Sean Patrick Hopwood, President & CEO, Day Translations Sean Patrick Hopwood, President & CEO, Day Translations
Jul 16


"Is translation an art or a science?" asks Sean Patrick Hopwood, President & CEO, Human Powered Translations, Day Translations.

It’s difficult to come up with a single definitive answer. To answer this question in the most compelling way, it’s necessary to understand and differentiate the artistic and scientific fields while scrutinizing the different facets as well as the origins of language translation.

History of Translation

To answer the question on whether translation is an art or science, it helps to trace its history. The popular belief, at least as far as the West is concerned, is that the first significant form of translation is the Septuagint, a collection of Jewish scriptures translated from Hebrew to Greek (early Koine Greek). This important translation work was commissioned for the benefit of dispersed Jews who lost their fluency in their ancestral language.

During the Middle Ages in the West, when Latin was the most prominent language among the learned in the West, there were efforts to translate Latin texts to Anglo-Saxon particularly by Alfred the Great, King of Wessex in England.

The East also started undertaking translation work during the Han dynasty, especially large-scale projects for texts related to Buddhism. The Tangut Empire of northwestern China was notable for its efforts in translating massive volumes of texts as it took advantage of the invention of block printing in China.

In the Middle East and North Africa, the Arabs pursued large-scale translation efforts starting in the second half of the 18th century after they conquered the Greek territories. They produced copies of Greek scientific and philosophical literature in Arabic, which were also translated to Latin mainly in Cordoba, Spain. The Arabic-to-Latin translations were promoted further by King Alfonso X el Sabio of Castille with the establishment of a school of translation in Toledo. There were no translation standards or prevailing schools of thought in this era. The goal of the translations was focused on obtaining scientific and philosophical knowledge. Translation at this point was largely leaning towards the scientific nature.

Eventually, the Arabic, Hebrew, and Latin texts produced during the Middle Ages were translated into other languages by scholars who used different languages, mainly Christians, Jews, and Muslims who wanted to introduce their counter-arguments or responses to the principles, beliefs, and “facts” presented in widely available written documents.

As the decades passed and the British sphere of influence started to spread, the need to translate texts into the English language emerged. It was in the 14th century when the first fine English translations of documents in Latin, Greek, and Arab were made. The Wycliffe Bible is regarded as the first significant English translation, but it notably demonstrated the drawbacks of underdeveloped English prose. English prose translation only improved considerably in the 15th century, marking a gradual shift towards greater emphasis for literary arts in translation.

Translation progressed towards stylistic equivalence (as opposed to simple paraphrasing) during the Elizabethan era. However, verbal accuracy was not considered important. It was only in the second half of the 17th century that translators sought to give weight on verbal equivalency in other languages, like doing English translations of Virgil in a way that makes Virgil (an Italian) speak as if he were an Englishman. 

Renaissance Italy, however, brought about a new mindset in translation as readers demanded consistency and faithfulness to the facts and intentions of the original texts. This trend was largely on account of the rise of philosophical and religious texts. Readers wanted to know what philosophers such as Plato and Aristotle or religious personalities like Jesus Christ actually want to impart, not the interpretation or unique style of the translators. This highlights a more scientific or accuracy-centric approach in translation but it didn’t necessary usher in a trend.

In the 18th century, the general focus for most translators was on the ease of reading. The common practice was to take out parts of a text the translators did not understand or thought would be unappealing or irrelevant to readers. Also, most of the translators believed that their own style or way of expressing thoughts were the best. There were no common standards or guidelines for translation. The translators mostly decided on their own how the translations were to be undertaken. As such, it can be said that translation took on more of an artistic mantle.

It was the 19th century that infused standards in style and accuracy into translation. As prolific European translator John Michael Cohen observed, the prevailing translation goal was "the text, the whole text, and nothing but the text."

The 20th century established the reality that translation can’t be just pure art or pure science. The second half of the century gave rise to the discipline referred to as “Translation Studies” and the establishment of institutions that focus on its teaching. In the 21st century, Translation Studies grew in prominence as it became an academic interdiscipline with various fields of study, from comparative literature to computer science, philology, semiotics, and history.

Read below for the explanations on how the history of translation helps reveal its nature as an art or science.

Translation as an Art

What is art? It is essentially the product of human creativity. It entails different perspectives, imagination, subjectiveness, discretion, flexibility of interpretation, varying appreciation, and the general lack of strict rules and standards.

As the history of translation above points out, translating languages for most of its existence was not bound by rules. Translators in the past exercised their prerogative on how to proceed with the task. Translations were produced to facilitate the learning of philosophical and scientific information. As mentioned, Arab conquerors translated documents that documented the philosophies and sciences of the Greek. For example,  the Arabs came up with Arabic copies of "Metaphysics" by Aristotle and "Enneads" by Plotinus. Later on, translations were made for the adaptation of literary works. While the goal of translating texts was to obtain knowledge and enjoy new literature, the process was not governed by strict procedures and the output did not follow specific styles or formats.

Translations were at the mercy of those who had the fluency in the source and target languages. It was almost impossible for anyone to question the final work produced by the translators. There was also a point in translation history when translators assumed that the best style of expression (in translating documents) was their style.

Before the 21st century, there were no institutions or associations formed to set standards on how translations should be made. It’s even uncertain if fact-checkers were employed to make sure that the translations retained the core details of the texts being translated.

Translation can be regarded as an artnot only because it can be used to adapt literary creations from one language to another. It is an art because it is not restrained by rigid rules and procedures. Different language service providers have different approaches in doing translations, although they have to make sure that they accurately and completely represent thoughts, ideas, and most importantly, facts. 

Additionally, translation is an art because it’s not just about converting facts and messages to another language. It also involves nuances and creative thought to generate translations that can be considered most suitable. This is best exemplified by the translation of humor. The literal translation of jokes takes away the humor or worse, may convey a different message. 

There’s no single correct way to translate texts, especially when it comes to sentences and paragraphs that can be interpreted in different ways. The translation of humor and sarcasm, in particular, calls for ingenuity and the clever use of words to achieve equivalency.  An Australian broadcaster, for example, said one infamous joke to the Dalai Lama himself. The joke left the spiritual leader bewildered. His interpreter couldn’t provide the equivalent words, idioms, or expressions to make the joke sound appropriately funny to the famous Tibetan personality. 

Translators may encounter instances when they have to creatively assemble words into a sentence that is not the literal equivalent of a sentence in another language, but it can serve as the equivalent idiom, expression, or witticism. This is not something a scientific approach can effectively deal with.

Translation as a Science 

Science is associated with the systematic way of handling things. It is characterized by accuracy, quantification, and unequivocal quality assessment and representation, It involves established facts and data, not opinions or assessments that can change depending on the assessor.

Going back to the history of translation, it bears pointing out how the later evolution of translation shifts to emphasizing accuracy. The prioritization of accuracy is in line with the nature of science. Ideally, translations should reflect the intention of the person who wrote the text that is being translated. They should not be an interpretation of a translator or an approximation of the writer’s intent.

That’s why in cases when the texts to be translated appear confusing (or don’t make sense), translators are expected to contact the client for verification. Translators should refrain from guesstimating the thoughts and details in the material to be translated.

Being scientific entails the establishment of standards and a system for the efficient undertaking of a translation job. This brings to mind the presence of ISO standards related to language translation. 

  • ISO 17100.This standard covers the core processes involved in providing translation services. It establishes a standard structure in providing services and simplifies the interaction between clients and the translators.
  • ISO 9001.Having this certification means that a language translation company puts in place certified processes for translation quality management. These include the selection of the translators to hire, the use of translation technology, and editing process.

Translations conducted in accordance to ISO standards are systematic and well-organized. They are expected to be accurate and contextually-precise. They adhere to guidelines that prevent errors and misrepresentation. The aforementioned ISO standards are like a specific version (focusing on the language translation process) of the scientific method.

The Takeaway

Language translation can be regarded as a science considering how it requires accuracy and precision. The slightest mistakes can result in serious errors in the meaning of a message being converted to a different language. The infamous Jimmy Carter speech mistranslation is a good example for this, wherein the untrained Russian translator mistranslated "your desires for the future" as "your lusts for the future" (in Russian). However, translation also has aspects that require nuanced evaluations and ingenuity (art) to produce a translation that can be considered most suitable or appropriate for a specific situation.

Saying that translation is both an art and scienceis not just a convenient answer for a difficult question. It’s the real nature of language translation; there is no dichotomy in this point of discussion. Accurate translations are not possible with an exclusively scientific or a solely artistic approach. While some texts can be straightforwardly translated, others require human judgment and creativity to come up with the most appropriate framing of an idea, to use the most suitable words, or to attain some form of equivalency. The German idiom Die Katzeim Sack kaufen, for example, literally translates to “To buy a cat in a sack.” This idiom would not appear to make sense to most English speakers. The closest corresponding idiom in English for this is “to buy a pig in a poke,” which means buying something without visually inspecting it. A proficient translator would have to look for equivalent terms and idioms to convey the correct message in a similar form (i.e. an idiom to an idiom, not an idiom to an explanation of the the idiom the translator finds difficult to translate).

This is why professional language translation services remain relevant. This is why machine translation systems have not taken over the jobs of human translators yet. The scientific aspect of translation can be addressed by continually improving translation algorithms with the aid of artificial intelligence and neural networks. However, the prospect of software, AI, and advanced machine translation systems proficiently handling the artistic aspects of language translation is still a remote possibility.

Author Biography:

Sean Patrick Hopwood is the polyglot CEO of Day Translations, Inc., a global language service provider that serves clients in a wide range of industries including healthcare, finance, and government.