Research Skills in the Liberal Arts Paradigm

Radegundis Stolze


1 Introduction

2 The role of subjectivity

3 Research procedure and academic norms

4 Aims of research and concrete problems

5 Conclusion



1 Introduction

The rationale underlying the program of a one-day seminar on research skills starts with the idea that “weaknesses regularly observed and reported in studies conducted by TS scholars seem to reflect lacunae in basic rather than advanced skills and methods” (Gile and Hansen 2004)[1]. Academic skills are usually learnt implicitly during a kind of acculturation process, and thus are not always obvious to outsiders. What we need is to create more awareness of the given implicit knowledge about various academic practices. It is generally admitted that TS is interdisciplinary, as various theoretical approaches come together here. While insights gained by looking into neighbouring fields of research may be fruitfully integrated into one’s own research, there is also a growing uneasiness about the mechanical interbreeding of approaches and methodologies from distinct paradigms, what constitutes a flaw for studies in both areas.

The mindset and norms of empirical researchers and of scholars in the liberal arts field are different to some extent. Fruitful interdisciplinary studies can only be realized if we are aware of the potential of the respective methods or approaches, thus preventing misunderstandings.

Moreover, the rules or norms of academic writing also differ considerably in various linguistic and academic communities (see e.g. Ventola and Mauranen 1996)[2], even if these differences are becoming increasingly blurred as English is strengthening its role as the lingua franca of research. However, this only aggravates the situation, as authors tend to unconsciously apply their own cultural or institutionally trained attitude, even when writing in English, and that may cause serious understanding problems. So the difficulty is twofold: there are variations in the academic paradigm of research and in the cultural way of presenting the results.


2 The role of subjectivity

Research in the Liberal Arts Paradigm is about ideas. The so-called theory-oriented papers and studies are situated here. Subjectivity in the researcher as a person cannot be eliminated, but has to be reflected upon. The researcher, who is not a scientist but a scholar, works on theories and models of relationships or activities, of processes or developments, not on facts. What has to be called a “fact” to make inferences must first be agreed upon among the scholars.

This is the subject of Humanities as a field of research, and Translation Studies belongs to these as well: there is the debate about our thoughts, opinions, feelings, the social development, the motivation of behaviour, strategies of translation, history, economic processes, social evolution, the sociological conditions of interpreting facts, the tradition of law, the cultural background of observation, there is research in creativity, origination of new questions, design of new hypotheses, etc.

All such things are invisible, we cannot count or quantify them, but we can talk about them. In the academic discourse we start with an inter-subjective plausibility of the words we are using and hope that the audience will understand us. The scholarly work is communicative, just as science in general:  to help the collective building of knowledge, scholars must communicate the results of their work and publications. It is not sufficient to just think in novel directions. An example: There are so many theories of translation, and various models of the act of translating have been designed, that continuously new textbooks on the “theories of translation” are being edited. The work of researchers, here, is done in the library, not in the laboratory for tests, and not in front of computers analysing questionnaires.

This kind of research in LAP is closely linked to the respective scholar as a person, and therefore subjectivity is always present and determines the procedure of doing research. There are special skills required, also because the way of doing research and presenting one’s conclusions is not regulated strictly.


3. Research skills and academic norms

The research procedure may be described in five points.

(a) There is above all other things: reading. We have to read other scholars’ publications. When some people have the impression, that the wheel is being reinvented again and again (and we hear this critique often in TS), this might be caused by the fact that people stick to their own circle and do not reach out beyond it. All theories are linked to the individual person’s mind who designs them, there is ever some influence of subjectivity. There are no “objective data” that might be taken as a proof, but the research process in LAP is nonetheless bound by some academic norms.

The first is: Scholarly work is inter-subjective: every scholar draws upon the work of other members of the community in terms of theories and problem awareness, and also contributes himself to the community by offering new insights. A large part of scholarly work in the Liberal Arts Paradigm is based on a critical dealing with other scholars’ publications. And misperceptions can be corrected through collective discussion.

(b) After and besides reading, there is a second skill: you have to create your own opinion too. Things observed, and even more theories discussed, have all a “subject-relevant being”, as phenomenology says (Husserl). The question is always: how do I see it, what is my own view or conviction regarding the given problem? Do I think this phenomenon is a relevant fact or not?

It is important to distinguish between my own view (either from my experience or intuition or any predilection) and various other schools, approaches, outlooks, theories. For this purpose I have to know some other, even contrasting theories, but without a personal theoretical conviction it would be difficult to evaluate other theories.

Our norm here is: scholarly work is self-critical. Self-criticism is important for rendering valuable contributions to the academic community. Because of the subjectivity involved, the scholar has to take responsibility for his or her own work.

The quality of academic contributions is mainly evaluated regarding their innovative potential. And this must be checked in self-criticism. There are two dangers here concerning the lack of innovation: when we only stick to a personal idea, the result may be too subjective and unacceptable in the academic community, because it is not mature enough. What might be a really illuminating insight for myself might be not at all new in the larger field, e.g. of TS, since it had already been discussed in detail elsewhere. Respective publications would resemble school essays.

On the other hand, when I have no opinion at all, I risk to get drowned in the field of various publications, academic schools and convictions. Respective papers appear like reading reports: they present one after the other what literature presents, but no discussion of this. It’s a “cemetery of quotations”. The reader asks himself: and so what? This does not contribute to academic progress either.

Also, this kind of a supposedly neutral or objective presentation of other people’s voices - without any critical reflection - bears the inherent danger of misunderstanding. Students tend to extensively cite the relevant big authors (or even minor ones they managed to read), but it isn’t quite clear whether they have really understood them in the sense of an assimilating cognitive process.

(c) But when we have understood something, made it our own idea, we will also be able to speak up for it, to lead a convincing argumentation in favour of this conviction, for which we then can also accept responsibility. We have a norm here too: scholarly work is argumentative: it recognizes that personal bias is in the way of every scholar’s attempts to explain the world, and therefore tries to convince the readers by awareness-building, consistent argumentation and critical questioning, for instance by mentally considering some opposite opinions too.

(d) This leads us to a fourth point regarding precision in academic presentation of scholarly reasoning: define the matter of your study clearly and try to stick to that. Only with a very clear presentation of the arguments the study can be convincing. The norm is: scholarly work is precise: it checks the matter debated critically, it questions various possible conclusions or claims made, in order to back-up one's theses more safely. You should try to explain what you mean for instance with “a translation”: is this a task, or a subject of literary criticism, or an act of intercultural mediation, or a textual object with certain impacts in society, or a cognitive procedure, or what?

(e) As the scholar is dealing a lot with other publications, there is the problem of uncritically borrowing concepts from them, and then just add some new meaning. Instead of creating new terms for new findings as in the sciences, scholars tend to endlessly reinterpret given expressions.

This problem finds its expression in the norm: scholarly work is explicit in its use of concepts. There is no objective meaning to be presupposed beforehand. The problem is also that the words for those concepts mostly are words from general language, however with a specialist semantic content.

Our terms and concepts, therefore, have to be explicitly defined in every single contribution, since the semantic content of terms, such as “translation”, “creativity”, “culture”, “interpretation”, “meaning”, “literary effect”, “learning”, “understanding”, and so on, is conceived slightly different in their subjective relevance for every individual researcher. An ill-considered use of other people’s terminology can lead to much confusion. That is why explicit definition is needed in scholarly papers.

The danger is often that there is too much internal debate: the scholar knows all about his/her own conviction within his or her paradigm, and forgets about divergent views. But we are not only writing for readers within our own paradigm.


4. The aims of research and concrete problems

So far, I gave a more general description of research skills in the Liberal Arts Paradigm. But for which purpose are we doing this? Why is this considered interesting by some? The aims of LAP research can be seen in a challenging of statements so far given in the literature, or in the application of a certain theory designed by an academic school onto examples of language usage, for more detailed clarification.

Here, the content of studies seems to be culturally dependent: in some areas of the world empirical studies are predominant, in others the interest is put in didactics, and again in others there is more focus on theory. Suffice it to mention Ventola/Mauranen (1996) or Galtung's ideas in his famous article about culturally different “intellectual styles” (1981)[3].

Case (A) of challenging can be sought in the need felt for a more profound clarification of a theory or a concept so far considered as insufficiently described. This may also lead to the development of a new theory. Choosing topics, here, is not so difficult, because they arise intuitively while reading. The specificity in the Liberal Arts Paradigm is that a researcher does not simply apply objective quantitative or qualitative methods, but brings in subjectivity. Even the most logical and concise systematic methodology can appear as unconvincing or irrelevant to such a scholar, who then will try to think by him or herself.

The point of departure of one’s argumentation is found after having read scholarly literature and, sometimes intuitively, found a personal position towards the issue concerned. Planning one’s study, for instance at Master theses, often may follow the model of similar other studies. This is no great difficulty either.

Concrete examples for such a research are the following topics, all taken from doctoral or Master theses, or EST papers I have seen. I read some titles, partly translated into English:

  • The adequacy of traditional text linguistic concepts for the problem of translation
  • What is the difference between hermeneutic and analytical methods in translation?
  • Combining contrastive linguistics and error analysis for the design of new teaching courses for translators
  • Contrastive linguistics and translation science in the language-pair
  • Thoughts on a problematic self-understanding of translation science
  • On some scientific criteria for translation criticism
  • Translation Studies and Transfer Studies: A Plea for a Widening of the Scope of TS
  • Modelling the translator’s competence
  • Some reasons why semiotics is good for TS
  • Reflections on TS in foreign language teaching
  • Hypotheses about translation universals
  • Revisiting re-translation
  • Translation in between nationalism and internationalism
  • Translation and Relevance .

All these topics are examples of concrete studies, and they may use text examples to back up their findings. Strangely enough, this seems to be a rather Germanic approach, since most of the authors, even if they write in English, are Germans.

Difficulties faced in this kind of theoretical research are to be found in various points:

·        While reading and collecting information is easy because it’s done intuitively, the reasoning on the information available is sometimes affected by a lack of a definition of one’s concepts. They all seem totally clear to me, and I may forget about other readers’ possibly different views. Extensive definition for outsiders is also a question of space, particularly in papers for collective volumes. And just here it would be especially important, as so many different views come together.

·        In writing the thesis or paper, there is often a lack of consistency in structuring the argumentation. The reason for this is understandable: Many points and arguments are being discussed, but there is no clear evidence that can be presented. Part of the argumentation is dependent on the author’s personal view, which therefore ought to be checked in a self-critical manner.

·        Often there is too much repetition. This is due to the fact that mainly general language is being used, and the concepts are not so unambiguously definable as in the exact sciences. So the authors try again and again to find better words for what they want to say.

·        Finally there is the great problem of inadequate quotations. Academic readers often draw conclusions intuitively during a critical reading of other publications, and later they forget where they found that point. So it is a valid recommendation to always immediately note reference points and exact sources of reasoning. In this context, the respective style sheets regarding bibliography have to be observed.


Case (B) of LAP research comprises the large field of applying one theory, often implicitly, onto texts and translations. This is mainly the research field in translation criticism, mostly based on Contrastive Linguistics, where the translation of certain language features is discussed. Or in comparative literature analysing a historical evolution in the interpretation of various texts in the light of their translations, or in studies of the “cultural turn” in TS. Several translations of one author or a text are being compared, in order to see differences, either regarding linguistic phenomena or regarding cultural interpretation. Some titles of present papers read:

  • Ready-made language and translation
  • Indirect attributes in French and Danish: typological differences and translation problems
  • Spatial particles and spatial imagery in literary translation
  • The role of technology in translation management
  • Gender in scientific discourse
  • The translation of sexual discourse in Rabelais
  • Various German translations of I Ging reflecting the cultural context of reception.

Studies of this kind are mainly descriptive, based on one specific theory of translation which is applied to the examples showing good or bad translations, or is used to prove the strength of that theory, or to show cultural developments of interpretation, etc.

Difficulties faced in this kind of applied research are to be found in various points:

·        While choosing a topic of personal interest is not very difficult, the planning of one’s study is a major difficulty. We have to check whether there are similar studies already. And then, there is the risk of oversimplification in interpreting some findings. Over-generalizing a certain phenomenon may lead us into questionable conclusions, sometimes only based on a single example found. (I have seen such a paper which I rejected.) Such conclusions are not convincing in their argumentation, particularly when they only refer to intuitive decisions, without any other reference point.

·        Therefore the examples to be discussed should be chosen very carefully to be useful for reasoning. Are they really supporting what I am saying? Are there perhaps more examples for my argument? Creating a new hypothesis when we hit at a striking phrase in a text is a bit too easy.

·        Sometimes, people want to be creative and forge titles for their papers which, in view of the following content, can be very misleading. Here, some more sobriety would be helpful. I see this often in conferences, and I think it’s unnecessary. An indicator for this is when they use a subtitle to be more precise. (Examples: “The poetics of the translator” when it is about translating literary style – “Construals in literary translation” when it is about space indicators – “The Concept of Mimesis” when it is about the description of an author – “Intersemiotic translation” when it is about cinematic adaptation of Shakespeare’s plays – “Utterer-centred linguistics in TS” when it is about the translation of personal speech between two languages – “Cultural transposition in strategic translation” when it is about the interlinguistic compensation of different structures, etc.) These applied studies are upgraded with a theoretical title.

·        Making inferences seems to be difficult. There is the danger of speculation. Easy conclusion-drawing on the basis of one’s personal experience and insight entails the risk of being too speculative. And this is not eliminated by drawing some complicated models for explanation, for instance about translators’ competence. Such models may be used didactically to explain an idea or a theory, and thus acquire a sort of pseudo-objectivity. In reality it is pure speculation, since we don’t know how translators are thinking. So we should keep this problem in mind.

·        There is also the danger of too much subjectivity, with the absence of a real research issue. The purpose of some studies does not become clear, and this concerns the difficulty of writing one’s paper. The danger is that by focusing on the discussion of text examples, the author fails to make clear what he or she is really looking for. The link between the theoretical argumentation and the discussion of examples then becomes tenuous. A separate structure of the overall argumentation on an extra page might be helpful here - see the conclusion below.


Studies in the Liberal Arts Paradigm are only valid when they add to new discussion, open up new horizons of thinking, create new questions. And this is only possible in a close relationship to other scholars’ thinking and results. Such research, then, may even create new hypotheses for new research issues and models. Innovative  questions thus raised could then even be analysed by studies in the empirical science paradigm.


5. Conclusion

Research Skills in the Liberal Arts Paradigm


Research skills

(a) critical reading - danger: research as a simple reading report lacks novelty

(b) own opinion - danger: lack of innovation by unrelated subjectivity 

(c) need for argumentation - danger: lack of consistency

(d) precision in presentation - danger: blurred or borrowed concepts

(e) explicitness required - danger: too much internal debate


Academic norms

1.       Scholarly work is inter-subjective: every scholar draws upon the work of other members of the community in terms of theories and problem awareness, and also contributes to the community by offering new insights.

2.       Scholarly work is self-critical. Self-criticism is important for rendering valuable contributions to the academic community. The scholar has to take responsibility for his or her own work.

3.       Scholarly work is argumentative: it recognizes that personal bias is in the way of every scholar’s attempts to explain the world, and therefore tries to convince the readers, by awareness-building, consistent argumentation, and critical questioning.

4.       Scholarly work is precise: it checks the matter debated critically, it questions various possible conclusions or claims made, in order to back-up one's theses more safely, explaining them clearly.

5.       Scholarly work is explicit: The scholar has to explicitly define his or her concepts which are subjectively relevant, and clearly explain the line of argumentation so that others can understand what s/he is saying.



Aims of research and concrete problems

(a) Challenge other statements

-  difficulties in reasoning on the information available and writing the thesis

-  problems: undefined concepts, unstructured argumentation, repetition, inadequate quotations;


(b) Apply a theory to examples

-  difficulties in planning the study, making inferences, writing the paper

-  problems: over-generalization, deficient examples, title creationism, speculation, absence of a  research issue.


[1] Gile, Daniel & Hansen, Gyde. 2004. „The editorial process tgrough the looking glass.“ In: Claims, Changes and Challenges in Translation Studies, eds. G. Hansen, K. Malmkjaer, D. Gile. Amsterdam/Philadelphia: John Benjamins, p. 297-306.

[2] Ventola, Eija & Mauranen, Anna. 1996. Academic Writing: Intercultural and Textual Issues (Pragmatics and Beyond New Series). Philadelphia: John Benjamins Publishing.


[3] Galtung, Johan. 1981. “Structure, Culture and Intellectual Style”, Social Science Information. 20(6): 817–856.