Tuesday, September 29, 2020

Do University Translation Students Need Theory?

Today, 30 September, is the annual World Translation Day. It’s held on the thirtieth of September because that’s the feast day of Saint Jerome, patron saint of professional translators. He can be considered a practising professional translator because he was commissioned to do his Latin Bible translations by Pope Damasus I. He was also implicitly a theoretician of translating. In a letter he wrote to his friend Pammachius, he famously wrote:

Except of course in the case of  Holy Scripture, where even the syntax contains a mystery, I translate non verbum e verbo sed sensum de sensu: not word for word but sense for sense.”

From this we know that in general he was against literal translation, but also that he recognised the best way of translating was dependent on the genre of the source text and might be modified accordingly. His beliefs persist today. So as a contribution to this year’s World Translation Day I offer the following post.

The other day a student asked the following question on researchgate.net:

 Our study materials for translation include both theoretical and practical considerations.  The question is "do we need to theoretical considerations to be professional translators or  suffice it to focus on the practical side  as well as reading successful translations? Students think that the theoretical considerations are waste of time and sometimes they get lost in those philosophical discussions of translation scholars. What do you think?


This is a serious question for translation educators because many students think that way, and not without some justification. It brought several good answers about what kind of theories would be helpful; certainly not “philosophical discussions” but ones based on real-life experience. However, none of them answered the fundamental question of why translation students should study any theory at all. Translating is a skill. Specialised kinds of translating require special knowledge, for example legal or medical knowledge, but basically it’s a skill. Skills are improved by practice and guidance, but they don’t need knowledge of theory. Professional footballers need trainers but they don’t need to know ballistics. So here was my answer:


Just as you can be a good musical performer without knowing music theory, so fluent bilinguals can be a good translators without knowing translation theory, especially if −as you suggest− they study the work of experienced translators.

However, there are advantages in knowing some theory. First it helps you understand what you are doing. Second it enables you to explain to others −clients and students for instance− why you are doing it.

And third it entitles you to a university degree and not just a professional certification.  

But the theory should be well taught. I found the best way was to give my students small research tasks to do, either singly or as a team.

Why bother to understand? Natural translators don’t usually bother. Nor do native translators. The need to understand arises from a universal human feeling: curiosityCuriosity killed the cat but made the man. It satisfies this feeling when we find, or think we have found, an explanation for something. Some of our ancestors looked at the world and theorised that God created it in six days. If we are curious, we cannot look at translations without theorising how they got there. Curiosity is especially important for interpreters, who must acquire all their knowledge before they act. As a test of curiosity, I used to ask my interpreter students whether they had read the newspapers in both their languages that day.

 I said theory enables you to explain to clients and students why you translated something the way you did and to defend your choices. Why, for example, one does not translate legislation the same way as literature.  Also knowledge of specialised theory may improve performance in specialised translation; for instance knowing the linguistics of word formation and sublanguages for technical translation.

 As for the third reason, it used to be thought, when I went to university in England, that universities were places for thinking and reflecting. We looked down on American universities that granted degrees for everyday activities. Here in Spain it took a long while before the few university schools of translation were accepted as deserving full university status. It grieved me when the sole theory course was dropped from the conference interpreting program at the University of Ottawa. Times have changed, yet there is a lingering belief that university degree studies should include at least a modicum of reflection and thinking.


Yasir Mutar. Theoretical or practical translation? Researchgate, 23 September 2020. https://www.researchgate.net/post/Theoretical_or_practical_translation, or click [HERE]. The replies by Qihang Jiang and others are attached to it.

Saint Jerome (347-420). De optime genere interpretandi / To Pammachius: on the best method of translating  (Letter 57). Working papers in Translatology1. Translated by Louis Kelly. Ottawa: School of Translators and Interpreters, 1976.


Un approccio semiotico alla traduzione (A semiotic approach to translation), the Italian translation from Bulgarian by university teacher Bruno Osimo of the theoretical work Prevezhdat chovekt I mashinata (Human and machine translation) by translatologist Alexander Ludskanov. You may care to reflect on the reason for the non-literal Italian title.

Saturday, September 19, 2020




The very modern term fansubbing refers to non-professional subtitling, in particular the subtitles created voluntarily by fans for fans. Whatever its imperfections, it’s here to stay. Fans turn to it because they must; because conventional subtltling is simply not available or would be prohibitively expensive or too slow. It extends to many languages, as the Italian and Chinese examples referenced below illustrate.

One of the leading translatologists studying this phenomenon is David Orrego-Carmona, Lecturer in Translation Studies at Aston University. (Aston is in Birmingham, UK.) That makes him an important writer in the paradigm of non-professional interpreting and translation (NPIT). His latest article is worth summarising.

It emphasises the disruptive force of non-professional subtitling.Non-professional subtitling is, by definition, a disruptive practice. First and foremost, it was born as a strategy to circulate copyrighted content within an alternative (not completely legal) framework and, as pointed out by the early studies on fansubbing, people creating subtitles for the shows did not take into account the professional standards widely accepted in professional subtitling. For them, subtitles worked in a different and expressive way enabling them to explore all these new possibilities.

Exploring non-professional subtitling could help Translation Studies understand the ways in which these users of translations see and define translation. Although non-professional subtitling has been understood as non-adherent to professional standards, even consciously opposing them, new research has indicated that this is not necessarily true. Many studies draw on the fact that non-professionals tend to be extremely source oriented and understand translation only as a linguistic exchange from the source language to the target language.

   While  [there is] a developmental pattern in which fansubbing communities evolve, we recognise that the non-professional subtitling phenomenon remains highly versatile and organic, subject to individual social, linguistic and cultural conventions.

As this summary shows, NPIT is not to be held to the same standards and practices as professional translation.


The above summary was extracted with the aid of the machine learning algorithms of www.academia.edu.

David Orrego-Carmona and Yvonne Lee. Non-Professional Subtitling. In David Orrego-Carmona and Yvonne Lee (eds.) Non-ProfessionalSubtitling. Newcastle-upon-Tyne: Cambridge Scholars Publishing, 2017. Pages 1-12.

Felice Addeo and Maria Esposito. Collective Intelligence in Action: A Case Study of an Italian Fansubbing Community. 2013.

Dingkun Wang and Xiaochun Zhang. Fansubbing in China: Technology-facilitated activism in translation. Target, vol. 29, no. 2, 2017, pp. 301-318.


Anime motivational poster. Source: Pinterest.


Saturday, September 5, 2020

Juvenes Translatores (Young Translators) 2020



Once again, the European Commission is running its annual competition for secondary school students. The schools must be in member countries of the European Union; so I’m not sure where that leaves the United Kingdom schools this year. The competitors aren’t translation students; on the other hand they aren’t natural (i.e., naïve) translators. Typically they’ve had second language classes at school, and those classes include some elementary practice in translating. (At least they did in my time.) It’s an online competition, so it shouldn’t be seriously affected by the pandemic.

 Usually this blog reports on the winners after the event; but the call for competitors this year is already out and the registration period has just started, so here it is.


Thursday, 26 November, 2020




On the day of the contest each participant will need to log in to the contest platform using the individual username/password assigned to them on registration.

When participants log in to their profile, the text to be translated will appear on the screen.

Participants must translate online (not on paper) and submit their translation via the contest platform. The contest will be conducted according to the individual arrangements made by the schools. The translations must be done during the official time allocated for the contest (see section 4). DG Translation will assess all translations and choose one winning entry from each EU country.

The registration is open between 2 September, 12 PM (Central European Time), and 20 October 2020, 12 PM (Central European Time). Incomplete or late registrations will not be accepted.

More information at https://ec.europa.eu/info/education/skills-and-qualifications/develop-your-skills/language-skills/juvenes-translatores_en or click [HERE].

Friday, August 21, 2020

Covid-19 and Distance Conference Interpreting


Woman wearing a headset with a microphone sits in front of two laptops.

After a string of theoretical posts, here’s one on a practical and very contemporary topic.

Distance interpreting aka remote interpreting means that the interpreter is not physically present in the place where the speaker(s) and listener(s) are located but is connected to them by audio or visual link from a separate site. The opposite is on-site interpretingIt’s by no means new. In my All of Interpreting, written 30 years ago (see Sources below), there was already a section about it. The American telephone interpreting enterprise LanguageLine had been launched in 1982 and been acquired by AT&T. It remains very successful both in the service it provides and commercially, as do the many similar enterprises that you can see advertised nowadays on the internet. They are widely used by hospitals, social services and the police. Whatever their shortcomings compared to on-site interpreting, they can offer immediate 24-hour availability and a wide variety of lesser-spoken languages; and above all they are economical.

Modern technology has extended these services to video interpreting and hence to sign languages.

However, a characteristic of all such services has been that they were intended for person-to-person communication or for small groups that could be connected in a conference call; what is often referred to as dialogue interpreting. Now the advent of computer platforms like Zoom and Skype makes it possible to interconnect much larger groups and to have remote conference interpreting. Zoom, for example, provides a simple interface and claims to allow access to online meetings with up to 500 attendees.

Then came the bombshell, Covid-19. It decimated the conference interpretation market by cancellation of many meetings. And it threw a spanner into the logistics because interpreters could no longer move around freely. It even reached to the holy of holy of conference interpretation, the United Nations headquarters in New York.

“When the coronavirus pandemic brought New York City to a halt, United Nations interpreters ran into big trouble: their booths and equipment were no longer accessible. However, they are rising to the challenge, exploring new ways to service multilateral meetings, including from their homes...

“’We unexpectedly found ourselves in our apartments wondering how to continue performing our duties and contribute to multilingualism,’ said Veronique Vandegans, Chief of the French Interpretation Section. ‘However, it quickly became apparent that we could adapt and interpret remotely, given the proper equipment, testing and training.’"

So much for the many objections. Suddenly it could be done, as surely as when Léon Dostert introduced simultaneous interpreting over the objections of the old guard of consecutive interpreters in the late 1940s.

No one doubts that there are problems. For instance,

“One major challenge is [for interpreters] to find a suitable place in their homes. Even under optimal conditions, a home location is not on par with a confined booth, where interpreters can reach the high level of concentration their job requires.”

Some improvements could be made. The quality of the equipment is crucial. Early experiments in the 1960s failed because communications were uneven or the sound and picture were too poor. One of my own early experiences with remote interpreting was for a televised Canadian election debate in 1984. On that nationally important occasion it was decided that the interpreters couldn’t be accommodated in the studio with the candidates, and so the TV engineers provided me with a video link to a room in another part of Ottawa. In so doing, they provided me with something I never had again: a giant TV screen that made me feel I was really present in the debate studio; and when they did close-ups of speakers I could see their expressions better than I would have on site. I would still recommend larger video screens. On the other hand, something they didn’t provide was a circuit for direct connection and feedback between the interpreter and the moderator of the debate. On site, if there is any hitch the interpreter can wave to the meeting participants or send a colleague to explain.

Also a long time ago there was a proposal, I think in Eastern Europe, for a centre where there would be a pool of remote conference interpreters on permanent duty instead of arrangements being set up anew for each event. I don't know what became of it.

But now the question is, what will happen when the crisis eventually subsides?  Return to the old way or consolidate the new? I think the latter, inevitably, because of the economies it represents. Only very rich users like the United Nations or the Canadian Parliament will be able to hold out against it. Of course something is lost in remote interpreting, but every new technology requires a trade-off between craftsmanship and price.

In addition, the success of both remote dialogue interpreting and remote conference interpreting make it imperative to add them to the training for student interpreters in the universities.


United Nations Department of Global Communications. Portraits: UN interpreters adapt to new work modes during Covid-19. August 2020. https://www.un.org/en/coronavirus/portraits-un-interpreters-adapt-new-work-modes-during-covid-19 or click [HERE].

Brian Harris. All of interpreting: a taxonomic survey. https://www.academia.edu/12072834/All_of_interpreting_a_taxonomic_survey or click [HERE]. A Spanish translation is available from the same site under the title Panorámica de los distintos tipos de interpretación.

LanguageLine Solutions. Wikipedia, 2020.

Canadian leaders debates. Wikipedia, 2020.


Lana Ayyad, Chief of Arabic Interpretation Section, works from her apartment in Brooklyn. UN Photo/Manuel Elías UN Photo/Manuel Elías.

Thursday, August 6, 2020

NPIT, A New Translation Studies Paradigm

                                                                                                                       Image result for Images Thomas Kuhn

Periods, schools and tendencies in research are commonly divided into what Thomas Kuhn called paradigms.paradigm is “a distinct set of concepts or thought patterns, including theories, research methods, postulates.” A more down-to-earth synonym might be mindset. Generally speaking, paradigms are constituted of theories and methods. Thus the Darwinian paradigm in biology combines Darwin’s well-known theory of evolution and the methodical observation and description of historical and contemporary evidence. A new paradigm may displace an older one in what Kuhn called a paradigm shift, but the old one may live on beside it. Thus the Darwinian paradigm, though it’s currently dominant, has not entirely replaced the Creationist one.

However, a paradigm may also be shifted by the object of study, something that is usually overlooked. Thus translation studies in pre-modern times were mostly based on written texts: on comparison of texts and their translations. Texts, furthermore, produced by humans. Only since the second world war have several new paradigms arisen, one of which is process-oriented translation studies, a paradigm that studies the translator’s mental operations rather than the texts they produce. Typical of this paradigm is Roger Bell’s book Translation and Translating (see Sources below). However, the older text-based paradigms persist undiminished to this day.

As for machine translation (MT), it has been through two paradigms: first the rule-governed linguistic paradigm from 1947 to 1988, and then from1988 the statistical paradigm that is now evolving into an artificial intelligence paradigm. A recent contributor to another blog gave a detailed analysis of the many imperfections in an MT French translation of a letter by Franz Kafka. Her criticisms were justified, but they were completely misplaced because she was applying to MT the method and standards of a different paradigm

In a recent post on his blog Still Thinking, the prominent interpreter-researcher Jonathan Downie deplored the multiplicity of theories in translation studies:

“What I am suggesting is that it might  be useful to set some criteria, whether the ones I have suggested or some different ones, which we could use to perform a kind of loft clearance of translation theories. Perhaps we might find a few theories *coughequivalencecough* that can safely be ditched while others can be upcycled or combined with still other theories to make something even better.”

 But realistically we cannot ditch theories, for two reasons. One is that researchers will not readily give up a favourite theory, especially if it’s their own (pardon the cynicism). Another, more substantial, is that the theories belong to different paradigms and so do not compete. That a translation may be determined by statistical identification of a segment in a previous translation or translations, as in today’s MT, simply has no competitor in human translation and its paradigms.

The biggest paradigm, in terms of the amount of discussion it generates, and one of the oldest (since Cicero and all that) is the literary translation one. And still very lively, as the current polemic over the views of Lawrence Venuti shows (see Sources).

Another very old but persistent paradigm is the Bible translation one. Sometimes it overlaps other paradigms, for instance the literary translation one (e.g. Meschonnic) or the linguistics one (e.g. Nida, see Sources); but it has its own defining characteristics, which are religious and missionary.

Certainly, as said above, machine translation has its own paradigms and those paradigms even involve quite different researchers from those who work on human translation. Most of them are computer scientists and mathematicians who only turn to linguists for the practical tasks of developing applications.

And so we arrive at the point of this post. All the paradigms before the 1970s, even MT ones, were not just based on texts, they were based on texts that were highly skilled documents. Whether they were works of literature or technical manuals, they required skilled translators. Schools of translators were set up to train translators in these paradigms and their norms.

Then in 1973 a new paradigm dawned, in maverick fashion and at first composed of a single theory, the Natural Translation Hypothesis. This paradigm did not introduce any new methodology or scientific approach but it did have distinctive characteristics in its object of study. First the translators who served as it subjects were inexpert, totally untrained, naïve, primarily children. They had to be bilingual of course, but not necessarily balanced bilinguals. This  paradigm rejected the old adage that “because someone is bilingual, it doesn’t mean they can translate,” and replaced it by, “All bilinguals can translate.” Second the texts or utterances studied were such as are appropriate for the language and cognitive level of the translators just described.

The new paradigm expanded, first into studies of bilingual immigrant children, the so-called language brokers, and then became ever-widening as the study of what is now called non-professional interpreting and translation (NPIT) with its specialised international conferences.

However, NPIT studies have not dealt with the key tenet of the natural translation hypotheses, which is that the ability to translate is inborn. All natural translation is NPIT, but not all NPIT is completely natural. For example, there are many self-taught expert translators who translate for colleagues as a sideline to their usual professional activities. Still, for the time being it’s convenient to consider natural translation a partner in the new NPIT paradigm.



Thomas Kuhn. The Structure of Scientific Revolutions. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1962.

Jonathan Downie.  A Theoretical Loft Clearance for Translation Studies. Still Thinking, 12 May 2020.

 https://jonathandownie.wordpress.com/2020/05/12/a-theoretical-loft-clearance-for-translation-studies/ or click [HERE].

Roger T. Bell. Translation and Translating: Theory and Practice. London and New York: Longman, 1991.

Jan Steyn. Showdown at the translation saloon. On Lawrence Venuti’s ‘Contra Instrumentalism: A Translation Polemic’. Los Angeles Review of Books, 2 August 2020. https://lareviewofbooks.org/article/showdown-at-the-translation-saloon-on-lawrence-venutis-contra-instrumentalism-a-translation-polemic/ or click [HERE].

Henri Meschonnic (1932-2009). Several French translations of books of the Old Testament, 1970-2008.

Eugene A. Nida (1914-2011). Toward a Science of Translating. Leiden: Brill, 1964.


Thomas Kuhn. Source: partialyexaminedlife.com


For a discussion of this post and my reply to it, see Jonathan Downie's blog Still Thinking at https://jonathandownie.wordpress.com/2020/08/is-natural-translation-and-paradigm-and-should-it-matter-a-response-to-brian-harris/#comments or click [HERE].

Saturday, July 25, 2020

Singularity, An Irksome Translation Norm


The notion of  norms in translation was introduced by an Israeli translatologist, the late Gideon Toury, in the 1970s. The term refers to regularities of translation behaviour within a specific sociocultural situation. In 1990, by way of thanking him for his early support of the natural translation hypothesis, I sent him a short article for publication in his journal Target asserting that there are also norms in interpreting (see Sources below). Today nobody would doubt that there are such norms, and they are among the things translation students have to learn. However, natural translators may not be aware of them. For instance, they may not be aware that according to present-day norms nothing they invent themselves should be added to a translation.

Among the norms there is one whose raison d’être I understand but which I find irksome. It’s the norm that stipulates that the translator must only deliver one translation to the reader-lisener. I don’t know a term for this, so I’ll call it translation singularity. It’s irksome because, as all translators know in their head or heart, there’s almost always more than one possible translation, whether it be for a single word or for a whole book. But translations that list alternatives are not acceptable. For example, for French Bonjour! an interpreter may say Good morning! or Good day! but not Good morning or good day! Why not? This norm perhaps derives from another one, which is that a translation should read or sound like an original; and we don’t permit such dithering in our original speech. If we did, it would take more time to decode what we hear or read, and moreover it would displace part of the translation process from the translator to the reader-listener. We want the translator to decide for us. In the above simple example the additional burden would be minimal, but not so in a whole text.

In the early days of machine translation, faced with the impossibility of the system deciding correctly which of two translations to use, some programmers did in fact list both. So Bonjour! would translate as:
Good morning!
 But the solution never caught on, and today’s programmers never even think of it.

True, there are as always some exceptions. However, when some scholarly consideration makes it imperative to give the alternatives another norm intervenes and requires that they be put in a footnote.

Now here’s an example that’s more advanced because it involves a difference of meaning and of knowledge beyond the linguistic meaning.  It’s an example that occurred in a machine translation demonstration back in 1970.
Let the source sentence be John met his father at the airport, and let’s translate it into French. There are at least two possibilities: John a rencontré son père à l’aéroport and John a accueilli son père à l’aéroport. The difference between them is that rencontré implies the meeting may have been by chance, whereas accueilli implies that it was intentional. A human translator who knows the circumstances can choose between them; but MT systems are not endowed with that kind of information and so their output should logically be: John a rencontré ou acceueilli son père… At this point, however, singularity intervenes, and the result is that all the MT software I’ve tried it on renders it as either one or the other.
Singularity isn’t the only norm that I find irksome. For instance, why should a text for bilingual speaker-readers be composed in only one of their languages? Why shouldn’t Canadians emphasize cultural unity by singing in a combination of languages? (The original lyrics were in French, so the English is a translation of sorts.) There actually are bilingual versions, something like
O Canada!Terre de nos aïeux!True patriot love in all of us command.Car ton bras sait porter l’épée,Il sait porter la croix!...

but anybody who sang them would be regarded as cranky.

However, I digress. Here’s a more relevant question.

Let’s take as hypothesis that natural translators are unaware of the singularity norm. Do they in fact breach it and include alternatives more frequently than native and expert translators? It may be easier to see this with interpreters, who are less severely constrained than the translators of writings.
Another norm that natural translators probably breach more often is the one that prohibits adding to or omitting from the translation. But how often, and what factors does it depend on?

Gideon Toury. Wikipedia, 2019.
Brian Harris. Norms in Interpretation. Target vol. 2, no. 1, January 1990.

Gideon Toury 1942-2016. Source: Wikipedia.

Monday, July 13, 2020

Translation and Transfer

There’s been a puzzling spike in requests for one of my papers. Its title is From Fairy Tale to Pantomime and it can be accessed on my Academia page at https://independent.academia.edu/BHARRIS or by clicking [HERE]. In recent weeks Academia has been informing me that it’s my most popular paper, and the requests for it come from many parts of the  globe: just yesterday there were two from the USA. Of course there’s a lot of ‘noise’ in answers to browser searches and so some of the searchers were probably not really searching for my paper. But what particularly surprises me in this case is that it was written for Christmas season reading. It traces some popular folk or fairy stories not only through translations but also through adaptations to other media like film and theatre. Then I saw the title of a new book series from the University of Leuven Press in Belgium, namely Translation, Interpreting and Transfer. The  publishers state that it
“takes as its basis an inclusive view of translation… keeping Roman Jakobson’s inclusive view on interlingual, intralingual and intersemiotic translation in mind. The title of the series, which includes the more encompassing concept of transfer, reflects this broad conceptualisation of translation matters.”
It makes me wonder whether there’s a new interest in transfer and whether transfer is similar to what this blog has elsewhere called conversion

Prague School linguist Roman Jakobson’s “inclusive view” comes in an article that’s constantly quoted: On Linguistic Aspects of Translation (see Sources below). Only seven pages long, it is, as people say, seminal. Yet it’s somewhat disappointing, because it only gives examples of  the translation of individual words. It’s an essay on lexicology rather than on translation of texts. Furthermore Jakobson’s contention that “an array of linguistic signs is needed to introduce an unfamiliar word” was already preached by Saussure. Nevertheless his categories of intralingual translation, interlingual translation and intersemiotic translation are useful concepts.
Only interlingual translation is deemed ‘translation proper’ by Jakobson. It’s certainly what people commonly mean by translation. The other categories are more arcane inventions by linguists and translatologists.
Jakobson did us a service by drawing attention to intersemiotic translation and giving it a name (actually two names: intersemiotic translation and transmutation). On the other hand he was wrong to put intersemiotic translation on the same level as the other two. Interlingual and intralingual translation – which together we might call lingual translation – are subordinate forms of intersemiotic translation, “a translation into some further alternative sign,” for it is also the case that a non-linguistic sign may be changed into another non-linguistic sign. That is to say, there is some form of interchange that is more all-embracing than what we usually call translation.

It was the search for this higher-order transfer of thought and emotion, and the proposition that we inherit the capacity for this rather than for the more specific lingual translation, that led me to offer conversion as a term for it in a 2016 post where it was defined as follows:
Conversion is the passage from a mental representation to another that preserves the information and feelings from the former which the converter wishes and has the capability to preserve.
 (To retrieve the post, enter conversion in the Search box on the right). So is the Leuven term transfer synonymous with conversion? We’ll have to wait and see what the new series produces.

Roman Jakobson. On linguistic aspects of translation. In R. A. Brower , ed., On Translation. 1959, pages 232-239. Full text at https://complit.utoronto.ca/wp-content/uploads/COL1000H_Roman_Jakobson_LinguisticAspects.pdf or click [HERE].

Leuven University Press. Translation, Interpreting and Transfer. 2020. https://lup.be/collections/series-translation-interpreting-and-transfer or click [HERE].

Roman Jakobson as he was when I saw him in Montreal around 1970 at a reception hosted by the Polish-Canadian linguist Irena Bellert.
Source: Pinterest