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When the subject of conversation turns to translation or interpreting, many people seem to have settled opinions, even if they speak only one language. Only the topic of economics might boast of having at least as many experts among the general population who took a class about it in college. In a good-spirited conversation in a bar or at a party, you can learn a lot about what people believe about such subjects, as well as about how much they actually know or do not know. If politely pressed, most such enthusiastic non-experts would not be ashamed to admit that when it comes down to it, they really do not know much about translation, interpreting – or economics – but they may have interesting anecdotes about them, due to some limited exposure.
On the subjects of translation and interpreting, one finds people who, apparently since they can talk, uncritically and hastily conclude that the faculty of speech makes them an expert about language – or about the even murkier phenomena arising from the acts of translating and interpreting between two or more languages. On the subject of economics, one finds folks who, because they work, make purchases, and pay bills and taxes, think they are economists. However, our blog space is not about economics, even though the comparison just drawn is thought provoking.
Interestingly, most expert translators and interpreters cannot really tell you how they do their work, in the sense of their being able, in an abstract way, to predict how they will translate or interpret something they have not yet seen or heard. Even assuming that they are speaking to a bilingual person, they also are incapable of presenting formulae or theories about how to translate that will enable their bilingual listener to become an effective translator or interpreter. As George Steiner flatly declares in After Babel (3rd ed., 1998), “there are no ‘theories of translation’” (xvi); these linguistic acts emerge from concrete encounters in moments of deciphering meaning, incarnated in specific verbal expressions, whether written or spoken. Steiner elaborates by reminding his reader that a theory must have predictive force and be falsifiable in order to be called a theory – and this is not possible with what are often and mistakenly called “theories of translation.”
While there are no theories, Steiner points to the fact that “we do have reasoned descriptions of processes” (xvi). In other words, there are abundant anecdotes about translation and interpreting which often have been assembled and organized. These allow scholars, students and teachers of translation and interpreting to discover, but only after the fact, what a translator or interpreter has done. In so doing, techniques of translation and interpreting can be categorized and described but they do not and cannot have predictive value.
Despite the lack of theories of translation in the sense in which the word is used in empirical sciences, translation and interpreting between two or more languages can be taught – to bilingual people. As Margaret S. Peden taught in her translation classes (really, they were lively workshops), was that translation was an intellectual and artistic activity that involved “more doing than talking.” Nevertheless, she and her students loved talking about their work, because of all the insights our anecdotes provided to each other.
Teaching and learning about translation and interpreting goes beyond using dictionaries and grammars, and understanding how two languages compare structurally and how their respective lexicons map reality in different ways. The study of translation and interpreting is nothing less than a semiotic quest to understand and experience the nature of language and how humans create, communicate, preserve and interpret meaning through the medium of language.
© 2019, Translation Skills Training (TST).