Hypotheses and research questions in empirical TS research

Daniel Gile



Most TS scholars are disciplinary immigrants. Many came from literary studies, others from the practice of Translation and from Translator Training, some from linguistics, some from sociology, etc. Many of them have read texts about the natural sciences and/or behavioural sciences, and some of them now write for the benefit of the TS community about the underlying principles and methods. While the knowledge they (we) have acquired is often admirable, understandably, as second-hand knowledge, it is sometimes less than perfectly reliable and reflects idealized conceptions rather than reality as it can be experienced in the field.

     One frequently found misperception is the idea that empirical research projects need to start with a hypothesis. Hypotheses (in the sense of a specific relationship between variables or factual expectation etc.) are a very useful tool in many empirical projects, in particular when testing theories. However, imposing it as a starting point in any empirical study would be self-limiting and counter-productive, and as practicing empirical researchers in most disciplines know, a vast amount of research is done with research questions and with implicit or explicit expectations, but not with hypotheses to be tested.

     Exploratory research, where the potential for innovation is high, is almost by definition one which may lead to hypotheses rather than one which is driven by hypotheses. Most often, a direction is given to a project by questions such as: “What is the pattern of movement of a given animal during the summer season?”, “What are the reasons for a given physical phenomenon?”, “What are the physiological changes which are associated with a particular behaviour pattern?”, “How do various species interact in a given ecosystem?”, “What happens when certain environmental conditions occur?” etc. When, after a while, some information has been collected, it may be possible to formulate specific theories or hypotheses and then test them, but such theories and hypotheses are neither fundamental requirements of empirical research nor its most powerful or ‘scientific’ components. I would even venture to say that in many disciplines, hypothesis-testing does not even represent a majority of research projects at any time.

     In TS, there is no reason why things should be fundamentally different and why ‘scientific’ exploration of Translation should rely exclusively on a single progression paradigm. The hypothesis-oriented paradigm is just one possibility. The field of Translation is wide and leaves much room for exploration of different types. I find that young scholars interested in starting research into Translation should not be told they need a hypothesis to start empirical research, and telling them that without such a hypothesis, their work will be ‘less scientific’ does not make sense. Rather, they should be encouraged to seek a field, theme or phenomenon in Translation which needs further exploration and to think about how they could contribute while following the standard conceptual norms of empirical science.