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.

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