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., na├»ve) 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].