Translation research: commentary or critique?

Dr Maria Filippakopoulou, August 17, 2005


Some literary quarters harbour the suspicion that “theory” in liberal arts is but an attempt to purvey methods of analysis that enjoy grand scale consensus, consensus of the kind that can bring out visible results. This concerns not this or that theory but rather major cultural movements, such as postmodernism, or psychoanalysis, which have more or less changed the way in which critics talk to one another and conduct their business.


This view about theory as the “new science” in literary studies, albeit sizzling with unspoken resentment, is intriguing and has some relevance for the objectivistic pretensions – or efforts, depending on where one looks at it - of TS research. I would like to make it clear that it is research in literary translation that I am mostly interested in here, which is why I chose to start with this view.


It is puzzling to see that an objectivistic, scientific discourse, in inverted commas or not, is pushed again to the forefront of public discussion of TS (this website); many amongst us would think that a fair amount of ground has been covered in this respect since André Lefevere published his seminal in many ways Literary Knowledge in 1977. He sought to free literary studies – referring to it as “a pseudo-scientific discipline with a weak core” (Lefevere, 1977: 26) - from the numbing embrace of logical neo-positivism and hermeneutics, restoring it instead as a source of literary knowledge (Lefevere 1977: 44-45). The fact that he became one of the leading scholars in TS by spearheading with Susan Bassnett the “cultural turn” testifies to the validity of his insights.


Assuming that the “scientific” discourse has been long and, in my mind at least, sufficiently debated, I would like to raise two questions related to it: the first one concerns research ethos and the second one research creativity. Undoubtedly the positivistic pursuit forges a certain research ethos. By insisting on the importance of “gathering data”, observing them with “objectivity”, “minimising bias” and so on, we advertise not only a specific methodology, but also a specific pedagogy: we encourage certain inclinations, privilege certain outlooks and educate young researchers to go for some rather than other. In effect, we tell students of translation what is the ethos they are to embrace in their professional enterprises.


However, this blanket insistence on the scientific ideal fails to mention the position of the observer in the institutional hierarchy, the use of her/his output in the knowledge market, its social implications. It does not train researchers to go beyond the immediate context of “data” to the conditions under which such data emerged and became worthy of observation in the first place, nor the specific ways in which they outflanked other competing data. The very nakedness of the neo-positivistic language readily distances researchers from the social make of their object of study, pre-emptying any desire to link it back to the society and culture from which it was “derived”.


Shall we contemplate for a moment the effects of such an outlook, when successful? The translation typologies which revved up the institutionalisation of TS - grounded on a basic distinction between literary and specialised translation, or simply applied TS - is one instance of this disconcerting success. This has worked to insert a wedge between the teaching/research of literary translation and that of applied translation in most British academic departments; this in turn, given the predominant political economy of current academia, has led to the overgrowth of the latter and the shrinking of the former. The discipline has indeed made huge strides in training translators for an English-dominated globalised market on the one hand, and utterly re-gentrifying literary translation on the other. If we wanted to forge an identity for practitioners, teachers and researchers of translation, which is that of professionals, well-adapted to the current cultural order, who seamlessly enter both the market and the market discourse, if we aimed at producing a marginalised, self-aggrandising - or disfranchised as the case might be - class of its own in the case of literary translators, we couldn’t have done better.


My second concern is with research creativity. I wonder how the born-again positivistic ideal caters for blue sky thinking which is - let’s be frank about it – crucial for the formation of hypotheses and selection of tools of analysis. Daniel Gile very correctly pointed out that “[t]he one essential advantage of science […] appears in the long run” (Gile 2005, this website). But the “long run” is made of our individual, far from well-rounded, usually hit-and-miss, in the first instance, attempts at making sense of translation phenomena. Quantitative considerations are all very well, but insisting too much on them could end up obscuring the lengthy, winding procedures by which we come by those hallowed quantitative observables. It doesn’t begin to tell us anything about how hypothesis are formulated in the first place, how they evolve, how they are discarded; it fails to show how new questions ever come to light. It’s far too tidy to provide any kind of enlightenment for people struggling to face those gaps in understanding, those blind spots in perception that only open-mindedness or, indeed, an “existential” mindset seems to be most adequate to grasp. It’s not a question of simply coming up with original research projects but also of ensuring the evolution of a discipline capable of self-reflection and re-invention.


Closing up, I would simply like to offer for this discussion the distinction between commentary and critique (Benjaminean in its origins). It should help to develop a research culture which exposes the available expertise in the field to the socio-ideological reality from which is draws its relevance – or not. But that’s a different argument.




Gile, D. 22 January 2005. The liberal arts paradigm and the empirical science paradigm (website on Research Issues).

Lefevere, A. 1977. Literary Knowledge. A Polemical and Programmatic Essay on its Nature, Growth, Relevance and Transmission. Assen/Amsterdam: Van Gorcum.