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"University Translation Programs:

Academics and Translators,
Who Pecks Whom?" 

The following statement was originally presented by Alex Gross at an international panel he chaired on Translator Training Programs at the 1989 ATA Conference in Washington, DC.   The following panelists took part:

Alex Gross, Chair

Geoffrey Kingscott, Editor, Language International 
(Nottingham and Amsterdam)

André Chassigneux, Professor at L'École Supérieure de l'Interprétation et de la Traduction ("L'ÉSIT"), The Sorbonne, Paris (his paper was read by Laurie Treuhaft)

Jutta Zeumer, Director, BDÜ (Bundesverband der Dolmetscher und Übersetzer), Stuttgart (her paper was read by Paul Danaher)

Renée Waldinger, Professor and Director of CUNY's Graduate Translation Program

Marshall Morris, Professor and Director, NYU's Certificate Program for Translators


Our subject is an enormous one, and the members of our panel are extremely able.  As Chairman, I am supposed to be relatively impartial, but I do have, I must confess, some strong feelings on this subject.  There are, however, three ways in which I believe I can legitimately lay claim to some impartiality.  First, I can fight to the death for the right of everyone else on this panel to disagree with me and/or with each other.  Second, I can—in fact I must—make it clear from the outset, whatever else I may say later, that I will not let this panel turn into a mutual translator-academic bashing session. 

We owe a special debt of gratitude to the three professors on our panel, and we should not forget that the subject they teach is in fact translation.  It should also be obvious that the person who has both taught and translated on a professional level must be the highest one of all in our putative pecking order.  A third way I can lay claim to some impartiality is to take the relatively high road and point out at the outset that our discussion is taking place against a background of much larger issues, springing from a growing awareness of developments on three different fronts:

First, our growing awareness of the sheer complexity of human language, whose labyrinthine environment may rival or even partially interpenetrate and generate the complexities of human life itself.

Second, our growing awareness of the inadequacy of our educational system, symptomized by complaints from our major libraries that they will soon no longer be able to preserve the vast piles of mediocre scholarship being produced and by the appearance of such books as Profscam and The Last Intellectuals.

And third, our growing awareness of how much the computer may come to mean in all our lives as a tool for enhancing not just the uses of language and translation but even as a means of defining the structure—or the lack of structure—of human knowledge.

I will not apologize for abandoning the paper shown in the Proceedings.  My ideas have changed and grown since I wrote it, and I hope they will go on growing and not merely changing. 


What on earth is my outrageous assertion?  Well, I don't think anyone will consider it outrageous if I say the primary professionals in the visual arts are painters and sculptors.  Nor will I shock anyone if I say that the primary professionals of music are composers and performers and those musicians who improvise.  Nor is it amazing to claim that the primary professionals in literature are writers, novelists, and poets.  We can easily extend this reasoning to the fields of dance, theatre and film, where I'm sure we'll agree that the primary professionals are dancers, playwrights, and film-makers.  I think we'll also agree that all these fields have secondary and tertiary professionals: teachers, critics, historians, theoreticians, and those who promote various forms of "appreciation."  Very little disagreement so far, I would imagine.

But here comes what some may consider the shocking and outrageous part.  Supposing we were to ask who are the primary foreign language professionals.....?  I claim—and I intend to defend this claim—that the primary foreign language professionals are none other than translators and interpreters.  In a very real sense translating is advanced language learning.  And here, I think, we begin to see the relevance to universities and translator training programs, because in the universities at large translator training—or even an awareness of the importance of translation—occupies a very small place.  Virtually our entire language learning apparatus is in the hands of what in other fields would be considered secondary and tertiary specialists, the critics, the annotators, the historians, the appreciators, and of course foreign language teachers on an elementary level.


But how can one possibly make such an absurd claim, do I hear the reply echoing back?  After all, everyone knows that musicians, painters, writers, dancers are ARTISTS!  They do CREATIVE work, where translators are merely copiers, putterers, and hacks.

But the very proof of my thesis lies in this anticipated response, because anyone who voices it proves thereby that s/he has no deep knowledge/experience of translation.  No one who has truly translated or even truly communicated in a single language can deny the real element of art involved in the act of translation.

Probably translators can be best compared to musicians, who come in the three stated varieties: composers, performers, and improvisors.  Translators and interpreters can be called upon to play not just one of these roles but all three in their work, and even while translating a single document.

Most outsiders can only envision the translator as a musician in the role of percussionist perhaps, someone who has to keep to a rather strict rhythm & is only noticed when s/he fails.  And a great deal of translation can indeed resemble this, but the beat is far more subtle than most can hear, and at any moment the translator may need to alter this beat, play another instrument altogether, launch into a prolonged improvisation, or even recompose  a large part of a piece from scratch. 

But how, it may be asked, can this verity have escaped the notice of so many in our society?  Quite simply.  The main reason is that most people (& even most professors) are largely uninformed about language.  This is simply the cumulative result of a social process which refuses to take language seriously.  There is plenty of evidence that this is the case.  Here is some of it.....


These proofs are all around us, part of an enormous conceptual gap separating us from what language really is, any language, not just foreign ones.  Some lie in popularly held misconceptions about language and/or in mistaken theories based on pseudo-scholarly grounds.  Here are a few of them:

1.  The scam that anyone can easily "learn" a language, whether from a tape, a TV show, or a weekend seminar, without ever really defining what "learning" is.

2.  The scam of "Speed Reading."  What speed, what style, what texts?  Do not in fact many texts demand slower rather than faster reading?

3.  The persistence of the myth of perfect "computer translation," despite over thirty years of failure.

4.  The continued defense of abstruse and imprecise terminologies in the arts and sciences on the grounds that they are essential technical vocabularies, when they are often merely a form of obfuscation to hide one's ignorance from oneself, one's peers, and the public.

5.  The specific subset of the above as practiced by linguists and other self-styled authorities on language.  What are we really to say when professional linguists cannot write clearly about language?

6.  The incredibly irrational nature of most statements about the nature of language as voiced by most human beings, together with their incredibly irrational denials when such statements are questioned, a phenomenon first noted by Leonard Bloomfield in 1944 and referred to as `Secondary and Tertiary Responses to Language.'

7.  The assumption, quite widespread even among some intellectuals, that any bilingual person is automatically a competent translator or interpreter and the related assumption that anyone who knows a little bit of a foreign language is competent to translate texts on any subject, even from those subjects people can't handle in their native tongues.

8.  Our continued willing suspension of disbelief when ancient Greeks and Israelites, Chinese emperors, and even beings from outer space all turn out to speak perfect English (or whatever) in our films and novels.  What vast over-simplifications of history and social values go along with our ready acceptance of such an impossibility?

9.  And the last one for now—though there are surely others—the almost complete lack of basic research into what translation and/or speaking & understanding foreign languages really entails.  There is no lack of scholarly papers, just a dearth of anything useful or meaningful for real language professionals.  It is as though we were all fish who spend all our time in the water but still haven't found out what water is.

As noted above, the preceding text was in fact the second version of this paper, the one that was presented at the Conference.  The original version, the one that was printed in the Proceedings, was as follows:

Who Pecks Whom?

KEY WORDS: Translation, Translation Training, University Translation Training Programs, Freelance Translators, Translation, Literature and Linguistics


Recent articles published in the U.S., the U.K., and on the continent suggest that some misunderstandings may exist between translators and university professors writing about translation or administering programs to train translators.  The purpose of this panel is to give these issues a fair and reasonable airing without favoring either side.  Among the questions we will attempt to address are the following: What is the precise place of translation and translator training programs in the university setting?  How well equipped are academic language specialists to deal with translation issues, and how well prepared are translators to deal with an academic approach to their profession?  Do professors of language and literature or specialists in linguistics have any particular insights into the translation process that can benefit translators, or could the situation just possibly be the other way around?  Can translator training take its place as a valid branch of higher education, or is it merely (as some might hold) a form of trade school?  Is language/translation a branch of human knowledge, or is human knowledge a branch of language/translation?  And finally, time permitting, assuming the latter might be even marginally true, what consequences might this have for other branches of language learning? 

I have asked our distinguished panelists to respond to the points mentioned in my abstract in whatever way they feel may be most appropriate.  In the time since I wrote it, however, I have become aware that the situation I described has not only intensified but also broadened out into several other areas.  I will therefore begin by trying to flesh out the basic problem as originally described and reserve any comment on the broader issues for the end.  Furthermore, although I am myself a freelance translator and might be expected to side with members of my own profession, I will nonetheless do my best to present the side of the University as well, to the extent that I am able.  And since I am limiting each of the participants to a mere fifteen minutes, I will attempt to set a good example by limiting myself to the same time limit.

The literature mentioned in the abstract has indeed been highly critical of the University's role in training translators.  It includes not only articles and book reviews but also a remarkable international on-line exchange, known as the "Hungry Hordes Thread," on CompuServe's Foreign Language Education Forum ("FLEFO").  Articles and reviews have appeared in Language Monthly, including one by Geoffrey Kingscott severely taking one of England's best known authorities on translation to task over his relative ignorance about how most translations come about, another piece about the situation in Switzerland, originally in Zurich's Die Weltwoche and republished by Language Monthly, and in somewhat differing terms at least one piece by Ben Teague in our own ATA Chronicle, pointing out the seeming inability of many translators to handle scholarly procedures.  In addition, Sandra Celt, a former editor of the Chronicle has composed a seething review of the ATA's own recent Scholarly Monograph on Translator Training on the grounds that it is for the most part merely academic jargon, unrooted in the realities of language learning or the translation profession.

These are harsh words.  Summing up the complaints of these critics, we find the following major points:

1)  Literary translation can be better performed by skilled linguists with a variety of life experiences in more than one country than by those who have spent mostly monoglott lives in an academic milieu.

2)  Technical translation requires the mastery of special skills, or the ability to acquire these skills quickly and convincingly.  Neither these skills nor the ability to acquire them is being taught in the University.

3)  Incorrect translations in real life can lead to far worse than a low grade or a failed degree—in chemical texts they can cause fatal poisoning, in legal translation they can win or lose a crucial law suit, in aeronautics they can bring a plane plunging out of the sky.  University language courses are not generally oriented to deal with such crushing realities.

4)  Those organizing such courses are necessarily forced into the academic mould, creating a translation equivalent of such dubious fashions as deconstruction in Literary Criticism or Transformationalism in Linguistics.

Having raised these points, I would now like to attempt to be fair to the Universities.  No reasonable person has ever claimed that the graduate of an Art School is automatically or even necessarily a qualified artist.  Nor does the holder of the basic M.D. Degree automatically become a fully competent doctor.  It is assumed in both these cases, and no doubt in others, that the new graduate will have to go through a great deal more work and training before becoming a true professional .  Why, it may be asked, should translation be any different?

One partial answer here may be that there have been art schools and medical schools for centuries, while programs purporting to train translators are still somewhat new, not only in this country but abroad as well.  This makes it all the more important that the right questions be asked at the outset.  Is it in fact appropriate that those with mainly literary leanings should pass judgment on students or working professionals who must employ other criteria as well in their finished work? 

Are those working in more technical fields to be dismissed, in the old and classic manner favored by upper-class Englishmen, as mere tradesmen or drones, or does their work in fact also encompass literary values in addition to having to meet even sterner tests of accuracy, consistency, and often speed?  Is there a real contest going on here between literary critics on the one hand and so-called technical translators on the other, and if so, precisely who does peck who (or whom, if you will)?  (Parenthetically, one might also ask if an academic approach can ever approach uttering the "final word" even on literary translation—are not "final words" intrinsically beyond the ability of Literary Criticism?

Two examples may help us here, first a literary one.  At a recent academic conference on translation, a gentleman arose to express his enormous ire that in a new translation of Kafka's Metamorphosis Gregor Samsa awakens to find himself turned into an enormous "vermin."  What a terrible mistranslation, complained this gentleman—after all, we all knew that Kafka's hero turned into a giant cockroach.  It is precisely this level of foggy misperception that threatens all our work, be it literary or technical. 

Little is certain in translation, but one virtually sure thing is that turning Gregor Samsa into a cockroach is in fact a brilliant Mistranslation.  It is brilliant because it is vivid and has thus penetrated into the minds of generations of readers.  It is creative Mistranslations of this sort that literature desperately requires if works are to be successfully recreated in another language.  A more faithful translator would of course have rendered the German word Ungeziefer by its safe and generic dictionary equivalent, precisely "vermin," as this later translator decided, and so have deprived the English-speaking world of what many suppose was one of Kafka's most striking images.  It would even be possible to defend translating Ungeziefer as "vermin": it is one of the words hurled by Hitler and Goebbels at the Jews—not cockroaches but vermin—and as such is rich in historical connotations.  But in Kafka, because of one translator's impatience with colorless words, we now have forever, at least in English, the translation "cockroach."

As a more technical example, the administrator of a college-based translation program was explaining to a group of translators the final project phase of her three-semester curriculum.  After taking one semester on terminology and another on translators' resources, students were turned loose in the last semester on an independent project involving the actual translation of a 30–50 page text in a specific field of interest.  She confessed that quite a few of the students were unable to finish this 30–50 page project, at which point one professional translator was heard to remark quite audibly to another in the room "Gee, I'm not sure I've ever translated anything less than 50 pages."  Clearly, there are differences in approach between professional translators and some who would set standards in this field. 

But as I have hinted at the beginning, other factors are now at work which may reduce such a debate to near irrelevance.  Foremost among these, I believe, is the growing world-wide realization that language as a whole, Language with a capital L, is far more difficult and far more central to our existence than even our most fervent popularizers of linguistics tried to maintain a generation or two ago.  Both western and oriental culture, which have raised mathematics and science, with its attendant technology, to the highest altar of popular religion may be on the verge of recognizing that both mathematics and science, for all their undoubted richness, are mere subsets of language (and even then only subsets of language in its present, transient state, meaning that when language finally moves on in its encoding of reality, mathematics and science will also be free to do so). 

And furthermore, as a corollary of the preceding principles, that only the study of language is capable of resolving some of the problems mathematics and science raise, and that only the study of language can enable peoples from different cultures to communicate together, to coexist and to survive into succeeding centuries.  I base these claims on a variety of evidence, including new works specifically examining the inherent limitations of language or calling for the creation of Departments of Translation Studies, as opposed to mere departments of linguistics, language learning, or translator training, as a whole new approach to the subject, and also of course on a great deal of the work concerning the role of computers in translation. 

It is both strange and interesting that after thirty years of work on Artificial Intelligence and Expert Systems and many other approaches that computers should still be seen as an adjunct or helper to the translator in his work rather than a surrogate.  It is perhaps equally interesting that one of the most promising computer applications in the translation field, Hypertext, places textual categories above computational ones, and that Artificial Intelligence and Expert Systems applications, which subjugate verbal concerns to computational ones, may be proving less productive. 

Language by its nature is delicate, intricate, constantly inventive, even transient and evanescent–to expect the full brute force of computation to solve many translation problems may turn out to partake more of Rube Goldberg than of Pascal, something like using a steam-shovel to build a sand-castle.  Since this remark could be misunderstood, I would like to emphasize that I am not using it to negate all work in computer-based translation, merely to express my own preference for text-based solutions like Hypertext over more computation intensive approaches. 

Thus, it may well prove that our discussion here today will be eclipsed by larger issues.  I would like to conclude by paraphrasing what I believe John Kenneth Galbraith once said about economics, that this subject is far too important to be left just to economists.  And so too, at the risk of relinquishing some objectivity, I believe that language and translation are far too important a subject to be left just to linguists, language teachers, or practitioners of any purely "academic" approach, at least in the worst sense of that much-abused word. 

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