Monday, 22 June 2009


As this is a translation blog, I'm wondering if someone who has actually studied the theory of translation - as distinct from the practice of it - as an academic subject (B.J., others?) would be prepared to come on here and explain just what the subject involves and entails. Most of us here are practicing translators or readers of translation rather than theorists, and I thought it might be interesting to hear from someone who has delved into the sociological and non-linguistic aspects of the activity that keeps us so busy. Also, if it could be put into a Nordic context, and given a literary angle, that would be additionally relevant.

In Wikipedia, for example, I read of the science of Cultural Translation, which "is a concept used in cultural studies to denote the process of transformation, linguistic or otherwise, in a given culture. The concept uses linguistic translation as a tool or metaphor in analysing the nature of transformation in cultures. For example, ethnography is considered a translated narrative of an abstract living culture."

I would be fascinated to know more about this, if anyone can explain it further. If not now, then later...


Eric Dickens said...

I second David's query. I too would like to hear more from people involved in this field, not least to see if there are any areas that can be applied to improve the translator's awareness of what is often subconscious baggage when you translate. There should be a healthy tension between theory and practice, but the theory sometimes gets the upper hand. The idea of a field involving translation, ethnography and narrative does look interesting.

In the Netherlands, where I live, there has been a long war of attrition between those who have approached literary translation as something of a science, and others who think of it more as an art or maybe craft. But sad to say (or, maybe, luckily), I cannot really remember the specific bones of contention.

One leading and practising Dutch poetry translator, Peter Verstegen, wrote a 290-page thesis in 1993 entitled "Vertaalkunde versus vertaalwetenschap". Translate this title as you will. Verstegen was involved for many years in teaching the craft of practical literary translation at university level, and this thesis, produced rather late in life, was the culmination of his experience and thoughts on the whole field. I'm sure there must be Scandinavians who have produced similar works. Maybe the Moscow-Tartu School of Semiotics and its descendent department at Tartu University has something to say on this matter, people like Yuri Lotman, Peeter Torop ("cultural textuality") and others.

The sociological & cultural, i.e. the not strictly morphological-grammatical, aspects interest me a lot because when dealing with, for instance, the former countries of the Soviet Union, the translator has to be aware how Estonians (in my case) from differing generations will approach a particular work of literature. Even within that one country there are nowadays people who have experienced Soviet life and those who were born afterwards, or were too young to remember. So reception of a given work can vary a good deal.

Eric Dickens said...

P.S. to my previous Comment:

Peeter Torop, as mentioned above, specialises in the "semiotics of translation and methodology of translation studies". I'm sure he's worth following in this context. In 1999, Tartu University produced the material from their November conference which covered various translation issues. The papers, most in Estonian, one in English, were collected under the title "Kultuuritekst ja traditsioonitekst" (roughly: "The Text of Culture and the Text of Tradition"). One of the current study modules at Tartu University is "The Semiotics of Translation".

David McDuff said...

Apparently "translatology" is a borrowing from the French "la traductologie", and the "correct" English term is "translation studies". But I'd like to hear from the translatologists themselves, and particular those who have made a study of non-linguistic translation theory.

Eric Dickens said...

I'm going to shut up now and wait for a translatologist to enter the stage... In the mean time, I'll be reading shortish Torop's essay "Kultuuri tekstuaalsus" to see whether it brings enlightenment.

translatology said...

I write as the coiner of the term 'translatology' back in 1972. It was translated into French by me as 'traductologie' (not the other way round), but it was also introduced into French by another 'translatologist' in the same year. For more, see the Wikipédia Français article on Traductologie. It is true that the usual term in English today is Translation Studies, but Translatology lives on (try it with Google).
I gave a conference paper recently on this topic and it will be published soon in the Canadian journal "TTR", but if you would like a copy of it now, email me at You can view a video of it (with the last minute missing) at

David McDuff said...

Thank you very much for this information, and the link. I suppose what we were hoping was that you or others might be able to give us a short introduction to the theory and practice of translatology here on the blog, but it would certainly be interesting to read your conference paper. The download of the video appears to be quite large (387 MB).

David McDuff said...

There's an essay by "translatology" here.

translatology said...

I'll be happy to send my paper, the title of which is "The Term 'Traductologie': Origins and Analysis", but I need an email address to send it to. 387 MB for the video may sound a lot, but you can download it into a temporary file and erase it immediately after viewing. The subject is bigger than I know how to treat in a blog, but the following definition from the French Wikipedia (my translation) may help a little:

"Translatology, as a science, studies the cognitive process at the heart of any oral, written or sign-language reproduction in a language, of the expression of an idea in another language (likewise spoken, written or signed)… In a broader sense, any activity of reflection on translation belongs to translatology."

Brian Harris
Valencia, Spain

David McDuff said...

Thank you! I've sent you an email.

Martin Aitken said...

I am an escaped lecturer and PhD in linguistics. I've done research in the semantics and pragmatics of human verbal (including written, funnily enough) communication. My favoured descriptive and, arguably, explanatory framework was/is an inference-based cognitive theory of communication called Relevance Theory. The theory was originally formulated by Deirdre Wilson and Dan Sperber in their book Relevance: Communication and Cognition (1986/1995). Some degree of work has been done on translation from a Relevance perspective, notably by Ernst-August Gutt in his book Translation and Relevance: Cognition and Context (2nd edition 2000). Well recommended, though please don't test me on the content - like I said, I escaped from all that to be a practitioner ...

David McDuff said...

The area that really interests me most of all is that of "Cultural Translation" referred to in the Wikipedia article on Translation Studies, where linguistic translation is used as a metaphor for the analysis of transformation within cultures (and presumably also communication between them). Does anyone have a detailed knowledge of that subject?

Eric Dickens said...

I'm glad that the person who invented the term "translatology" has joined us, plus an "escaped lecturer".

Personally, I too am very interested in the somewhat broader subject of cultural translation, beyond an analysis of the thought processes of individual translators.

I am interested, for instance, in the mismatch (as it usually is) between the source-language culture and the target-language culture. Peter Newmark's "A Textbook of Translation" (1988 and reprints; also available in Spanish) has many useful tips in this sphere, but they are somewhat haphazardly arranged.

Beyond the immediate words and syntax of a literary text, the fact that you grow up in a particular country means that you are surrounded by a whole host of realia: TV programmes; customs & habits; names of familiar chains of shops; local architectural landmarks; politicians and historical figures who are famous at home and unknown abroad; attitudes to race, gender and religion; and so on. These can be specific to a region or country.

When translating a novel set in, let's say, Ljubljana, you will have to adopt various strategies to familiarise the foreign reader. For instance, you can have an introduction or notes for readers from Britain. Or you can smuggle a couple of extra words into the sentence. French or Danish readers will probably have slightly different problems to British ones. Serbian and Croatian readers may have far fewer.

Whether this whole area of associations and cultural baggage has been examined systematically I do not know, but it is something I'm frequently up against when I translate Estonian material.

Few Britons and Americans (my main potential readers) have an in-depth knowledge of things listed above when it comes to Estonia. Not only is Estonian syntax completely different to English, but the various layers of occupations by overlords, including speakers of Russian, German and Swedish, have left their mark in the language. And, for instance the dominance of German culture during the 19th century, and Russian-Soviet culture during the 20th have influenced matters. I have to consider all this when translating Estonian novels, even ones written recently.

I can cope with convoluted syntax and strange words - I can always ask a native-speaker. But I have to be aware of my readers' knowledge of things mentioned in the text I'm translating.

B.J. Epstein said...

I've been getting behind on my blogging lately, so sorry for this late response.
I'm happy to wax on about translation studies, being a newly minted PhD in the subject. One thing I've been considering is writing a book on theory for practioners, because I don't like the divide that exists between theory and practice. Would there be interest in such a topic perchance?

Best wishes,

David McDuff said...

Well maybe, BJ - though my own view (sorry) is that it's the theorists who need a book on what it's like to be a practitioner....

B.J. Epstein said...

That may well be true, David! I often complain at translation studies conferences about how theorists have no idea about the practice of translation and yet feel they have the right to say whatever they want about it.

Best wishes,

Eric Dickens said...

Regarding the theory and practice of translation, I would like to know about theories that will help me become conscious of things when translating. I've been largely put off translation theory by reading books such as Gentzler's "Contemporary Translation Theories" and wondering at every chapter what all these theories have done to increase the flow of fiction, poetry and non-fiction into Britain and the USA, or to make the practical translator more skilled.

When theorists wear their practical translator hat and actually do some translation, what is revealing is how successful the actual translation is as a work of literature or book of academic study.

How many of the major theorists are also part- or full-time literary translators, with a love of literature? Ezra Pound certainly was, but as I have expressed elsewhere, I cannot see the link between his theory of luminous detail, which is supposed to focus on the precise rendering of words, and the hit & miss way he seems to have tackled the translation of older poetry himself, using archaïc vocabulary in a positively cranky way. Pound seems quite hypocritical when he wrote in 1950 (as in Gentzler, page 26) to the Homer translator Rouse:

"Let's list the aims:
1. Real speech in the English version.
2. Fidelity to the original
a. meaning
b. atmosphere"

Apart from the fact that these are huge generalisations, he didn't practise what he preached.

The only theoretical approach that interested me in the Gentzler book was Even-Zohar and Toury's Polysystem approach. This takes more cultural factors into account. The trail leads back to the Russian Formalists and Tynyanov.

David McDuff said...

Hi BJ, thanks for your comment. I do agree that the process of understanding between theorists and practitioners needs to work both ways.

BTW I emailed you separately on this - to recap, I think we would be interested in a post on the book project you mentioned, if you have time to write one for us.

Eric, see my new post on Brian Harris's paper here - maybe we could continue this discussion there.

Marina Menendez said...

Studies on translation were just one area of Linguitics until the second half of 20th century when the discipline became autonomous. The seminal works of Roman Jackobson laid the basis for this new discipline. There are some scholars whose theories constitute landmarks in Traductology: Nida, Venutti, Van den Broeck, Newmark, Reiss, Vermeer, Vinay y Darbelnet, Toury, Even-Zohar, Nord, Delisle to mention just a few. Holmes (1972) establishes three main areas: descriptive traductology, applied traductology, and theoretical traductology.