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Translation as the Prototype of All Communication

Being the original title of a paper
finally published as:

Teaching Translation as a Form of Writing: Improving Translator Self-Concept
In Beyond the Ivory Tower: Rethinking translation pedagogy,
edited by Brian James Baer and Geoffrey S. Koby. Vol. XII, ATA Scholarly Volume Series. Amsterdam/Philadelphia: John Benjmains Publishing Company, 2003.

As former chair of the American Translators Association public relations committee, I have long been concerned by the overall perception of translators in our society. Altering that perception, however, requires concerted effort in a number of areas. Professional organizations must strive to educate the general public, while ensuring that translators themselves have a healthy self-image is a central problem in translation pedagogy (Note 1) , and one that I have tried to address as a teacher in the New York University Translation Studies Program (under the School of Continuing and Professional Studies).

All too often, one encounters a built-in self-deprecation about translation, even among its most fervent advocates, almost a form of professional inferiority complex. After all, translation is not “real writing.” Since it largely derives from another text, it can only be a less than perfect version, almost as flawed as that dated artifact, the carbon copy. It is sometimes conceded that translations of literary or stage works demand a higher level of creativity, but even these may be dismissed by some as flawed or second-hand renderings of allegedly superior originals. And when we come to technical, commercial, and scientific texts—comprising some ninety percent of all translation work—many observers find it hard to imagine that any creative effort may be required at all.

In this article, I provide, first, an overview of historical attitudes toward translation and translators, and then suggest how such attitudes can be countered by teaching translation as a form of   writing, a view supported negatively by the fact that “the majority of English mother-tongue applicants for translation posts in the European Commission fail because of the poor quality of their English” (Note 2)

The view of translation as derivative and uncreative has been voiced repeatedly by authors, critics, and—sadly enough—translators themselves. Indeed, a recent ATA Chronicle piece cites a critic who referred to translators as “that problematic necessity,” though as we shall soon see, this is a relatively kind assessment (Note 3). In many different ages and cultures, one may encounter even more emphatic slights and slurs. These range from the nearly folkloric “something has been lost in the translation” to the endlessly repeated traduttore traditore  or perhaps the famous observation by Cervantes:

...translating from one language into like gazing at a Flemish tapestry with the wrong side out: even though the figures are visible, they are full of threads that obscure the view and are not bright and smooth as when seen from the other side (Note 4).

Or even Wilhelm Von Humboldt’s almost despairing assessment that “all translating seems to me simply an attempt to accomplish an impossible task” (Note 5). Or the nineteenth century French critic Edmond Scherer’s condescending aspersion:

Translation always resembles a tiring Chinese puzzle: you can be sure ahead of time that the solutions will leave something to be desired.
(Note 6) 

Or the truly religious zealotry of a historian and classicist writing in 1916:

...translation is sin...meddling with inspiration, blasphemy against the Holy Ghost.
(Note 7)

As we shall soon see, such righteous fervor about translation may not be entirely accidental. Even George Steiner, surely one of translation’s warmest advocates, has observed:

The perennial question whether translation is, in fact, possible is rooted in ancient religious and psychological doubts on whether there ought to be any passage from one tongue to another. (Note 8)

This view, which goes beyond translation and encompasses all of language, is both echoed and confirmed by the statement by Japanese linguist Takao Suzuki intended as a criticism of his own people:

There is here in our country a general feeling that it is not natural for foreigners to understand Japanese. (Note 9).

At the very least, even when such outright challenges are absent, one may still detect among some translators a certain defeatism, starting as early as Roger Bacon in 1268:

But it is impossible that the peculiar quality of one language should be preserved in another... therefore an excellent piece of work in one language cannot be translated into another as regards the peculiar quality that it possessed in the former. (Note 10).

Even earlier, in 330 C.E., the Hellenistic scholar and mystic Iamblichus of Chalcis, who was attempting to translate the sacred works of Egypt into Greek, observed:

Terms when translated do not always preserve the same meaning; and every nation has certain idioms impossible to express intelligently to others. You may possibly translate them, but they no longer preserve the same force. (Note 11)

And yet at the same time—amid these claims that the movement of meaning between foreign languages is difficult, impossible, or even sacrilegious—almost no one doubts that translation is necessary and, at least to some extent, feasible. When so many misgivings are raised about an almost every-day occurrence, we are surely faced with a remarkable anomaly—and one that requires detailed explanation.

Despite the almost unending sea of doubt, self-deprecation, and even despair surrounding translation, such an approach is largely mistaken. The ancient Greek (and even Latin) words for interpreters are so broad in their meanings as to include the concepts of mediator, deal-maker, and even marriage-broker.  Today’s interpreters—particularly those who must meet the demanding needs of conference, courtroom, or hospital interpreting—are also obliged to play many roles.

From the smallest families and clans of the past to today’s mammoth nation states, at every stage of this process translators and interpreters are likely to have played a crucial role in negotiating the finer points of verbal agreements and later in creating the fine print of written ones. Today we differentiate between vast numbers of language-related professions and activities: writing, editing, translating, interpreting, teaching any and all of the preceding skills, clarifying religious or legal texts, language training for singers and actors, and of course the far more recent activities of advertising and public relations. Yet all of them can be seen as outgrowths of the work performed by the earliest interpreters, arguably the first humans charged with defining and explaining the distinctions between various forms of language. Their role may even be partially commemorated by the popular usage of the word “translate,” which itself could be “translated” as ‘to explain,’ ‘to summarize,’ ‘to clarify.’

Far from being an ancillary activity, and far from being a second-hand copy of anything, translation—or a process remarkably close to it—can be shown to lie at the very center of all communication and may in fact have served as its exemplar and model throughout the entire epoch when language evolved, however long that period may have lasted. And far from being an object worthy of blame, we may find that the true source for our doubts about translation is ultimately based in our own fears about language and its relationship to the world around us. It can be quite clearly demonstrated that there is nothing wrong with translation that is not also wrong with language itself. Expressed a bit differently, the processes of translation merely replicate and recapitulate processes inherent in the nature of language.

Such seemingly reckless assertions as these can be both justified and grounded by the description of a very simple experiment, as expressed here just slightly more than a Gedankenexperiment, but one nonetheless quite likely to work out in reality much as outlined here. Its foreseeable results are likely to be confirmed by the experience and common sense of most readers, while the task itself may also serve as a useful exercise for beginning translation students—and as a revealing one even for more advanced practitioners—as it lies at the very center of what the process of translating truly entails.

Our experiment begins with the assumption that a group of highly trained journalists has gathered in a room and is seated around a table. These journalists, all roughly of the same age, are seasoned and respected members of their profession. Moreover, they have all studied at the same school of journalism and received their training under the very same professors. It might therefore be assumed that they not only spring from a common background but that they also share overall outlooks and attitudes towards writing and editing to an uncommon extent.

These journalists are now presented with a paragraph written in their native language, along with blank sheets of paper, and are prompted to compose a paraphrase of this passage. Since paraphrasing is a common journalistic exercise and bears a close resemblance to work they routinely perform each day, namely editing, they all immediately set to work, and each one creates his or her own paraphrase of the very same text.

It would be theoretically possible to assume, given the nearly identical background of the participants, that their paraphrases would turn out to be remarkably similar, differing only in a few slight touches. But I do not believe for an instant that this would prove to be the case, nor do I anticipate that any reader sophisticated about the nature of language will draw such a conclusion. If, in fact, we now collect these paraphrases—five or ten or however many there may be—and read each of them aloud to our circle of journalists, I believe we will be amazed by how many different approaches have suddenly sprung from the same original passage.

And if this is our result among this remarkably homogeneous group of journalists, it will surely take place to an even greater extent among writers or journalists coming from more diverse backgrounds. And if we now choose to substitute translation students for journalists and ask them to translate rather than to paraphrase a brief passage, I do not believe that any reader will doubt that something remarkably similar will now take place, on this occasion involving two languages rather than a single one.

I also fearlessly predict that the various individual differences of style and wording we discover, whether among the journalists or the translators, will fall into two general categories. The first of these, by far the greatest number, will consist of slight liberties each of the journalists has taken with the original text in creating his or her paraphrase. In fact, as the various versions are read aloud, our participants may even begin to disagree with each other whether or not a specific word or phrase is an adequate equivalent for the word or phrase in the original. It is likely that most of their discussion will be devoted to such minor disagreement, most often friendly and collegial in tone.

The task of creating an ideal text—as neutral in tone as possible while still perfectly representing the original—is one that journalists face each day. It is for this reason that reporters at major publications may, where necessary, rewrite, reedit, and/or “re-tweak” each other’s work, always in the hope of approaching ultimate perfection, much as the lonely translator—or the translation editor—must do in creating a final draft.

But there is also almost certain to be a second category of divergence present in the journalists’ work, one which will provoke somewhat more heated discussion. It may well be discovered that in at least a few instances one or another of these professional writers has committed an outright error of paraphrase, has in fact actually overlooked the meaning of a word or phrase in the original text and replaced it with what can only be described as an incorrect solution.

At this point the purpose of the experiment will have certainly become clear to readers. What we have just discovered while using a single language is so remarkably close to what can happen while translating between a pair of languages as to be for all practical purposes indistinguishable. We all know perfectly well that a group of translators sitting around the same table and presented with a paragraph to translate into a second language would surely go through a remarkably similar process. And once their translations were collected and read aloud, these writers would certainly also embark on a similar series of discussions and disagreements.

In other words, the idiosyncrasies of trained writers are indistinguishable from those of trained translators, and vice versa. Whereas society at large tends to accept such variations by journalists, that same society tends to focus on them if translators have been the perpetrators, even to suppose that something in the process has gone seriously awry. Indeed, this plethora of individual variations has not escaped the attention of machine translation specialists, who have in some cases chosen to view them as evidence that human translation is unreliable and must one day be replaced by the trustworthy logic of computer programming.

At this point, a closer look at this experiment can be helpful in providing a few practical examples of what might take place. And since machine translation has been mentioned, it may also be useful to glance at the problems programmers might face in an attempt to improve on the work of human translators. The following sentence, taken at random from a historical text, will play the role of our paragraph to be paraphrased:

In April, 1900, the position of Peking had under these rapidly developed circumstances become so dangerous for foreigners that it was deemed advisable to dispatch a relieving force from the port city of Tientsin.

Now let’s see what a paraphrase of this sentence might look like if we change as many of the original words as we possibly can:

By the early spring of 1900, because of these swiftly unfolding occurrences, the situation in the Chinese capital had grown so perilous for outsiders that it was considered prudent to send assisting troops from the coastal town of Tientsin.

We can see immediately that the paraphrase has become longer than the original passage (a common outcome in many translations from English as well), but other differences are also obvious. While the paraphrase conveys the essential meaning of the original, a number of questionable changes have been made, though perhaps only one could be characterized as an outright error. This comes at the very beginning, for by changing “In April, 1900” to “By the early spring of 1900,” a certain degree of precision has clearly been lost. Other possible solutions might be “During the fourth month of 1900” or “As April of 1900 began” or “March was barely over when...,” but all of these are overly elaborate and/or add something not present in the original. The original text does not claim that this situation arose “early in April” or “during” April, merely “in April.” On the other hand, the wording of the source text does not provide us with sufficient information about the exact time to proclaim any of these variants as being devastatingly wrong. Perhaps a useful rule of thumb in a manual for paraphrasing would be never to change the names of months or days, though there might be instances, as with all rules of thumb, where this too might work less than perfectly.

A similar problem crops up at the very end of the sentence when “the port of Tientsin” is rendered as “the coastal town of Tientsin.” Unlike the month of April, there is no way we can avoid using the name of the town. Even though it would be technically accurate to call it “Tientsin, the port city of Peking,” this involves inserting a geography lesson into the paraphrase where none occurs in the original. In any case, a “coastal town” is not necessarily a “port city,” nor would calling it “the seaside town” or “the embarkation point” help us very much. “Harbor town” might be even less correct, as a harbor town is not necessarily a port—the word “harbor” describes mere topography (ships may occasionally enter a harbor, but no docking system may be present), while the word “port” describes a function and often the presence of complex machinery.

Readers are free to examine the many differences between these two sentences at their leisure and are equally free to decide if they can arrive at any truly preferable solutions. These are likely to be few and far between, even though perfectly valid objections can be directed towards every single element of this paraphrase. “To send assisting troops” is not the same thing as “to dispatch a relieving force,” nor can “it was considered prudent” be accepted as a perfect equivalent for “it was deemed advisable.”

This intricate conversion has taken place entirely in English, a language which we like to believe enjoys an uncommonly rich vocabulary. Yet no end of legitimate questions can be raised about the overall process of paraphrasing, much as they have been raised about the process of translation. In fact, the very level of disagreement likely to arise among readers of this brief passage serves to prove the point being made—that writing and editing in a single language is no more precise or secure than translating between two languages.

Though some readers may disagree, there is probably no major error as such in this paraphrase, as much as it leaves to be desired. Such an error might have occurred if one of the journalists had substituted “Europeans” or “Westerners” for “foreigners,” since during this historical episode (the Boxer Rebellion) Americans and Japanese were also among the combatants. Another error might have arisen if the phrase “it was deemed advisable” had been rendered as “it was judged urgent,” since this would introduce a true difference in meaning. It may well be that our languages—all languages—provide us with far less “wiggle room” than we are accustomed to believe. While we are capable of saying almost the same thing in many different ways, not all the synonyms in Roget’s Thesaurus will unfailingly enable us to convey exactly the same information in all instances – not to mention expressive or emotional meaning. Our synonyms may often not be as fully synonymous as we tend to believe.

Although we have been working within a single language, the similarities with translating between two languages are obvious. Clearly no two “natural” languages have ever been constructed—whether in their vocabulary or their syntax—so as to be fully synonymous with each other, which of course explains many of the problems involved in translation, even before cultural factors enter the picture. None of this of course exonerates the translator from attempting to choose the best possible translation for every word in a text, any more than it excuses journalists from seeking out the very best choice among competing synonyms. This can sometimes be an excruciatingly difficult task, and the words of Martin Luther still ring true today:

And it’s often happened to us that we’ve searched and asked for fourteen days, even for three or four weeks, after a single word, and in all that time we haven’t found it. (Note 12)

I believe these observations may also call to mind Umberto Eco’s distinction between intralingual and interlingual translation, as first voiced by Jakobson (himself deeply influenced by Peirce). The former refers to the “rewording” of texts within a single language, the task assigned to our group of journalists. The latter term embraces what Eco calls “translation proper,” the skill we seek to impart to our students. Once again following Jakobson, Eco expands this domain to further include what he terms “intersemiotic” translation, or “transmutation,” the conversion of a work into a completely new medium, i.e., a novel into a film or a symphony into a ballet. (Note 13)  Since my work experiences include translator/dramaturg and adapting non-stage works for the theatre, Eco’s reflections strike me as correct.

Here again, we can perhaps begin to discern the morass of difficulties lying in wait for computerized solutions to these problems. Only three years ago, on an Internet newsgroup for advanced computer programmers, I discovered a message from a member asking where he could find a “paraphrasing program.” This programmer clearly assumed that such a program must exist and that his colleagues would be able to provide information about it. Although this was an extremely active newsgroup and had many knowledgeable members, his query never received an answer. The reason here, as I have verified by subsequent research, is that no one has ever succeeded in creating a paraphrasing program that truly works for all texts (as is the case for machine translation as well).

When I later raised this issue on a different newsgroup, this one populated by computational linguists, I was told that such a paraphrasing program was “trivial” in nature and could not be easier to construct—an argument one may still sometimes hear voiced about machine translation. Using a few examples from the preceding experiment, it can be demonstrated why this argument is likely to prove untrue. While the steps in writing such a program may each be “trivial,” many unforeseen problems lie in wait. It would only be necessary to take each of the above alterations between the two sentences and turn them into computer commands, which might convert into readable “pseudocode” as follows:

if find string “position” then substitute string “situation”

if find string “developed” then substitute string “unfolding”

if find string “relieving” then substitute string “assisting”


The problem with such a program is that it would wreak absolute havoc with the very next text it might try to paraphrase, so that “a man of position” would become “a man of situation,” “he developed a rash” would become “he unfolding a rash,” and “for relieving diarrhea” would become “for assisting diarrhea.”

And here, too, certain similarities with “machine translation” begin to emerge all too recognizably. Once again, some authorities in this field still dismiss such difficulties as “trivial” in nature, certain to be overcome by more advanced methods of syntactic analysis. But as we have seen, no two trained journalists are likely to agree on how to paraphrase a given sentence, so it becomes a truly challenging task to grasp how a machine will ever achieve such precision where human beings have failed to do so. Since we have seen our carefully selected journalists disagree on many details even where a single language is involved, it is scarcely surprising that translators would do so between two languages. Not even the English word “good” and its supposed French counterpart “bon,” as I have observed elsewhere, cover precisely the same semantic and connotational territory in their respective languages. (Note 14).

Is it possible to state the precise reason for these variances within a single language? Regarding paraphrase, one may readily point out that even within the same language—and even among professionals trained in a single language specialty—every single human being nonetheless speaks a slightly separate and different idiolect. At one point or another, each of us simply differs with some, with many, or in a few cases with most of our peers about the precise range of meaning of a specific word.

By drawing attention to the similarities between the work of journalists and that of translators, we, as translator trainers, can present translation as a form of target language writing, relating it to larger issues of communicative competence. In doing so, I believe we can begin to positively affect translator self-concept already in the classroom.




(Where not otherwise stated, translations are by the author.) 

1.  Kiraly 2000  [return to text]

2.  McCluskey 1987: 17, quoted in Hervey & Higgins 1992: 18. 
[return to text]

3.  Russell-Bitting 2001: 31.  [return to text]

4.  1949: 923.  [return to text]

5.  Cited in Morgan 1959.  [return to text]

6.  Scherer 1878-86, V: 333.  [return to text]

7.  Showerman 1916: 100.  [return to text]

8.  1975: 239.   [return to text]

9.  Miller 1977: 83.   [return to text]

10.  1928: 75.  [return to text]

11.  1989: 129.  [return to text]

12.  1530/1951: 15.  [return to text]

13.  Eco 2001.  [return to text]

14.  Gross 1993: 251-53, figs. 3A, 3B, 3C.   [return to text]






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de Waal, F. 1997. Bonobo: The Forgotten Ape. Photographs by F. Lanting. Berkeley: University of California Press.

Donato, R. 1994. “Collective Scaffolding in Second Language Learning.” In Vygotskian Approaches to Second Language Research, J.P. Lantolf & G. Appel (eds). 33-56. Norwood, NJ: Ablex.

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_________. 1992. Animal Minds. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Gross, A. 1993. “Selected elements from a theory of fractal linguistics.” In Scientific and Technical Translation, American Translators Association Scholarly Monograph Series, Vol. VI, S.E. and L.D. Wright (eds), 235-263. Amsterdam/Philadelphia: John Benjamins.

__________. 2000. “Hermes—God of translators and interpreters.” Paper presented at the NYU “Translation2000” Conference (Global Links, Linguistic Ties: Forging a Future for Translation and Interpreting). Currently available online at:

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