European Society for Translation Studies
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A note on explanation

 Andrew Chesterman

October 1, 2006


Descriptive Translation Studies aims at more than description. It also looks for explanations which add to our understanding.

            Some explanations are interpretive, or metaphorical ones. An unfamiliar phenomenon may be made more understandable if it is compared to, or seen as, a more familiar one. We get some idea of what light is if we see it as particles, or as waves, for instance. Translation has been “seen as” a great many things – and a great many things have also been “seen as” translation”.

            The main kind of explanation in science is a causal one. But in the humanities and human sciences our notion of “cause” is a very flexible one, covering all kinds of contextual constraints, background influences and conditioning factors. Some causes can be formulated as “sufficient conditions”: these offer an explanation about why something had to happen. Other causes can be formulated in terms of “necessary conditions”: these explain how something comes to be possible. (Go googling for more on the difference between these kinds of conditions!)  Still other causal factors might be no more than contributory conditions.

            Another fundamental distinction is between causal explanations on the one hand and teleological ones on the other. Teleological explanations appeal to intentions, goals and purposes, rather than antecedent conditions. Skopos theory is a good example.

            A generalization can also be a form of explanation. Suppose I notice some shifts of a certain kind in a set of translations. Then suppose that I also read that someone has found the same shifts in other data, other text types, other language pairs. In this case, I am less surprised at what I find in my initial data, i.e. I understand (to some extent) why the shifts are there: they are there “because” there is a general tendency for translations to manifest these shifts. The translators of my data made these decisions “because” all (most / many) translators do. The explanation-seeking question then is no longer “why did my translators do this?” but moves up to a higher level: “why do translators in general tend to do this?” And we might then begin to wonder about cognitive constraints, and so on. The more general the generalizations become, the more explanatory they become. In this way, research on (potential) translation universals can also offer explanations of translation phenomena. (See Croft 1990/2003.)

            A third kind of explanation, one which has been receiving increasing attention in the philosophy of science, is known as unification. This means explaining via contextualizing. It works by showing how the explanandum (that which is to be explained) fits into a wider pattern of phenomena. This form of explanation highlights the value of a holistic view which, by showing relevant connections with other phenomena, reduces the number of assumptions we need in order to understand our explanandum. (See e.g. Salmon 1998.)

            In order to better understand complex phenomena, we might well need multiple explanations, and also more than one kind of explanation. We can make our explanations more powerful by making them more general, covering more relations and more factors, and perhaps also by relating the explanations themselves to other kinds of explanations. But explanations are seldom final: we can always increase our understanding.




Croft, William 1990. Typology and Universals. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. (Second edition 2003.)

Salmon, Wesley C. 1998. Causality and Explanation. New York: OUP.



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