Wednesday, October 14, 2009

Bianca Sherwood’s thesis published

Good news! Bianca Sherwood’s thesis Features of Natural Translation in a Language Testing Environment (2000) has at long last been published. It can now be purchased from booksellers like . It reports important empirical research on NT, though I would be inclined today to call the untrained half of her subjects Native Translators rather than Natural Translators, because they had been living for a substantial length of time in a bilingual environment (Ottawa, Canada) and were students at a bilingual university. So they had been exposed to a good deal of sophisticated translation. The comparison Expert Translator group were students in the university’s translator training school. Here’s the abstract.
“Natural translation (NT) environments reflect and shape participants= expectations and assumptions about translation activities. This study explores the features of NT environments with particular emphasis on a language testing environment. The data consists of samples of natural translations of a translation task which is a sub-test of a second language competence test for candidates seeking admission to a bilingual university program. The study also includes a translation of the test text by a fully qualified professional translator. The findings support the view that translating ability is a complex developmental cognitive competence. In performing the translation task, NT strategies tend to focus on a close linguistic matching of phrases. Student translators (STs), as is the case with the professional translator, appear to attend more systematically to a broader range of features including extra-linguistic factors. This attention to extra features may explain why most student translators were unable to complete the task in the allotted time. Nevertheless, the differences observed seem to be more a matter of degree than of type.”
An interesting conclusion can be drawn from the fact that the Native Translator group did not need to be asked to translate by the investigator; they had already done their translations as part of the admission procedure for entrance to their department of the university, which was Physical Education. It implies that the university expected its bilingual students to be able to translate fairly well in their own field of study without any training for it.

The same method, i.e. comparing a group of budding Expert Translators with a group of Native Translator students, was used later (2005) in the thesis by Maribel Gomez at the University of Granada in Spain. I was on the jury at the defence, and I remember that in her case too we were struck by how little difference there was between the quality of the translations produced by the two groups. On the other hand, Maribel’s Expert Translators were faster than her Native ones. A likely reason for this is that Bianca (or rather the University of Ottawa) set a text about a specialized subject area with which all the Natives had some acquaintance, whereas Maribel’s Natives were subject-heterogeneous and the text was ‘general knowledge’. Knowledge of the subject matter is of great importance in translating.

“But why,” you may ask, “this preoccupation with speed? Isn’t it quality that counts?” The answer is, first, that speed is an indication of the psychological complexity of the task; and secondly, that it’s a very important factor in professional translation. Whatever the quality, if you don’t translate fast enough, you won’t keep your job or you won’t make a living, and you won’t pass the professional (as opposed to academic) examinations.


Bianca Sherwood. Features of Natural Translation in a Language Testing Environment. VDM Verlag, Saarbrücken, 2009.
Bianca's email address is

María Isabel Gómez Hurtado. Traducir: ¿capacidad innata o destreza adquirida? [Translating: innate aptitude or acquired skill?]. Advisor: Ricardo Muñoz Martín. Unpublished doctoral dissertation, Facultad de Traducción e Interpretación, Universidad de Granada, 2005.

1 comment:

  1. Sounds interesting. Also sounds like a good way of getting Universities really mad at you!