Does translation theory really matter?

Translation: Does translation theory really matter?

“Critical reflection on practice is a requirement of the relationship between theory and practice. Otherwise theory becomes simply “blah, blah, blah,” and practice, pure activism.” ~ Paulo Freire, Pedagogy of Freedom

One of the things most translation students hate is “translation theory”. It’s the nonsense part, the useless and futile hours wasted in vain according to them. They believe that it’s not as important as the real act: “translate”. At translation school, we started with practice for a full semester, and no theory course was imparted. In the second semester, we had translation theory courses, but the main focus was mainly on discussing issues relating to cultural and equivalence issues. It was very interesting, from an intellectual perspective at least. However, what I noticed in translation classes, students had a tendency to put theory and practice into different categories: translation is an act/ theory is just for intellectual discussions. I had a tendency to regard it in such way. Perhaps certain teachers used to reinforce that view in us, and even their correction was on the basis of that very distinction between theory and practice. I used to ask questions about the relevance of the translation, the purpose, and mainly ask “does it make sense for native speakers?”

My view has changed dramatically thanks to an academic visit of the translator, Basil Hatim in May 2011. I believe it gave me the courage of defending my choices in translation and to “play chess” with the writer in any translation. At that moment, I started figuring out that translation theory does not mean “futile discussions”. It is the platform on which good practice is based.

Theory is the key to making informed and educated choices that we can defend. Indeed, practice is the core, but we find ourselves before some tough choices as translators sometimes, and without a good understanding of theory, we might not make the right decisions. Some might have a gut instinct to make the right ones but that is just intuition, it should be based on something intelligible.

As a translator, I found that my interest in theory was right; it has use. When I say that I base my practice on theory, it does not mean that I would spend three hours over-analyzing every word and would keep burning my nerves over “literal vs. free” translation or ‘domesticate’ or to ‘foreignize‘. When I read the text to translate it, I read it analytically to know the strategy to be followed, some texts are straightforward, and some others require more diligence.

I found that translation theory mostly is based on case studies.

But would translation theory make sense for beginners?

Most of the time, beginner translators are prone to prefer practice more than theory, and starting the curricula with theory might be boring for them especially if taught separately from practice. The first building block for translators, in my opinion, is to start by mastering their working languages. Here I must point out that their language mastery should take into account: rich vocabulary, excellent grammar, syntax, semantics, pragmatics and linguistics. Understanding the use of these pillars will help them be more analytical. A student who is still struggling with weak language skills will make no use of translation theory because he/she still struggling with the basic tools of trade.

Translation practice should go hand in hand with theory, and by theory I mean the case studies that have been conducted by translators. It is not pure “verbalism” as many students tend to regard it. I think that talking a lot about a certain issue without exposing the student to the actual issue by giving him/her the text and see how he/she is going to solve the problem will not interest students, which will certainly bore them. The problem precedes the solution, not the other way around. Ready-made solutions are forgettable, in my opinion. There are things that can be better learned by experiencing them rather than giving them for “free” or as a rule. Hence, to entice students to see the merit of translation theory is to give them the opportunity to work on a text that has been the center of an issue to take a more analytical and critical approach to translation.

Translator students who have not done a lot of translation practice are not likely to see the point of theory. They should do a lot of practice to explore problems then ask questions. The answers exist most of the time in the literature of translation theory.

Let’s take my example, when I was studying translation, I was most of the time constrained by the certain strategy a teacher likes to get a good grade. It was not very motivating. I translated with awareness, and I always asked myself “what’s the point from this translation, what’s the possible use of it?”, and I try to make choices that can be deemed “wrong” by some teachers. When I went to the translation business, I was assigned documents that were very challenging. I had to make some serious modifications to the text to sound natural and appealing for the target reader. My way of dealing with certain texts especially in advertising was one of the reasons I clashed with my former boss. He would, by all means, stick to the original. I used to ask “does the marketing guy care for the exactness of the translation or make the product more appealing to the customer?”.  In other texts, I would not follow such method, as we know certain texts need to be rendered more faithfully because precision is what we seek. Here comes my understanding of theory, if there is an issue at hand, I ask a question: what am I dealing with here? am I allowed to make certain modifications?

Bottom line, it is by exploring and translating texts with “awareness” and “vigilance” that will enable translators see the point of what theory was about. Indeed, translators nowadays suffer a lot from fierce competition and low rates, but establishing oneself as a good translator is a selling point. The moment you master theory with good practice, you set yourself apart from just-another-translator category. You show the client that you know what you are doing and even if they go to some other translator, they will realize that you are the one for the job. Sharpening translation skills should not be overlooked because rates are low or because there are many translators out there. There are companies willing to pay higher rates, just show them that you do your job like no other.

I would like to invite beginner translators to check out Marta’s website for translators lessons. Translators must take a business approach to this field.


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