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Do Translators and Interpreters need theory? Guest Post

By: Jonathan Downie    Date: August 31, 2010

Note: It gives me great pleasure to publish this article by Dr Martin Djovcos of Matej Bel University in Banská Bystrica, Slovakia. I first met Martin at the Nida School this year in Murcia, Spain. His research in the way interpreters process speech is a rare instance of excellent academic work that will have real practical application. In this article, he tackles the tough question of the relationship between interpreting and translation theory and the every day world of professional practice.

Do we need theory for translation and interpreting?

We don´t. Not in case that you approach translation as replacement of words and if you believe that all you need to know in order to translate is to have knowledge of two languages. It is as if you declared that surgeons don´t need medical training. It is enough to know how to hold the lancet and if your hands don´t shake, you can go for it. Who cares whether in the end of your wrist surgery the patient is not able to use his/her whole hand (he/she can still use the second one and the function to remove the pain was fulfilled) and whether he/she experiences a few heart attacks during the operation. It is the same with translation. However, I believe that our goal is to do more than just ensure that the function of the text is preserved at any expense. Unfortunately, this has often been the case. I find it very interesting that while barely anyone would dare to start surgery without appropriate training, many people do translate with zero knowledge of translation theory. Au-pairs, lawyers, engineers, economists, journalists, physics…

On the other hand, I don’t find it surprising that practicing professional translators are frequently annoyed with the theory arguing that it offers no solid clues for their work. I do agree that recently a number of studies has been published which were more philosophical than practical. Well, there is nothing weird about it; academics need to publish in order to gain higher university degrees and increase their salary. I don’t think that this is wrong, either. In my opinion, the theory of translation and interpreting can be viewed from two points of view:

1. Philosophical theory or theory for intellectual pleasure
2. Pragmatic theory or how to translate in practice

Both of them are equally important. We need the first one in order to establish sound social status, something like an institution which can provide our work with philosophical shelter and basis, something which would give us the feeling that we are different than others and that provides us with the professional basis. The second one is useful for its explanatory power (as Daniel Gile would say). It is dealing with everyday translations, observing frequent mistakes and searching for methods how to actually make our work easier, better and more efficient.

However, instead of cooperation, these two branches argue among each other and thus discourage professional translators from following them. “Philosophy” of translation claims that the pragmatic branch is too prescriptive and that translation in general is a very ambiguous activity which in many cases can´t be performed while it doesn´t reflect cultural specifics etc… This may be true, but as one friend of mine told me at the Nida School this year, “still, in the end we all have to translate and handle these problems.”

A lot of professionals can save a lot of time by reading useful practical books on translation as, let’s say Daniel Gile´s book, Basic Concepts and Models for Interpreter and Translator Training or Newmark´s Textbook of Translation or Mona Baker´s In Other Words. Books like these help us avoid mistakes and make us understand the process; however, in many cases they omit its philosophical background.

Ridiculing theory means ridiculing ourselves and depriving us of the powerful tool of self-determination and regaining of sound social status. So, if I was to answer whether we need theory for our everyday work, I would surely answer – yes, we do!