Can Translation Be Taught?

This is a question that has troubled translator trainers and translation students for a number of years. Is it at all possible to learn the skills needed to become a professional translator or are we born with a ‘gift’ for translation? Those attempting to answer this question fall neatly (and obviously) into two groups:

1. No, translation is an inborn gift.
2. Yes, translation skills can be learnt and taught.

This leaves translation scholars in an uncomfortable predicament because if there is no consensus as to whether translation is inborn or acquired then how on earth can we teach the subject. Someone who believes translation requires an element of innate knowledge on the part of the student will approach the teaching experience wholly differently from someone who believes that all the skills required for translation can be acquired.

For scholars who believe translation is an innate gift, the future may appear bleak and the teaching of translation futile. Hope for the betterment of translation studies rests on the polishing of gems that need to be found. In other words, the scholar’s role is to discover and then polish rough diamonds. Discoveries may well be accompanied by a feeling of euphoria but the polishing part is more mundane and frustrating.

For those who believe that translation can be taught and learnt, the future is more optimistic as it does not depend on the constant search (and hope) for new talent but rather the skills of the teacher – anything can be taught. The more skilled the trainer, the greater hope there is of these abilities being passed onto the translation apprentice. However, the process can be long and also fraught with frustration.

Both students and teachers of translation have met people from both these groups. It would be easy to simplify the attitudes of each group and state that the former group is marked by a form of exclusive elitism whereas the latter group are more open, tolerant and perhaps more flexible in their approach to translation. Yes, this is a simplification, but is it not true?


20 thoughts on “Can Translation Be Taught?

  1. This question is almost identical to the one that is asked about poetry and creative writing. In my mind, neither translation or writing can be taught to someone without any aptitude at all. However for those with the basic ability, it can be improved through training.

    For example, when I am trying to find the right words to get to the end of the line for a sestina, no one can help me. However I have been taught: the mechanics of writing sestinas, the history of sestina writing, modern variations on the form, and I have been exposed to enough poetry to know the difference between a good poem and a bad one.

    Similarly, there are times when no dictionary in the world can help a translator, but there are training sessions on CAT tools and a vocabulary available to discuss the degrees of freedom in a translation. There are conventions as to how literal translations should be in a certain genre and resources for finding the correct terminology.

    I have benefited from the training that I have received in each subject, but there is a certain amount that I will always have to be able to come up with on my own.

  2. When I graduated from translation faculty with a bachelor diploma in the pocket and very few experience in translation I said to myself I’d never become a professional translator. I thought I missed creativity and writing skills. For me translator were like writers, either you can write or not. I couldn’t and I hated writing.
    I wanted to get another diploma in completely different field.

    But I was given a chance by getting hired as translator (En>Ru & FrRu) and my opinion on the profession changed immediately. I compared my texts with the ones produced by my predecessor who had far more experience than me and was a member of a prestigious European Translators Association… Since all these years I’ve been cleaning up the translation memories from his clumsy translations instead of taking advantage of it.

    I’m not showing off, it’s just my story. :)))

    Now I have a strong intention to go on in translation, because I discovered my skills in my work (unfortunately not during my 5 year university studies).

  3. “… the prestigious European Translators Association…”

    And where is this “prestigious” association, Yana?

  4. I would have to say that in my own very humble opinion, translators are born, and professional translators are made. I have been teaching translation for over 8 years and translating professionally for just over 12 and year in, year out I see students who are natural translators and who sail through the course going from strength to strength. Others, unfortunately, struggle even to produce barely acceptable translations.

    While I think the ability to translate is innate and people are born with it, I don’t think it necessary follows that there’s no point in teaching translation. People are born with natural aptitudes and abilities which makes them suited to all sorts of careers. In some professions, such as translation, a small minority will naturally acquire – through trial and error – the additional skills to allow them to practise but most will need help to turn these innate abilities into professional skills and competences. This is where universities come in – they teach students how to harness and understand this ability and use it effectively. For those students who aren’t natural translators, degree courses will hopefully make them less of a menace to society 😉

    If anything, I think universities could probably be more selective when admitting students, i.e. only select those students who have this innate ability. Medical schools use aptitude tests so why shouldn’t translation schools? Such an approach would improve the status of the translation profession and improve the overall quality of the translation industry… just a thought.

  5. There’s many forms of translation; artistic, legal, medical, technical; in each there are ‘naturals’. Someone who has the aptitude to quickly select exactly the right word or phrase in a technical translation may be completely out of his depth when translating poetry – and vice versa.

  6. hmmm… born I guess, knack for this art is essential, but needs to be developed to be fully fulfilled – a professional translator can be made only from a born one. As from my experience – the worst outcomes appear when translators don’t understand the texts they process, that comes mostly to the specialised ones.

  7. Right, but I wanted to emphasise that a person without inborn skills will never be a successful translator. Only a combination of talent and guided apprentice and then years of practise lets one get ahead in this profession…

  8. may be taught but will probably never excel at it and won’t come up to the level of proficiency which their gifted colleagues represent. By analogy – (almost) everyone can be taught to drive and get a driving license but not everyone has a makings of a good driver

  9. I suspect they’re born: any translation handbooks I’ve ever seen are just language textbooks, despite the desperate contortions of Translation Studies lecturers to tell the world that learning to translate is not just learning another language.

  10. Bartek, thank you for the comment. I am not sure the driver analogy is a good one. If they learn to drive, they drive. If you learn to translate, you translate.

    Cynic, good point. The fact of the matter is that learning a language is not just about learning a language but learning the culture also. By extension, translation is just as difficult.

  11. I definitely agree with Jody’s quote. I believe that you have to have an innate ability to translate, to be able to see the TT meaning behind the ST words and transfer this meaning appropriately. However, I also believe that your skills need to be honed and moulded via the guidance of a translation trainer.

    That being said, your skills – however good they are – will not mean anything if you don’t market yourself correctly.

  12. As Jenn M says, this is more or less the same debate as goes on in any art. While I don’t have an answer, it’s a question I love thinking about. I tend to agree with Jody Byrne’s line, but I would add to it that some amount of context/circumstance is necessary to make someone great at what they do. In my mind, it is a combination of ability, training and circumstance that produces the greatest writers, artists and translators. There’s an interesting story about this in relation to the idea of genius at the New York Times.

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