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: curiosity. Curiosity 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.
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.