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Translation theory in practice.
Thread poster: LilyLowe

LilyLowe
United Kingdom
Aug 25, 2015

I am currently in the process of writing my dissertation and I would like the opinions of translators as to how useful they find translation theories in day to day practice. Please post your opinions on this and if you have any useful links to any articles I would find that really interesting.

 

neilmac  Identity Verified
Spain
Local time: 13:37
Spanish to English
+ ...
Not a lot Aug 25, 2015

After working as a translator for around 20 years now, I can safely say that translation theory has been no help or use to me whatsoever. Most of the stuff I've looked at could be filed under TLDR (too long, didn't read). However, I did quite enjoy Umberto Eco's treatise "Mouse or Rat", which I find entertaining to reopen from time to time when I feel a bout of masochism coming on...
Here's a link to a critique of that particular work: http://www.theguardian.com/books/2003/nov/22/classics.referenceandlanguages

PS: In fact, even if you're a native English speaker, I think you'll be doing well if you can read and understand the review in the link, never mind the book itself.

[Edited at 2015-08-25 14:10 GMT]


 

Heinrich Pesch  Identity Verified
Finland
Local time: 14:37
Member (2003)
Finnish to German
+ ...
Rather counterproductive Aug 25, 2015

There is nothing wrong with the theory, only that our clients do not know it and think they know better. So if you according to theory will adjust the translation to the target audience the client will complain, why didn't you translate literally? Or even if the PM understands, the end client will complain.

 

Fiona Grace Peterson  Identity Verified
Italy
Local time: 13:37
Member
Italian to English
Agree with Neil Aug 25, 2015

I've been translating professionally for over ten years; I have a languages degree and I have never done any study on translation theory. And none of my customers have ever complained.

 

Christine Andersen  Identity Verified
Denmark
Local time: 13:37
Member (2003)
Danish to English
+ ...
It doesn't help! Aug 25, 2015

I have bought and read books about translation over the years. I dutifully read the late Peter Newmark's contributions in The Linguist for some years, and worked my way through a few chapters of his handbook.
I am not sure it made a lot of impression on my work, but it was food for thought.

A book I have found far more useful was
Knud Sørensen: English and Danish Contrasted - a guide for translators
It is slightly 'last century' and out of print, but most of it is still absolutely relevant.

It goes through all sorts of little characteristics in both languages, traps and false friends. The two languages are closely related, and very often, translating directly from Danish is not strictly incorrect in English.
It just does not sound as 'normal' as the Danish source text, and it may shift emphasis. On other occasions there may be a more or less unfortunate double entendre. He suggests some solutions, and once you are aware of the problem, you can find more of your own.

However, it is language-specific: good as he is, Knud Sørensen is not much use if you are not translating between English and Danish.

I have read a few chapters of John M. Swales on genre analysis, and a couple of lecturers on my Special Language Diploma course gave a lot of good advice on register, context, target groups and text analysis. We discussed specifically how to deal with medical Latin, Legalese and other forms of specialised language.

I also check grammar and usage regularly - Ernest Gowers, Greenbaum & Whitcut, RL Trask and David Crystal... Lynn Truss was a good read too. And I keep an eye on the Danish Language Council, especially the entertaining radio programmes!

In fact I still hark back to my (monolingual) training as a technical librarian in the 1970s!
It is more a case of being aware of the text, the message and the target group than any specific theory of translation as such. I do it largely empirically, by reading up on the subject areas in both languages.

I get far more out of reading books and newspapers and listening to the radio, keeping my ear tuned. I don't have the patience to read a lot of theory and work out how to apply it!



[Edited at 2015-08-25 15:18 GMT]


 

Phil Hand  Identity Verified
China
Local time: 19:37
Chinese to English
Limited use Aug 25, 2015

You can certainly do without any theory at all. But it does have its uses. I can think of a couple of ways in which it helps.

1) It can improve your practice by giving you new ideas.
No-one ever does a translation "according to theory" - that's not what it's for. But when you run into difficult points, theory can help a bit. For example: you have a text full of impersonal "he", and you're not sure if it's appropriate to keep them in English. Feminist theorists have some ideas about what you can do to get around the problem. Or you have a text with what you regard as unpleasant language, and you're not sure whether to reproduce it or not: skopos theory can help you think about the use of your text, and give you a rationale for keeping/dumping the bad language.

2) It can help you explain what you're doing to clients/others.
When your aunt asks, "Don't you just look the words up in a dictionary?" you can find a few choice responses in the literature. More importantly, when a client asks you, "Why didn't you translate arbeit as work?" you will have a couple of lines of argument to explain what you were doing.

It's important to remember what "translation studies" is. It's not about practical theories of how to do translation. It's not supposed to tell you how to translate. Translation studies starts from the assumption that translation is a somewhat mysterious thing that people do, and attempts to describe it in a reasonably systematic way. Along the way, several theories have been developed within translation studies. None of them are meant to be full "theories of translation". They are just sets of concepts which certain researchers have found illuminating as they investigate and try to describe this mysterious global phenomenon. You can use translation theory in the same way: pick up the concepts which illuminate your own practice, the translation practices of those around you, and the demands of your clients. And the rest can be quite safely dumped and ignored.


 

LilyLowe
United Kingdom
TOPIC STARTER
using reader response with translation theory Aug 25, 2015

This is all really interesting. My dissertation is a reader response study on translated texts only. I am currently making the point that some theories in translation can become overly preoccupied with issues that are not mirrored by the recipients of translated texts and also that highly prescriptive theories are impractical. But both can be helped by paralleling them with the opinions and views of the recipients. Reader response giving new perspectives to translation theories and possibly making them more useful in practice.

 

Samuel Murray  Identity Verified
Netherlands
Local time: 13:37
Member (2006)
English to Afrikaans
+ ...
I think Aug 25, 2015

LilyLowe wrote:
I would like the opinions of translators as to how useful they find translation theories in day to day practice.


I think the study of translation theories helps shape your mind as a student, but I don't think the theories help much in day to day translation. Still, they make you think about what you do.

Christine Andersen wrote:
A book I have found far more useful was...
It goes through all sorts of little characteristics in both languages, traps and false friends.


Yes, I think books on language dynamics are far more useful to practicing translators than books on translation theory. And books on grammar, and style, and similar language stuff. All more useful than translation theory.

[Edited at 2015-08-25 17:21 GMT]


 

Dan Lucas  Identity Verified
United Kingdom
Local time: 12:37
Member (2014)
Japanese to English
How could we know? Aug 26, 2015

LilyLowe wrote:
I am currently in the process of writing my dissertation and I would like the opinions of translators as to how useful they find translation theories in day to day practice. Please post your opinions on this and if you have any useful links to any articles I would find that really interesting.

I have a language degree and long experience in translation, though only fairly recently as a freelancer. I have no training in or knowledge of translation theory, unless you count basic concepts such such as register and tone.

My first reaction was to say that not knowing any translation theory hasn't held me back in any way. However, from an epistemological standpoint this is a problem: I have not studied translation theory so how can I say whether this lack has had a negative effect or not?

This position is similar to the one described by Paul Graham in his well-known paper "Beating the averages", in which he posits a hypothetical programming language called "Blub".

Blub has more features, including a function called "foobar", than another language called "ABC". Software developers who write software in Blub look down on people who write in ABC, because they can't understand how a developer could write software without the features that Blub has, features that ABC lacks. "I just couldn't work without a foobar" think the Blub users.

However, there is another language called "XYZ" that has more powerful features than Blub, including the "barfoo" function. What do Blub users think of XYZ? They are vaguely aware of XYZ, but they don't understand it. They notice in passing that it contains arcane features that look pointless to a Blub user. "Why on earth would I want to use a barfoo?" wonders the Blub user before returning to work (in Blub, naturally).

The XYZ users, on the other hand, use "arcane" and "pointless" functions like barfoo every day. They don't understand how Blub users can even begin to develop without such important features. "Those guys" they say, shaking their heads "just don't have a sophisticated understanding of software".

Mapping this hypothetical situation on to translation, what do we get?

Maybe a translator who's pulled themselves up through self-study without a language degree is in a position analagous to a user of the ABC language. "Language degrees, who needs 'em?" they say dismissively.

A (theoretical) step up you find a translator with a degree in language but no formal training in translation. That would be someone like myself, analogous to a Blub user in the above example. I can look down the skill continuum at the people without a degree, sigh and say "It's the intellectual rigour of a language degree that makes the difference, you know".

Meanwhile, one (putative) step above me are are translators with qualifications both in a language and in formal translation studies. These are in the same position as the XYZ users.

They look down on myself without any translation theory, and on the translator without a language degree and smile sadly. "Linguistic knowledge without an understanding of the theoretical underpinnings will never be sophisticated enough for truly complex texts" they muse.

Meanwhile, the planet goes on being round.

TLDR - for your purposes, the opinions of people who haven't studied translation theory aren't reliable. That group includes myself, which means I'm unreliable. Which means that my entire argument should be questioned.

Oh dear, time to vanish in a puff of circular logic...

Dan

[Edited at 2015-08-26 07:24 GMT]

[Edited at 2015-08-27 05:11 GMT]


 

Chris S  Identity Verified
United Kingdom
Swedish to English
+ ...
Translation theory useful in practice? Aug 26, 2015

Ha ha ha ha ha!

There are subjects that are academic and then there are those that are completely pointless.

Imhoicon_smile.gif


 

DLyons  Identity Verified
Ireland
Local time: 12:37
Spanish to English
+ ...
They help to contextualize the process. Aug 26, 2015

And "Context is all"?

I once tried to create a list of proposed translation strategies in the theoretical literature and came up with six main ones and another ten that IMHO were of lesser importance. After looking into them, I came to the surprising conclusion that basically they all were examples of just two meta-strategies—the two hoary old chestnuts of (Free vs. Literal translation) and (Foreignization vs. Domestication). Russian theorists even seemed to question whether those two were distinct!

For 99.99% of day-to-day translation work, they are irrelevant. But if your project is to translate Shakespeare into Basque (Urdu, Navajo ...) then I think it is essential to understand the issues (at the very least implicitly).

The single most useful idea I picked up was that different languages partition the world differently e.g. their colour scale. For example, Russian makes an obligatory distinction between lighter blues (goluboy) and darker blues (siniy). Homer applies chlôros to things we see as green (e.g. healthy foliage), but also to things that we see as yellow (e.g. honey).


 

Dan Lucas  Identity Verified
United Kingdom
Local time: 12:37
Member (2014)
Japanese to English
Exactly so Aug 26, 2015

DLyons wrote:
The single most useful idea I picked up was that different languages partition the world differently e.g. their colour scale. For example, Russian makes an obligatory distinction between lighter blues (goluboy) and darker blues (siniy). Homer applies chlôros to things we see as green (e.g. healthy foliage), but also to things that we see as yellow (e.g. honey).

An excellent example. The Japanese blue/green colour space is also somewhat confusing, at least initially. Some things just don't map conveniently on to other languages.

Dan


 

Phil Hand  Identity Verified
China
Local time: 19:37
Chinese to English
What's under the hood? Aug 27, 2015

LilyLowe wrote:

...some theories in translation can become overly preoccupied with issues that are not mirrored by the recipients of translated texts...

Reader perspectives sounds like an interesting idea, and I wish you luck with it. This sentence seems a little unfair, though. I'm a car driver but I never do my own maintenance. I have no interest in how my car does its job. But I need mechanics who do have that knowledge. Translation could be the same. To take an old-school example, a reader will never be aware of translation "shifts" (Catford), but that doesn't mean that a translator shouldn't be thinking about the consequences when she uses a not-quite equivalent word.

Dan wrote:
time to vanish in a puff of circular logic...

icon_smile.gif


 

Jean-Christophe Duc  Identity Verified
France
Local time: 13:37
English to French
+ ...
A lot of practice and little theory Aug 27, 2015

Does linguistics come under "translation theory"?

It is interesting from a personal point of view, but in practice we deal with technical documents that are more often than not validated by non linguists. Most of the time/effort is absorbed by trying to understand better the subjects we deal with.

Many years ago linguistics were compulsory for any language degree, but were taught by non specialists who did not grasp the subject themselves (and boy, did it show...). Hopefully, the situation has improved since then.
Further to this, a lot of works/papers tend to state the bleeding obvious and are of questionable quality.

In terms of practice, linguistics and other theoretical works are of very little use to me (and apparently a few others). However, grammar books (be they down to earth or more theoretical) and/or about style should never leave your desk(top). Also, a good grasp of rethorics and figures of speech (which is after all a form of language theory/science), will help no end, especially for documents where style is important.

I rarely read theoretical works, but try to listen to conferences, on line etc. to keep informed as
I have a daughter having difficulties to learn to talk.

[Edited at 2015-08-27 12:41 GMT]


 

José Henrique Lamensdorf  Identity Verified
Brazil
Local time: 08:37
English to Portuguese
+ ...
Theory is predictably useless in practice Aug 27, 2015

Albert Einstein said:

“In theory, theory and practice are the same. In practice, they are not.”


 
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