Is Studying the Process of Translation a Way for the Brain to Begin to Understand Itself? | Translation Skills Training

Is Studying the Process of Translation a Way for the Brain to Begin to Understand Itself?

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The long-standing philosophical questions regarding whether there can be any thought without language have been not solved by neuroscience.  Instead, they have been made more interesting and problematic.  The first misunderstanding that needs to be cleared up is that thought and language are not synonymous or interchangeable; nor are they mutually exclusive: in fact, it is thought that precedes language.  Consider the fact that infants show thought and sophisticated decision making before they can articulate them in spoken language.  Clarifications have to be made in similar discussions about the brain and the mind, and the so-called mind-body connection.  At the very least, definitions have to be agreed upon before meaningful discussions can take place.  To further complicate or make more interesting these topics, regardless of what one’s religious and philosophical position on these matters can offer, new questions or complications seems to ooze their way up from within the folds of someone else’s cerebral cortex.

It is worthwhile for Analytic Linguists, as elite users and decipherers of language in action, to engage in serious study and reflection on the relationships between thinking, language, communication, meaning and understanding.  Their work depends on their adeptness at getting at the meaning of utterances and discerning intonations, word choices, and even to tell truth from lies, as well as “straight talk” from “coded” or “ciphered speech.”  Before directly addressing how studying the process of translation can shed light on how our brains function as our thoughts interact with the brain’s executive processes to produce language and thus express our thoughts, let us make a few more observations, only to show that thought precedes language.  How this takes place lies beyond the scope of my brief Blog for the Week and, I hasten to add, beyond my areas of expertise.

The presence of brainwaves in comatose people shows that they are legally and clinically alive, but we cannot know what they are thinking or even if those brainwaves represent consciousness that could be articulated but which is silenced by the coma.  Likewise, when we dream, we are thinking thoughts, yet often without words, because dreams can be a symbolic, visual arena of the mind.  This universally experienced oneiric phenomenon might settle the question, since it is plain that thoughts do precede their verbalization.  At the pragmatic level, the one that matters to Analytic Linguists in their support role for law enforcement, no one can know what anyone else is thinking unless they say it or write it down.  At that point, the task of the emitter is over; the ball for understanding lies in the receiver’s court.

Once the causal relation of thought to language is internalized, one can explore the nature of how language emerges into thought and how the meaning of a message is transmitted (and the types of “noise” a message might encounter on the path to the receiver), and the obstacles that lie ahead for the message to being properly apprehended.  Now we are ready to begin exploring how studying translation (under a microscope, or in slow motion, whichever analogy you prefer) can be useful to Analytic Linguists.

In George Steiner’s opus magnum on translation, After Babel: Aspects of Language & Translation, (Oxford, Oxford University Press: 1998, 3rd ed.), he made a statement worth contemplating and explicating:

“[…] the essential structural and executive means and problems of the act of translation are fully present in acts of speech, of writing, of pictorial encoding inside any given language.  Translation between different languages is a particular application of a configuration and model fundamental to human speech even where it is monoglot […] although we ‘translate’ at every moment when speaking and receiving signals in our own tongue, it is evident that translation in the larger and more habitual sense arises when two languages meet” (xii). Italics added for emphasis.

Steiner’s quote may need some translating too, in order to put it in plain English.  Steiner is telling us that translation between two languages merely makes more apparent what happens even when two people who speak the same language are trying to communicate with each other.

This is a remarkably important observation, because it can serve as a portal through which monolingual people can enter a world generally as closed to them as the world of color is to the colorblind.  Once monolingual people grasp “the means and problems of the act of translating” within one language, they can begin to recognize and understand how complex the translation process is where two languages are involved, and what sorts of problems are encountered by translators.  Understanding exactly how translators solve these problems may be trickier for monolingual people, such as managers, supervisors or clients of Analytic Linguists in their role as translators. Still, it is reasonable to expect that monolingual people who gain an appreciation of the problems of translation within their own language will more easily and willingly admit that such problems between two languages are best left for translators to solve.

There are a few ways to guide monolingual people’s thinking about language and thus enable them to enter the metaphorical portal otherwise closed to them.  I know of a law school professor who told his class that if, at the end of the semester, they could explain the course material to ten-year olds so that they could understand it, then they would be more than adequately prepared for the final exam.   Most people intuitively perceive the wisdom of the professor’s statement, but few are likely to instantly identify or classify it as a quintessential translation problem.  Consider how the professor’s claim does not denigrate the cognitive powers of ten-year olds; quite the contrary.  He claimed that ten-year-olds are capable of understanding what reads like complicated material in the text book, if only it were stated in other terms.  That is what reveals that this hypothetical but very possible situation is really a matter of language.  The means by which this would be accomplished is generally known as paraphrase, but when applied to explaining things to children it is often paraphrased once again, by employing the metaphor “taking it down to their level.”

Monolingual people may also find their eyes opened to the world of language by pointing out to them that many classical works of literature are often edited for younger audiences.  In English, one can find many such translations into modern, young-people’s English as Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales and many of Shakespeare’s plays, such as Romeo and Juliet.  Examples in Spanish include El Cid and Don Quijote de la Mancha.

If needed, monolingual people can be invited to experience the problems of translation for themselves.  Provide them with a brief paragraph on any topic in their language, of medium difficulty and of 12 to 15 sentences long.  Ask them to read it carefully, silently or aloud and then set it aside.  After which, without allowing them to peak at it again, have them either tell you what it says in their own words, or actually write down what they recall – but again, only in their own words.  The writing exercise can be particularly beneficial because their choices of words and expressions can be compared to the source and discussed.  Many valuable lessons can be learned about editorializing, omissions, additions and changes in meaning – all things that professional translators must avoid.  If they object to the exercise because they are not allowed to peak at it, let them do either one again with a new passage perhaps, but insist that they have to use their own words.

The use of paraphrasing exercises is a time-honored method for developing language skills in students’ own language as well as in a foreign language.  It also can go a long way to helping monolingual clients, supervisors and managers understand why translation is not so simple as taking dictation in shorthand, and that it takes hard work, talent and insights developed by a lot of practice and conscious effort.

Finally, paraphrasing exercises are unlikely to resolve questions about the nature of thought and language, yet the experience of translating within one’s own language can help us all appreciate our own thought processes and what we do when we need to express ourselves or explain what we have heard or read.

© 2019, Translation Skills Training (TST).


Eric Vogt
Eric Vogt
Eric W. Vogt, Ph.D. is accredited by the American Translators Association and is a Subject Matter Expert Consultant for Translation Skills Training™ (TST). For full bio, see: or

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