Do TS researchers need to be Translators?

Daniel Gile

October 8, 2008


“Only translators and interpreters can do good research into translation and interpreting - they are the only ones who know what translation and interpreting are all about”. This vocal claim within the conference interpreting research community in the 1970s and 1980s can be analyzed in historical terms. At that time, translation was generally considered part of applied linguistics, and many popular books about ‘translation’ actually dealt with language learning or contrastive linguistics. In interpreting, some research had been done by cognitive psychologists, but designs often lacked validity, apparently because of misconceptions about the nature of interpreting. The claim that research into Translation was for Translators to engage in was both a reaction to such misconceptions and a proclamation of disciplinary identity. Over time, TS has produced a considerable volume of autonomous research, and it is progressively gaining some recognition. The battle is far from won, but perhaps it is time to reconsider some claims made in the past.

            Certainly, Translation practitioners have a more intimate knowledge of Translation than outsiders. Inter alia, they are aware of aspects of their activity to which outsiders do not have direct access or whose importance they underestimate, including emotional and social factors, and they are in a better position than outsiders to assess the relative weight of various parameters and relative frequencies of occurrence in real life of certain phenomena which are observed in experiments. On the other hand, unless they were trained as researchers, they do not possess good research skills and may find it difficult to look dispassionately at the object of their study, in this case their own professional activity, and detect, identify and report aspects which do not necessarily make translators and interpreters look good. Potential bias associated with their dual position as Translators and researchers is a major risk in their activity as investigators of Translation. Non-Translating researchers tend to have the required research skills but insufficient knowledge of Translation, and Translators to have good knowledge of their particular type of Translation but insufficient research skills and objectivity. Optimum scenarios include Translators acquiring good research skills and perhaps going into research after stopping their Translation activities so as to be less emotionally involved, outsiders acquiring sufficient knowledge about Translation, and Translators and outsiders working in cooperation.

Sociologists and ethnologists study social and ethnic groups as outsiders and have contributed valuable knowledge about them. Why should non-Translating researchers not be able to acquire sufficient knowledge about Translation to do good research? Yes, they need to talk and listen to Translators so as to make their designs relevant and their inferences correct (and in particular avoid judging Translation performance on linguistic criteria and on informational equivalence without considering underlying norms and tactics), but this is not mission impossible. If this is done, their commitment to research as a single professional activity as opposed to the case of Translator-cum-researchers is likely to result in serious investments and good achievements.