Translation and Translation Studies

translation studies


I am always slightly nervous when one talks about studying translation in an academic environment. So often what is written has so little to do with the experience of translation. I believe in the theology of experience ā€“ that is, you must experience translation, not read about it. Translation is not limited to the act of transferring a text from one language to another, it is all around us and defines human existence. Everything we do is translation, from breathing air to consuming food to understanding those around us. Translation is a balancing act in which, having prepared the text you are going to translate (the horizontal process that takes place before the act of translation ā€“ that is searching in dictionaries, consulting the Internet, consulting the author if he or she is alive, etc.), you expel the translation in a single breath. You must create a whole that has a body, it is not a question of just putting down the same words in another language, it is a question of creating another living creature (the Word is alive, after all), it is a question of compensation (sometimes if you lose something, you may gain something later on, often the very same word), it is a question of internal rhyme and rhythm. This must not be broken. I am afraid that academia treats the translation as dead matter, something that can be picked up and examined, taken apart, its pieces analysed. In any translation, subject to your own subjective point of view, you will find something that you think has been mistranslated or could have been translated in another way, but the translator will have his or her reasons for doing it in this way. Academia, Iā€™m afraid, is in the business of criticism, but we are not meant to judge others. We should see the good in others, the weakness in ourselves.

Most of the people I have come across who teach translation (translation is something that must be experienced, not learned out of a textbook, this is theology, after all) have translated few or no books. Surely when setting out to analyse a translation, you yourself should have the experience.


Translation is a process in which we leave behind a text and extract meaning. This meaning is what gives our lives purpose. The Word is alive, and we must listen to it. In the beginning, when I first started translating professionally, I was always busy, rushing through dictionaries, coming up with all sorts of solutions. Now I listen. There is a voice, and we should be guided by this voice. Writers do the same (do not think they are not translators). If we compensate, writers do the same. Not everything that is in their minds makes it on to the sheet of paper. The point is to jumble the words while they are in the air, to rearrange them as they settle and to leave behind what we believe is a breathing, coherent whole.

So approach translation with care and respect. The good things in this life tend to make off at the slightest noise.


This is an extract from a letter sent by Jonathan Dunne to a PhD student regarding translation and translation studies