Teaching Translation: Can Cognitive Grammar Be of Any Use?

By Elzbieta Tabakowska (Jagiellonian University, Poland)

Abstract & Keywords

The article focuses on linguistics and, in particular, Langacker’s cognitive linguistics theory as a theoretical framework for translation pedagogy. It discusses the main assumptions of cognitive linguistics with particular emphasis on those elements that are directly relevant to the problems of translator training and offers a list of premises that a course in translation based upon the cognitive linguistics framework would have to follow. The most important proposals building on these premises are as follows: it is the interpretation of the target text and not the text itself which is the object of translation research and assessment; teaching translation is tantamount to a translator’s sensitisation to the most important issues; one of the crucial elements of the sensitisation process is the claim that meaning is encyclopaedic by nature; ideally, the unit of translation should be the text in its entirety plus the contexts of source text creation and target text reception. The claims are illustrated with examples taken from a contemporary British novel, a recent study in ethnolinguistics, and ads in a women’s magazine.

Keywords: cognitive linguistics, conceptualisation, literary translation, non-literary translation, sensitisation

©inTRAlinea & Elzbieta Tabakowska (2014).
"Teaching Translation: Can Cognitive Grammar Be of Any Use?"
inTRAlinea Special Issue: Challenges in Translation Pedagogy
Edited by: Maria Piotrowska & Sergiy Tyupa
This article can be freely reproduced under Creative Commons License.
Permanent URL: http://www.intralinea.org/specials/article/2083

Motto 1: ‘Translation students must be forced to keep their feet on the linguistic ground.
One method of doing this is to practise translating up the rank-scale.’
(John C. Catford, 1967)

Motto 2: ‘The criterion of getting the truth conditions right in sentence-by-sentence
translation ignores what is in the mind. It ignores how sentences are understood.’
(George Lakoff, 1987)

1. Introduction

Like any applied science, translation pedagogy involves selective application of a theoretical framework. In the case of Translation Studies (henceforth TS), the framework  is interdisciplinary by definition, and underlying theories pertain to psychology, sociology, cultural anthropology, philosophy of language, and – last but not least -  linguistics. However, in what follows I will focus on linguistics.

Like all other theories, linguistic theories come and go; the two motto quotations above show how the span of twenty years can change both the frameworks and the applications. In the last century the structuralist frameworks – from classical structuralism of de Saussure to classical generativism of Harris and Chomsky to later minimalist theories of Chomsky’s followers – lived through their short periods of glory to be sooner or later relegated from TS  as instruments unsatisfactory to deal with the discipline’s intricate structure and the level of complexity of its object of study.

Chronologically, resentment began with the mildest version of structuralism, i.e. the classical framework advocated by de Saussure: no tenets could be easily accepted. For instance, while the main postulate for distinguishing between langue and parole was obviously accepted as most pertinent (a cornerstone of transformational-generative grammars, it is still considered crucial for adherents of all brands of cognitivism), the focus on langue at the cost of parole was less acceptable, as it meant excluding pragmatics, most significant from the point of view of translation theorists and practitioners alike. While it seemed obvious that language should be considered a system of (discrete) elements, the claim that those elements are ordered according to precise rules could not be held vis a vis the reality of translation practice. It was also hard to deal with translation issues and at the same time follow the principle that networks of relations between individual constitutive elements and between their characteristics matter more than the elements themselves; it was precisely these characteristics of individual constitutive elements that often proved decisive for significant meaning differences between originals and their translations. Inspired by attempts to apply the algorithmic model of transformational-generative grammar to translation, as propagated by the prominent translation scholar Eugene Nida (1964), the principle of methodological reductionism also proved futile.    

The ‘antistructuralist’ or ‘post-structuralist’ shift in TS meant shifting the focus of interest from the description of product to the explanation of process. This, in turn, resulted in growing concern for the ‘human factor’ involved, i.e. the agency hidden behind the process. The recognition of the translator’s identity meant the acceptance of the unavoidable subjectivity of interpretation and, consequently, of translation: the myth of translator as a clean pane was abolished. Translation came to be seen as a creative and dynamic activity, in which translator’s decision making process played a central role. The plea for the ‘central role of human experience and understanding’ (Rojo and Ibarretxe-Antuñano 2013) in translation marked the cognitivist turn, which began in the 1990s: ‘translation [became] the creation of meaning from what is cognitively available to the translator at the moment(s) of creation’ (Halverson 2013: 74). Importantly, the turn meant a changed understanding of the definition and significance of equivalence in translation. The prominent theorist of translation Theo Hermans wrote: ‘for a translation (…) being declared equivalent to its original, whether through divine intervention or legal authentication, marks the end of its status as a translation (…) for as long as translations remain translations, equivalence remains beyond their grasp’ (2003: 39-40). Thus striving for full equivalence had to mean death of both translation and the translator. The ‘cognitive turn’ was followed by  the ‘cultural turn’; both were naturally accompanied by the turn from prescriptivism to descriptivism, marked by Gideon Toury’s fundamental notion of descriptive norms, defined as  regularities (rather than strict rules) of translator behaviour. In consequence of those shifts, translation as the product of the translation process was considered as an approximation – and not a reconstruction - of a particular model of the world (cf. Legeżyńska 1998).  

2. Cognitive Linguistics

It can be easily understood that obvious inadequacies of structuralist frameworks to deal with the basic problems of TS made numerous scholars discredit the linguistic approach to TS as such. Relation of structural linguistics to the background indeed seems well justified. However, all basic tenets, assumptions and principles of today’s TS can be found in a theory of language and grammar known under the overall term of ‘cognitive linguistics’ (henceforth CL). In the remainder of this essay we shall concentrate on one particular brand of CL,  founded by the American linguist Ronald W. Langacker and then developed by his many followers. The choice seems justified, as it is this particular theory of language and model of grammar that seems to be able to successfully address some important issues in TS.


Over the last three decades CL has been gaining a position that might soon earn it the status of a mainstream linguistic theory. Below we list those of its main assumptions that seem most relevant to our main topic that is to translation pedagogy. Firstly and most importantly, CL focuses on parole rather than on langue, with the resulting emphasis on usage-based models and the rejection of all entities that are not actually attested in real linguistic communication. With meaning being its prime concern, the cognitive theory of language is focused on signifié rather than on significant. Meaning is defined as tantamount to conceptualisation, and since ‘conceptualisation’ implies the existence of a conceptualiser, meaning is not objectively present in the text, but created by the Hegelian ‘observing reason’. Hence it is inherently subjective. In the process of expression particular conceptualisations take linguistic shape, but since their author has at their disposal a repertoire of means, they choose such elements as they deem most appropriate for the communicative purposes at hand. Thus the overall meaning is composed of the content of the message, with additional contribution being made by the grammatical means used to express this content. ‘Grammar is image’ is thus a main slogan that underlies CL; what Langacker calls dimensions of imagery are parameters of a particular construal: the scope and the scale of the verbal image, the point of view and the perspective, the level of specificity and the relative salience of individual elements. Detailed discussion of these parameters (which may be easily found in the vast literature of the subject, cf. for example Langacker 2008), would mean going beyond the limits of this essay. What must be added at this point is that the pertinence of the framework for TS can also be seen in what CL has to say about metaphor and metonymy: the recognition of their status as two basic cognitive processes, universal to human beings but at the same time culture-sensitive and conditioned by personal experience, makes it possible to define with more precision both their functions in the original text and the possibilities of their rendering in another language.

The potential of CL for TS has already been acknowledged, and the postulate for creating – and developing – the discipline of ‘cognitive translatology’ was proclaimed (Munoz Martin 2013). In the remainder of this essay I would like to substantiate the claim that the approach is also worthwhile the attention of translation teachers.

3. Translation pedagogy - assumptions

It is not my purpose to provide at this point a detailed survey of the present status quo in translation pedagogy. Instead, I will only recall its main characteristics and assumptions. The aim of most standard courses – and standard textbooks - is to provide practical guidelines for trainers and/or trainees. This is, of course, easiest to do when it is ‘non-literary’ (specialised) translation that is to be taught. On the other hand, literary translation is generally pronounced unteachable, and the teaching is done mostly in the format now fashionably referred to as ‘workshop’.

A syllabus for a course in translation based upon the CL framework would have to follow several simple premises: 

  • two types of text construction, that is,  description (that is, a statement that represents something in words) and narrative (that is, telling a story, relating events) are fundamental for both literary and non-literary communication;
  • every text contains both ‘the said’ (that is, such elements as became actually verbalised) and  ‘the unsaid’  (that is, elements inferred from ‘the said’, for example presuppositions and implicatures) (terms from Tyler 1978); differences between text genres reflect proportional differences between these two constituents: the higher the proportion of ‘the said’,  the more ‘non-literary’ (or ‘non-poetic’) the text is;
  • metaphor and metonymy are ubiquitous; their use is not restricted to literary texts, but as modes of thinking and fundamental mechanisms of human cognition, they appear in every act of verbal communication, as cases of either conventional or creative uses of language. The more conventional the metaphors and metonymies used in a text, the less ‘literary’ the text is;
  • ‘medium is the message’: part of the overall meaning of a message is provided by linguistic choices made by the author (i.e. by grammar).

If these specific assumptions are accepted, what has to be accepted as well, as a logical consequence, is the more general claim that the borderline between ‘the literary’ and ‘the non-literary’ is fuzzy. As is usual with fuzzy sets, what can be most certainly considered a member of a given category is a specimen situated near its centre that is an element prototypical for the category. Two fairly controversial conclusions follow: 1. Prototypical members of the category ‘literature’ provide good teaching material for translation teachers, and 2. Literature provides useful material for teaching all types of translation.

4. Translation pedagogy – proposals

4.1 Teaching as sensitisation

Since the translation process is inherently subjective,

translation requires interpretation and it becomes the expression of a particular point of view. Therefore, it is interpretation rather than the target text that becomes object of translation research and/or assessment. It follows that ‘teaching translation’ becomes tantamount to raising translator’s awareness, their sensitisation to issues that matter. In doing this, the teacher must exceed the limits of ‘language’ or ‘text’.  A course based on non-linguistic aspects of translation includes a module now known under the name of  information mining, and earlier referred to as ‘close reading’ or explication du texte.

Since translators mediate between different cultures and idiocultures (which are individual ‘embodiments of cultural norms and forms of behaviour’, cf. Attridge  2007), they encounter factual problems, which are a standard issue in TS, for example the so-called ‘realia’. However, what should be remembered in the classroom situation is that even if parallel labels exist, concepts that are part of a given culture are inherently fuzzy and therefore equivalence is often an illusion. The claim that meaning is encyclopaedic by nature – one of the basic claims of CL – is one of the crucial elements of the sensitisation process.

As far as purely technical teaching problems are concerned, the principle of contextualisation proves a big hurdle: ideally, and in agreement with cognitive semantics, the unit of translation should be the text in its entirety, plus the general context in which it was created, as well as the general context in which the target audience will interpret its translation.

4.2 Sample ‘teaching points’

To substantiate the claim that translation issues pertain to both literary and non-literary texts, the examples that follow are taken from a contemporary British novel, a recent study in ethnolinguistics[1] and some women’s magazine ads.   

4.2.1 ‘The  said’ and ‘the unsaid’


Each afternoon, when the whole city beyond the dark green shutters of their hotel windows began to stir, Colin and Mary woke by the methodical chipping ... (JMcE)

Każdego popołudnia, gdy całe miasto ukryte za ciemnymi kotarami hotelowych okien zaczynało ożywać, Colina i Mary budziły miarowe uderzenia ... (JMcE)


ukryte = hidden

ciemnymi kotarami = dark heavy curtains

ożywać = come alive

To those ‘in the know’ the dark green shutters signal a southern town, which wakens after the afternoon siesta. The apparent lack of this piece of knowledge makes the translator move the place of action to some typical hotel and suggest that the town had been ‘dead’ rather than just ‘asleep’. Since this is the opening sentence of the story, the in medias res effect of the narration is lost.

4.2.2 The metonymic nature of  grammar

- Words:

(2) In second-generation cognitive theory the ‘blend’ was widely disseminated by the the work of Fauconnier and Turner... (JWU)

The seemingly unproblematic expression the work does become problematic when we consider translation into Polish: one has to know what it was that the two authors actually did before one decides whether to use singular (praca = work as e.g. experiment) or plural (prace = writings). But this point does not yet solve the problem: the definite article signals to the reader that they should actually be familiar with the kind of work that had been done by the two scholars.

- Structures:

(3) Every morning, delicately apply to the eye and lip contour areas

In order to translate the instruction correctly (for example into Polish), the translator has to know that cream is not applicable ‘to the eye’ but to ‘the eye contour area’.

Similarly, in order to translate

(4) Mary appeared at the French window, a cardigan draped around her shoulders. (JMcE)

the translator has to know that Mary was not actually wearing her cardigan.

4.2.3 The image and the word 


A cool, salty wind stirred a cellophane wrapper against the step on which they were sitting ... (JMcE)

Chłodny, słony wiatr przywlókł kawałek starej folii pod schodek, na którym siedzieli ... (JMcE)


stirred a cellophane wrapper = dragged a piece of old foil

In the original a slight wind moves a piece of cellophane – a wrapper that someone had dropped in the street, which is otherwise nice and clean. But in the translation the wind is strong, and the dirty (?) piece of foil paints an image of a desolate, unfriendly street. It is as if the translator put his characters in an entirely different setting. Yet the readers who know the story will remember that it is just the contrast between the idyllic Southern town and the dreadful crime committed there that creates the tension in McEwan’s story.  

4.2.4 POV and perspective


At the water’s edge, (…) children played and shouted. Further out there was the occasional swimmer lifting arm over arm in solemn exercise ... (JMcE)

Na brzegu (…) bawiły się rozkrzyczane dzieci. Tu i ówdzie jakiś zapalony pływak wyrzucał w górę ręce, rozgrzewając się przed kąpielą … (JMcE)


            Tu i ówdzie = here and there

The adverbial phrase further out establishes the point of view as that of Mary and Colin, walking along the beach, describing the scene from their perspective. Yet the translator’s image is entirely different: the vantage point (a bird’s view?) allows the observer to take in the entire beach, with swimmers (?) dispersed on it.

4.2.5 Time as a textual parameter

In structuring the narrative, the narrator has the choice between what is called the ‘Iconicity Principle in Narration’ (that is the order in which events are related corresponds to the order in which those events occurred in the real time) or structural (re) construction (that is by employing the Iconicity Principle and this imposing upon the receiver the order in which events were made to happen). The second procedure, more difficult to process, is illustrated by

(7) Conceptual metaphor was originally referred to by Lakoff and Johnson as ‘protometaphor’ (1980) and referred to before them by other scholars as ‘root metaphor’. (JWU)

(8) The workmen had put away their tools and now stood in a group facing out towards the sunset. (JMcE)

The chronology is established by morphological means: the grammatical tenses, difficult to render in languages (as Polish) which have not developed an analogous system of tenses.

5. Grammar is symbolic

According to CL, grammar symbolises content just like lexical material does. Consider the following examples:

(9) Each afternoon, when the whole city beyond the dark green shutters of their hotel windows began to stir, Colin and Mary woke by the methodical chipping ... (JMcE)

(10) We might, for example, speak of the taste of love, calling it bittersweet. But a counter conceptual metaphor posits love as a journey. One woman in our English corpus of texts from women’s magazines fused the two frames … (JWU)

In (9) the sentence initial adverbial phrase each afternoon imposes iterative interpretation upon the two verbs in Simple Past Tense, which then symbolise repeated perfective actions. In (10) the contrast between Simple Present (posits) and Simple Past (fused) makes the reader select the interpretation whereby the two personal pronouns are non-coreferential: we is the so-called ‘we of solidarity’, while our refers to the group of researchers mentioned earlier in the text. Keeping this distinction in translation is important for the overall meaning.

6. Conclusions

The first conclusion that the above discussion might prompt seems to go against the principle (advocated by many) of strict delimitation between language and translation teaching: it is obvious that introductory stages in the latter seem tantamount to the teaching of a language. What justifies the rejection of the demarcation line is the cognitive – and cognitivist - approach: the language is to be taught as a repertoire of means to create verbal images in a particular cultural context. The important proviso would be that the teaching should also involve the translators’-to-be mother tongue: like Monsieur Jourdain, as speakers of a language, we are often quite unaware of the use we make of linguistic tools put at our disposal.

 It might be interesting to observe at this point that first steps on the way to apply CL to language teaching have already been made, and made successfully. But the real contribution of CL to a translation course would come at a later stage of translators’ education, and it will involve what has been earlier called sensitisation – to the symbolising function of grammar, to the subjective character of linguistic expression, to the basically cognitive base of all meaning.

When one looks at translation pedagogy in the context of CL one has to admit that the borderline between ‘translation as art’ and ‘translation as craft’ is indeed fuzzy, as is the one separating ‘the literary’ from ‘the non-literary’. The famous ‘mastery of tools’ postulated as the necessary criterion to assess the level of translators’ professionalism (cf. e.g. the criteria for the EC European Master’s in Translation), is of course useful to a translator, but technology will not provide panacea. The metaphor which saw the translator’s role as that of ‘a clear pane’ is now only a myth, and the assumption of his identity tallies with the role of conceptualiser in the cognitive theory of language and grammar. The perspective of translation teaching following the path of CL seems a promising vista for translation pedagogy to explore.


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Catford , John C. (1981/1967)  ”Translation and Language Teaching” in Űbersetzen und

Frendsprachenunterricht, Karl-Richard Bausch and F.- R. Weller (eds), Frankfurt am Main, Verlag Moritz Diesterweg: 1–20.

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Cognitive Linguistics and Translation. Advances in some theoretical models and applications, Ana Rojo and Iraide Ibarretxe-Antuňano (eds), Berlin/Boston, De Gruyter Mouton: 33–73.

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Cognitive Linguistics and Cognitive Translatology” in Cognitive Linguistics and Translation. Advances in some theoretical models and applications, Ana Rojo and Iraide Ibarretxe-Antuňano (eds), Berlin/Boston, De Gruyter Mouton: 75–97.

Nida, Eugene (1964) Toward a Science of Translating, Leiden, Brill.

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http://www.est-translationstudies.org/resources/journals.html. Accessed: 30 September 2013.


[1] John McEwan (JMcE), The comfort of strangers (London, Pan Books Ltd., 1981)/ Ukojenie (transl.A. Możdżyńska, (Warszawa: Albatros, 2008); James W. Underhill (JWU), Ethnolinguistics and Cultural  Concepts  (Cambridge, CUP, 2012).

About the author(s)

Elżbieta Muskat-Tabakowska, PhD, prof. emer. at the Jagiellonian University of Kraków, Poland. Specializing in Cognitive Linguistics and Translation Studies. Since 1997 member of the Iconicity Research Project. Founder of the UNESCO Chair for Translation Studies and Intercultural Communication at the Jagiellonian University (between 2002 and 2012 acting Head of the Chair). Practising interpreter and translator, specializing in historical narrative; author of numerous published translations, esp. monumental books by the British historian Norman Davies. Her own list of publication includes seven books and over a hundred articles, published in Poland and abroad. Lectured as visiting professor at several European universities. In 2007 – 2010 member of the group of EU experts for the development of standard translation studies curriculum. Author of an M.A. programme in TS, selected (2009) for the DGT EMT network of the European Commission.

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©inTRAlinea & Elzbieta Tabakowska (2014).
"Teaching Translation: Can Cognitive Grammar Be of Any Use?"
inTRAlinea Special Issue: Challenges in Translation Pedagogy
Edited by: Maria Piotrowska & Sergiy Tyupa
This article can be freely reproduced under Creative Commons License.
Permanent URL: http://www.intralinea.org/specials/article/2083

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