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Is Translation a Science, an Art, or a Skill?

September 3, 2010 2 Comments »

The word translation comes from the Latin translatio, which itself comes from trans– and fero and when combined mean to carry or bring across. By definition, translation is a written communication in a second language having the same meaning as the written communication in a first language. But is translation a science, an art or a skill?

The translator’s role is not a passive, mechanical one, and for such reason has been compared to that of an artist. Many may argue that literary translation is an art, not a science. Yet translators in other areas may consider their work to also be art. Such is the case of N. J. Lynn, a financial translator, who backs this up with strong arguments in Zen and the Art of Multilingual Financial Reporting.

Transcreation, a freer form of translation, which results in a text linguistically and culturally adapted for a specific country or region, can also be seen as an artistic form of translation. The difference between both concepts is explained in more detail in Translation vs. Transcreation in the Hispanic Market.

Yet in this new century, with the use of computer-assisted translation or machine translation, can we say that translation has become a science?  Or perhaps it has always been a science in the sense that it needs to follow principles and rules of syntax and grammar. For example, some universities offer a Masters of Science in Translation while others a Master of Arts in Translation.

Lastly, the argument that translation is a skill can also be made. It is certain that translation is more than just intuition and a six sense. Practical translation methods or processes can be taught and learned. Furthermore, this skill can be improved with experience.

The answer to this question will most likely depend on whom you ask.

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2 Responses to “Is Translation a Science, an Art, or a Skill?”

  • Commented on September 5, 2010 at 9:26 pm

    Being a translator is being a sociologist, I’d say! You can’t translate in a vacuum. You need to picture the person who wrote the paper in front of you. Where were they from? Are they trained in law or some specialized area with its own terminology? Are they part of a sarcastic group? Or are they very direct? You must know many personality types to figure out what exactly a person is saying, in order to refine the translation.

    I know three translators in Portland, Oregon where I live: Portland In Spanish with Ada Manrique. Castlia language Services. And PDXinespanol Language Services. As an attorney, I have used all of them, but I learned the above from Ada when we worked together to try to figure out what an administrative judge in Columbia was trying to say in a short order. The words were clear, but the message was not!!

  • Commented on September 8, 2010 at 3:31 am

    Personally, I think that, due to my graduate studies in theology, that language translation is more of a science. But this is a difficult question to grapple with. In the case of biblical texts, it’s definitely more of a science because we don’t have anyone alive today that lived in that historic culture that can lend a firsthand cultural understanding.

    But in the case of modern day Spanish, I tend to think of it more as an art. I recall some native Spanish speakers working on re-translating an English song into Spanish because they felt that the original translation was not done well. I would presume that in this case, it is more of an art.

    Apparently, it depends on the situation, but, I would give ‘Skill’ my lowest vote. I’m sure that developing skills can play a part in being a good translator, but I feel that being a good translator relies more heavily on being someone who has a thorough understanding of the two cultures involved.