Of awareness-raising and divisiveness

Daniel Gile

August 2009


At the conference marking the 20th anniversary of CETRA in Leuven on August 29, Franz Pöchhacker challenged the whole concept of “empirical research” by saying essentially that all research is empirical, presumably because it uses data. A surprising statement to say the least, which appears to be in contradiction with well-established traditions in science. What is perhaps more significant is his pronouncement that drawing the attention of the TS community to the existence of the two paradigms/approaches/poles LAP and ERP is “divisive”. No evidence or argument was offered, except a personal anecdote about a paper written by a colleague years ago where this distinction was made and interpreted by Pöchhacker as saying that LAP had “inferior logic”, “and that hurt” (sic). With due consideration for Franz Pöchhacker’s feelings, this is not enough to justify the claim that the distinction is divisive, and I should like to argue that the opposite is true.

     Coming from another discipline in which ‘science’ was equated with empirical science, I found in TS some research that followed its norms and some that did not. Rather than rejecting the research which did not as “non-science”, I have been attempting over many years to identify the differences. The process is by no means complete, but I have come to realize rapidly and have stated and stressed repeatedly that I do not believe in the intrinsic superiority of one over the other, though each has specific advantages. Intelligent criticism has been made by colleagues to the effect that the exact nature of LAP has not been quite clearly defined (presumably by me), if only because it is presented in contrast to what it is not but without a sufficiently precise description of what it is. Fair enough, and more work needs to be done on that description (Radegundis Stolze is one colleague who seems to be working in that direction). However, to me, a number of differences are clear, which have practical implications on the work of PhD students such as the following:

-  If they choose to conduct empirical research, they will have to make inferences on the sole basis of explicitly identified data and with an explicit rationale as to the steps leading them from the data to their conclusions. If they choose to follow the/a LAP approach, they may be allowed to work on the basis of experiential knowledge and to make intuitive inferences.

-  If they choose ERP, they will have to be particularly cautious with evaluative claims and prescriptive claims. If they choose LAP, they may well be allowed to make such claims.

-  If they choose empirical research, they can focus on local phenomena which they find of interest. Such research may well be challenged by LAP scholars as “having no meaning” and being “only an accumulation of facts”.

-  In relation to that, the “social relevance” of their work is likely to be a much weightier factor in its assessment in LAP than in ERP.

-  If they choose ERP, their statements will be taken at face value. In LAP, their statements may be interpreted with respect to intentions, and the same may happen to their non-statements: LAP authors may consider that the fact they do not discuss a particular phenomenon means they attribute no importance to it.

-  If they choose ERP, they will be allowed to make brief operational definitions of entities they will investigate and move on to data collection and analysis. If they choose LAP, they may be required to discuss definitions in depth.

    If differences in the norms of each approach, paradigm or pole are not acknowledged, good ERP research can be misunderstood and misjudged by LAP-oriented scholars and vice-versa, which can lead to unnecessary criticism and potentially to conflicts (see for example the exchange between Pöchhacker and Gile in Schäffner, Christina (ed). 2004. Translation Research and Interpreting Research. Traditions, Gaps and Synergies. Clevedon, Buffalo, Toronto: Multilingual Matters).

    Looking at the end results: which is more useful, in particular to doctoral students, and which is more divisive? Exploring the differences and drawing attention to them, or burying one’s head in the sand?