Friday, April 23, 2021

More Issues for Cognitive Translatologists: pathology, savants and multiple intelligences


The list of issues in the preceding post was far from exhaustive. Two that might well be added are pathology and multiple intelligences theory.


Pathology does not mean the everyday mistakes and slips that all translators are prone to, for example false friends like library for librairie. Such mistakes may give us some insight into how translators store their languages, how they switch between them, etc, but they’re not pathological; they’re part and parcel of the natural translation process. By pathological we mean serious disruptions of translation ability. A good example would be the interruptions and inversions of sentence translation that Michel Paradis (the McGill linguist, not the lawyer) reported in aphasics when he was developing Part C (translation subtests) of his bilingual aphasia test. A subject who could translate one way a certain day could only translate in the opposite direction another day. Pathology is as important for the study of translation as for the study of any other human activity. 

Then there is an inverse of pathology which is genius of a sort: the language savants who can translate. The best described case is that of the English savant Christopher who can speak, read and write 15 or more languages, European and non-European, although unable to take care of himself in daily life (see the Smith and Treffert references below). The reason for this unbalanced competence remains a mystery but seems to support the theory of multiple intelligences (see following section). However, what is of most interest to us here is that he is a natural translator between those languages. There is a nice story about his sister accompanying him to Majorca for a holiday because he cannot be allowed to travel on his own. Soon after their arrival she lost sight of him and was very worried. Finally he was found happily interpreting between Spanish and German for a group of German tourists. It is of interest to translatologists not only that he can translate but also how he translates. Smith noticed that his translations tend to be literal. Many years ago Merrill Swain noticed that some of her seven-year-old school subjects tended to translate literally and other more freely. It’s possible that literal natural translation is an indicator of translating by vocabulary substitution and grammatical transformations rather than by ‘interpretative’ translation via a deverbalized medium. As Smith and Tsimpli say in their foreword:

"Although C. can translate sufficiently well for purposes of communication, his competence in production and judgement tests shows considerable direct transfer of specific structures from English. This finding confirms other evidence that his multilingualism is based primarily upon a superb ability to acquire lexical entries and their morphological characteristics.

Multiple intelligences

“In 1983 Howard Gardner put forward his theory of multiple intelligences which sent shock waves through the educational system in the 1980s and 1990s. The repercussions of Gardner’s theory are still being felt today. What was this theory? In short, Howard Gardner believed that there was more to an individual’s intelligence than one single ability or skill. In his Frames of Mind: The Theory of Multiple Intelligences he put forward several different types of intelligence. He refined his ideas over the years concluding that there are seven forms of intelligence.

These include:

In a poll of presumably expert translators by the web site Transubstantiation in 2009, 43.27% of the respondents self-declared linguistic to be their dominant intelligence, three times more than any of the other intelligences. Hardly surprising. The second percentage was not, as one might have expected, for logical-mathematical intelligence (8.97%) but for intrapersonal intelligence, i.e. self-awareness (14.35%). Be that as it may, the multiple intelligences hypothesis has become so prevalent that cognitive translatology can hardly ignore it. If it is valid, it  might be applied to candidates for admission to translator and interpreter training programs. Is there even a translational intelligence? There was a lively discussiion about it some years ago on the forum of PROZ, which is a platform for professional translators. Pablo Bouvier, a technical translator, remarked, "I do not believe that different intelligence exists. What exists are different perceptions of a unique intelligence."


Michel Paradis. Two languages in one brain: neurolinguistic aspects of bilingualism. Lecture at the Department of Linguistics, University of Ottawa, 18 January 1991.

Howard Gardner. Frames of Mind: the Theory of Multiple Intelligences, 1983.

Linguistic intelligence. Transubstantiation, 22 September 2009.

Multiple intelligences & translators. PROZ forum, September 2009.

Neil Smith and Ianthi Maria Tsimpli. The Mind of a Savant: Language Learning and Modularity. Oxford: Blackwell, 1995.

Darold Treffert. The polyglot (language) savant. SSMHealth, April 25 2017.

Merrill K. Swain, G. Dumas and N. Naiman. Alternatives to spontaneous speech: elicited translation and imitation as indicators of second language competence. Working Papers in Bilingualism (Toronto), no. 3. 1974, pp. 68‑79.

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