Theory and Practice of Translation: Which “Gap” is Bridged?

Apparently universities all over the U.S. are starting to offer translation and interpretation services without providing any training to students on the science, art, craft (or whatever else you decide to call it) of translation. Nor is there an interest in training. At a recent conference on the ethics of translation at UMass-Amherst, participants pointed out that the gap between theory and practice is also on the rise on a global scale, where translators (if trained at all) are often certified after a non-intensive 6-week course that covers basic techniques such as “mapping” or consistency in translating the same word. It is of interest to note that many of these instant professional translators are sent to war zones, the U.N., to courts, to places where accuracy is key, and ethics are perhaps even more key. 

Why are ethics key? Translators are always caught between two or more camps and they must be prepared to negotiate between their personal views, what is expected of them via a contract/commission, and they need to realize that they are always asked to do the impossible: to find equivalent words between two languages, so that text one means the same thing as text 2 as is received by the audience in the same way. Basically, the untrained translator is doomed to fail, and in that failure he/she may start doing things without a plan, things that can backfire and have “real” consequences for people and entire groups of people.      

Do we need theory?

The logic seems intact: better trained translators will make better informed translations, and the world will be a safer place to live in. But there are holes that need to be addressed and responded to: we need to openly look a the other side to create a recorded dialogue on the topic. 

The first hole appears in relation to theory. College-student translators and professors of translation, folks enrolled in one of the few translation studies programs in the U.S. or somehow connected to those programs, seem to defend theory and theorizing translation. The idea is that you can’t be a good translator if you don’t explore the theory, the position of the translator, the roles that the translator has played in shaping literary and cultural systems, in fashioning change. Likewise, you can’t be a good translator if you don’t reflect on the ethics of translation; if you don’t constantly remind yourself that you might be doing violence to a text or a language or a culture. Simply stated, you ned to know the implications of your translation, your location, and your position in order to put out “ethical”, good translations. 

But my first question is, can we recognize this and then move on? And more importantly, is insisting upon theory/theorizing our discipline making translation an exclusive practice? Is saying that people should equip themselves with theory also saying, “you really need to go to school and ‘get white/Western’ in order to do this”? Is demanding a role for theory filtering out the people who really should be translating — those from the so-called “margins” whose lived experiences have trained them at negotiating between camps far better than any university could do — those who have a “real” command over multiple languages and the ways those languages are used on a daily basis?   

Bridging the gap between theory and practice sounds like a good project, but is there an edge of classism, racism, and arrogance in that call? 

Jacob Dyer-Spiegel @  (2008)


  1. Glad to read about your thoughts on translation, Jacob! Your posts make me reflect on my own experience translation a collection of volunteer narratives from English to Chinese. I don’t believe any translation could be completely faithful and I think the important point is to get the message across and choose the words that we as translators believe that can best help the reader get the meaning of the text. However this is not to say that translators are transparent and neutral. I believe the translator sometimes is essentially a writer that can have his or her own agenda in communicating a piece of literature to audiences from a different linguistic and cultural tradition and who conceive the world in different ways because of the way we think are shaped and limited by the language we speak. I remember one of the most uncomfortable moments of translating the volunteer stories was that some of the authors were using language or making claims to make it seem like volunteerism is essentially an American value that they have a responsibility to export to Chinese youths (our target audience). Although the objective of the book is to inspire my fellow youths to volunteerism and this is clearly one way to do it, I felt personally insulted. Although volunteer activities aren’t nearly as structured as in the States, I felt like it was still imperialistic to say that Chinese youths need to be taught to be altruistic, to serve the community. Not everyone realizes that people from different cultures conceive the idea of community very differently, and in Asian cultures due to the influence of Buddhism, the divide between community and individual is actually blurred, resulting in a more comprehensive sense of self and the notion that serving others can be self serving. This different understanding on self and community and consequently what defines community service is also linked to the very language we phrase them in and perpetuate our own way of thinking without recognizing that there are other competing, and equally valid conceptions, too. Growing up I remember reading some of the Chinese translations of English texts I later read the original version and the surprise I had in finding that a lot of the exoticism that the very words chosen to match the idea convey were actually absent in the original text. It was probably the attempt to make a piece sound foreign (market-driven decision?) that some translators chose (probably deliberately) words that would sound awkward, foreign, first-worldly. It is sometimes the exoticism, the deliberate effort to sound foreign, not completely the merit of the idea or the literature that makes it appeal to another audience. Language is essentially political whether we recognize or not.In my case, I believed that volunteerism is a universal humanitarian spirit and when I translated some of the articles, I was deliberately looking for the ways that my fellow readers can perceive the ideas of the articles as their own, sometimes even using “slangs” or looking for proverbs in ancient Chinese that have very similar meanings, in order to convey the idea that volunteerism is inherent in our culture and not an exclusive invention of the US. This is my violence to the text. I do have reservations about what I did, but I don’t think it’s right either to just have the moral imperialism seep through and do its violence to my fellow readers. Nobody wants a moral lesson if the premise is that we stand to be enlightened by superior people, or that the lure of exoticism and the portrayal of volunteerism as a cool, foreign idea that should incite our youths to do the same. I think as translators we are constantly reminded how words are empty signifiers (Laclau’s idea?? My memory is failing me). Translation is not always an act of bridging gaps between different understandings and as translators we create new ways to conceptualize the same words.


  2. I ran out of space…on my post, here is the last paragraph of me as a violent translator: I am really excited to see how the readers will react to what I did. Our plan is actually to have the book published in English and Chinese on opposite pages. (!?) I wonder what some of the readers who may be reading the book in order to learn English will think. I am aware that my brain child will go through official edits by a press before its final publication and I may not have the ultimate say in how some of the sentences turn out. But isn’t this process of translation process itself an intense competition of voices, perspectives and values, each of which is inseparable from the power position each represent?


  3. Thanks for your comments and for sharing your ideas, Zilin.I'm going to respond to a few points here (I'll quote you first and then take it from there).–"the translator sometimes is essentially a writer that can have his or her own agenda": Sometimes the translation is actually a re-write, and it seems important to highlight that translators' work is not just limited to some mathematic formula that allows you to transfer language-culture 1 into language-culture 2. Translators have a craft AND an art. Sometimes a translation can be "better" than the original (this gets into how you determine what is better) but some books get an after-life (Benjamin) via translation, and for some reason, they have more of an impact on an audience. "the ways we think are shaped and limited by the language we speak.": by translating, texts get a chance to fit into new limits. Texts from an "other" language-culture can also expand those limits.On the values: we might not get to know of an "other" language-culture's values if it weren't for the translator. By translating into Chinese you are in a unique position to comment on the values that US culture claims as its own and why that might be. The translator is an ambassador. I would imagine that volunteer organizations/volunteers would benefit by having some knowledge of the ideas surrounding the word and practice of "volunteer" in other language-cultural contexts. "It is sometimes the exoticism, the deliberate effort to sound foreign, not completely the merit of the idea or the literature that makes it appeal to another audience.": Translation scholars like Venuti argue for "foreignization" strategies in translations. Among other things, they argue that in oder for the original to impact the target language-cultural system, the translation needs to introduce new poetics, ideas, genres, concepts. Also, so as not to "erase" the uniqueness of the original (especially when one language-culture is dominated and the other dominant) traces, cultural practices, the untranslatable should remain in the original, leaving a kind of resistant text that forces the reader into the language of the original… The original language-culture lives on in the translation — it is not flattened.But what you are seeing are the dangers of doing that, and we always have to think about it…


  4. Thank you Jacob for your feedback. I definitely agree with the first point you made. There is never a math formula for translation and I think that is why even in machine translation there is a concept of “human assisted machine translation” (correct me if I just made up a term, I can’t remember the original) . Translation is not a physical process through which a text in one language gets filtered by a human or a machine into another, I think about it more as a chemical process through which the text, the value behind it and the context around it (like para-textuality, did I just make up another term?) , those of the translator and of an imaginary audience. the foreignization vs. localization approach was one of my constant struggles in the project. On one hand, I did not want to completely foreignize the text and let it stay in the original style and syntax especially because of the message we seek to convey to our audience. inspiring volunteerism is not some sort of foreign concept completely inexistent in Chinese cultural and social practices, and especially from a perspective of working with communities, it is easier for people to change behaviors when they can be convinced that it is consistent with their own wish rather than sth “imposed”; even if the idea of sth exotic and fashionable may be appealing in the short run, it would not be consistent with the long term objective to create sustainable commitment to volunteerism once the initial novelty and curiosity wears off. Also, I realized that I was generalizing on my position a little. There are definitely concepts that are not translatable, which I added in quite an amount of cultural notes on things ranging from Thanksgiving to race issues in post-apartheid South Africa and the changing relationships between service and church mission or the power dynamics in community services (e.g. the charity paradigm where the hierarchy of more privileged helping the less privileged is perpetuated or an empowerment initiative that seeks to diminish the inequality that service work helps to address.) I think the decision to foreignize and to localize is definitely not a clear cut one nor would transform into a consistent agenda within one piece. I think about it not just as foreignizing or localizing a text, but also the very concept of volunteerism. The decision influenced by so many factors that it becomes a contextual and value-based decision as well. I did not begin the translation project until I confirmed with some of the authors and editors about the purpose of the article and their imagined audience. Also, reading a lot of volunteerism related discourse was also instrumental in my translation decisions. After all we as translators need to be well versed in the concepts or field that we translate, which was also why I once declined a friend’s request to translate a legal document.


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