Research skills and interdisciplinarity in Translation and Interpreting Studies


Miriam Shlesinger


Interdisciplinarity has been with us since the earliest days of T&I research. In most cases, it has been a matter of T&I scholars (often also practitioners in their own right) trying to stir the collaborative interest of colleagues in such fields as linguistics, psychology etc. Less often, T&I scholars have been co-opted into projects anchored in other domains. Thus, interdisciplinarity may refer either to insiders "looking out", and hoping to apply the knowledge available "out there" to the study of translation / interpreting, or to outsiders "looking in", and hoping to glean findings that can then be integrated into their respective "home disciplines". In the ideal world of truly symbiotic relationships, the two may coincide.

As individuals in society and as researchers in our respective disciplines, we have come to see the shortcomings (as well as some advantages) of confining ourselves to our own paradigms, our own models and indeed, our own selves. Interdisciplinarity is the recognized by-product of the fluidity and complexity of our lives, a healthy reaction to the often-exaggerated compartmentalization of academe. As T&I scholarship has gained ground, and as T&I scholars have come to be viewed as team members in good standing on the academic playing field, interdisciplinary collaboration has been on the rise as well, with greater readiness to acknowledge the potential for mutually beneficial collaboration.

When it comes to the research skills required for pursuing interdisciplinary – as opposed to intradisciplinary – research, certain recurrent problems tend to emerge, regardless of the particular disciplines involved. Encouraged by the organizers of the symposium to address this topic from a personal perspective, I take my own experience as a point of departure, starting with the following question: How did my choice of an interdisciplinary research project affect my own research skills, and how adequate were they in dealing with the other discipline (in my case, cognitive psychology and psycholinguistics). There appears to be a difference between interdisciplinary cooperation within the humanities and outside of the humanities (most commonly with the social sciences), where the paradigms, the methods and the history of research are markedly different. The following are some questions and challenges encountered in moving beyond TS/IS and beyond the pale of the humanities:


·        Given the need to go beyond a thorough familiarity with Interpreting Studies literature, the "interdisciplinarian" must become equally and thoroughly familiar with what has been done on in the other discipline. How can this be achieved within a reasonable time, if indeed it can be achieved at all?


·        If one's advisor comes from within TS / IS (or, as is often the case, from linguistics), to what extent can s/he ensure that the interdisciplinary research involving a more "distant" field is in keeping with the requirements of that  other field and does not appear uninformed or naïve? Is it in fact essential to have a second advisor from the other discipline?


·        From the institutional point of view, researchers are often hemmed in by the requirement to conduct their research within the confines of their own faculty or even their own department. The creation of a joint framework, if it is at all feasible, may entail administrative, logistical and financial constraints. What are the chances of straddling two departments and being accepted in both?


Perhaps the manner in which the process unfolded in my own case is an exception; perhaps not. Despite my "esoteric" field and my lack of familiarity with the central areas of research, I was invited to spend two months at the Max Planck Institute in Nijmegen, The Netherlands, and was encouraged to consult with the in-house scholars, notwithstanding the fact that they had little or no interest in interpreting as such, and to ask questions, including methodological ones. It was through this interaction that I was able to narrow down my research question, to access the relevant cognitive psychological literature and to learn about potential pitfalls. However, when the time came to link this newly acquired information to my object of research – interpreting – it became necessary to return to my natural turf, a translation department. The cognitive psychologists could provide extensive background information, but could not help me create the desired interface. Only in a Translation Studies setting was I able to complete the process.


A doctoral student in my department, whose topic lies at the interface of (community) interpreting and medical sociology, is a case in point:


·        The physician at the medical institution which granted her the permission to conduct the observations and who expects to tap some of her findings, is keen on quantitative information. The student, on the other hand, is more interested in qualitative research. The implicit requirement to provide quantitative findings confronts her with the need to deal with questions that (1) are of little interest to her; and (2) are not part of her academic background.


·        Sociologists as well as medical researchers whom she has tried to involve in her study wish to apply research methods not normally used in TS / IS. More important, their research questions lean toward the epidemiological, whereas hers focus on (mis)communication and (mis)understandings.


·        When all is said and done, the study will probably end up being largely unidirectional; i.e. a translation scholar will tap the expertise of another discipline (medical sociology) which, in turn, will be wary of integrating the findings and conclusions thereof. In other words, the interpreting scholar (a doctoral student, in this case) will be borrowing, but will have little chance of repaying the loan.


Will the doctoral research described above be considered worthy of publication in a journal in the area of medical sociology? Would my own research be considered worthy of publication in a cognitive psychological journal? Perhaps, but to date, there have been very few precedents. The answer probably lies in co-authored papers, with the two authors, from two different disciplines, seeking the common ground with regard to terminology, writing conventions, structure etc., especially since the journals in each of the two disciplines may have different standards and different approaches to the structure and prerequisites of a publishable paper.


* * *


Notwithstanding the complex research skills required and the difficulties of finding the middle ground which will enable scholars in two distinct (albeit related) disciplines to cooperate, many of us continue to explore this possibility. What follows is no more than a sampling of the types of research in which T&I scholars may become full collaborators with non-T&I scholars. Specifically, as suggested by the organizers of the Ljubljana symposium, I have focused on examples of studies in which I myself have had the privilege of collaborating or of supervising a collaboration – taking advantage of the growing opportunities for such projects. The interdisciplinarity illustrated by these instances is both open-ended and bi-directional, and is not restricted to the more traditional paradigms.


Example 1: TS and Mathematics


Just as individual languages may be studied statistically (as epitomized by the application of Zipf’s Law), so too may language pairs. A recent collaboration between two translation scholars and two physicists (a) led to the application of Venn diagrams to translated vs. original corpora. Taken from set theory (a branch of mathematics) and based on straightforward quantitative analyses, Venn diagrams, as used in this study, pointed to features that set translations apart.  (A pilot study suggested a remarkable similarity in the number of unique types in genre-matched translated texts.) It is hoped that this collaboration (currently in progress) will yield insights that may not have been reached within either one of the two disciplines on its own. While the gain for TS is more apparent than the gain for statistical physics, the benefits to the latter lie in demonstrating the viability of an existing tool as it is applied to a new type of data. 


Example 2: IS and Musicology


Capacity management strategies are of interest whenever highly taxing online processing is required. Such processing may be found in a pianist's sight reading of music just as it may be found in simultaneous interpreting. As one of their key strategies, both of these entail extensive use of anticipation: in the case of music, it is the meter, melody and harmony that help form a mental and acoustic image of the segments that lie ahead; in the case of interpreting, it is intonation, collocational patterns and syntax. (In both, these elements are of course coupled with prior knowledge.) The analogy and the differences between these two processes await the interdisciplinary team – minimally consisting of a cognitive psychologist, a musicologist and a translation scholar – willing to engage in an extensive  interdisciplinary project, par excellence. For now, it comprises the (rather ambitious) thesis proposal of a student of T&I who is also a professional musician. (b)


Example 3: TS / IS and Sociology


The marginality of translators and interpreters alike as a profession is especially paradoxical, in view of the enormous power encapsulated in their work, as those who hold the key to cultural contacts and linguistic exchange. I am currently collaborating with a Culture Studies scholar in a project which centers on the institutional and formal factors that shape the self-perception of translation and interpreting practitioners (c) – the implicit codes, attitudes and values shared by members of the translating professions. The point of departure in this project is the theory of ‘cultural fields’ (Bourdieu 1980, 1986), which has typically drawn its examples from domains  that lack institutionalized boundaries and appear to defy professionalization, such as, notably, literature and the arts. Taking the profession of translation (both written and oral) as a test case, we will attempt  to analyze the self-perception of members of three subgroups of the translating profession – literary, non-literary and subtitlers – and three subgroups of the interpreting profession – conference, court and sign-language – and the ways in which they claim status by building their ‘occupational selves’. We assume that the distinction between the different branches is manifest in the inventory of prestige resources; for instance, while literary translators draw heavily on the people-of-art image, and accentuate personal creativity as their capital, community interpreters tend to borrow from social workers and accentuate empathy and care, on the one hand, and to debate the ethics of advocacy, on the other. The project is envisioned as one in which a sociological theory, as applied to translation (more specifically, translators), will also benefit the social sciences by feeding back into the growing study of constructing and maintaining group identity, with special reference to occupational groups.


Intersubdisciplinary or intra-interdisciplinary (d)


While most T&I scholars would probably agree that the commonalities of translation and interpreting are greater than the differences between them, most of us tend to study either translation or interpreting rather than engaging in both TS and IS. The term intersubdisciplinary (or intra-interdisciplinary) refers to research on translation and interpreting that focuses on the similarities and differences between the written, oral and signed modalities or between the different modes (simultaneous, consecutive and variations on either of these), in relation to some aspect of the processes involved or of the outputs produced. Below are some recent examples of research involving both translation and interpreting.


Example 4 – Between modalities: Oral and written (process)


Insights from TS and from IS were brought to bear on the processing of cognates in interpreting, compared with the processing of the same cognates (by the same participants) in translation. Starting with two hypotheses – that interpreters are likelier to retain (the more readily retrievable) true cognates and to mistranslate false cognates – the study found that the participants were six times more likely to produce a cognate solution in interpreting and a non-cognate solution in translation than the reverse, and that performance on false cognates was far superior in translation. As discussed in the article, such a comparison – the result of an almost instantaneous rendering compared with that of a slow and reiterative process – is expected to enhance our understanding of time pressure on lexical choices in general.


Example 5 – Between modalities: Oral and written (product)


In a study (work in progress) involving seven participants translating a text several years after interpreting it, and comparing the outputs, a strikingly consistent difference was found in the type-token ratios between the two modalities. While there were considerable differences between participants within each modality with respect to the degree of lexical variability, all seven displayed a more varied vocabulary (i.e. a higher type-token ratio) in translation than in interpreting. Granted, this finding is hardly surprising; one expects a more deliberate avoidance of repetition in written translation and a richer lexicon when the translator is given sufficient time. Still, such an intersubdisciplinary study, by corroborating our intuitive assumption concerning outputs in two modalities, enhances our understanding of (the limitations of) interpreting.




A description of the potential for interdisciplinary research in TS and IS would extend far beyond the scope of this submission, as would an exhaustive description of the potential for collaboration within T&I itself. I have merely tried to (1) hint at the vastness of this potential and (2) describe some collaborative projects in which I have been involved. With the proliferation of university T&I departments requiring their students to engage in research, the prospects of such interdisciplinarity look more promising than ever.




a. Kanter, Ido, Haggai Kfir, Brenda Malkiel and Miriam Shlesinger. 2006. Identifying Universals of Text Translation. Journal of Quantitative Linguistics 13:1. 35-43.


b. Stern, Lily. Anticipation in sight-reading and in simultaneous interpreting. Thesis proposal, Department of Translation and Interpreting Studies. Bar Ilan University. 2005.


c. Sela-Sheffy, Rakefet and Miriam Shlesinger. Strategies of Image-Making and Status Advancement of Translators and Interpreters as a Marginal Occupational Group. Research Project supported by the Israel Science Foundation. 2006-2008.


d. The latter term is used by Pöchhacker (“I” in TS: On Partnership in Tranlsation Studies”. In Schäffner, Christina (ed). 2004. Translation Research and Interpreting Research: Traditions, Gaps and Synergies. Clevedon: Multingual Matters, p.11). Like Pöchhacker, I would like to make a claim for “an increased awareness of multiple paradigms in either subdiscipline and, hence, of multiple types of intra-interdisciplinary partnership in a field which can draw synergies from combining humanities-inspired and scientific approaches.”