Rethinking translation studies
Sanjun SunTranslation Spaces, 3, 167-191
Abstract : Since Holmes’ founding statement for translation studies in 1972, four decades have passed. During that time some trends seem to have developed in the discipline, and it is time to stop and take stock. This paper touches upon issues essential to understanding translation studies today, such as (1) the nature of translation; (2) the research scope of translation studies; (3) interdisciplinary orientation and its implications; (4) research methods; and (5) the relationship between translation theory and practice. An examination of these issues indicates that the discipline of translation studies is increasingly subject to opposing or competing research approaches and is exhibiting a kind of disciplinary fragmentation. There are imbalances in the research methods used and in the topics that emerge in the research literature. There is a growing gap between translation theory and practice. This paper tries to examine the reasons for these trends and offer perspectives on ways to reach some common disciplinary and professional ground.
Keywords : definition, translation theory, translation practice, interdiscipline, evidence-based, data-based research
Holmes’ essay “The name and nature of Translation Studies”(1972/1988) has been widely accepted as “the founding statement for the field” (Gentzler 2001, 94). Four decades later, there are now over 20,000 peer-reviewed contributions to translation studies (TS), so it is high time to stop and take stock of the current status of the discipline. Several reviews (e.g., Gentzler 2001; Kuhiwczak and Karin 2007; Munday 2009; Pym 2010; Tymoczko 2005; Williams and Chesterman 2002) have charted the territory and the evolution of this research field. However, these reviews do not explore in detail the interconnections among sub-disciplinary research areas, and they did not rely on any empirical data to support their claims about the state of the discipline. This study aims to offer some insight into the
current state of TS through the analysis of several decades worth of published research. The study focuses on four mutually dependent aspects: research objects, theory, method, and practice. Since the answer to the question of research objects in translation studies ultimately depends on a definition of translation, this issue will be discussed first.
What is translation?
Defining translation is not a simple task and has resisted any simple formulation for decades. Roman Jakobson (1959), for instance, famously distinguished three types of translation: (1) intralingual translation (i.e., rewording within one language); (2) interlingual translation (between two languages); and (3) intersemiotic translation (between sign systems). He describes interlingual translation as “translation proper,” which is similar to the Oxford English Dictionary’s (OED) definition of translation: “The action or process of turning from one language into another; also, the product of this; a version in a different language”. Toury, by comparison, argues from the perspective of the receptor culture that a translation can be “any target language text which is presented or regarded as such within the target system itself, on whatever grounds” (1980, cited from Tymoczko 2007, 80).
One reason translation researchers have not reached consensus on the definition is that people in different cultures and in different times may have different conceptions about translation (cf. Hermans 2013). For example, translating a text written in classical Chinese (e.g., The Analects of Confucius) into a foreign language often consists of two steps: (1) a Chinese scholar renders the source text from classical Chinese into modern vernacular Chinese and (2) a translator then translates the text from modern vernacular Chinese into the foreign language. Obviously, such a translation process involves two types of translation in terms of Jakobson’s categorization. But do all people consider the Chinese scholar in this case as a translator? Probably not, as few translation researchers in China have discussed this kind of intralingual translation. Hence the dilemma. Similar cases that are open to debate include gist translation, adaptation, sight translation, audiovisual translation ‘by ear,’ pseudotranslation, and so on. Over the course of the development of our discipline the very notion of translation has, seemingly, expanded.
In order to resolve this issue, we have to turn to theories of concepts. There are five primary theories or models about the structure of lexical concepts, i.e., the classical theory, the prototype theory, the theory theory, conceptual atomism, pluralism and eliminativism (see Margolis and Laurence 2014). Each theory has strengths and weaknesses. In classical theory, concepts have a definitional structure, which specifies a set of characteristics that are individually necessary and
jointly sufficient for category membership. The classical theory has been criticized on various grounds. For example, the Austrian philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein (1889–1951) argues that “concepts often lack catchall definitions; instead, concepts group things together on the basis of family resemblances” (Prinz 2006, 417). On this notion of “family resemblance,” according to which one comprehends categories by looking for similarities with familiar instances, emerged two concept theories: the cluster concept and the prototype theory.
In the field of TS, the idea of viewing translation as a cluster concept was first proposed by Tymoczko (2007), and regarded by Hermans (2013, 84) as “the most promising line of inquiry” in defining translation. A cluster concept is defined by a set of characteristics, none of which is either necessary or sufficient for category membership although several or most are needed. Members of a cluster concept cluster in groups; each group has characteristics overlapping with other groups, but there is no defined pool of common traits (Tymoczko 2007, 92). In a way, considering translation as a cluster concept can accommodate cultural diversity, and help explore translation concepts in a global context and across historical periods (Hermans, 2013). On the other hand, this perspective has inadequacies. First, a cluster concept is decentered and implies that each cluster or group is equally typical and valuable. Unfortunately, according to the Pareto principle (also known as the 80–20 rule), the universe is predictably unbalanced. Despite efforts to decenter TS and move the field beyond Eurocentric positions (Tymoczko 2007, Wakabayashi and Kothari 2009), in the foreseeable future Eurocentric conceptions of translation, which, for example, privileges literacy over orality, continue to play a dominant role in our field. Second, if people view translation as a cluster concept and treat, for example, gist translation as a kind of translation that needs to be taken into account when working on general translation theory, they will find, for instance, that few, if any, of the so-called ‘translation universals’ still stand. In fact, when people discuss translation theory, they have a prototype of translation in mind rather than clusters of translation practices; if they do not have the same prototype in mind, communication between them can break down.
Developed in the field of psychology, the prototype theory resolves the problems of conceptual fuzziness (i.e., fuzzy boundaries of concepts) and typicality effects that the classical theory could not cope with. In this theory, a prototype is “a representation of features that are highly frequent, salient, and diagnostic for category membership” (Prinz 2006, 418). Empirical evidence (e.g., Rosch and Mervis 1975) shows that people categorize and recognize prototypical category members more quickly and easily and tend to list prototypical features first when asked to describe a category. In other words, category members are not equal. One common interpretation of prototype effects is that “degrees of category membership for other entities are determined by their degree of similarity to the prototype”
(Lakoff 1999, 391). As the concept of translation lacks a clear boundary and covers a range of practices with some of them in a more central position than others, translation has been regarded by several researchers (e.g., Halverson 1999) as a prototype concept.
Of course, the prototype theory has its own limitations. For one, some psychologists and philosophers argue that prototypes should not be equated with concepts, on account of the fact that similarity to a prototype is neither necessary nor sufficient for categorization and reference (Prinz 2006, 418). For example, a whale is similar to a fish, but it actually is not a fish. One general solution is to hold that a prototype constitutes just part of the structure of a concept, which also includes a conceptual core, and the conceptual core has a classical structure (Margolis and Laurence 2014). From this combined perspective, the concept of translation has a prototype (or so-called ‘best’ exemplar) as well as a conceptual core specifying a set of core characteristics. Based on Colina (forthcoming), the core characteristics can be: (1) involvement of at least one written text (source text or target text or both); (2) presence of ‘transfer’ or mediation; (3) transfer from one natural language to another; and 4) a necessary degree of resemblance or correspondence between the source text and the target text. In terms of these core characteristics, cultural translation, which originated in social anthropology and refers to “a general activity of communication between cultural groups” (Pym 2010, 143), is not the kind of translation that we have just described because it does not involve a finite, discrete text. Intralingual translation, which was mentioned previously, is also excluded on the ground that it does not involve two natural languages. Although, because it satisfies the other three core characteristics, intralingual translation is close to the periphery of the concept of translation. For many (if not most) translation researchers in the West, the ‘practical’ prototype of translation has been Bible translation (Benjamin 1923/2012, 83). It should be noted that as time goes on, the prototype may change.
Thus, one of the primary issues we have to face in translation studies today is the ‘dynamism’ and ‘ambiguity’ of our nominal ‘common’ object of research study: translation. We have different definitions and, even more significantly, different bases for those definitions. We should continue to address, and to be clear in our research and publications, the way we delineate the conceptual bases of our discipline. The definitions we adopt — and there will necessarily be more than one — will, of course, have great relevance in determining our selection of research objects.
Research objects of translation studies
In his essay, Holmes sketched a scope and structure for TS, as follows (Toury 1995, 10).
Figure 1. Holmes’ map of Translation Studies.
Despite its usefulness and impact, this map is marred by conceptual inconsistencies (Vandepitte 2008). Functionally, research can be divided into basic research (or pure research) and applied research. These two types of research differ in terms of purpose, context, and validity (Gaber 2010). Applied research is for increasing “what is known about a problem with the goal of creating a better solution” while basic research is for “expand[ing] on what is known — knowledge — with little significant connections to contemporary problems”(35). Many researchers (e.g., Perry 2005) believe that basic research and applied research are the two ends of a continuum; over the long run, basic research eventually results in applications. Holmes suggested that basic or pure research in TS has two main objectives: (1) to describe the phenomena of translating and translation(s), and (2) to establish general principles in order to explain and predict these phenomena. In fact, these two objectives also apply to applied research. For instance, Translation Criticism is part of applied TS in Holmes’ map. Would researchers regard Reiss’ Translation Criticism: The Potentials and Limitations (2000) as a piece of applied research? Probably not. For a young discipline like translation studies it might be a bit premature to label a specific domain like Translation Criticism as applied research or basic research.
In Holmes’ map, pure research is subdivided, according to research purposes, into descriptive TS and theoretical TS (or translation theory). Holmes probably derived the term descriptive from descriptive linguistics, which is said to investigate “the structure of a language through the collection of primary language data gathered through interaction with native-speaking consultants” (Chelliah and Reuse 2010, 7). Descriptive linguistics (or grammar) is loosely dichotomous to
prescriptive grammar, which is evaluative and prescribes which means of expression are ‘good’ or ‘correct’ (see Ivir 2004). Holmes intended theoretical TS to use the results of descriptive translation studies and evolve “principles, theories, and models which will serve to explain and predict what translating and translations are and will be” (1988, 73).
In terms of research purpose, it is generally accepted that research can be subdivided into exploratory, descriptive, explanatory, and evaluative (e.g., DeForge 2010). Exploratory or descriptive research “examines the relationships among variables (correlational), while research that focuses on explanation or evaluation assesses causal relationships” (DeForge 2010, 1254). Theory is usually aimed at “providing explanatory leverage on a problem, describing innovative features of a phenomenon or providing predictive utility” (Stam 2010, 1498). In this sense, theoretical TS and descriptive TS belong to different categorization groups and, as a result, the two have many overlaps. For example, Holmes divided descriptive TS into product-oriented, process-oriented and function-oriented. And yet researchers in the field of, for example, translation process, which draws heavily on cognitive science, obviously do not just engage in describing translation behaviors; they also do experimentation and look for causal relationships in order to explain translation phenomena. As Pym (2010) says, today the term ‘descriptive TS’ is “a flag of convenience for a loose flotilla of innovative scholars” (65); despite its emphasis on description, it encourages theoretical activity.
Holmes’ subdivision of applied research and of partial theoretical research is based on his envisioned research objects. Although Holmes did not mention them explicitly in his essay, he did imply that TS research objects include both translating (phenomena) and translations themselves. Pym (1998) also pointed out that translators should be included among the collection of TS research objects. This seems especially pertinent now, in view of increasing interest in issues such as translators’ agency, subjectivity, and status. In addition, reflections on the discipline itself (e.g., Gambier and Doorslaer 2009; Gile, Hansen and Pokorn 2010) have always been an important topic for translation researchers. The following is a list of potential TS research objects, which interact and partially overlap:
- Translation: definition, history, functions, types, influences, evaluation, criticism, pedagogy
- Translator: roles, personal development, idiosyncrasies, social relationships
- Translating: materials to be translated, cognitive processes, strategies, procedures and workflows, aids, external influences (e.g., skopos), ethics
- Meta-Translation Studies: purpose, research objects, research methods, disciplinary orientation, history, research trends
Although the list covers a lot of ground, it is not exhaustive. This does not mean that translation studies’ research scope can expand indefinitely. The discipline has boundaries, and not all studies concerning translation need necessarily belong to translation studies. For instance, physicists depend on mathematical knowledge in their daily work, but mathematics is a means for them, not an end. Likewise, if translations are used as an instrument to illustrate issues in other disciplines, like history or cultural studies, then such studies are historical or cultural, and not necessarily a part of TS.
Translation studies as an interdiscipline
Perhaps under the influence of the notion of grand theory, Holmes (1988, 73) states that the ultimate goals of the translation theorist must be developing a full, inclusive theory that can explain and predict all phenomena concerning translating and translations. The reality is that TS has been borrowing from a whole range of disciplines including linguistics, cultural studies, philosophy, historical studies, literary studies, anthropology, psychology, cognitive science, and sociology, among others (see Kuhiwczak and Karin 2007; Munday 2009). It has also borrowed from various social theories (or schools of thought) such as feminist theory, critical theory, deconstructionism, postcolonial theory and social constructionism; it is not easy to find any common ground in such a variegated research field (see the Forum discussion on “Shared Ground in Translation Studies” in Target 12:1, 12:2, 13:1, 13:2 and 14:1). Neubert (2001) wrote that “a search for shared ground for all scholars cannot but be an absolutist illusion” (334).
As a result of all these influences, TS has also been called an interdiscipline (e.g., Snell-Hornby, Pöchhacker and Kaindl 1994) probably because it hosts a multitude of perspectives, and translation researchers find it difficult to reach any consensus. However, interdisciplinary research is different from multidisciplinary research. In a multidisciplinary field, there is no need for integration of different disciplinary perspectives. In contrast, interdisciplinary research seeks, or should seek, to integrate knowledge. It “confronts differences, looks for common ground despite those differences, and, ultimately, produces an interdisciplinary understanding that takes those differences into account”(Repko 2008, 20). Thus, if translation researchers wish to continue to see TS as an interdiscipline, this presumes a continued search for some common ground.
Interdisciplinary integration contains two important ideas: (1) “the ‘new whole’ is something larger and more complex than the sum of its constituent parts” because of their interactions; and (2) “achieving this new whole involves combining insights and knowledge from disciplines, interdisciplines, and schools
of thought” (Repko 2008, 122–123). Integration can happen at a disciplinary level and also at the level of research topics. Let us first discuss integration at the level of discipline.
In the “Shared Ground” discussions, the participants found it hard to find any shared ground. They discussed, for instance, how far empiricism and postmodernism can be reconciled in TS; in the end the debate came down to essentialism vs. non-essentialism. Essentialism claims that meanings are objective and stable while non-essentialism claims that meanings are inherently non-stable and that they have to be interpreted in each individual instance (Chesterman and Arrojo 2000, 151). These ‘isms’ are, indeed, quite hard to reconcile. But, do we have to subscribe to one of them? Do we have to adopt this dichotomous view?
Post-structuralists believe that a major problem with structuralism is that “the defining dichotomies on which structuralist systems are based express distinctions that do not hold up under careful scrutiny” (Gutting 1998, 597). For example, the dichotomy between oral interpretation and written translation is problematic, because sight translation shares characteristics with both of them. In many situations, it may be more productive for us to view some concepts as a gradient between two opposite poles. As for arguments pertaining to meaning stability, it seems that many philosophical theories of meaning have problems (see Martin 2010 for an overview). In addition, the understandings of meaning in TS tend to overgeneralize to different lexical categories and text types, sometimes to the point that translation is impossible (see e.g., Joseph 1998). We believe that researchers do not need to commit themselves to one philosophy, which may run against observable reality. If a philosophy cannot adapt itself to a commonly accepted reality, then it needs to be brought up to date. Otherwise, it would constrain rather than facilitate our understanding of a field.
Like translation studies, sociology also has issues related to disciplinary integration. Burawoy (2005) proposed a holistic model of sociological practice. Based on two criteria — (academic vs. extra-academic) audience and (instrumental vs. reflexive) type of knowledge — he divided the field of sociology into four quadrants: professional, critical, policy, and public sociology. In this model, “each form of practice is enhanced by giving attention to the essential concerns and agenda of the others” (Jeffries 2009, 2), and a discipline’s positive transformation is brought about by the full development of its subfields.
Koskinen (2010) adapts this model to TS, and divides the discipline into professional (scientific), critical, policy (pragmatic) and public translation studies. The first two of the four subfields are basically the empirical camp and the postmodern camp, and they primarily address academic audiences. As Koskinen says in TS (and in the humanities in general), the critical/postmodern approach has currently been in a dominant position. This unbalanced situation is not surprising;
research groups in translation studies constantly fight for influence or cultural capital. And yet, it is a bit unfortunate. More attention should be paid to the two subfields that primarily address extra-academic audiences (i.e., policy and public translation studies). In a way, this journal (Translation Spaces) tries to address this imbalance by focusing on social-cultural frontiers (e.g., commerce and economy; government, law and policy; computation and information) where translation practice and theory interact most dramatically with the emerging landscape of contemporary, urban globalization.
On the research topic level, by drawing on the theory of complex systems, Newell (2001) proposed a theory of interdisciplinary studies. He contended that all interdisciplinarity is ultimately concerned with the behavior of complex systems. The following is his list of steps of the interdisciplinary research process (15):
A. Drawing on disciplinary perspectives:
- defining the problem (question, topic, issue);
- determining relevant disciplines (interdisciplines, schools of thought) by checking each discipline to see if it already has a literature on that topic;
- developing a working command of the relevant concepts, theories, methods of each discipline;
- gathering all current disciplinary knowledge and searching for new information;
- studying the problem from the perspective of each discipline; and
- generating disciplinary insights into the problem.
- identifying conflicts in insights by using disciplines to illuminate one another’s assumptions, or by looking for different terms with common meanings, or terms with different meanings.
- evaluating assumptions and terminology in the context of the specific problem;
- resolving conflicts by working towards a common vocabulary and set of assumptions;
- creating common ground; this involves the modification or reinterpretation of components or relationships from different disciplines to bring out their commonalities so that linkages can be identified between sub-systems.
- constructing a new understanding of the problem; the integrative process is anything but linear. A proposed pattern is tested first against one criterion, then the other, then revised and re-tested.
- producing a model (metaphor, theme) that captures the new understanding of how the behavioral pattern of the system comes about from its constituent parts.
- testing the understanding by attempting to solve the problem.
In TS, researchers usually focus on the differences between different approaches and seldom think in the direction of integration. For instance, if we take equivalence-nonequivalence as a continuum, and the purpose (skopos) as an influencing factor, the equivalence approach and functional approach would have some common ground.
There have been several approaches or paradigms in TS, e.g., linguistic, functional, descriptive, sociological, and technological approaches (see Pym 2010). They come in and out of fashion, and yet none of them have died. For instance, equivalence was severely criticized in the late 1970s, but this concept is still widely used in translation textbooks (e.g., Baker 1992). The reason is that these approaches have focused on different aspects of translation, and do not contradict each other directly. Neubert and Shreve (1992, 12–13) suggest seven research parameters in TS: the application domain, point of textual reference, systemic focus, object focus, activity focus, and research method. These parameters can help us better compare different approaches and integrate them.
Research methods in translation studies
If we view TS as an interdiscipline, then almost all research methods in its feeder disciplines can be used in our research field. Literary studies and philosophy are among TS’ earliest feeder disciplines. They belong to the humanities, where the emphasis is on meaning and context and whose traditional approaches are hermeneutics and conceptual analysis (Chesterman 2002), which have a strong speculative component. Psychology, sociology, and linguistics are also feeder disciplines, generally considered to be social/behavioral sciences; books introducing research methods (mostly empirical) in these disciplines abound.
Cultural studies is an interdiscipline in the humanities and can be divided into three parts: historical and philosophical, sociological, and literary critical (which is the most important) (Hoggart 1970, 255). It emphasizes conceptualizing a topic of enquiry and locating it within a general theoretical context. Researchers in this field rely heavily on textual analysis and techniques of close reading in their interpretation of cultural phenomena; empirical inquiry has been “treated with suspicion or regarded as woefully insufficient in itself ” (Pickering 2008a, 1).
At different periods of its development, TS seems to have come under the great influence of both empirical and cultural studies/humanistic approaches and their corresponding research methods. As a result the discipline seems to have developed an empirical vs. non-empirical dualistic mindset.
The dualistic mindset
Gile (2005) distinguished two approaches in translation studies: the Empirical Science Paradigm (ESP) and the Liberal Arts Paradigm (LAP). The former emphasizes observation and description of empirical facts, testable hypotheses and rigorous research, while the latter “allows authors to make claims that are not the only logical consequence of facts used to make the inference, to make them without informing the readers of the exact facts and methods used to make the inferences.” This classification, which might be debatable, captures the difference between two kinds of research methods: empirical vs. non-empirical (and in a bad light for the latter). Many researchers tend to use the terms theoretical research or rational approach to refer to non-empirical research.
According to Gratton and Jones (2004, 8), theoretical research “generally uses the findings from existing works to develop new ideas through analysing existing theory and explanations.” However, the purpose of any research is to develop a theory, test a theory or solve a problem, and empirical research is also often based on existing theories and leads to new or more elaborated theories. So this duality does not hold up.
The rational approach has its roots in rationalism, which is in contrast to empiricism (see Clark 2006 for their different claims in linguistics). On the research method level, it emphasizes finding out answers by logical reasoning, which involves such reasoning processes as induction and deduction. Obviously, logical reasoning happens in any research, including empirical research. Unlike empirical research, a logical conclusion in a study adopting a rational approach is only valid for the specific situation described by the premises (Gravetter and Forzano 2009, 13). If the premises are incomplete or overgeneralizing, then the conclusion might be inaccurate. This is exactly why Gile criticized the Liberal Arts Paradigm’s methods.
When researchers talk about research methods, they tend to bring in ‘isms’ such as empiricism, positivism, rationalism, post-positivism, and postmodernism. Then they take one side and argue against the other side(s). This, however, might be unnecessary. Take the quantitative versus qualitative debate as an example. The quantitative-qualitative debate was intense in the 1970s and 1980s. At that time, people thought (and many still do) that the key issues were ontological and epistemological; quantitative research is believed to be based on positivism
(which advocates there is only one truth, an objective reality) while qualitative research, is based on interpretivism and constructivism (which advocate that reality is socially constructed and there are multiple realities or multiple truths based on one’s construction of reality). It was thought that these two approaches to research represented different paradigms and do not study the same phenomena (see Sale, Lohfeld and Brazil 2002). In fact, quantitative research and qualitative research are simply two approaches, not paradigms, and no paradigm shift in the Kuhnian sense will happen; they can study the same phenomena. As Mills (cited from Patton 1997, 275) says, the choice between a quantitative method and a qualitative method should be made according to the requirements of our research problem, and it should not be out of “a ‘necessity’ that follows from an epistemological dogma.” Breaking away from the ontological/epistemological quagmire helped the two approaches reconcile. In the last decade methodologists (e.g., Creswell and Plano Clark 2011) have been discussing how to mix quantitative and qualitative methods in one study. The implication for translation researchers is that we should also break away from the epistemological dualistic mindset, at least on the research method level. But, what are we supposed to refer to, to ground our research in, if we do not rely on ‘isms’?
The differences between Giles’ dualistic approaches (i.e., the Empirical Science Paradigm and the Liberal Arts Paradigm) come down to one word: evidence. Evidence is an important concept in the philosophy of science (Achinstein 2008). It is closely related to such concepts as confirmation and explanation. In TS, it is rare to conclusively establish a theory or refute a theory. According to Popper (1959), universal statements or theories are impossible to verify; they can only be falsified. For example, no matter how many white swans we may have observed, this does not justify that “all swans are white;” the existence of just one non-white swan will falsify that statement. However, falsifying a theory might not be that easy. For instance, what if that non-white swan has a genetic mutation and is not a ‘regular swan?’ Lakatos (1970) contends that a theory has a hard core and a protective belt of auxiliary hypotheses; in the face of negative evidence, the auxiliary belt can be adjusted (or even completely replaced) to save the hard core from falsification attempts. Further, theories are generally assessed in terms of progress (in explanation and confirmation) and not by the presence or absence of discrete (seemingly) falsifying cases. In a way, theoretical verification, (positive/negative) evidence, and falsification are on gradients.
There are four types of evidence: expert opinion, established theories, anecdotal and introspective evidence, and data-based evidence. All evidence is not
created equal. Some forms carry more weight than others and all can be weakened by errors. In human inquiry, we are prone to making many types of errors, such as inaccurate observations, overgeneralization, selective observation, and illogical reasoning (Babbie 2010). In the following paragraphs, we will discuss the four types of evidence, their strengths and weaknesses.
Expert opinion plays an important role in discoveries in a research field; such opinion, though, is frequently “driven by factors that are highly subjective and nonrational; hunches, predilections, biases, and flights of imagination” (Cooke 1991, 17). Holmes’ map for TS and Burawoy‘s holistic model of sociological practice mentioned earlier are such examples. Quoting experts can give some credibility to a study. However, opinion is uncertain. Different experts may have different opinions, and an expert’s reasoning might be illogical. To counter this uncertainty, people usually rely on more than one expert’s opinions, and have developed various techniques (such as the Delphi method) to combine them (17). In this way, expert-based evidence derives from a kind of ‘expert survey.’
Established theories are frequently used in deductive studies as a theoretical framework, or used to explain a phenomenon. How theories get established is the topic of philosophy of science and is out of the scope of this paper. Here, we will take Pierre Bourdieu’s theories of habitus, field, and forms of capital as an example; these are influential in sociology, literary criticism, and cultural studies and are being used in the construction of a sociology of translation (see Wolf and Alexandra 2007). In terms of research methods, Bourdieu used field observation, interviewing, and quantitative data analysis. For instance, in Distinction: A Social Critique of the Judgment of Taste, Bourdieu (1984) used 36 tables and 21 figures to illustrate the statistical relationship between an individual’s “social location” and his or her cultural preferences.
Anecdotal evidence consists of the documentation of specific incidents and experiences, whilst introspective evidence refers, as one might surmise, to data produced through personal reflection. A common feature of anecdotal and introspective evidence is that the evidence is unsystematic. As Weiten (2010) says, “[a] necdotes readily sway people because they are often concrete, vivid, and memorable” (74). In nature, an anecdote is a case study with a sample size of one. If the example used as anecdotal evidence is typical, then it will provide significant support to the thesis. However, this very rarely happens. In most cases, anecdotal evidence is biased; and studies using anecdotal evidence tend to overgeneralize. In linguistics, introspection is a method championed by Chomsky, who insists that people can depend on their intuitions and come up with appropriate examples for deriving inferences and rules. A famous example is Chomksy’s “colorless green ideas sleep furiously” example and the insights he derived from it. However, a single linguist’s intuition might not be very dependable. Sobin (1987) did an acceptability
judgment experiment among 42 speakers of Standard American English who were from an undergraduate introductory level class in linguistics. Many linguists believe that the sentence “Who did you say that kissed Harriet?” is ungrammatical. In this experiment, only 7.1% of students rated it as ungrammatical, 45.2% believed it could be actively accepted while 47.6% believed it could be passively accepted. The deficiency of the introspective method shown in this experiment is one reason why elicited data and corpora are becoming popular.
Data-based evidence refers to systematically collected data, including qualitative data and quantitative data. Traditional data-collection methods include observation, questionnaires, interviews, verbal reports, experiments, and deskwork. In contrast to fieldwork like observation, deskwork refers to collecting ready data such as texts and official statistics. These methods have different strengths and weaknesses, and are suitable for different purposes. Compared with the previous three types of evidence, the procedures and requirements for systematically collecting data is much stricter. Methodologists have proposed guidelines for improving the rigor and trustworthiness of data-based studies. In addition, databased studies often can be replicated using the same research design or a different design in order to build confidence in a hypothesis.
Data-based evidence is widely used in the social sciences (such as psychology and sociology) and is seen as a more empirical method. Recently, researchers in the humanities have been advocating adopting data-based methods. For example, in literary studies, Gottschall (2008) comments that “literary methods are weak when compared to the power of the theories — the former seem almost incapable of demonstrating that the latter are wrong” (43), and researchers tend to enumerate the positive evidence for literary hypotheses and ignore negative evidence. He argues that scientific methods can be adopted in literary studies. In cultural studies, there have been calls (e.g., McRobbie 1997; Pickering 2008b) for researchers to adopt empirical methods (such as qualitative in-depth interviews and focus groups) and to strike a balance between the epistemological approach and the empirical approach. According to Snell-Hornby (2006), there was an “empirical turn” in translation studies, where the discipline moved to data-based evidence and the methods associated with empirical research. However, is this claim true? What research methods are being used in TS today?
A survey of research methods used in TS
To develop a survey of research methods used in TS, we compiled a comprehensive bibliography (1980-June 2010) from Translation Studies Bibliography (John Benjamins) and Linguistics and Language Behavior Abstracts. The bibliography had over 21,209 references (including titles, keywords, abstracts and other fields)
stored in EndNote, a bibliographic management tool, which was then connected to RefViz (version 2.1) and OmniViz (version 6.0), two data visualization tools, to provide a visual overview of a research field. Most of the references were peer-reviewed and in English. Since monographs carry more weight than journal articles, reviews of monographs were included.
A search of ‘method’ or ‘methodology’ in Any Field (including title, keywords, abstract, and note) returned 2939 references. From the list of ‘topics used to group references’ prepared by RefViz, the following major methods were identified (in random order): corpus, think-aloud protocols, interview, questionnaire, and case study (which is more a research design than a research method).
A search of “data, empirical, corpus, corpora, think aloud, interview, or questionnaire” in Any Field returned 3816 references, which accounted for about 18% of the total number of references in our database. Here is the Galaxy view produced by RefViz, which provides an overview of the reference collection:
Figure 2. A Galaxy view of data-based research in translation studies.
This retrieval method is not very accurate (e.g., the seven search words cannot retrieve all data-based studies in our database; some retrieved records that may not be data-based studies, such as ‘an interview with professor xxx’), but this method is still good enough for us to gain an overview of the discipline. The above Galaxy view together with the list of “topics used to group references” helps identify the research topics that seem to most often use data-based methods (in random order):
- corpus-based, audiovisual, legal, medical, subtitling
- process-based, cognition, simultaneous interpretation, competence, model, memory
- terminology, dictionary, lexicography
- machine translation, software
- culture, social, status
- student, training, teaching
To have a diachronic view of data-based research in TS, the following chart was produced:
Figure 3. A diachronic view of data-based research in translation studies (1980–2009).
We can see that the whole TS field has been constantly growing since 1980 and peaked in 2005. The output of 2009 was on the same level as that of 2000. In contrast, data-based research did not show the same upward trend before 2006, although it did increase in amount. This means that if indeed there has been such an empirical turn in TS it is, in terms of impact, not reflected in academic output.
The relationship between translation theory and practice
Holmes (1972/1988) holds that the relationship between translation theory and applied translation research is a dialectical one, and that they are interdependent. So are translation theory and practice. However, over the years, there has been a gap between translation theory and practice. The dialogue between Chesterman, a theoretitian, and Wagner, a professional translator (Chesterman and Wagner 2002) is evidence of this. In responding to translation practioners’ complaints that translation theory is practically useless to them, translation theoreticians scramble to defend themselves. For example, Chesterman says that translation theory can “offer a set of conceptual tools,” which “can be thought of as aids for mental problem-solving, or for the development of the translator’s self-image, or even for the enhancement of job satisfaction” (Chesterman and Wagner 2002, 7). However, as Pym (2010) says, “instructors and trainers sometimes assume that a translator who knows about different theories will work better than one who knows nothing about them[;] [a]s far as we know, there is no empirical evidence for that claim, and there are good reasons to doubt its validity” (4). Newmark (2009) also argues that many good translators have had no theoretical training, so “translation theory is not indispensable” (20). It seems that we need to analyze why there is such a gap, and figure out how to narrow this gap if we really believe theory and practice are interdependent.
The first fact in translation practice is that most professional translators do non-literary translation, while the focus of translation theoretical research is on literary translation. This contrast might not be impressive. Let’s put it this way: over 95% of translators do non-literary translation; on the other hand the ‘translation theories’ that emerge heavily in our analysis of the literature are on literary translation. Literary and non-literary translation differ in many important respects, including subject matter, method and variety of language (see Newmark 2004).
Among the mainstream translation theories or perspectives, the cultural approach comes first in our analysis. A search of ‘culture’ or ‘cultural’ in Any Field (including title, keywords, abstract, and note) returned 5461 references, accounting for 25.7% of all references in our database; the ThemeMap visualization produced by OmniViz indicated that ‘culture’ is a top theme in TS. Scholars adopting the cultural approach generally deal with literary texts (e.g., Bassnett-McGuire and Lefevere 1998), which “are seen as Culturally Important” (Chesterman and Wagner 2002, 4).
The results of the analysis point to references to postcolonial, feminist and gender approaches, which are closely related to literary and cultural studies. Deconstruction also emerges in the analysis, which is one of the five major
theories in Gentzler (2001). Deconstruction “has generally been limited to the study of literature, and particularly to the canonical texts of Romantic poetry and the nineteenth-century novel” (Moran 2002, 93). We also see works related to polysystem theory, which has been mostly applied to the discussion of the role of translated literature in a particular literary polysystem. We even see published debates over equivalence, and the word-for-word vs. sense-for-sense opposition, that are “relevant to literary translation but much less so to scientific and technical translation” (Jones 2009, 153). References citing Reiss and Vermeer’s functional approach are an exception; this approach, unlike the others, is less applicable to literary translation than to non-literary translation (Newmark 2009, 21; Schäffner 2009, 120).
A question arises: why does literary translation seem to be the focus of translation researchers? One reason is that literary translation has traditionally had a high status and enjoys high social prestige. This is not surprising, considering that literature in the extended sense is “a highly valued kind of writing”(Eagleton 2008, 9). Another reason is that literary translation is often in the form of books and ‘publicly published’ works, which makes it readily available to translation researchers, whereas pragmatic translation, given the nature of its commission and distribution, is less accessible to researchers. According to Index Translationum, the thematic spectra of translated books in the U.S. (1955–1983) are Literature, Religion, History and Geography, Arts, Social Sciences, Pure Science, Applied Sciences and Philosophy, with Literature being the largest subject (see Šajkevič 1992, 82). A third reason is that, compared with technical texts, literary texts are packed with richer features. Typically, literary texts feature ‘poetic’ language use, words and images with indeterminable meanings, draw on less used registers (e.g., slang), and fulfill an aesthetic rather than informational function (Jones 2009, 152).
The second factor causing the theory-practice gap is that translation professionals and trainees and translation theorists expect different things from translation research. Translators want to know about best practices in translation, about workflow and management; they want information about translation procedures, principles, techniques, skills, textual analysis, and the use of computer-aided translation tools, etc. They prefer prescriptive rules and guidelines, which they can then adopt and use to defend their translation decisions. If one asks a Chinese translator about translation theory, (s)he will talk about the “faithfulness, expressiveness, elegance” principle by Yan Fu. It has become a knee-jerk reaction.
Most theorists, however, have tried to get away from this prescriptive approach and seek to describe and explain what translators actually do. Prescriptive and descriptive approaches are often regarded to be incompatible. This is not true. If researchers find that some translation practices lead to quality translation and client satisfaction, then these practices will be regarded as best practices and may acquire
the status of prescriptive guidelines. The descriptive approach may be more scientific in terms of research methods. Yet, it should be noted that prescriptive rules might have more influence among translation practitioners than the descriptive approach does. Recall that Koskinen (2010) divides TS into four quadrants: professional (scientific), critical, policy (pragmatic), and public translation studies. Prescriptive rules are influential in the policy (pragmatic) and public quadrants.
Then, why do most translation theorists prefer focusing on meta-level theories rather than ‘practitioner-relevant’ issues in translating like how to translate culture-bound terms or puns? Why did strategies for translating puns not appear in Contemporary Translation Theories (Gentzler 2001) or A Companion to Translation Studies (Kuhiwczak and Karin 2007)? The answer to this relates to the nature of theorizing. A theory contains important variables for understanding the issue at hand and indicates how those variables interact to produce some outcome of interest (Thomas and Brubaker 2000, 2); it aims to describe, explain and predict a phenomenon. In the sociocultural field, it is relatively easy to identify variables (e.g., patrons, market, publishers) and explain a phenomenon. In contrast, it is difficult to propose a theory for translating puns, as it is difficult to identify related variables and explain this phenomenon. Furthermore, even if there are theories for translating culture-bound terms or puns, their ranges of application are limited and few researchers will cite them. As a result, they have little impact.
The third factor explaining the gap between theory and practice is that translation researchers focus on the cultural and social capital of the field, whereas professional translators and the language industry are more concerned about economic capital. Bourdieu in The Forms of Capital (1986) distinguishes three types of capital: (1) economic capital, which is convertible into money; (2) cultural capital as “widely shared, legitimate culture made up of high status cultural signals (attitudes, preferences, behaviors, and goods) used in direct or indirect social and cultural exclusion” (Lamont and Lareau 1988, 164); and (3) social capital, which is the aggregate of the actual or potential resources which are linked to membership in a group. Influenced by Marxist sociology, Bourdieu (1986, 252) states that “economic capital is at the root of all other types of capital.” Translation researchers have been talking about such concepts as status, identity, agency, power, and patronage, which are related to cultural and social capital. For instance, Tymoczko (2007) argues that thinking of translation in its largest cross-cultural and crosstemporal sense will empower translators by making them perceive a greater range of translation possibilities available to them and allowing them to exercise many types of agency; empowered translators would allow themselves “to undertake new types of projects, to risk using new translation strategies, to create new types of translated texts, and to engage in new fields of activism and ethical engagement”(191). However, such an empowered translator might still be impoverished
and have a low social status. For instance, at the current rate, a Chinese translator has to translate at least two hundred 350-page books (classics or not) from English into Chinese in order to buy a decent apartment in Beijing proper in 2014. A fact in the translation field is that many (if not most) literary works have been translated by academics. For them, money is not their motivation for doing translation, and in some cases, they even have to pay the publisher in order to get their translations published. In contrast, professional pragmatic translators translate to make a living and usually charge a higher rate than book translators do. Different purposes might lead to different actions. Despite their importance, economic factors have not been given much thought in translation studies.
The theory-practice gap in translation studies is significant. In the long run, it will bring damage to this discipline. If translators believe theories are irrelevant, what can we expect from wider society? As Kuhiwczak and Littau (2007) put it, we need to begin to “think of theory and practice together, how each transforms the other, how practice is altered by theory, and how theory is transformed when it confronts practical issues” (7). For instance, people usually believe that meaning is generated by verbal signs only, but in a film or a webpage, it is based on verbal utterances and non-verbal signs (e.g., pictures, sounds) (Gambier and Gottlieb 2001, xviii). This way, this kind of practice forces us to redefine some concepts.
This paper touches upon some essential issues in translation studies: (1) approaches to defining translation; (2) the research scope of translation studies; (3) its interdisciplinary orientation and the implications of that orientation; (4) its research methods and how they are reflected in research practice; and (5) the nature of the emerging relationship between translation theory and practice. At present, translation studies features opposing approaches and fragmentation, and there is a yawning gap between translation theory and practice. This paper tries to break up the rigid boundaries between the oppositions and to integrate their viewpoints by constructing a more comprehensive perspective.
It seems that there are three basic drivers for the future evolution of TS: (1) introducing theories and methods from other disciplines (such as linguistics, cultural studies); (2) adopting social theory (such as feminist theory and postcolonial theory); (3) the continuing dynamic interaction between translation theory and emerging translation practice (e.g., due to translation technology and language industry workflows). Apparently, the first two drivers have been given more attention in the literature than the third driver. It is time that we turn our attention even more diligently to translation practice, and derive more of our theories from it. This can help redress the imbalance we see in the published literature of our discipline. As we saw from Burawoy’s matrix earlier, an over-emphasis of a particular subfield (e.g., critical translation studies) can be problematic; the four quadrants of the discipline need to thrive together.
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