European Society for Translation Studies



Ubaldo Stecconi

Octber 2, 2006

In the past half century or so, there has been a growing recognition that translation and translating can be serious intellectual pursuits. There has also been a growing dissatisfaction with traditional accounts of translation, such as “replacement of textual material” (Catford 1965: 20) or “a problem in cryptography” (Weaver 1955: 18).

A few decades are a short time in the development of intellectual discourse and translation studies (TS) still lacks a sound and unifying theoretical basis. Naturally, translation scholars are debating such questions as: How will I conduct my research? Which phenomena will count as relevant observations? How will I interpret my findings and for which purpose? These are less methodological issues than epistemological ones.

Why would TS need a sound theoretical basis? Because these questions depend existentially on agreed theoretical conventions (Popper 2002 [1959], eg.: 88–94). Why should this basis be also unifying? Because investigation is always open to inter–subjective scrutiny. The rules of intellectual inquiry are set within a community.

Ironically, TS is traversed by lots of theories: linguistics (general linguistics, discourse analysis, relevance theory, corpus linguistics), game theory, comparative literature, cultural studies, cognitive sciences, and memetics—just to cite the main currents.

Clearly, TS has a problem of quality and ambition, not of quantity. Why did this emerging interdiscipline fail to find consensus on its core questions? Let me explain with an analogy.

Contemporary translation theory looks like a series of travel books. Their authors tell us about Translationland, but always in their terms. Translationlanders’ ways of life are described in detail, but little understood. Some even insists that the future of Translationland depends on the help other countries may provide.

In contrast, we know little of what Translationland’s customs and beliefs mean to its own inhabitants. Native accounts are few and far between, and those we do have rarely go beyond chronicle, description, and think–aloud reports.

Some natives simply reject all theoretical investigations and ask to be left alone with their myths and practices handed down from generation to generation in primitive ways.

In short, Translationland is a developing country. It depends on theoretical imports; its own exports are either exotic curiosities or raw material for more developed processes; and its culture finds it difficult to create an image by and for itself.

This is consistent with the lack of ambition, a fragmented community, and an unstable object of study. If this is the way things really stand, translation scholars cannot sit on their hands, can they.



Catford, John Cunnison. 1965. A Linguistic Theory of Translation. An Essay in Applied Linguistics. London: Oxford University Press.

Popper, Karl Raimund Sir. 2002. The Logic of Scientific Discovery. London: Routledge. First English ed.: London: Hutchinson & Co., 1959.

Weaver, Warren. 1955. Translation. In Machine Translation of Languages, edited by W. N. Locke and A. D. Booth. New York: Technology Press of MIT and John Wiley & Sons (1949 memorandum reprinted, quoting a 1947 letter from Weaver to Norbert Wiener).