The Science of Translation?

Translation theorists and practitioners have forever been convinced that translation is either an art or science, or even a craft. Ask three different translators to define translation and, in all probability, you will get three difference answers. The title of Eugene Nida’s seminal work succinctly sums up this problem. The title of his 1964 opus is of course Towards a Science of Translating. In it Nida begins, “The polyglot empire of ancient Babylon, with its hard-working core of multilingual scribes sending out official communications on cuneiform tablets to the far corners of the realm, is a far cry from the electronic equipment used today in simultaneous interpretation at the United Nations in New York”. (1964: 1 Towards a Science of Translating; E.J.Brill: Leiden). But is it really so different?

Perhaps from a procedural point of view, the details have changes, but a procedure and system would have most certainly been in place in Babylon as it is in the UN in New York. The organisational structures, the science behind the procedure would have been in place. The title of Nida’s work is symptomatic of the problems plaguing translation and translators. His work is entitled Towards a Science of Translating, not A Science of Translating, nor even A Science of Translation. Eugene Nida implies that one of our aims is to try to move towards attaining the status of a science. However, his title also implies that our aim is to attain the status of science with regard to the process of translation, translating, not within translation itself. The distinction is an important one.

Whereas Nida feels the need to impress on us the importance of having specific procedures within the framework of the translation process, other translation scholars believe translation to be an art. Literary translators often believe translation to be as creative an activity as the initial act of creation, the act of writing. Translation for them is equated more with a gift for creativity. Others still believe translation to be a craft, where the skills needed to be able to translate a learned over the years and honed with experience. Science, art, craft. Which one of these three does our community believe to be closer to the truth? The poll below may help us consider this problem and see the ideas of fellow translators.

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17 Responses to “The Science of Translation?”

  1. Bartek Says:

    as an outsider, I voted for “craft”. Translation can be regarded as science if we refer to techniques of translating, but it’s as far as I know the subject of “translation studies”. The distinction between “craft” and “art” runs along the obejct of translation. If translators process for instance poetry or song lirycs they’re closer to an art, if they process documents, reports, news it’s rather a craft. What you write about literary translators is in a way right – but the primary writer comes up with the content and words in his language, the translators’ tasks is to match up the right words to retain the original content, what may be more difficult than compiling the original writing.

    • transubstantiation Says:

      Bartek, so in effect you are saying that it can be all three…

      • Bartek Says:

        in general terms yes, but to my mind everything depends on the object of translation and what we are talking exactly about – we can’t equate translating “Pan Tadeusz” to translating manual of a vacuum cleaner… The former is closer to an art, the latter is rather a craft, but both have some common features of both art and craft and both rest on the science. It’s a bit vague but I hope you caught the drift.

  2. transubstantiation Says:

    I certainly do. Thank you for the post.🙂

  3. Marc Says:

    Dear Blogger,

    you are nominated for the “Top 100 Language Blogs 2009” competition. Congratulations! After last year’s success the bab.la language portal and Lexiophiles language blog are hosting this year’s worldwide language blog competition once again. We are confident to surpass more than the 350 blogs which entered the competition in 2008.

    We have made two major changes to last year:

    1. Due to the amount of blogs we have created categories.
    (Language Learning/Language Teaching/Language Technology/
    Language Professionals)
    You are in category Language Professionals
    2. User voting will count 50% towards final score

    Voting will start on July 8, leaving you enough time to prepare your readers for the upcoming voting. Voting will close on July 27 and the winners will be announced on July 30.

    For more information on the 2009 competition and what it is all about visit [http://www.lexiophiles.com/english/top-100-language-blogs-2009-nomination-started]
    So now you may ask yourself what you can do. Here are some suggestions

    -Nominations are open until July 6, so feel free to share any blog you like with us
    -Each blog will have a one-sentence-description for the voting. If you would like a special description to go along with your blog, just send me an email [marc@bab.la]

    Kind regards,
    Marc
    On behalf of the bab.la and Lexiophiles team
    [http://bab.la]
    [www.lexiophiles.com]

    Marc Lütten

    bab.la GmbH | Baumwall 7 | 20459 Hamburg | Germany
    Phone: +49(0)40-707080950 http://bab.la/
    Handelsregister AG Hamburg | HRB 101207
    Geschaftsführer: Dr. Andreas Schroeter, Dr. Thomas Schroeter, Patrick Uecker

  4. transubstantiation Says:

    Wow! Many thanks. It looks like it’s time to get back from the holiday, then and write some posts.😉
    Many thanks to all of you out there who have nominated transubstantiation.

  5. Bill Eden Says:

    She stats are:
    Craft 50%
    Art 31%
    Science 19%
    I’d tend to agree.

  6. Kenny Says:

    My two cents, Craft. Translation machines push the bulk into a scientific black box, but all which bulges out of that box requires craft. Translation needs a sense of feeling and touch which cannot be black boxed. At least not to my satisfaction😉

  7. transubstantiation Says:

    Interesting metaphor, Kenny.

  8. Hania Says:

    The voting is over. Still, I will share my thoughts with you😀 I would put these three in the following order:
    1. Art
    2. Craft
    3. Science
    Translation is always creative (art), it may be learned (craft), and we may theorise about it (science).

  9. transubstantiation Says:

    Does that mean creativity is more important for you than the ability to learn?

  10. Hania Says:

    It’s a difficult question. Both are important. But how is it possible that two well trained translators will produce two different target texts, one of which reads better than the other?

  11. transubstantiation Says:

    We are all different.

  12. veton neziri Says:

    Translation is indeed a complex profession. In encompasses: a science (since it requires thorough study of the languages), an art (translators have to feel the language(s) they translate), and surely translation is a craft, since it takes a sustained commitment to continuous learning, endeavor, and improvement.
    Nonetheless, I strongly believe that translation is combination of at least the craft and the art.

  13. Janina Vargas Says:

    I say translation is a science, craft, and art.It is a science because we deal with facts, procedures, like the structure of languages. It is a craft because through time, our skills in translating and in distinguishing good from bad writing are improving. It is an art because our taste and creativity are in use, too.


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