Does Teaching Theory Enhance Students’ Translation Competence?

Viewpoints, Expectations, Findings

By Daniela Di Mango (Universität Passau, Germany)

Abstract & Keywords

The role of translation theory and its contribution to professional practice and training is a never-ending debate and a ‘gap’ between practice and theory is frequently claimed to exist. Different viewpoints concerning the role of theory in general have been put forward and with it come different expectations concerning the impact that translation theory can or should have. One major point relates to the different expectations concerning the question whether teaching theoretical subjects to students of translation enhances their translation competence (acquisition), and in which ways it does so. We will review some of the viewpoints of why a ‘gap’ is perceived to exist as well as the expectations that are placed on the explicit teaching of theory to students of translation. Despite the huge amount of publications on theory and practice, empirical research on the topic is still scarce and the few existing studies cannot really answer the question whether explicit teaching of theory can contribute better to the development of translation competence than practical classes alone.

Keywords: translator training, acquisition of translation competence, translation theory, translation practice

©inTRAlinea & Daniela Di Mango (2019).
"Does Teaching Theory Enhance Students’ Translation Competence? Viewpoints, Expectations, Findings"
inTRAlinea Special Issue: New Insights into Translator Training
Edited by: Paulina Pietrzak
This article can be freely reproduced under Creative Commons License.
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1. Introduction

 […] to translate without a theory is to translate blind.
Andrew Chesterman (1997: 3)

‘Translation theory? Spare us…’ […] There can be few professions
with such a yawning gap between theory and practice.

Emma Wagner (Chesterman and Wagner 2002: 1)

The debate on the relation between theory and practice, both in professional life as well as in translator training, truly seems to be a never-ending story, filling the literature in translation studies (TS) on a regular basis (Levý 1965; Schumm 1975; Juhel 1985; Berglund 1990; Wilss 1995; Shuttleworth 2001; Kearns 2008 and Leal 2014 are just a small selection). Very different beliefs seem to be held by practitioners on the one hand and scholars on the other, as can be seen from the almost prototypical quotes cited above. Anecdotal evidence has it that practitioners regard theory as useless and occasional statements from professionals such as Wagner’s seem to confirm this impression. The gap between theory and practice is, however, also lamented from within translation studies. Thus, Vinay (1991: 160) has the somewhat pessimistic impression that ‘we are dealing with two worlds, which […] will never meet’. We will thus try to answer the question of where this pessimistic view might come from, before turning to the question of how translation theory can have an impact on the profession and on the individual translator. We will mainly focus on the question as to whether and how translation theory can influence the development of translation competence. To this end, we will review some of the suggestions that have been put forward in the literature concerning both the general role of translation theory and the ways in which teaching theory is supposed to contribute to translation competence acquisition, before reviewing the existing empirical evidence for these claims.

2. Searching for the famous ‘gap’ – the role of theory

Theory is about the 1000 'problems'/topics which translators come across ('capitalise or not?' 'reduce this metaphor to sense or not?' etc.). Its main job is to recommend the most suitable procedure after laying out the choices. (Newmark 2002: 95 quoted from Schäffner 2005: 239)

This description of the role of translation theory comes from Newmark, but he is by no means the only scholar to suggest that theory needs to be useful to the practitioner. Similarly, Vinay (1991: 157) opens an article with the words: ‘To begin with, I think that the chief, if not exclusive, aim of translation theory, should be to help translators in their work.’ These statements are pretty much in line with the views of many practitioners that a theory of translation is only valid if it is directly applicable to practice (for example Berglund 1990). However, there are also those who claim that helping the translator is certainly not the only or even the main aim of translation theory (for example Larose 1985: 406; Komissarov 1985: 208). Lefevere (1983: 18 quoted in Delisle 2005: 107) illustrates this viewpoint by comparing translation studies to linguistics:

it is the task of theoretical linguistics to describe how languages work, not to formulate rules for good usage. In the same way, translation theory should describe how translation works, not try to formulate the rules leading to the production of good translations.

Clearly, these quotations represent the extremes of a continuum, with most scholars’ views ranging somewhere in between. These extremes, however, serve our purpose well to illustrate the divergent viewpoints on whether the aim of theory should be to ‘help’ practical translation at all.[1] There are thus two opposing viewpoints regarding the expectations on theory. The first is practice-oriented; it suggests an applicability of theory to practice with ‘the former attempt[ing] to describe, regulate and govern over the latter’ (Leal 2014: 59). The second sees theory as a means for gaining knowledge about translation in general. Leal describes the first viewpoint as a ‘marriage’ that ends up in ‘divorce’, however, if theory does not fulfill the expectations that have been placed in it (2014: 18). She thus draws our attention to the fact that the deception of (unjustified?) expectations is probably the reason why so many claim that a ‘gap’ exists between the theory and the practice of translation in the first place.

Mossop (2005) adopts a different viewpoint to explain the ‘gap’ that does not distinguish between the views of people, but rather between different ‘theories’. He points out that the term ‘theory’ is used in very different ways and, therefore, distinguishes between what he calls Theory1 and Theory2. He describes Theory1 as being concerned with describing and explaining all phenomena related to translation and points out that ‘the understanding sought by theory sense 1 is an end in itself’ (2005: 28) and thus does not aim at being useful for either the practice or the teaching of translation. Unsurprisingly, it is exactly this kind of theory that has been criticized as being detached from the real-world of professional translators. This aversion to Theory1, he points out (2005: 25), hinders progress in understanding the phenomenon of translation – an understanding which could ultimately ‘turn out to be useful, even if utility is not its purpose’ (2005: 27). Contrary to some (Katan 2009: 150; Sun 2014: 183), he does not plead for narrowing the gap, but rather for acknowledging that this kind of theory has a claim to existence in its own right (see also Wadensjö 2011: 18–9, for example). Mossop (2005: 23) distinguishes this Theory1 from Theory2, which in his view is ‘a summary of the practice of experienced translators’. It is this kind of theory, he believes, that can directly help practice because teachers can pass it on to students and thus speed up the learning process. Theory2 would thus correspond to all the mental schemas that a translator builds up by translating as well as to the regularities he or she deduces from practice, and these might be acquired more quickly through conscious awareness-raising than through practice alone. Mossop (2005: 24) believes that this form of theorizing can, in turn, ‘lead to self-criticism, and self-criticism opens the door to improvement’. Mossop’s distinction between different kinds of theory leads to another explanation of why a gap is perceived to exist. There seems to be a certain denial among some practitioners, students and even scholars that, just as in other disciplines, there is not only an ‘applied’ branch of TS, but also a ‘pure’ branch – a distinction that was already made in Holmes’ (1972/1988) seminal outline of the field of translation studies. The ‘pure’ branch, which includes both theoretical and descriptive translation studies, is interested in furthering the knowledge and understanding of translation in general by doing basic research, regardless of its usefulness for translation practice. Thus, in his seminal work Descriptive translation studies and beyond, Toury (1995) takes a different view, suggesting that translation theory has been subservient to practice for too long. He (1995: 2) points out that with practical applicability having been taken as the ‘very raison d’être’ of a theory of translation, theory formation had been constrained for a long time and the ‘overriding orientation towards practical applications’ since the sixties necessarily resulted in a prescriptive approach in translation studies, instead of a descriptive and explanatory one. It should be noted that in the case of descriptive studies, there is per se a strong relation between theory and practice, since it is practice that informs research through the translation products or processes that are studied. And, as Toury (1995: 15) suggests, the results of such ‘descriptive-explanatory studies’ should, in turn, contribute to theory formation in that they can either verify or falsify existing hypotheses and/or theories and lead to new ones. In the end, even if both descriptive and theoretical research might not aim at practical applicability, the understanding gained through such research might turn out to be useful in practice (van Doorslaer 2013: 79).

From the above it results that the role of translation theory is far from clear, with opinions diverging as to whether or not it should aim at practical utility. A different, although related matter, is whether theory in the form in which it exists and is taught today has an impact on practice.

3. The suggested impact of translation theory

Scholars have made various claims about the way in which theory can have an impact. These claims can be subsumed under three different headings, ranging from a macro- to a micro-level, that is from (1) the impact on society and the status of the translation profession within that society to (2) the impact on translation teaching to (3) the effect of explicit learning of theory on the translation competence of the individual student (Gile 2010; van Doorslaer 2013). While it is generally acknowledged (Pym 2005: 4–5; Gile 2010: 257–9; van Doorslaer 2013: 80) that translation theory has had a considerable impact on how the profession is seen in society at large, especially by according it an academic status, it has also had a major impact on how translation is taught (Gile 2010: 255–7; van Doorslaer 2013: 81–2). If translation theory has an impact on translation teaching, this is certainly not only due to the explicit teaching of theory, but also because it influences training methods in general. Thus, the influence of translation theory exceeds its explicit inclusion in curricula and has also had subtler effects on translator training. There is some agreement that, at university level at least, all teaching should have a theoretical basis (Bastin and Betancourt 2005: 213; Delisle 2005: 108). As a result, theoretical knowledge is considered to be essential for those who teach translation. By giving the lecturer a broader view of the phenomenon of translation and a deeper understanding of the underlying cognitive processes, Moser-Mercer (1996: 201 quoted in Lederer 2007: 32) for example, believes that theory guarantees a more reflective and less prescriptive approach in the translation classroom. Bastin and Betancourt (2005: 213) suggest that the teachers’ theoretical knowledge avoids the often criticized random selection of translation tasks and helps train more open-minded and flexible translators. While these and other effects of translation theory have been claimed to exist, their impact has so far not been proven empirically. This lack of empirical research extends to the impact that explicit teaching of theory can have on the acquisition of translation competence by individual students, as Gile (2010: 255) rightly points out:

‘TS lacks a solid empirical research basis to show that training methods based on certain Translation theories are more efficient than methods based on other theories, or even that certain training methods are more efficient than others regardless of the existence of underlying theories.’ (Gile 2010: 255)

Nevertheless, claims that teaching theory benefits students are abundant in the literature. The suggested effects of teaching theory can be categorized into four main groups (Di Mango 2018: 106–11): (1) raising awareness and inducing critical thinking, (2) providing a meta-language to discuss and justify translations, (3) influencing the translation process and thus enhancing the quality of the resulting translations, and (4) speeding up translation competence acquisition.

3.1. Raising awareness and inducing critical thinking

It is sometimes suggested that theoretical reflection raises the students’ awareness about different aspects of translation and about the translation process, that it induces critical thinking and provides a general education (Chesterman 1998: 6; Shuttleworth 2001: 505; Mossop 2004: 375). Bernardini (2004), for example, believes that the most important part of a translation curriculum is ‘education’, which she opposes to practice-oriented ‘training’. She insists that the belief that ‘training’ alone would be enough to produce professional translators without affecting the quality of the translators’ work is ill founded (2004: 22). She argues that a reductionist view of translation underlies this assumption and suggests, on the contrary, that ‘translators can do without training but not without education’ (2004: 27). The main aim of theoretical courses would thus be to make students better translators – not by applying theoretical guidelines directly but rather by ‘disturb[ing] their ideas about translation and mak[ing] them think about what translators do’, as Mossop (1994: 401) puts it. Theoretical courses should thus not merely confirm practice but rather question it, induce some doubt and reflection about the nature of translation and about what it can actually achieve. Mossop (1994: 408), for example, believes that theoretically trained translators are aware that translation can never be a neutral, objective ‘technique for “getting messages across”’ and will therefore not contribute to promoting this received idea about translation. He also places a certain importance on theoretical courses, especially courses on translation history, for making students understand the role of the translator through time and helping them to position themselves within today’s society. He believes this kind of knowledge will help to ‘make the difference between a thinking translator and a mere word engineer’ (2003: 21). All in all, Mossop argues quite openly against the kind of translator training that resembles the real world of professional translators and in favor of producing educated, ‘thinking’ translators who have the general abilities that allow them to learn all the skills they may require in their actual job by themselves. Awareness-raising and the resulting self-criticism are thus the means by which Mossop believes that improvement in translation skills can ultimately be achieved (Mossop 2005: 24).

Both Mossop and Bernardini illustrate the claim that the focus of a translation curriculum should not be on practice and therefore implicitly reaffirm the well-known quotation by Hönig (2011): ‘Übersetzen lernt man nicht durch Übersetzen’ (You do not learn how to translate by translating). Other scholars make similar claims. Some believe, for instance, that it is important for students to be aware of how the translation process works and what translators actually do (Larose 1985: 406; Chesterman 1998: 6; Adab 2000: 220), while others highlight the idea that translation theories can benefit students in developing a more flexible conception of translation. Drawing on Toury (1995: 15), Boase-Beier (2010: 27) points out that ‘theories are partial, descriptive, and represent different ways of seeing’ which, in turn, ‘should enable us to free ourselves from naïve conceptions of what translation is’. She further argues that, while theories are not there to prescribe practice, a more flexible conception of translation will influence practice nevertheless. One aspect of this flexibility is certainly the awareness that there are different types of translation, as has been pointed out by Kvam (1996: 123), for example. To highlight the role of translation theory as a conceptual tool, Delisle (2005: 116–7) uses the metaphor of a road map which ‘does not tell you where to go but shows you the different possibilities you have’. Similarly, it has been frequently pointed out that rather than merely imparting knowledge, theoretical reflection enhances analytical skills and allows students to reflect on their own practice (Shuttleworth 2001: 505; Schäffner 2005: 244–5; Kearns 2008: 208–9). Besides this awareness-raising impact of theory, it is also claimed that theoretical training enables students to develop more self-confidence (Snel Trampus 2002: 38; Calzada Pérez 2005: 6; Leppihalme 2008: 62). Last but not least, theories are believed to have an impact by giving students an idea of the translator’s role and of translation ethics (Chesterman 1998: 6; Aubin 2003: 444; Mossop 2003: 21).

3.2. Providing a meta-language to discuss and justify translations

A second benefit of theoretical knowledge – and one that is repeatedly highlighted in the literature – is that it provides translators with a basis for discussing their solutions with critics and clients and more importantly still, for justifying those solutions if need be. Accordingly, it has been labeled a ‘necessary part of the translator’s defensive armor against attacks from the uncomprehending’ (Robinson 2003: 170), and scholars such as Adab (2000: 220), van Vaerenbergh (2005: 24) and Pym (2010: 4) mention the ability to defend one’s choices as being an advantage that theory brings to the individual. Closely related to this advantage is the coining of a meta-language that allows those with theoretical knowledge to talk about translation. This has been mentioned, for example, by Wagner, who has a rather critical view of translation theory in general (see above), as one of the few positive impacts she could find in the theories presented to her by Chesterman (Chesterman and Wagner 2002: 11). Bartrina (2005: 187) and Mossop (2004: 375) likewise point out that a common set of technical terms is the basis for any discussion or justification of translation choices. While the above-mentioned effects of theoretical instruction on the development of translation competence are rather indirect and influence a translator’s ability to theorize, his or her concept of translation and his or her self-confidence, a more direct influence on the translation process and the quality of the resulting translation has also been suggested.

3.3. Influencing the translation process and enhancing the quality of the resulting translations

One aspect that is frequently mentioned in this connection concerns the students’ ability to make informed decisions and solve translation problems. Thus, both Pezza Cintrão (2010: 168) and Chesterman (1998: 6; Chesterman and Wagner 2002: 7) believe that knowledge about theories provides translators with ‘mental schemas’ or ‘conceptual tools’ that help them to solve different kinds of translation problems and, according to Pezza Cintrão (2010: 168), to ‘find more appropriate solutions to the functional requirements of a translation task’. This view is shared, among others, by Reiß (1986: 3), Bartrina (2005: 178), and van Vaerenbergh (2005: 24). In a similar vein, some have suggested that theoretical knowledge contributes to translation competence by replacing intuition in translation with consciousness and thus altering the translation process in a way that leads to a more consistent translation quality (Viaggio 1994: 104; Delisle 2005: 112; Kussmaul 2009: 66). Kumpulainen (2016: 196) thus assumes that theoretical training contributes to improve students’ ‘interlingual text production skills’, especially their ability to monitor the emerging translation for any negative transfer from the ST. She attributes this effect to the awareness that ‘TT structure does not have to be identical to the ST structure’, which she believes makes students more courageous when it comes to deviate from the ST structure. Speaking of the influence of theories on the actual translation product, Bayer-Hohenwarter (2012: 310–1) seems convinced that it is a knowledge of functionalist theories that makes translators translate less literally. Similarly, Latyšev (2004: 641) suggests that theoretical knowledge is necessary in order to find acceptable solutions. Those who have not been theoretically trained, he claims, translate either too literally or too freely, adapt too much or not enough and provide formal equivalents instead of functional ones. There is thus a widespread belief among translation scholars that theoretical knowledge does, in fact, contribute to translation competence and that it has a positive influence on problem solving processes and, in the end, on the quality of the translation produced.

3.4. Speeding up translation competence acquisition

Apart from claims that theoretical reflection influences the level of translation competence that an individual attains, it is claimed by some that teaching translation theory speeds up the learning process and thus the acquisition of translation competence. Aubin (2003: 442), for example, praises translation studies for providing the necessary basis for effective translator training, because theoretical reflection, she believes, allows students to acquire translation competence without the trial and error learning that their (supposedly practically trained) teachers were put through. She thus firmly believes that theoretical reflection does, in fact, speed up the development of translation competence (2003: 444). Referring to his Theory2 (see above), that is to a ‘summary of the practice of experienced translators’, Mossop (2005: 23), too, assumes that the knowledge gained through experience can be passed on to learners and thus save them the time they would otherwise require to have that experience first-hand. In a similar vein, Cruces Colado (2005: 194) points out that practice alone is not sufficient for deducing the rules underlying the translation process – if students had to deduce these rules on their own by trial and error, their learning process would be slowed down considerably. She suggests that an integration of (didactic) models from translation studies and cognitive models of the learning process is needed in order to develop efficient methods for teaching translation.

In conclusion we can say that multiple claims about the benefits of teaching translation theory have been made over the past decades and positive results have been reported, not only by researchers/lecturers themselves but also by students. Thus, Whitfield (2003: 436) reports that graduates have contacted her and affirmed that theoretical concepts are useful for their everyday work. Similarly, Gile’s students (2010: 256) have the impression that theories have changed their concept of translation or even the way they translate, that they have felt reassured and turned to theories to make rational decisions. However, this feedback on the impact of translation theories is rather anecdotal. In the following section, we will review some of the existing empirical evidence on how teaching theory might affect translation competence development.

4. Empirical Evidence on the Impact of Teaching Theory

Research on the actual impact of theory on translation competence is rather scarce. As Pym (2011: 485) points out, there are a number of studies that confirm that a specific course, which might be more or less theoretical and has been specifically devised to enhance a skill X, does in fact enhance skill X. These studies, however, usually do not compare one teaching method to another, nor do they necessarily include explicit theory teaching which is why we will not consider them in this review.[2] The findings that permit conclusions on the impact of teaching theory on the development of a general translation competence come from two different kinds of studies. The first kind consists of studies that test the impact of one specific theoretical course. These studies are usually limited to a short-term intervention, often comprising one semester only, and the participants’ translation competence is tested both at the beginning and at the end of the semester. The data then permit conclusions on how the course has affected translation competence or specific aspects thereof (Bastin and Betancourt 2005; Pezza Cintrão 2010). The second kind consists of studies that were not designed to measure the impact of one specific course but to investigate translation competence (acquisition) in general. Due to their design, however, some of these studies allow for conclusions to be drawn about the impact that theoretical input might have (Orozco 2000; Göpferich 2011; Göpferich 2013; PACTE 2014; Castillo Rincón 2015).

Bastin and Betancourt (2005) focus explicitly on the impact of teaching theory on the development of translation competence. They study the gain of translation competence through one course that they describe as a theoretical course focusing on functional principles with the main aim of making students aware of their options in the translation process and reducing literal, automatic translation. Comparing their participants’ translations from before and after the course, Bastin and Betancourt found that the overall number of errors when translating the very same text had decreased by the end of the course. A closer look, however, revealed that this was not true for all kinds of errors. Distinguishing between linguistic errors (lexicon, grammar, …) and technical errors (omissions, inadequate explicitations or implicitations), Bastin and Betancourt found that linguistic errors had declined, but technical errors had increased dramatically. Furthermore, while many linguistic errors in the first translation concerned grammar or orthography, newly made errors in the second translation concerned style and logical connections. From this first wave, Bastin and Betancourt (2005: 216) conclude that the new language errors were due to a less literal, more ‘risky’ approach to translation that did not yet meet, however, the criteria the text should fulfill. In a second wave of data collection, the focus was placed on successful solutions, which were differentiated in terms of their level of (non-)literalness. While Bastin and Betancourt (2005: 220–1) found that the number of successful translations increased from the beginning to the end of the semester, the number of literal translations decreased only marginally (by six per cent), making literal translation the most frequently adopted strategy despite the fact that the theoretical course focused on creative translation. From this, Bastin and Betancourt conclude that one semester of theoretical input is not sufficient to make subjects translate in accordance with the requirements that the TT has to fulfil in a functional paradigm or that their course in particular was not able to transmit the theoretical concepts adequately. Despite some limitations of the study (for example the influence of other courses[3] taken during the semester, no clear separation between theory and practice, the possible learning effect due to using the same task twice), it points towards the conclusion that theoretical teaching alone does not seem to bring about the desired increase in translation competence, at least not in the short-term.

The only process-oriented study that focuses on the impact of the explicit teaching of theory on translation competence acquisition is, to the best of my knowledge, Pezza Cintrão’s (2010). For her study, Pezza Cintrão devised a course based on theoretical approaches, such as skopos theory and discursive concepts, with the general aim of increasing translation competence in line with functional principles and a specific focus on recognizing and solving translation problems. Her course was not exclusively theoretical, however, but included practical activities that she calls ‘prototypical tasks and cases’ to exemplify and supplement the theoretical input (2010: 171). She compared eight subjects who took the above-mentioned course in translation during one semester with a control group of students with comparable profiles who did not attend the translation course, but otherwise studied the same (philological) subjects as the first, experimental group. A third group consisted of ‘bilinguals’ (Spanish teachers without formal training in translation) and served to control the variable of language competence. The data reported by Pezza Cintrão (2010: 176) include a translation done by all three groups before the intervention and, for the student groups (experimental and control), two translation tasks after the intervention in the experimental group. Her analysis of process data concerned problem detection, measured by whether the subjects attempted to fulfill functional requirements in their translation, and the successful solution of problems. Analyzing the data collected before the intervention, she found that the bilinguals performed considerably better regarding both the detection and the solution of problems than the two groups of students. The student groups performed comparably to one another, as was to be expected. After the intervention, when translating the same text again, both student groups performed better than in the first wave – the increase, however, was more pronounced among the students with theoretical (and practical) training than in the group without any translation-specific training. When a previously unknown ST was translated at the end of the term, the difference between the two groups of student subjects became even more obvious. While the control group did not show any improvement in problem detection and only a slight increase in problem solution when compared to the beginning of the term, the experimental group showed a considerable improvement in both respects, although not to the same extent as for the ST that they already knew from the beginning of the term. From these findings, Pezza Cintrão (2010: 173) concludes that explicit theory teaching at the novice stage

contributes to a change in the students’ mental schemes about translation [which becomes] manifested in a significant improvement in the functional aspects of the strategic sub-competence, specifically in its nuclear tasks of detecting and resolving translation problems.

Nevertheless, she believes that explicit teaching is not a conditio sine qua non to achieve this. She comes to this conclusion because her non-translation trained bilinguals performed slightly better than the students even after the latter had taken the course. Pezza Cintrão (2010: 179) thus sees the main benefit of the explicit teaching of theory to be in improving translation competence more rapidly than would have been the case without it. It should be noted, however, that – although providing some interesting results – her study does not permit conclusions as to whether teaching theory generally contributes to better or faster acquisition of translation competence, but rather suggests that a course consisting of both theory and practice is better than no translation training at all.

Apart from the above-cited studies, which provide contradictory conclusions, there are also intriguing findings from studies that did not set out to investigate the impact of the teaching of theory at all. The first of these studies is Orozco’s, in which the main interest is in establishing reliable criteria for measuring translation competence acquisition in students (Orozco 2000; Orozco and Hurtado Albir 2002). Orozco devises a ‘measuring instrument’ which is based on students’ declarative knowledge, that is their notions of translation, as well as their translation problems and errors. To validate her measuring instrument, Orozco evaluated the translation competence of students at three different Spanish universities at the beginning and at the end of their first year, in order to see whether the instrument could measure the gradual change in translation competence over only one year of study (2002: 386). What makes her study relevant for the present overview is the fact that, of the three curricula included in the study, only one includes a course on ‘translation theory’ during this first year of study. Orozco’s measurement of ‘notions of translation’ shows that the theoretically trained subjects scored better in the questionnaire on declarative knowledge than those who were not taught theories explicitly. When correlating this measurement of declarative knowledge with both the subjects’ product and process data, no correlation could be found, however. This was equally true for the measurement at the beginning of the term and after eight months of training. Although Orozco herself does not draw any wider conclusions, Pezza Cintrão (2010: 171) takes these findings to indicate that theoretical teaching – at least at the novice stage – does not lead to better performance in practical translation tasks, a conclusion that can very well be drawn from Orozco’s findings (Di Mango 2018: 124).

More ‘unintentional’ evidence regarding the lack of any observable impact of the explicit teaching of theory on translation competence comes from the TransComp project (Göpferich 2012; 2013). This longitudinal project, which was devised to study the development of translation competence in students throughout their undergraduate program, allows for conclusions to be drawn about the impact of the teaching of theory due to a peculiar feature of the study program involved. In the curriculum in question, students of translation do not attend practical translation classes before their third year. During the first two years, they attend theory-oriented lectures and seminars as well as language courses. Göpferich’s results (2012) from a comparison of novices and fourth-semester students are relevant for our topic, because her findings give insights into the development of translation competence when subjects are taught theoretical subjects and language courses without additional translation practice. On the basis of a number of analyzed variables, Göpferich concludes that her data do not show any progress during the first four semesters of training regarding either the quality of translation, the number of problems encountered or the strategic behavior, that is awareness and solution of translation problems (2012: 260–1). Göpferich herself attributes this outcome to the curriculum in which no practical classes are included in the period under investigation and suggests that synergy effects should be created by interconnecting theoretical and practical courses. Expanding on her conclusion in a later publication (Göpferich 2013), she proposes that the stagnation in translation competence acquisition may be only apparent and hypothesizes that the students’ problem-awareness might have grown due to exposure to theory, whereas they might not have developed the competence to solve these problems due to a lack of practical experience (2013: 73).

Another major translation process research group, the PACTE group, analyzes students’ acquisition of translation competence through a simulated longitudinal study covering the four-year undergraduate study program at the Universitat Autònoma de Barcelona. PACTE (2014; 2015) have published findings regarding two of their variables, the knowledge of translation and the translation project variable. These findings are of interest because they allow us to draw conclusions about the subjects’ development during their first year, in which they had one semester of practical translation courses but no (translation) theory at all (2014: 109). The ‘knowledge of translation’ variable, which has been designed to determine whether subjects have a dynamic, communicative concept of translation or a static, linguistic concept, shows a considerable difference between the declarative knowledge of novices and students at the beginning of their second year. While the novices’ concept is not very dynamic, PACTE observe a ‘leap’ within the first year of training to a level almost as high as that observed with professional translators (evaluated in PACTE 2008). From this observation, PACTE conclude that students ‘develop implicit theories about the dynamic nature of translation from their own experience in translation’ (2014: 109) – and it seems that they do so fairly early on in their training, without being actively directed towards such a view of translation through functional or communication-oriented theories. PACTE (2015) also investigate whether this correlates with the development of what subjects actually took into account during the translation process. The data on procedural knowledge confirm the leap from the first to the second year: both for the overall approach and for the translation problems taken together, the second year students show a significantly more dynamic approach than novices (2015: 44–6). Thus, there was a considerable development from less dynamic to more dynamic with regard to both the concept of translation and the subjects’ practical approach to translation after only one year of translation training. This development goes hand in hand with a considerable increase in target text quality during the first year (Castillo Rincón 2015: 79–80).

All in all, the scarce evidence seems to contradict the claims of a positive, measurable impact of translation theory on the acquisition of translation competence. In fact, most of the reviewed studies suggest that there might be little measurable impact of teaching translation theory on the development of translation competence or even none at all (Orozco 2000; Göpferich 2011), whereas progress in developing translation competence could be achieved with purely practical training alone (PACTE 2014, 2015; Castillo Rincón 2015). Evidently, it has to be assumed that this practical training, which was provided in a university-based translator training program, fulfilled the requirements of ‘deliberate practice’ (Ericsson, Krampe and Tesch-Römer 1993: 368),[4] that is the practical translation courses were probably structured in such a way as to improve competence, reduce weaknesses, and provide students with feedback to help them improve.

5. Conclusion

We have discussed different viewpoints that exist with regard to the role of translation theory – is theoretical reflection on translation an aim in itself, or should we expect it to be ‘subservient’ to practice, that is useful for the professional in that it is directly applicable? The fact that expectations in this regard differ might be the very reason why a ‘gap’ between theory and practice is frequently lamented within translation studies (Leal 2014: 18).

We have also reviewed claims about the positive impact that teaching (translation) theory has on the development of translation competence in a translator training setting. The concrete impact of theory on translation competence is subject to contrastive opinions, however. Some, such as Pym (2011: 480), seem not to believe that knowing about translation theories will enhance translation competence. Others (Chesterman 1998; Bernardini 2004; Bartrina 2005; van Vaerenbergh 2005; Boase-Beier 2010) suggest a number of benefits, ranging from an impact on general intellectual abilities, such as raising awareness and inducing critical thinking, to suggesting a direct impact on the translation process and product. Summing up the claims we have reviewed, theories are believed, for example, to

  • provide a meta-language to discuss translation
  • help in developing self-confidence and self-criticism
  • provide a meta-awareness about the translation process
  • help in forging a less rigid conception of translation and becoming aware of various translation options
  • help favor a communicative / functional approach and thus lead to more acceptable translations
  • help recognize and solve translation problems
  • help acquire translation competence faster than through practice alone

Most of these claims have been put forward on the basis of personal experience and anecdotal evidence, so that the question arises whether they would prove true in an empirical investigation. There are only a few studies that allow for tentative conclusions on this question. Thus, there is evidence that students with one year of practical training, but no additional translation theory, developed a considerably more dynamic approach to translation that was also reflected in an increased quality of the produced translations (PACTE 2014, 2015; Castillo Rincón 2015). There is also evidence that students who attended a specialized course on translation (theory) over the course of one semester developed a higher level of translation competence than students who did not attend any translation-specific course (Pezza Cintrão 2010). On the other hand, Bastin and Betancourt (2005) concluded that their theoretical course, which equally covered a semester, was either too short or generally not adequate to lead to a considerable better quality (as measured by creativity) in the produced translations. In a similar vein, Orozco (2000) could not find any impact of theoretical knowledge on her subjects’ translation processes or products. Last but not least, Göpferich (2012, 2013) reported that her students did not make any measurable progress with regard to their translation competence over four semesters of study in which, however, they did not attend any practical translation classes but mainly theoretical lectures and language courses. To summarize the above, most of these studies indicate that no direct impact of teaching translation theory is visible but since some positive effects have been reported (Pezza Cintrão 2010), conclusions are difficult to draw. In the end, the existing findings cannot really answer the question whether explicit teaching of theory can contribute better to the development of translation competence than practical classes alone.[5] Thus, more research is needed that focuses explicitly on the relation between the input that students receive during translation training and their success in developing translation competence.


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[1] For those interested in the opinions of a far wider range of scholars, Delisle (2005) and Leal (2014) offer an ample selection of quotations.

[2] Such courses may aim, for example, at training students to cope with cultural references [Scott-Tennent and González Davies (2008); González Davies and Scott-Tennent (2005)] or transmit a range of translation strategies for problem-solving [Scott-Tennent, González Davies and Rodríguez Torras (2000); González Davies, Scott-Tennent and Rodríguez Torras (2001); Pym and Torres-Simón (2015)]. Studies in which information on course content is missing are also exempted from this overview, for example Malkiel (2006).

[3] These courses, according to Bastin and Betancourt (2005: 216), seem to be mainly concerned with (good) writing in the mother tongue, making it questionable whether the decline of grammatical and orthographical errors observed in the study is due to the theoretical translation course alone.

[4] Ericsson, Krampe and Tesch-Römer (1993: 368) define deliberate practice as ‘a highly structured activity, the explicit goal of which is to improve performance. Specific tasks are invented to overcome weaknesses, and performance is carefully monitored to provide cues for ways to improve it further.’

[5] One study that focuses explicitly on this question is Di Mango (2018)

About the author(s)

Daniela Di Mango is a post-doctoral researcher and lecturer in English Linguistics at the University of Passau. With a professional background in translation, her main research interest is in translation competence acquisition, SLA and psycholinguistics in general.

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©inTRAlinea & Daniela Di Mango (2019).
"Does Teaching Theory Enhance Students’ Translation Competence? Viewpoints, Expectations, Findings"
inTRAlinea Special Issue: New Insights into Translator Training
Edited by: Paulina Pietrzak
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