Saturday, March 01, 2008

The Theory-Practice Relationship

Last weekend, I attended a conference at the University of East Anglia in Norwich. The focus of the conference was on the theory and practice of translation. The question discussed was basically what relationship translation theory and the practice of translation have, or should have.

It often surprises me to find translation theorists who don’t actually translate themselves. Of course I know that, for example, movie critics aren’t usually directors or actors themselves and literary critics aren’t always writers, and that you can learn a lot about a topic by reading about it. Still, I feel that it is hard to create theory or to work as a critic without some active knowledge of the practice.

Many theorists get annoyed about how practicing translators tend to ignore the theoretical work. Translators sometimes feel that they learn hands-on and don’t have to read what seems to be dull and irrelevant and distant from their work.

In other words, there is a divide between theorists and practitioners. Some of us do both and want to see more of a connection. But why? My feeling is that theorists would greatly benefit from doing and not just thinking and critiquing, while practitioners might get some new ideas or understanding from reading some of the theoretical ideas. Yes, it sounds obvious, but apparently a lot of people are still missing the point.

My own presentation at the conference was about how certain theories (in this particular case, postcolonial theories) could inform a translator’s decisions for a text and choice of strategies by making the translator more aware of certain issues (here, the role of power). As a practicing translator myself, I’ve certainly found that not only is it interesting to learn about translation theory, but it can also improve my work, although there are definitely some ideas that I have dismissed.


Anonymous said...

I've got to say that when I started writing down theory (in the form of Quality Control Manuals and Training Manuals for other translators) my own translation immediately became much faster and easier. The thing is, when you hit one of those places that makes you wonder, if you have delineated a formal theory, all you have to do is follow the theory, without sitting around scratching your head.

B.J. Epstein said...

Thank you for your comment. Of course, it is important to remember that theory isn't always right and that it can't always tell you what to do. Each situation is different. All theory can do is help, in my opinion. It can offer ideas.

Best wishes,

JW said...

I'm all for having guidelines and "rules" when it comes to translating technical documents, because consistency is key, to avoid confusion and to maximize efficiency, but when you're dealing with literary texts, it's important to keep in mind the positionality of the translator.

Translation theorists who don't translate themselves are probably less likely to realize that best theories for the translator must emerge bottom up and inductively from within the translator informed by his or her varied translation "encounters." I guess it's helpful to see what others can get upset about, and yes, when it comes down to it, I do feel enriched when I read theory, but I always suspect that theorists want to be prescriptive even when they claim they're not, and maybe it's this belief (suspicion?) that makes the relationship between theorists and practitioners so fraught.

B.J. Epstein said...

Thank you for your comment!
What do you mean by "the positionality of the translator"?
In principle, I agree theory works best when it comes "from the bottom up". But it certainly is quite possible to write theory that is not-prescriptive, that simply reviews different strategies for translation and gives pros and cons for each one (at least that's why I try to do, but then I am both a practioner and a theorist).
I think more theorists need to do translation and I wish more practioners would be less suspicious of theory and would get involved in it, because it would be beneficial to all concerned.

Best wishes,