Do research projects need to be socially useful?
August 6, 2007
An idea which has often come up in TS in recent times is that TS research is legitimate if it is socially useful.
When is a research project socially useful? Or rather, how does one measure its social usefulness? At first sight, a project which assesses the training needs of health care interpreters is on the rather useful side. But how useful is it if it only tells people what they already know? And how would society assess its usefulness if it costs a lot of money?
At first sight, comparing linguistic features of source texts and of the corresponding target text versions in the translation of 16th century literature would not be socially useful, because such comparison does not seem to address social needs in contemporary life. However, the skills and/or methodology developed for such linguistic analysis may later be taught to students who will take up an issue directly relevant to contemporary society. Moreover, the linguistic study of 16th century literature and its translation may cost very little, especially if the relevant researchers engage in it in their own free time out of personal interest without asking for special funding, so that the cost/benefit ratio of such research could be quite good.
Many of the personalities who are leaders of TS now, whose pioneering work and personality made it possible for us to engage in research generally seen as relevant to society, started out with research on topics very remote from issues readily identifiable as important for society. And yet, their work served as the foundation on which a discipline is being built, as a platform for most of the research being done today.
The issue is related to another well known problem in other research communities: governments and industries tend to grant financial help to applied research and only a fraction of that to basic research. And yet, while all applied research does not necessarily depend on upstream basic research, basic research often provides important or even indispensable input to applied research, be it in findings, in methodological tools etc., and there are many cases in the history of science where basic research done without a particular application in mind turned out to be very useful in applied research subsequently.
If we consider that TS is still an emerging discipline, that research skills in the field still suffer from weaknesses and that TS research is rather inexpensive, the legitimacy of the demand for research projects in the field of Translation to be socially relevant becomes debatable. In particular as regards students, I believe that it is better for them and for the TS community at large if they engage in a topic of their choice without necessarily considering its apparent social relevance, which increases their chances of working seriously on it and acquiring research skills which they can then apply to other topics, possibly those that the TS community and/or society at large will consider relevant.