only a week but I felt I learnt a lot more spending 5 hours a day talking with other translators and reading their translations and learning from each other. (As opposed to 1 hour a week briefly going over a text). I’ve also spoken with other translators who studied the business side of translation, and people who have studied analysing texts and meaning in their other languages.

      I’m surprised translation courses don’t focus more on the business side because that’s why people pay so much money in MAs, they want to learn and are investing in their own future.

      I understand that every course and every lecturer is different. I think I was expecting something different out of my course than what I got and I want to help other people be aware of what exactly they’re getting before they go into it.

      Liked by 1 person

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