Saturday, April 17, 2021

Issues for Cognitive Translatologists


At the end of the preceding post there was a promise of some issues worthy of  consideration by cognitive translatologists. So here goes.


The paper Translation As An Innate Skill (1978) polemicized that the human ability to translate is innate. Innateness is a much-discussed topic in theories of language acquisition. The argument in  Innate Skill was based on cases where bilingual children translated from a very young age (typically three years old) without any instruction. Since then there have been many accounts of children and adolescents translating at a slightly older age (five and up) especially from research on so-called language brokering in families and schools, but virtually nothing has been done to prove or disprove the hypothesis that the ability in children or adults is in fact inherited. Of course any research like that has to face the age-old problem of distinguishing between nature and nurture.


Translation in everyday usage means reexpressing in another language. Some translatologists have extended its meaning to include reexpression in the same language or between varieties of the same language, commonly called paraphrase. Jakobson further extended its meaning to include intersemiotic translation, which means an interpretation of verbal signs by means of signs of nonverbal sign systems, for example a book to film adaptation.  But that kind of intersemiotic translation still supposes verbal language as its point of  departure.

In 2009 on this blog I suggested that what bilinguals inherit which enables them to translate is not specifically a language competence but some more general ability which I called conversion. You can retrieve by entering conversion in the Search box on the right. Here’s the definition:

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.

Note that both the start and end of the process are mental representations, not verbalisations of them although they can be verbalised and often are.

This raises a series of questions.

The first is whether this general ability exists.

The second is, what is it if it exists?

The third is whether linguistic transformation is a specialisation of it.

The fourth is whether it’s inherited in whole or in part.

Certainly some thinkers have believed it exists in some form.  Seleskovitch thought that interpreters doing consecutive interpreting retain a deverbalized transform of what they hear because they can reproduce the content of a speech without being able to remember the actual words. She suggested it’s also the form in which the input is stored in long-term memory. (Actually interpreters do remember or note down some of the words, but she was largely right.) Other trainers of consecutive interpreters have devised sets of non-verbal  symbols and recommend against using representations of spoken speech like shorthand (which linguists call derived codes).

In these days of artificial intelligence, it may be tempting to think of the conversion level as patterns of neurons. This, however, does not accommodate summarising, which a recent post on this blog proposed is a type of translating and is often used by interpreters. (Enter summarising in the Search box to retrieve it.)


Translators, even those in a supposedly well-defined category like professional translator, vary greatly. They may vary in respect of:

Age. From three to over 80. Age affects all human competences. In the case of translators it may affect general cognition as well as language proficiency, and both are needed.

Exposure. Like any human competence, translating can be learnt and improved by observing how other people do it, but the opportunities for doing so vary. I live in a bilingual area where there are examples of translations at every turn; somebody in a monolingual area would be handicapped.

Experience. Translating is a skill; and like any skill, the more you do it the better you get at it.

Training. By definition, natural translators have had no training at all. At the other extreme, an expert translator may have gone through years of training at school and university or in a translation organization. Gran and Fabbro found that translator training may even affect cerebral organization. They reported that fourth-year interpretation students, while maintaining left-hemisphere dominance for their L1 (Italian), showed significant right-hemisphere superiority for English as compared to first-year students and monolinguals.

Particularly dangerous is the practice of taking cohorts of university translation students as subjects. It’s done because they are readily accessible and can hardly refuse. A glaring example is the otherwise excellent study by Krings, who even used not translation students but language students. Students are an atypical intermediate breed. They are past the stage of natural translators but not yet at the level of experts.

QualityQuality of output is the usual criterion of competence. Other criteria such as speed of output are sometimes applied but they are secondary. However, judgements of translation quality are notoriously subjective and conditioned by cultures. The criteria applied to professional translators are not suitable for natural translators, and those applied to machine translation may not be suitable for human ones.

At very least researchers should declare the status of their subjects according to the above parameters.


One of the first articles about the alignment of translations with their originals was the one on bitext listed below. The practical usefulness of such aligning was amply illustrated in the advent of translation memories and statistical machine translation. However,  another suggestion in the article was that bitext might be a model for how original and translation are held in the translator’s working memory. The psychological aspect of bitext has received scarcely any notice.


Brian Harris and Bianca Sherwood. Translating as an innate skill. . In Language Interpretation and Communication, ed. D. Gerver and H. W. Sinaiko, New York/London, Plenum, 1978, pp. 155-170.

Roman Jakobson. On linguistic aspects of translation. In On Translation, ed. R.A. Brower, Harvard University Press, 1959, pp. 232-239.

L. Gran and F. Fabbro. The role of neuroscience in the teaching of interpretation. The Interpreters' Newsletter, no. 1, pp. 23-41, 1988.

Hans P. Krings. Was in den Köpfen von Übersetzern vorgeht / Eine empirische Untersuchung zur Struktur des Übersetzungsprozesses an fortgeschrittenen Franzözischlernern. (Tübinger Beiträge zur Linguistik 291). Tübingen: Narr, 1986.

Brian Harris. Bi-text, a new concept in translation theory, Language Monthly (UK), no. 54, March 1988, pp. 8-10.


Source: SciTechDaily

Tuesday, April 13, 2021

The Rise of Cognitive Translation Studies and Online Conferences


There's a danger of exaggeration in calling each new trend in translatology a ‘new paradigm’.  A paradigm is more than a single theory and lasts longer than a single decade. But the rising field of cognitive translation studies (CTS) is not that new. It goes back at least to Danica Seleskovitch and the interpretation psychologists like Nanpon and Oléron in the 1960s, and now it’s thriving. It has spread from Europe to America and notably China. So  perhaps…


What is it? Here’s one answer:

The work of cognitive translation scholars, while motivated by questions about translational phenomena, necessarily engages with theoretical developments in the disciplines of psycholinguistics, bilingualism, psychology, cognitive science, and second language acquisition.

It has arisen because people have realised that a translation is a mental activity as well as a pair of texts or a profession. If you want to know more, there’s a whole book about it and even a journal from Benjamins (see Sources below). For a somewhat quicker introduction, go to the talk with Prof. Ricardo Muñoz.

The latest sign of CTS maturity is a summer school. The First International Summer School of Cognitive Interpreting and Translation Studies will take place at Forli in Italy  from 14 to 21 June 2021, but it’s an online event. Applications are now open until 30 April, so hurry!. Forli has a campus of the nearby University of Bologna, Europe’s oldest. The Forli campus has played a distinguished role in the development of non-professional interpreting and translation studies (NPIT) since Prof. Rachele Antonini organised the first international NPIT conference there in 2012, and its activity has increased notably since the incorporation of Prof. Muñoz from Spain.

One of the participants in the school will be Prof. Bogusia Whyatt from Poznan, Poland, about whom there was a post on this blog in 2018. (To retrieve it, enter her name in the Search box on the right.)

Holding this event by internet illustrates a development that has occurred to an unforeseeable extent due to the Covid-19 epidemic. It’s internet conferencing, mediated efficiently by platforms like Skype and Team. It’s true that by not attending a conference in person one loses the advantages and pleasures of personal contact and socialising. On the other hand, it makes it possible for people like me to ‘attend’ meetings that we would never have been able to take part in before because of distance and cost. Therefore it’s unstoppable. Furthermore it has implications for conference interpreting, since the interpreters  too can participate from afar.

As for the Forli school, I will have some questions in a subsequent post.


P. Oléron and H. Nanpon. Recherches sur la traduction simultanée. Journal de psychologie normale et pathologique, no. 62, pp. 73-94, 1968.

Danica Seleskovitch (Université de Paris III). Langage, langues et mémoire: étude de la prise de notes en interprétation consecutive. (Cahiers Champollion). Preface by Jean Monnet. Paris: Minard - Lettre Modernes, 1975. Monnet's preface contains information about Seleskovitch.

Gregory Shreve and Erik Angelone (Kent State University). Translation and Cognition. Amsterdam: Benjamins, 2010.

Translation, Cognition & Behavior. Amsterdam: Benjamins, 2018-. Journal.

Wang Junsong and Ricardo Muñoz Martín. Cognitive translation studies, a roadmap. 外语研究 (Foreign Languages Research) 2019.

Sanjun Sun and Kairong Xiao. Chinese scholarship in cognitive translation studies: A survey of researchers.  Translation, Cognition & Behaviorvolume 2, issue 1, March 2019, pp. 125 – 146.


Seal of the University of Bologna

Monday, March 8, 2021

International Women’s Day: La Malinche


Today, 8 March, being International Women’s Day, it’s appropriate for this blog to feature one of the most famous of women interpreters, an NPIT interpreter at that, La Malinche. Why NPIT? Because she became interpreter for the Spanish conquistador of Mexico Hernán Cortes by circumstance and not by training or for money.

Her story has been told many times, both as history and in fiction, and her reputation has varied from traitress to heroine. Briefly,

Marina [maˈɾina] or Malintzin [maˈlintsin] (c. 1500 – c. 1529), more popularly known as La Malinche [la maˈlintʃe], was a Nahua woman from the Mexican Gulf Coast, who played a key role in the  Spanish conquest of the Aztec Empire by acting as an interpreter, advisor, and intermediary for the Spanish conquistador Hernán Cortés. She was one of 20 enslaved women given to the Spaniards by the Natives of Tabasco in 1519. Later, she gave birth to Cortés's first son, Martín, who is considered one of the first Mestizos (people of mixed European and Indigenous American ancestry).

For another famous NPIT woman interpreter, enter Sacagawea in the Search box on the right.

La Malinche wasn’t Cortes’ only known NPIT interpreter. The other was a man, Gerónimo de Aguilar, but that’s another story.


La Malinche. Wikipedia, 2021.

Gerónimo de Aguilar. Wikipedia, 2021.


Detail from the Lienzo de Tlaxcala canvas c.1550 showing Doña Marina with Hernán Cortes. 

Friday, February 26, 2021

Elegy for Buea


From time to time this blog reprints an earlier post that seems worth reviving. With over 450 posts in its archive, there’s plenty to choose from. This time I’ve chosen one from the year 2009. The choice was determined not only by the content but also by the place where the event that’s described in it took place.

 It’s been my good fortune to visit a number of beautiful, peaceful places in the world  before they were spoiled one way or another: Beirut, Dubrovnik, Ceylon (now Sri Lanka) by wars, Rangoon (now Yangon) by coup d’état, Bali and Ibiza by tourism, the Taj Mahal by pollution, Cairo by revolution and demographics, Alexandria by neglect. Petra and Granada survive by the skin of their teeth in spite of modern accretions. I came too late to Dresden. To those disfigured by conflicts must now be added Buea.

Buea is a sprawling township at the foot of Mount Cameroon in West Africa, rich in banana plantations. It’s so idyllic that the heads of the first European colonists in the area, pre-1914 Germans, chose it for their summer residence. I spent happy weeks there teaching at its university and lodging in its British-era Mountain Hotel, where one year I witnessed the beginning and end of an extraordinary marathon, the famous Guinness mountain race. Now Cameroon is torn by an all-too-typical internal conflict based on stupid divisions of nationalism and language. I grieve for it and for my erstwhile students.

The event related here was my introduction to an important function of interpreting that’s are rarely even mentioned in conventional courses, namely church interpreting, and to a style of interpreting in which the interpreter does not remain neutral, impersonal or impassive.


Church Interpreters 3: West Africa

When Cameroon, in West Africa, was formed at independence by amalgamating former British and French mandated territories, its enlightened first president, Ahmadou Ahidjou, made it a country that would be officially bilingual in the two colonial languages. But ‘officially bilingual’ doesn’t mean that all individual citizens are bilingual. As in many other officially bilingual countries, for example Canada, the parliament and the national government couldn’t function without a professional corps of Expert Translators and Interpreters. Cameroon gave university graduates scholarships to go for training in France, England, and later in Canada, where I came to know many Cameroonian students. Once the first generation or trainees had acquired experience, however, the government thought the training could be done at home. So a national Advanced (i.e. postgraduate) School of Translators and Interpreters was opened at Buea, in the heart of the English-speaking area of the country. Buea is a very pleasant, scattered hill station township on the lower slopes of Mt Cameroon.

Besides the two official languages, Cameroon also has about 200 native African languages as well as English and French pidgins. In those there is no formal training for translators.

When foreign Christian missionaries started work in the country in the late 19th century, they couldn’t be effective unless they found a way of communicating with Africans in the domestic vernaculars. At most a few missionaries might learn one or two languages with a large community of speakers such as Douala, a Bantu language that is widely understood today because the city of Douala is large and important. But it would not have taken them very far afield. The only solution: interpreters recruited from the local congregations. It’s a method that was put to use all over Africa. In the early days, missionary interpretation was of dubious quality:

“Since early missionaries could not know the language, they had to depend on interpreters whose own linguistic competence might be small and who might lack any knowledge of Christianity. What kind of gospel the missionaries were heard to preach can only be guessed at.” (McManners, The Oxford History of Christianity, p. 478)

But that was long ago.

One Sunday morning in the 1980s, I was coming out of the Advanced School at Buea when I saw a large crowd on the campus. The people were dressed in their Sunday best, the richly coloured clothes of the women looking especially festive. In front of the crowd a stage had been erected, and on it were just two men, the centre of rapt attention. I stopped to watch.

Both men were Africans. Both were wearing black suits. There was not much difference between them of height or build, but one was younger. Both were carrying a black book in the right hand. Both were haranguing the crowd for a couple of minutes at a time, alternately. They had similar voices. They made the same gestures. In fact they were speaking different languages, but I couldn’t distinguish that. It was as if they were engaged in an impassioned mimicry of one another.

After the first few changes of speaker, I realised that I’d happened upon an evangelical church service or prayer meeting, and it seemed likely that one speaker was the preacher and the other was his interpreter. This was confirmed to me by somebody in the crowd; also that the interpretation was from Douala into another African language. So far so good, but which was the speaker and which the interpreter? Either of them, by his strong voice, his intonation, his body language, appearance and dress, could have passed for preacher. They stood there side by side, neither showing deference. However, another question to my informant confirmed what I might have deduced: that the interpreter was the younger of the two. He, like his preacher model, put on a rousing performance that lasted for another half hour.

“Are all the church interpreters like this?” I asked my informant. “Oh yes,” she replied, “How else could they inspire the congregation to turn to Jesus?”

Tuesday, February 9, 2021

Young Children As Natural Language Teachers




Young children can learn languages, but can they also teach them? The question is prompted by several videos that have appeared on YouTube showing toddlers teaching American Sign Language to their siblings. Here’s a text and a still photo from one of them (see Sources below):

Three-year-old Amelia was born deaf and began signing at 14 months. The inquisitive kid decided to teach her brother too. Using an iPad Amelia flicked through images of animals. Then showed her brothers how to match the sign for each one. Amelia’s Mom Jennifer spotted her daughter and decided to document it. “My sons were mesmerized with her signing the animals,” said Jennifer.  “It’s been proven learning two languages at a young age helps brain development.”

Thus the well-attested natural ability of young children to learn languages meets up with another human ability that may also be instinctive and inherited, namely the desire and ability to teach. We are aware of the latter in its more advanced form, namely the ability of trained teachers and the liking many of them have for their work; but as with other human skills (such as professional football or translating) it may be based on something more primitive and not needing instruction, whether formal or informal.

The idea that teaching is instinctive, and therefore by implication inherited, is catching on nowadays. A recent book (see Sources) says as follows:

“First we explore how children naturally use ostensive communication when teaching; allowing them to be set in the emitter side of natural pedagogy. Then, we hypothesize that the capacity to teach may precede to have even a mature metacognition… Thus we propose that teaching… may be occurring as an instinct from a very early age.”

The double instinct for language learning and for teaching may even perhaps begin lower down evolution than humans. For instance there is the case of the famous gorilla Koko who taught some American sign language to her companion gorilla Michael, though admittedly her environment wasn’t natural and she wasn't young. We should look at the other means and media of communication besides human-like language.


Parents catch deaf daughter teaching siblings ASL. YouTube, 2019. Click [HERE] or go to

Cecilia I. Calero, A. P. Goldin and M. Sigman. The Teaching Instinct. Review of Philosophy and Psychology 9, 2018, pages 819-230.

Michael (gorilla). Wikipedia, 2021.

Monday, February 1, 2021

Summarising as Translating





Lay people are only aware of one kind of translating: the transfer of writings and utterances between natural languages. Whereas translatologists know there are many kinds, which vary as to their media, purposes, skilfulness, etc. One kind is summarising. It’s also known to academics as abstracting and to school students as precis-writing.


A seminal article about types of translating was Roman Jakobson’s 1959 article On linguistic aspects of translation. In it he distinguishes between interlingual translation (translating between languages) and intralingual translation (translating within the same language, traditionally called paraphrase). In this post we will be mainly concerned with the intralingual kind, although there is also a good deal of interlingual summarising.

Abstracting must not be confused with extracting. In the latter, short significant passages are selected from the source text and strung together verbatim. Extracting can be done by algorithm. The algorithmic extracting that I receive from is fairly successful, though it is affected by the type of source document. Nor must it be confused with writing abridged translations, which are shortened by omitting some passages in the original, and with them some details. For example, publishers cut out the scientific disquisitions from the early English translations of Jules Verne because they thought young readers would be bored by them.


Let’s turn now to translating. There are broadly speaking two ways of translating.  There is the purely linguistic method of substituting words, phrases and syntactic structures; and the study of it falls in the domain of contrastive linguistics. And then there is the ‘deverbalisation’ procedure in which the translators first interiorise the content and integrate it into their own thoughts, and then reverbalise it to make a target text. Here we will only be concerned with the second type. According to influential French translatologist Danica Seleskovitch (see photo and Sources), it’s the form in which our thoughts are stored to long-term memory and she strongly recommended it to her student interpreters.

Translating, in Jakobson’s broad sense, is to take a text that has been written in one text and reproduce its content in the another text. Summarising meets this definition but with some conditions. Here are some guidelines for an ideal summary of the precis kind:

·       Is written in the precis writer’s own words

·       Is much shorter than the original, often many times shorter

·       Is clear, concise, coherent, and precise

·       Contains all the essential points, author’s tone, facts, opinions, thoughts and main idea of the original passage

·       Is well-knit and makes logical sense and follows a logical order

·       Won’t contain details not found in the original passage

·       Is well-structured, has no language errors, and makes a meaningful passage.


Content therefore consists of “tone, facts. opinions, thoughts and main idea.” Deverbalising makes it possible to apprehend these. But summarising doesn’t stop there. It requires that the translator apply selections and judgements to them and only reverbalise the product of the process. It follows that there must be some higher-order mental faculty that directs and accomplishes all this. (Some people don’t believe we can deverbalize, anyway not completely; but here we assume it’s possible.)


Summarising is therefore an  exceptionally complex form of translating and a challenge for artificial intelligence.



Roman Jakobson. On linguistic aspects of translation. In R. A.  Brower (ed.), On Translation, Cambridge MA, 1959.

A Comprehensive Guide to Write the Perfect Precis. Bangalore: Olliveboard.

Danica Seleskovitch. Language and cognition. In D. Gerver and H. W. Sinaiko (eds.), Language Interpretation and Communication, New York, Plenum Press, 1978, pp. 333–342.

Arthur B. Evans. Jules Verne’s English translations. Science Fiction Studies, vol. 32, 2005, p.80 et seq.

Wednesday, January 6, 2021

The Tenets of the Natural Translation Hypothesis


Good riddance 2020


A Happier New Year to everybody!


The new year is a good moment to take stock and clarify. This post is intended as an introduction for newcomers to the Natural Translation hypothesis (NT), especially students, and to clear up some misunderstandings.


Translating is a quasi-universal human capability. “Quasi” because it has a prerequisite, namely bilingualism, that not all humans possess; but it is universal in bilinguals. It should therefore be mentioned in any description of human language capability.

Translating is a specialisation for language of a more general mental capability. The more general capability enables us to convert mental representations and storage of concepts and feelings from one form of expression to another. This is sometimes called intersemiotic translation, but it includes translation between languages and it extends to feelings or sentiments. We call it conversion.

Bilingual infants start translating so young and with so little exposure to examples of translation, in fact as soon as they are in the least bilingual, that we must suspect there is an inherited element in it. They do not have to be taught to translate; indeed they will do it even if their elders avoid encouraging them. It is the insistence on an inherited element and on the absence of teaching that distinguishes NT from other kinds of NPIT (non-professional interpreting and translating).

The universality of translating across languages, media (voice, writing, signs), cultures and time periods is another phenomenon that pushes us to think there must be something inherent in the human make-up that enables it. 

NT translations are mostly of a simple and everyday kind, though they need not be. Some explanation is required for the progress from that level to the difficult and highly skilled translations that are done by literary translators and professional document translators. This progress can be achieved by several routes or a combination of them: by college courses, by practice under the guidance of an experienced mentor, or by self-learning from examples. However, the more advanced levels of translating are built upon NT and have been called “the icing on the cake.” 

Basic Readings

The papers The Importance of Natural Translation, Translating As An Innate Skill and How a Three-year-old Translates, all of which are available on the page

Image credit: Google Images