Theory and Practice: Forever Alone?

Wow, how time flies. La rentrée has been and gone, International Translation Day has left us for another year and the tepid English summer has given way to the six months of wind and rain that we call winter (a sudden transition that, for me at least, always coincides with the arrival of Hull Fair, hence the picture above).

One thing that never changes, however, is my ongoing love affair with all things translation and recently that relationship has taken on something of a different shape.

A few weeks ago, I officially started a PhD in Translation Studies here at the University of Hull and, as such, my engagement has shifted from working as a full-time freelance translator to burying myself in research – reading, writing and thinking about the academic side of things.

Even in my busiest of busy times as a translation professional I’ve always been a big reader of translation studies literature but this sudden switch from one side to the other has provided me with some real perspective on the interplay between the theory and practice of translation.

While the vacuum between the two is well-known and has always seemed rather pronounced in our discipline/profession (it is fairly common for translation professionals to completely dismiss the worth of translation theory due to its lack of relevance to the profession – many freelance translators have very little or no knowledge of theory yet still manage to do their job to exceptionally high standards), after a few years of dedicating myself completely to freelance translation work the divide currently feels more prominent than ever.

Even as a fully fledged translation geek who loves reading the most abstract of theoretical meanderings, it is hard to deny that some translation scholarship has allowed itself to get drawn away from what really matters.

No matter how fascinating we may find contemporary explorations in translation studies, are recontextualisations of philosophical theses and reinterpretations of ancient literary works alone really enough to justify yet another publication to add to the pile?

For me, there is a nagging sense that researchers have a responsibility to provide real, valuable and, above all, practical insight into the task at the heart of our professional and academic worlds where possible or what’s the point?

This is not to say that there isn’t plenty of scholarship out there already that does provide practical insight but the question that I occasionally find myself asking after reading a paper is “So what?”. When I sit down in front of a text to be translated, I want to be able to draw upon the theoretical work I read and not simply fall back on professional experience and instinct.

Translation training, meanwhile, plays something of an intermediary role in this divide. I picked up a huge amount of practical insight during my MA, but most of it was aside from – and not a part of – the theoretical focus.

Courses are forced to push you in two different directions as there is not a single route that unites the discipline and the profession. Many MA courses even specify that they teach both ‘The Theory and Practice of Translation’, explicitly attesting to the distinction that exists between two such supposedly intertwined domains.

Unfortunately, theorizing is all too often about showing off your deep understanding of complex ideas and less about making that small, yet meaningful, difference. While discussing abstract principles may shed some light on translation as a whole, it usually offers little value in the vast majority of ‘real world’ contexts. Indeed, even the extent to which translation studies’ apparent obsession with literary translation is actually useful to the few literary translators out there is up for debate.

Quotation-Albert-Einstein-practice-theory-Meetville-Quotes-109864

Whether this is a genuine quote or not, and no matter what context it was originally uttered in, it neatly sums up the situation within translation

Potential solutions to this problem are far from clear-cut but it is not all doom and gloom. The world of academia has attempted to address the dilemma at various points in the last few years alone. In Andrew Chesterman and Emma Wagner’s ‘Can Theory Help Translators?’ in particular we find a specific focus on this profound divide as a scholar and a professional team up in an attempt to uncover potential links between theory and practice and ascertain whether or not one can help the other. While the book ultimately poses more questions than it answers, it is surely a good sign that there is at least some curiosity into the link between the two.

Furthermore, I know of plenty of researchers who share my belief that we have a responsibility to provide insight into the actual task of translation and who realise that simply talking about translation is not enough.

Ultimately, while this discussion is partly a reminder and a challenge to myself to frame my research in practical terms, I hope that it also provides a reassuring word to the theory skeptics out there in suggesting that there does exist a belief within translation scholarship that such practical value is of utmost importance.

Thoughts? Agree, disagree? Let me know.

For now, I’ll leave you with a nice (if slightly unrelated) poem on the act of translation that I came across recently in the course of my reading. It is by the Earl of Roscommon and provides an interesting take on the translator’s role. Enjoy!

‘Tis True, Composing is the nobler Part,
But good Translation is no Easie Art,
For the materials have long since been found,
Yet both your Fancy and your Hands are bound,
And by improving what was writ before,
Invention labours less, but Judgement more.

Each poet with a different talent writes,
One praises, one instructions, another bites.
Horace did ne’er aspire to Epick Bays,
Nor lofty Maro stoop to Lyrick Lays.
Examine how your Humour is inclin’d,
And which the Ruling Passion of your Mind;

Then seek a Poet who your ways does bend,
And choose an Author as you choose a Friend;
United by this sympathetick Bond,
Your grow familiar, intimate and fond.
Your Thoughts, your Words, your Stiles, your Souls agree,
Nor longer his Interpreter, but He.

P.S. Be sure to check out my recent interview on Olga Arakelyan’s ‘Your professional translator’ blog. It’s part of the excellent ‘Meet the Linguist’ series and is perfect if you want to find out a little bit more about the man behind JALTranslation: http://www.yourprofessionaltranslator.com/2014/10/meet-linguist-joseph-lambert.html

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