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What Good is Translation Theory Anyway?

By: Jonathan Downie    Date: July 24, 2010

That’s a good question and it is one I will attempt to answer in this blog.

This blog will examine how knowledge of some translation theory, plus a little effort and some spare time to think, can help make us better translators and interpreters. But first, some background.

For almost as long as people have been doing translation, people have been talking about translation. In his book, Exploring Translation Theories, Anthony Pym suggests that what has really been happening is something like this:

A translator is busy working at their desk when they come across a problem.

“Oh no,” they say. “How am I going to solve this?”

After a bit of work, some head-scratching and a coffee (or tea) they crack it.

Now, if they are smart, they will not only write down their solution but they might take a note of where and how they found it.

A little later, when they come across a similar problem, they now have at least the beginnings of a solution because they have seen a problem like that before.

After a bit more time, maybe in a later translation, they might find that the process they used to find the solution (and maybe even the solution itself) can be used elsewhere. If they are a nice translator, they might even tell other translators about what they did and, before you know it, you have the start of a theory they reads a bit like this:

Doing x is a good way to solve problem y.

Of course, it can get a lot more complicated and there are more people involved in this translation thing than just us translators but you get the picture. If you see theory as something that originally arose from translation practice, you can well imagine that there might be something in it for the people who are doing the translating.

As we will see later, things have got a lot more complicated than that nowadays but the fact remains that the vast majority of translation theory needs to have some grounding in actual translation. It is because of this that we can find gems scattered throughout theory that can actually help us. We just need to know where to hunt and how to polish them up. With that in mind, next week, we will look at one theory that claims to be much more connected to real-life than much of the work you might expect from academia.

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