Saturday, February 25, 2012

Words vs. Ideas (continued)

This is a continuation of the penultimate post, which please read first.

Brian Mossop understandably rejects evidence from ‘pathological’ subjects like aphasia patients, but here’s an example of pathological translating behaviour that’s very commonplace. It’s typical of what’s produced when there’s interference between the words-> words and the words-> message-> words paths; the interference suggests that both paths are operating simultaneously. So many Non-Expert Translators (including translation school students) make the mistake of translating French librairie or Spanish librería as English library when it should be bookshop/bookstore. It’s not the fault of the dictionaries. Similarly bibliographie translated as bibliography instead of references in a scientific paper by someone who should know better, and so on with many other ‘false friends’. In the case of librairie/library, two of the semantic features, i.e. meaning elements, are correctly understood and transferred: books and place for. It’s only the third feature, selling and buying, that’s derailed. And why so? Because the word form of librairie is simultaneously present while the meaning is being apprehended, and it connects automatically with the closest word form in the target language.

Nevertheless, the fact remains that some translations turn out noticeably literal and other noticeably free. So there has to be some mechanism that selects or tips the balance one way or the other. Mossop says no conclusions about its nature can be drawn in the present state of research.

What's all this got to do with Natural and Native Translators? Well, three decades ago, Canadian educational psycholinguists Merrill Swain (see photo), G. Dumas and Neil Naiman were doing research on seven-year-old children learning French as a second language and getting them to translate (a technique that they called elicited translation). The children were young and inexperienced enough to be classed as Natural Translators; certainly they had been given no instruction in translation. The investigators observed that the children translated in different ways. Some of them followed the original wording closely and others more freely. In this case the translations were very short and there was no opportunity to revise, at least not openly. It suggests that, whatever the mechanism, the verbal vs. deverbalised distinction or the selection/weighting mechanism runs deep and early. Unfortunately the observation hasn't been followed up. It would be interesting to know, for example, whether bilingual children exhibit the same tendencies in translating between two languages as they do when paraphrasing in a single language.

German researcher Wolfgang Lörscher has carried the observations to a later age and more advanced level of translating. His subjects were Native Translators − “advanced foreign language learners” at university level − whom he compared with “professional translators”, presumably Expert Translators. His conclusions:
“Most of the foreign language students take a form-oriented approach in that they produce translations mainly by an exchange of language signs... As a result, Target Language texts are produced which are neither equivalent in sense to the respective Source Language texts nor grammatically or stylistically acceptable texts by themselves.... Professional translators, in contrast, commonly employ sense-oriented procedures. Thus, the shortcomings of translations with serious distortions of sense or violations of norms of TL text production are avoided.”
This characteristic of Lörscher’s professionals may be a result of their training: they had probably been taught, as I was, to “translate the ideas, not the words.” He doesn’t look into it. On the other hand, “most of the foreign language students” implies that there are some who do not. In other words, it’s a matter of tendencies. Which of the two models is closer to reality − a divergence between word-for-word transfer and deverbalisation with reconciliation between them, or simultaneous processing of them both − remains an open question. But what is not in question is that the difference between literal and message-based translating is one of the most fundamental and fascinating for translation research.

Merrill K. Swain (Ontario Institute for Studies in Education), G. Dumas and N. Naiman. Alternatives to spontaneous speech: elicited translation and imitation as indicators of second language competence. Working Papers in Bilingualism, 3.68-79, 1974. Available online as ERIC document ED123872.

Brian Mossop (York University, Toronto). An Alternative to 'Deverbalization'. 2003. Click here for the text.

Wolfgang Lörscher (U. of Leipzig). The translation process: methods and problems of its investigation. Meta, 50:2.597-608, 2005. Click here for the text.

Message. The use of message in models of translating is an attempt to deal with inadequacies of the term meaning. The message is the speaker/writer’s intended meaning in that particular instance and including affective elements.

Merrill Swain, pioneer Canadian observer of child translators. She's now a Professor Emeritus in Toronto. Source:

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