Observing visualisations


Paul Kussmaul

Contributed on June 8, 2005


Visualisations can occur at certain stages in the comprehension process, and they may lead to creative translations. Creative translations can for our present purposes be defined as translations that show changes when compared with the source text, thereby bringing in something that is novel. In interpreting, visualisation as a type of deverbalisation was recognized as a method as early as 1968 by Danica Seleskovitch. (I am referring to the English translation of her book  L’interprète dans les conferences internationales, 1978: 55), and it was explicitly  recommended as a teaching method by Seleskovitch & Lederer (1989: 24-26).

What, actually, is visualisation in translation? For the translation of the sentence “Children have forgotten how to eat, completely forgotten how to eat”, taken from an article on famine in Africa, Seleskovitch and Lederer suggest visualising a scene of a little child with bony legs and arms and a blown-up belly, a picture often seen in the media, in order to avoid a mistranslation such as “les enfants ont oublié comment manger” (They have forgotten their good manners) (Seleskovitch & Lederer 1989: 25-26.)

This is an example taken from a teaching context. With the availability of empirical tools for documenting the translation process such as triangulations between Translog files and Think Aloud Protocols, Dialogue Protocols or Retrospective Interviews, it might be possible to actually observe visualisations normally hidden in the minds of the translators, and with the heuristic means of cognitive semantics at our hands we may now be able to see more precisely what types of mental visual images exist.

More specifically, I believe that notions like point of view, focus, prototypicality and Fillmore’s scenes-and-frames may help us to describe visualisations in greater detail. In the example just quoted we may say that the teachers suggested a prototypical (or stereotypical) scene. One might hypothesise that visualising, i.e. focussing on, prototypical elements of a scene will lead to adequate and creative translations.

In the kind of empirical research I propose to carry out one might begin by gathering types of visualisations and try to classify them. It will be important to see, if visualisations actually lead to adequate and creative translations. It might well be that this is not always the case. Translators might visualise things that are only in their minds but not in the text in front of them or they might focus on elements that are not prototypical. As a second step, we may try to find out if visual clues help to initiate creative translations. We might show (prototypical) pictures or give verbal descriptions of scenes to one group of subjects but not to another group and compare their translations. The problem, of course, is to keep the groups as a variable stable.

The kind of research I am proposing can be seen within the scope of investigating successful translation processes. (For more details see Kussmaul 2005.)


Kussmaul, Paul (2005). Translation through Visualisation” In: META, Vol. 50, n° 2, 2005, 378-391.

Seleskovitch, Danica (1978): Interpreting for International Conferences, Washington: Pen and Booth.

Seleskovitch, Danica & Marianne Lederer (1989): Pédagogie raisonnée de l’interprétation. Collection Traductologie  n° 4, Bruxelles : Didier Érudition.