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The Interpreter and Translator Trainer 1(1), 2007, 15-35

Can Theory Help Translator and Interpreter

Trainers and Trainees?

Marianne Lederer
Université Paris 3-Sorbonne Nouvelle (ESIT), France

Abstract. This paper starts with defining ‘theory’, ‘translation’ and

the type of training given in translation institutions. The trainers
on whom the paper focuses are professional translators, and the
trainees are advanced-level students. The question is raised as to
whether trainers should also be translation scholars, and whether
they should be cognizant with one or all of the various theories of
translation. Several theories used in translator training are then
reviewed. The paper finally discusses a number of theoretical
principles (mostly based on the interpretive theory of translation,
though some are common to several theories) and their implica-
tions for translator training. These principles enable trainers to
explain to trainees the difference between language and discourse,
and hence the reason why literal translation does not work at text
level; the way understanding emerges from the merging of linguis-
tic meanings with real world knowledge, and hence the necessity
of documentary research; the way the text should be analyzed in
order for trainees to internalize its sense; how trainees may detach
themselves from the meanings and structures of the original in
order to reformulate it idiomatically. Drawing on such principles,
trainers can give their students a working methodology – they are
able to build up a didactic progression grounded on a rational
grading of texts, and to assess the work of trainees on the basis
of objective criteria.

L et me start this paper with two preliminary remarks.

First, I do not believe in separate general theories for explaining the pro-
cess of written translation and oral interpreting. I would argue that although
practical modalities and constraints are different, the cognitive processes of
translation and interpretation are basically the same. Even though partial
empirical research may bear on one or the other of these activities, theory

This title is a clear reference to Chesterman and Wagner’s book Can Theory Help Transla-
tors? (2002), since the question may well be asked for translation trainers and trainees.

ISSN: 1750-399X © St. Jerome Publishing, Manchester

16 Can Theory Help Translator and Interpreter Trainers and Trainees?

embraces both, and the conclusions drawn should also apply, beyond the
restricted field of translation and interpretation, to discourse comprehension
and production in general. I shall therefore use the hypernym ‘translation’
throughout, on the understanding that the word also applies to interpreting.
Whenever the need arises to mention one or the other specifically, I shall
say so explicitly.
Second, as Nord rightly argues, “linguistic and cultural competence both
on the source and the target side … is the main prerequisite of translation
activity” (1992:47). It is also a prerequisite for learning translation. For
various reasons, a number of schools admit students just out of secondary
schooling and therefore have to concentrate on language enhancement and
subject area courses. Translation proper is taught later. My comments will
bear on the advanced part (Master’s level) of the training process.

1. Setting the stage

To set the stage, I begin with a few definitions.
For the present purpose, theory will be understood as a set of principles
used to explain a class of phenomena, the phenomena of interest in our case
being those of translation. This is not the place to discuss whether a given
theory is ‘scientific’ or not. Given that any teaching is based on a theory,
whether explicit or not, my aim is to show the implications for translation
teaching of drawing on a number of theoretical principles.
In the second half of the 20th century, when interest in translation studies
began to gather momentum, a number of more or less elaborate theories
emerged, and these are currently used in teaching translators. The basis for
training translators will vary according to which theory is applied by trainers.
I will return to the issue of theories in section 2.
Numerous definitions of translation can be found in the literature. In
his well-known article ‘On Linguistic Aspects of Translation’, Jakobson
(1958/1971:261-62) defines three kinds of translation (intralingual, interlin-
gual and intersemiotic) and a few lines further down adds: “Most frequently,
however, translation from one language into another substitutes messages
in one language not for separate code-units but for entire messages in some
other language”. Delisle (1980/1988:89) sees translation as “a search for
equivalent ways of expressing a single intended meaning”. These two quota-
tions define the translation I am dealing with here, i.e. a process that is much
less linguistic than cognitive.
Let us now circumscribe the kind of texts on the basis of which translation
is being taught. Until recently, translation studies was mostly concerned with
literary translation, following Steiner’s advice that “[i]t is the upper range
of semantic events which make problems of translation theory and practice
most visible, most incident to general questions of language and mind. It is
Marianne Lederer 17

the literary speech forms, in the wide sense, which ask and promise most”
(1975:252). The study of literary translation still attracts numerous translation
scholars; but today, much empirical and experimental work is being done on
pragmatic texts which, we now realize, also promise a lot. Pragmatic texts
generally also provide the basis for teaching translation. The need for translat-
ing general, economic, legal, technical and scientific texts is enormous today,
compared with the volume of literary translation. And since as a profession
the latter does not pay, it is not usually included in the curriculum of transla-
tion schools, or if it is taught at all, it only makes up a very marginal part of
the curriculum. The difference between these two types of text in the context
of teaching translation is reflected in the emphasis placed on one or the other
of the two stages of translation, namely understanding and reformulating.
What about teaching and teachers? The time of the ‘nature versus nurture’
controversy is long past. Today, it is widely recognized that translation not
only can but should be taught. Whether state-run or private, most training
institutions (which I henceforth call ‘schools’) aim to produce translators
who meet market needs and expectations and who can find jobs at the end
of their studies.
Just as the word translation may mean several things (the product or the
process, translation for language learning purposes or professional transla-
tion, i.e. translation proper) so do the words translation teacher. A number
of schools still hire language teachers to teach translation, naïvely assum-
ing that anyone who knows a foreign language can translate and also teach
translation. This is clearly problematic, because in order for someone to teach
procedural knowledge he or she has to master the know-how themselves. To
teach translation, one has to be an expert practitioner; practice provides an
understanding (not always a theory) of translation and its problems, as well as
an understanding of what is expected from translators in the work market.
Not all expert translators, however, are endowed with pedagogical skill,
which is one of the reasons why language teachers who have received training
in pedagogy feel they might be better than translators at teaching translation.
I would suggest, however, that it is easier and quicker for expert translators
to acquire some theoretical principles to help them teach a skill they master,
than for language teachers to become expert translators.

2. Translation theory and translator trainers

Translation teaching is necessarily based on a number of theoretical assumptions
(whether explicit or not) about what translation is and how it is done. Although

Very few translators are able to live off literary translation; most work as teachers or as
technical translators and do literary translation on the side.
18 Can Theory Help Translator and Interpreter Trainers and Trainees?

not all translation teachers are aware of their own theoretical assumptions, a
few explicit theories compete in the field of translation training.

2.1 Theory or theories?

The question is well worth asking: in the late 90s, the European Commission’s
Joint Interpreting and Conference Service (JICS), wishing to improve the
quality, and therefore the training, of future interpreters in Europe, undertook
to set up a European Masters in Conference Interpreting. At their initiative,
the Heads of a few recognized schools met in Brussels and agreed on a set of
common rules (entry requirements, who should teach and what, the order in
which consecutive and simultaneous modes ought to be taught, final diploma
requirements, etc.). A course on theory was introduced in the curriculum.
However, the content of such a course could not be decided on. Each one
of the schools’ representatives had their own view as to what the content of
the course should be: for some it was merely ethics, for others linguistics, or
a given theory of translation. Still others were of the opinion that students
should be exposed to a number of translation theories, leaving it up to students
to decide which they felt was most helpful. However interesting (and useful
for advanced students in translation research), this view ignores the fact that
the aim of training courses is to avoid would-be translators having to learn
slowly by trial and error while looking for the most adequate strategies, and
to offer them shortcuts to competence. Leaving aside the question of whether
a course on theory is necessary or not in a translator training curriculum, I
would suggest that one theory – and only one, irrespective of which – should
be chosen as a basis for translation teaching in a given context.

2.2 Translation teachers or translation scholars?

Expert translators who devote some of their time to training future transla-
tors should be given enough training in translation theory and neighbouring
fields to qualify them for teaching the skill they master. Does this mean that
translation trainers need to become translation scholars?
Suppose a school chooses to focus its teaching of theory on the psycho-
logical aspects of the translating process. Cognitive psychology is far from
having developed a unified view of mental operations. Let us, for example,
look at two influential books, Comprehension – a Paradigm for Cognition
by Walter Kintsch, published in 1998, and The Way We Think – Conceptual
Blending and the Mind’s Hidden Complexities by Fauconnier and Turner,
published in 2002. The models developed by the authors are based on
different assumptions, they explore different avenues; both contribute to
knowledge, but a good part of their theories is still at the speculative stage.
Should translation teachers be required to delve into the details of cognitive
Marianne Lederer 19

psychology research? They would soon become confused and discouraged,

without much profit for their students.
Kussmaul (1995:2-3) takes a more realistic attitude. In the introduction to
his book Training the Translator, he writes that his “aim will be to explore
various aspects of the methodology of translation” and that he will draw
on psycholinguistics, textlinguistics, speech act theory, text typology and
functional sentence perspective. He hopes teachers might find the content of
his book useful for their teaching but does not recommend that they should
familiarize themselves with the various fields he touches upon. This seems
an entirely reasonable position: translation teachers do not have to be trans-
lation scholars. For the purposes of teaching, they do not need the in-depth
knowledge required of translation scholars, whose task it is to contribute to
the advancement of science. One of the duties of those of us who are per-
manently attached to universities and are thus expected to do research is to
impart some basic theoretical principles to fellow free-lance translators who
devote a few hours a week to teaching translation.
Starting from the assumption that translation teachers are busy translation
professionals, basic explanations of the mental operations (text comprehen-
sion and production) involved in translation, along with some simplified
views of context-sensitive linguistics, will probably be sufficient. If more
was needed, there would surely be a serious shortage of trainers in transla-
tion schools!

3. Various theories applied to translation teaching

Linguistic translation theories developed diachronically into three approaches,
each of which have been or are still applied in translation teaching.
The oldest approach is literal translation, of which Snell-Hornby writes:
“The linguistic theory of that time [the 1960s and early 1970s], whose
maximum unit of analysis was the sentence, was singularly unfortunate as
a frame of reference for translation” (1992:21). Nevertheless, its influence
on translation training persists, probably due to the “legacy of language
teaching” (Colina 2002:1). Colina (ibid.:2) explains the historical under-
pinnings for what she calls ‘grammar translation’, which is “closely related
to linguistic theories like structuralism, in which language study focused
on form (mostly phonology and morphology), ignoring the communicative
aspects of language”. Students entering translation schools are often found
to have internalized this theory, which does not enhance translation learning.
Its methods are criticized by many translators and translator trainers – for the

At ESIT, for instance, there are 11 full-time teachers/researchers compared to about a
hundred part-time translators/teachers who give one or two courses a week (translation
is taught in about thirty language combinations).
20 Can Theory Help Translator and Interpreter Trainers and Trainees?

repercussions of this attitude in the classroom, and a thorough bibliography,

see Colina (2002).
The second approach is contrastive analysis, still very much in favour the
world over, at least in university departments that teach French and trans-
lation. Proponents of this approach tend to rely on Vinay and Darbelnet’s
Stylistique comparée du français et de l’anglais (Comparative Stylistics of
French and English – A Methodology for Translation, 1957/1998). This
textbook highlights the differences between French and English and gives a
number of useful correspondences for set expressions and idioms. However,
although they make it possible to define a posteriori the strategy used by
translators for the transfer of a given phrase or sentence, its seven “procédés
techniques de traduction” are not adequate for translating. Moreover, the
contrastive analysis remains restricted to the level of language (and can thus
be used for language teaching) but does not take into account creativity in
translation. Its scope is therefore too limited for translation teaching.
The third and more modern approach is text linguistics, which studies
language use in communicative settings. A great improvement over the first
two approaches, it compares the source and target texts in terms of seven
‘standards of textuality’ (Beaugrande and Dressler 1981), namely cohesion,
coherence, intentionality, acceptability, informativity, situationality, inter-
textuality. According to Mason (1998:64), “[a] text-linguistic approach …
relates textual occurrences to purposes and motivations of text producers and
receivers and to the socio-textual practice of speech communities”. However,
Salama-Carr (1990:168) warns that if textlinguistics is incorrectly applied to
translation training, it could lead to translation being re-claimed by linguistics,
which would demand training in linguistics prior to training in translation and
familiarity with terminology which is not only complex but heterogeneous. It
is thus the text, and not its content, which in this type of analysis becomes the
object of study. The fledgling translator will stumble upon lexical problems
and lose sight of the meaning of the text, returning to the word as the unit
of translation. Be that as it may be, the stress placed on the comparison of
source and target texts seems to be more appropriate for translation criticism
and student assessment than for translation training proper.
According to the functionalist theory, “the prime principle determining
any translation process is the purpose (Skopos) of the overall translational
action” (Nord 1997:27). As a theory for teaching, insofar as it denies the
source text practically any influence over the translation, the risk is that
trainees may feel virtually unrestrained in translating a text. This is why as a
translation teacher Nord felt it necessary to add the concept of ‘loyalty’, which

Darbelnet told me personally years ago that when he and Vinay started writing their
book, they did not intend it at all as a “methodology for translation”. The subtitle was
imposed upon them by the publisher, who clearly had good marketing sense!
Marianne Lederer 21

restores the source text “to, at least, part of its former influence, although not
necessarily as far as its surface qualities are concerned” (1992:41). The posi-
tive aspect of this theory is that text analysis is not restricted to intratextual
factors but extends to extratextual elements which are analyzed before read-
ing the text “since the situation normally precedes textual communication”
(ibid.:43). The translator compares the result of his or her analysis of the
original text “with the result of his analysis of the translation scopos. Compar-
ing both results, the translator is able to decide whether and in what respect
the source text ‘material’ has to be adapted to the target situation and what
procedures of adaptation will produce an adequate target text” (1997:45).
This theory has been and continues to be extensively applied in German
schools. Its novelty is that it situates translation at all stages not only within a
communicative framework but more precisely in the middle of market forces.
Students are made to realize from the start that translation is not done in a
vacuum, that its aim is to be of use to people who need it and who may have
their own requirements. Perhaps, however, the emphasis is being put too much
on these external factors (which are certainly an important element in the
strategies applied to translation, but one element only amongst others) and not
quite enough on the psychological stages of the translation process itself.
Information processing models have also been developed, though they
have been restricted to simultaneous interpretation and have involved “com-
plex multi-stage serial accounts” (Setton 1999:34). Some aspects are being
applied to training interpreters (see Moser 1978), but to my knowledge no
theory applicable to translation training in general has yet been developed.
The interpretive theory of translation is yet another theory “which [has]
been developed with an orientation toward translator training, and this is
still one of the main fields in which [it is] most useful”, if I may borrow
this sentence as applied by Nord (1997:39) to functionalist approaches. The
interpretive theory takes into account the general psychological processes of
the understanding and production of discourse and the function of both source
and target texts, and underscores the role played by translators in carrying
sense across language barriers. This, plus the methodology for succeeding
in the task, is what the interpretive theory tries to impart to trainees.
In fact, looking at the theories sketched above one is struck by the fact that
sense is never mentioned. It is absent in the early linguistic theories which are
concerned with finding fixed correspondences for words or set expressions
across languages. Sense may not be totally absent but it is largely implicit in
the textlinguistic theory which compares rhetorical structures and pragmatic
aspects of text development in two languages. It is also, at least nominally,
difficult to discern in functionalist theories, which focus more on external
factors than on what is meant by the authors of texts.
Since deconstructionism, it is fashionable to question the possibility of
establishing the sense of a text with any degree of certainty. This view is the
22 Can Theory Help Translator and Interpreter Trainers and Trainees?

very negation of translatability (paraphrasing the famous dictum by Galileo, I

am tempted to say “e pur, si traduce….”), and is at odds with what happens in
the real world: in the overwhelming majority of oral and written texts, sense,
that is speakers’ meaning in context and situation, is understood by transla-
tors who master the language and have the necessary relevant knowledge.
It is transmitted to readers, provided they also have the relevant knowledge
required to understand it.
Taking sense as a basis for a theory of translation teaching might be
thought simplistic or flawed, but training programmes based on the interpret-
ive theory are widely respected and have proved successful (Brisset 1993,
Lavault 1999, Setton 1999). Trainers’ use of basic principles in psychology
enables them to teach students first and foremost how to approach sense, i.e.
how to put themselves in a position to understand the speech they interpret
or the text they translate. In addition, a basic understanding of a few linguis-
tic and rhetorical principles, i.e. mainly the difference between language
systems and discourse in texts, enables them to offer students the necessary
methodology for the reformulation stage.

4. Theoretical principles for teachers

Within the limits of this paper, my remarks must perforce remain on a very
general level when dealing with theoretical principles for teaching purposes.
I will have to be more specific as to the theory the remarks themselves stem
from, however. Since it is the one I know best, the interpretive theory of
translation will inform my discussion in the remaining part of this paper.
The practitioners who started teaching interpretation at ESIT in the 60s
and 70s developed teaching methods based on a theory which was first
grounded in practice and teaching experience. When the school first started,
trainers told students intuitively how to go about translating and showed them
how they did it themselves. But the need to explain the reasons for the advice
given soon convinced some of them that they should not only undertake
some experiments on consecutive and simultaneous interpretation in order
to verify their intuitions, but should also look at what had been achieved by
neighbouring areas. At the time, translation studies was not yet a discipline

For a discussion of the treatment of ‘sense’ in the interpretive theory of translation, see
Lederer (2005).

What Relevance Theory calls “cognitive environment”, see Gutt (1991:96).

I have also had to leave aside the question of a course on theory in translator training,
and whether a school should have a unified theory or should leave each trainer free to
teach on the basis of his or her own theoretical principles.

For more information on the origins and development of the theory, see Israël and
Lederer (2005).
Marianne Lederer 23

in its own right. It was considered part of applied linguistics. Our trainers
examined the linguistics of the time, but they found that it offered them little
help. Despite the convictions of the people they were working for (“don’t try
to understand” meaning “you won’t be able to”, so “just translate”), practice
had convinced them of the importance of understanding sense, and they
wanted to see how various disciplines explained the process. They finally
found convincing explanations (for the most part verified and elaborated by
modern cognitive psychology) of how the mind works in Piaget’s work on
developmental psychology, and later in the neuropsychologist J. Barbizet’s
findings on the brain, which were largely confirmed later by research done
with more sophisticated tools than existed at the time. ESIT trainers felt they
were thus able to offer their students a few basic principles.

4.1 Understanding

The two stages of the translating process generally discussed in the literature
are understanding the text to be translated and reformulating the results of
this understanding (i.e. sense) in the other language. Understanding means
converting graphic signs into sense. Cognitive inputs of several kinds make
this possible.

Cognitive Inputs

Native listeners and readers are usually not aware of the way in which cog-
nitive inputs shape our understanding. Language alone seems to be present,
but situational, contextual and world knowledge come into play quite
naturally. In every day conversation, when listening to each other, the part
played by knowledge of language is difficult to distinguish from that played
by background information. However, we sometimes realize we lack some
knowledge other than that of language in order to understand fully what we
are reading. This is of course also true for the translator. A text to be translated
is not just made of words on paper. It cannot be translated word for word
because isolated words, words in dictionaries, have potential meanings but
their relevant meaning in texts is assigned to them on the basis of extra-
linguistic knowledge. Thus background knowledge associated with language
plays a role in understanding discourse.
Background knowledge is a blanket expression covering a number of
‘cognitive inputs’ that are necessary for understanding acts of speech. In ad-
dition to language proper, these include knowledge of the world, of time and
place, of the circumstances out of which a speech or a text arises, memory of

For an account of this process, see Lederer (1994).
24 Can Theory Help Translator and Interpreter Trainers and Trainees?

things said previously, knowing who is the speaker or the author and who are
the listeners or readers to whom the text is addressed. When the following
sentence is given out of context

It was the middle of December and exactly the middle of the century
readers may understand each word of it but they will not get its sense, i.e.
the exact date. Put back in its context, where it appears on the first page of A
Christmas Visitor, a novel by Anne Perry (2004), the temporal reference can
be interpreted. Readers do not only understand the English word, they add
to it the knowledge that the author specializes in novels set in the Victorian
era. Moreover, the first lines of the novel mention a pony trap waiting for a
passenger at a railway station. Railways and a horse carriage can only mean a
nineteenth-century setting. Though not mentioned explicitly, the exact date is
easily inferred as 1850. The words “the middle of the century” in themselves
carry a linguistic meaning and nothing else. Embedded in a text, they take
on a relevant pragmatic meaning which is inferred by readers on the basis
of extralinguistic knowledge.

Sense for the Translator

While graphic signs taken in isolation are interpreted into concepts, signs in a
text are interpreted into sense. Translators are faced not with mere concepts,
but with interrelated things, facts, arguments, emotions.
Because sense is based on the cognitive inputs of individual readers or
translators, it is to some degree an individual matter; its depth will vary ac-
cording to the knowledge and the world experience of each person. Whatever
its individual features, however, the sense intended and understood by each of
the communication partners overlaps to a great extent, so that communication
usually proceeds fairly smoothly. Translators, acting as mediators between
authors who want to communicate and readers who want to understand
them, operate in this area of overlap. Their readers bring their own cognitive
complements to the translated text. The translators’ rendering enables them
to discover the text according to their own relevant knowledge and motiva-
tions, superficially or deeply, in the same way as readers of the original.
Understanding a text is universal, the translator’s understanding is only a
specific case of the universal process. The difference between translators and
ordinary readers is that readers are free to interpret the sense of the text any
way they like, whereas translators, using all the knowledge relevant to the
text and remaining within the limits allowed by this text, must cling to the
speakers’ meaning, the aim being to put their own readers in a position to
give the text as many interpretations as readers of the original were able to
entertain. Texts may at times be experienced as ambiguous. This is usually
due either to lack of relevant knowledge on the part of readers, or lack of
Marianne Lederer 25

clarity in the formulation for various reasons (authors writing in a foreign

language, text written too quickly and not revised, etc.). In the great majority
of texts used for translator training, speakers’ meanings will be fairly clear
and understanding sense will pose little or no problem.

4.2 The stage between understanding and reformulation

What happens when sense emerges? Having delivered the notional and/or
emotional message in conjunction with relevant extralinguistic knowledge,
linguistic signs become irrelevant and can vanish with no consequences. Easily
detected in interpreting, their disappearance is more difficult to observe in
written translation. Deverbalization is not as obvious because the original text
is there, the graphic signs endure, they do not disappear as do the sounds of
oral speech. Deverbalization is a natural feature of interpretation but requires
an effort on the part of the translator. It is nevertheless present in the form
of translators’ awareness of what an author means in a given passage and is
a prerequisite for producing idiomatic language in the target text. It can be
given different labels, such as ‘dissociation of languages’ or ‘mental repre-
sentation’ in the mind, which is then verbalized in the other language.
Chesterman (in Chesterman and Wagner 2002:9-10) explains the phe-
nomenon as follows:

It means simply that a translator or interpreter has to get away from

the surface structure of the source text, to arrive at the intended mean-
ing, and then express this intended meaning in the target language. …
In other words, deverbalization is a technique used to avoid unwanted
formal interference: professional translators need to process the in-
tended meaning in their own words, rather than try to mechanically
manipulate source-text structures.

Without going into a discussion of whether deverbalization is a technique

or part of the translating process, one thing is certain: although in the past
deverbalization as a concept has been the object of much criticism, today
this stage is recognized as indispensable not only by interpreters but also by
translators, because it makes it much easier to discover modes of expression
that are not influenced by the original language.

4.3 Carrying sense over to the other language

Having deverbalized, in other words having left aside the words and struc-
ture of the source-language text, translators proceed to express a sense that
they have internalized, as they would in monolingual communication when
26 Can Theory Help Translator and Interpreter Trainers and Trainees?

creating a new text.

Producing an idiomatic translation is usually the goal. The controversial
question of whether a translation should read like an original or a translation
does not apply to pragmatic texts on which trainees learn to translate. Those
who need this type of translation are not interested in how a foreign language
expresses things but in what it expresses, in its informational content. Not
allowing themselves to be distracted by the signs of the foreign language,
translators thus consider how best to express the ideas contained in the text
while adhering to the norms of their own language. This does not mean that
their translation will not contain some words that seem to be a transcoding of
words found in the original text. But the sense of a segment of text can rarely
be transmitted simply by applying lexical and syntactic correspondences.
As early as 1964, Nida (1964:156) wrote that “[s]ince no two languages are
identical, either in the meanings given to corresponding symbols or in the
ways in which such symbols are arranged in phrases and sentences, it stands
to reason that there can be no absolute correspondence between languages”.
Translation should, according to Delisle (1980/1988:89), “reproduce the
meaning10 of a text using the expressive resources of another language”.
This is best done by searching “for equivalent ways of expressing a single
intended meaning” (ibid.) and looking at the way authors in that language
would normally express this or a similar thought.

Word Correspondences

When comparing any given translation with its original, a lot of words are
found that match across the two languages. This may partly explain the
misconception that translating is equal to transcoding. It does not mean that
the translator worked word for word. Any translation is in fact a mixture of
word correspondences and discourse equivalents. Let us take as an example an
extract from the text Delisle uses in his Analyse du discours comme méthode
de traduction/Translation: an Interpretive Approach (1980/1988), the first
large-scale attempt at a methodology for translator training.
To place the segment in context, here is the first sentence:

After the removal of her left breast because of cancer in 1970, Mrs.
Joan Dawson, 54, of New York City, spent the next three years bat-
tling depression and a sense of loss.

Here is the extract proper:

‘Sense’, in the terminology of the interpretive theory.
Marianne Lederer 27

She decided to do something about it. Most women in the same

situation turn to a psychiatrist. Mrs Dawson went to her doctor and
asked him to rebuild her missing breast.

The proposed French translation reads as follows:

Un beau jour, elle décide d’agir. La plupart des femmes, en pareil cas,
vont s’en remettre à un psychiatre, mais Mme Dawson, elle, retourne
chez son médecin pour qu’il lui refasse un sein.
[One beautiful day, she decides to act. Most women, in such a case,
give themselves up to a psychiatrist. But Mrs. Dawson, she goes back
to her doctor for him to remake a breast for her.]

Looking at corresponding words or phrases, we find the following:

She decided = elle décide

Most women = la plupart des femmes
Psychiatrist = psychiatre
Mrs. Dawson = Mme Dawson
Her doctor = son médecin
Breast = sein

Two ‘technical’ terms (‘psychiatrist’ and ‘breast’11) and one proper name
(Mrs. Dawson) are matched to the corresponding terms in French, because in
context these matches are obligatory. All texts, but particularly technical and
scientific texts, contain a number of words whose meanings are not modified
by the context: technical terms, figures, proper names, words in lists, etc. A
technical term refers, both in language and in texts, to a well defined object
or notion. The lexical correspondence established between two languages
to designate the same object remains valid in texts (which does not mean
that the correspondence will always be easy to find). In a given specialized
domain, the correspondence will hold whatever the context.
The remaining matches (‘she decided’, ‘most women’, ‘her doctor’) are
also transcoded, but here transcoding is not compulsory. The translator could
have found different ways of expressing the same thing but did not choose
to do so. Note, however, that these words are embedded in formulations that
do not match the original word for word.

‘Breast’, actualized in the context of cancer as it is here, becomes a technical term and
cannot be translated by ‘poitrine’, as it might well be in a different context.
28 Can Theory Help Translator and Interpreter Trainers and Trainees?

Equivalent Segments of Text

Then she decided to do something about it. Un beau jour, elle décide d’agir.
Most women in the same situation turn to La plupart des femmes, en pareil
a psychiatrist. cas, vont s’en remettre à un psy-
Mrs Dawson went to her doctor and chiatre, mais Mme Dawson, elle,
asked him to rebuild her missing breast. retourne chez son médecin pour
qu’il lui refasse un sein. 

For brevity’s sake, let us confine ourselves to the last sentence: “Mrs. Daw-
son went to her doctor and asked him to rebuild her missing breast”. This
is translated as “mais Mme Dawson, elle, retourne chez son médecin pour
qu’il lui refasse un sein”. We have here an equivalence between two chunks
of text but very few corresponding words. The surface structure of the text
is quite different; sense is kept intact in a different form.

The Expression of Sense Is Language Specific

Several comments should be made on the formulation of the above sentence.

The first draws on contrastive linguistics: the English past becomes a present
tense in French. Others are of a more general nature. In English, some ele-
ments of sense remain unsaid but are understood nevertheless. They are
explicitly mentioned in the translation: “Other women … Mrs Dawson went
to …” is rendered in French by “mais Mme Dawson, elle, retourne chez …”.
The connectors ‘mais’ and ‘elle’ are required in French for reasons Delisle
calls ‘textual organicity’ and textlinguistics calls ‘cohesion and coherence’.
In English, they remain implicit.
At the end of the same sentence, “to rebuild her missing breast” becomes
“pour qu’il lui refasse un sein”. In French, the word ‘missing’ has disap-
peared. This is not a case of omission on the part of the translator. Whereas
French needs explicit connectors, it does very well without the word ‘miss-
ing’: readers know that Mrs. Dawson had one of her breasts removed;
reminding them that it is missing is not necessary in French – they will infer
the fact from previous information.
The explicit parts of texts are synecdoches (a part that stands for a whole).
Languages not only differ in their lexicon and grammar but also in the way
their native speakers express their thoughts in them. Texts are synecdoches
but in two different languages the same sense is hardly ever expressed with
the same explicit wording. It follows that in order to transmit sense transla-
tors may have to change the relative weight of the explicit and implicit parts
of sense, while keeping sense whole.
The fact that the expression of sense is language specific and that things
Marianne Lederer 29

have to be explicitly stated in one but can or even should remain elliptic in
another, or vice versa, is vital for translation. So is the fact that the readers
of the translation do not always have the same (cultural) knowledge as those
of the original, which again means that information that can be left unsaid
in one language has to be made explicit in the other.

5. The implications of theory for translator training

Trainers who are aware of these few theoretical principles (or of others, ac-
cording to the theory chosen as a basis) will hopefully apply them in three
different but interrelated directions: (a) introducing students to translation
methodology, (b) rationalizing their didactic progression through a judicious
selection of teaching materials, and (c) assessing trainees’ work.

5.1 Translation methodology

Translation Is about Texts

Translating texts is not the same as translating languages; words in texts take
on meanings that can be quite different from those they have out of context.
Instructors aware of this basic linguistic principle will be able to explain why
literal translation is dangerous. They will warn trainees against launching into
translating a text before having read the whole of it. They will also explain
why the use of bilingual dictionaries can lead translators astray: they provide
correspondences of isolated concepts. Verbal context contributes to reducing
the number of potential meanings, but although dictionaries may give a few
verbal contexts for a given item they will never list all the possible contexts
in which these concepts can be used in a text.

Making Use of Relevant Knowledge

Aware of the essential part played by translators’ cognitive inputs in under-

standing sense, instructors will insist on a text analysis designed to summon
up in students’ minds as much relevant knowledge as possible. This can be
done in brainstorming sessions, divided in two separate parts.

■ Summoning extratextual knowledge. In addition to understand-

ing its language, understanding a text also means taking into
account extralinguistic factors. In the example from Perry
(2004) discussed under 4.1 above, century is specified by the
inferencing process triggered by knowledge about the author
and context, which adds data to linguistic meanings and gives
30 Can Theory Help Translator and Interpreter Trainers and Trainees?

them their sense. So, after a first reading of the text, trainees try
to answer questions such as: Who wrote this text? For whom?
When? What for? Do we know enough about the subject to un-
derstand the author’s meaning? If not, where are we to look for
further information? Students often find fault with texts when
they do not understand them. Instructors can show them that by
filling the gaps in their relevant knowledge, texts will become
more intelligible. The need for thorough documentary research
for specific texts will become evident.

■ Proceeding to an intratextual analysis.12 Going into a more

thorough analysis of the text itself, more questions will be raised.
What topic does the author deal with, what strategies does she
use to develop it, where does she start from, what does she
achieve, and how? What about the genre of the text, its structure,
its internal cohesion? How are the subtleties of arguments or
allusions conveyed? Is the language conventional or creative?

These investigations will continue as long as exhaustive understanding

is not achieved and until trainees have achieved both a holistic and very
detailed view of the text.


Lexical and structural interference is frequent in translation when the two

languages are not kept apart. Instructors will show trainees the advantages
offered by deverbalization. The brainstorming sessions mentioned under
Making Use of Relevant Knowledge above can also be used to demonstrate
that sense is not attached to the words that conveyed it. Having ascertained
that the text is thoroughly understood, trainers can ask a student to read
a paragraph aloud and then, putting the text aside, state its content orally
either in other words in the same language or in the other language, the
other students adding details if necessary, or suggesting a different wording.
Discourse equivalents are found more easily when the source text language
is left aside.13

Reformulating the Text

When the sense of the text has become sufficiently clear, and the original
wording is forgotten, new questions will have to be answered: For whom
For obvious reasons, intratextual analysis is only applicable to written translation.
Though he does not use the word ‘deverbalization’, Kussmaul (2005) recommends
visualization as one technique for achieving ‘creative translation’.
Marianne Lederer 31

are we going to translate this text? And how?

The translation has to make sense for its readers, who will mostly not
have the same cultural background as those for whom the original text was
intended. This will often require explicitation, implicitation, changes in text
structure, etc. Trainers aware of the principles outlined under section 3 will be
able to allay the concerns of students who fear being accused of unfaithfulness
if, on the surface, their text looks too different from the original. Trainers
will have to go into the details of drafting a target text which corresponds to
the original as regards its type and texture, whose cohesion and coherence
make for comfortable reading, and which is adapted to the needs of its target
readers. The principles discussed above can be used towards this end.

5.2 Didactic progression and selection of teaching materials

Didactic progression is largely based on a grading of texts adapted to the

level of competence achieved by trainees. Hatim and Mason (1997:195)
underscore the importance of avoiding “the randomness inherent in some
approaches to curriculum design in translator training”. Their approach to
the selection of teaching materials for translator training is explicitly based
on textlinguistics. The interpretive theory’s selection of teaching material
stresses content rather than language use (as does the functionalist theory,
see Nord 1992). It is based on the various demands text types make on the
comprehension and reformulation capacity of trainees. Cormier (1990:184-
85) suggests a typology of technical texts based on their function: texts
for laymen, didactic texts, texts for specialists. Seleskovitch and Lederer
(1989:54) suggest grading the difficulty of speeches14 for interpreter training
taking into account the type of exercises (consecutive or simultaneous) and
the importance of the extralinguistic knowledge required. Because of the
difference in modalities of oral and written translation, the order of presenta-
tion of texts for translator training will obviously be somewhat different. It
will be based on the criteria of content and form of texts, starting from texts
where both content and form are easy for beginners, i.e. do not present any
specific difficulty either in understanding or in reformulating the text in the
other language, through texts where content is easy but form elaborate, texts
whose content is difficult to understand but the form simple, to texts with
both difficult content and form.15

Suggested grading of speeches for interpreter training: narrative speeches on a familiar
topic, argumentative speeches on a familiar topic, narrative speeches on a new topic,
argumentative speeches on a new topic, stylistically sophisticated speeches on a familiar
topic, stylistically sophisticated speeches on a new topic, topic requiring preparation,
descriptive speeches requiring terminological preparation, rhetorical speeches.
In terms of content, ‘difficult’ means that documentary research and/or arduous reasoning
will be necessary. In terms of form, ‘easy’ means that the target text linguistic structure
32 Can Theory Help Translator and Interpreter Trainers and Trainees?

The important thing is that trainers apply their theoretical knowledge to

developing translation competence in students in a well thought-out progres-
sion of their lesson plans. A rational selection of texts for teaching students
to translate is an essential element in didactic progression.

5.3 Assessment of trainees’ work

Trainers have one more important task to perform, namely assessing students’
work. In doing so, when following the interpretive theory, they will be guided
by three questions (Blondy-Mauchand 2004):

■ about comprehension (is the knowledge of the source language

sufficient, is the knowledge of the subject adequate, has the
texture of the text been sufficiently analyzed);
■ about methodology (has the source text surface structure been
left aside, has consideration been given to the source text’s extra-
linguistic context, have the target reader and target context been
taken into consideration);
■ about the reformulation stage (the assessor will look at style,
terminological precision, level of target language, fullness of
the message).

Having assessed the translation on that basis, instructors will not reproach
trainees for their errors nor correct them themselves. Rather they will point
to the reasons for those errors before asking trainees to amend their text and,
if necessary, remedy their shortcomings.

6. Conclusion
Moser-Mercer (1996:201) writes that

a teaching theory must provide a coherent view of how it [transla-

tion] is done, not a prescriptive true/false approach, not just anecdotal
evidence. … The translation/interpreting teacher who is thoroughly
familiar with the mental processes underlying translation and inter-
preting will never resort to prescriptive translation teaching.

Professional translators know that there is no unique translation. In their

own translation work, they often come up with several possible versions of
the same idea, and choose one, knowing full well that another would have

may follow rather closely that of the source text, and ‘difficult’ that restructuring will
be necessary.
Marianne Lederer 33

been just as satisfactory. When teaching, they will not impose upon trainees
the teacher’s own ‘official’ version of a text. On the contrary, they will en-
courage trainees to be creative.
Komissarov (1985:208) states that “translation theory is not supposed to
provide the translator with ready-made solutions of his problems. Theory
is no substitute for proper thinking or decision-making”. This also applies
to the way trainers make use of theoretical principles in their teaching. To
produce expert translators, having trainees translate a lot is not sufficient.
Translation is a complex operation and theory helps in generalizing and sys-
tematizing problems. Within its general frame, trainees are able to take some
distance from specific details and assign their respective roles to the text, its
content, loyalty, the translator’s initiatives, etc. As a result, their approach
to translation problems will become more self-assured. Theory is certainly
no substitute for proper thinking or decision-making, but it can be used by
trainers to point trainees in the direction of productive thinking and supply
them with a few principles that can aid them in their decision-making.

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