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Translation is a career that combines logic and structure with freedom and spontaneity. Does this make it an art or a science? We were having this discussion in the Accutranslate office the other day and it quickly became clear that we all held strong, but differing views.  We asked Andréa and Rubén to explain why they hold the views they do:

Andrea Nicholls AccutranslateAndréa supports the “Translation is an Art” theory – “No two translators will do the same work ever and that is down to ability, interpretation, creativity, etc.  Translation is most definitely not an exact science”. To support her case, Andréa made these points:

Translation often has to render thoughts and ideas that vary from language to language and culture to culture. Sometimes the boundaries are varied – the Japanese word that is translated as “blue” in English includes many shades of what an English speaker would call “green”. Words exist in some languages that have no exact equivalent in another.  Sometimes these words are so difficult that one language borrows hard-to-translate words from another – if you had to translate “tsunami”, “bungalow” or “spaghetti” into English there is no nice, clean way to do it, but now that the words have been borrowed (from Japanese, Gujarati and Italian respectively) and used in English, they have become part of our language too and no longer need translation.

In cases where there is no exact match in the target language, and the word has not been “borrowed” in this way, the translator needs to have a bit of art to communicate the meaning without resorting to detailed cultural explanations which would spoil the flow of the translation.

Ruben Cnobel - AccutranslateRubén supports the “Translation is a Science” theory, explaining that

Science is about facts, and relies on accuracy; for translators accuracy is the first and most important principle – getting the translation as exact as possible.

Science should be objective, and this is another important skill for translators – to translate in an unbiased way, serving only as a medium for the translation to pass through, not having any effect on the words or making any changes to the words.

A translator should be rational like a scientist, rather than emotional like an artist when translating, to avoid clouding the text with their own views and opinions.

The question then arises – does it depend on what text is being translated? For example, does a translation become more of a science if the document is a legal judgement, a scientific paper or a manual for an engine? And more of an art if the translation is a novel, letters, or Marketing materials?

Andréa and Rubén both conceded that there are some examples as above where a more scientific or a more artistic approach would be more appropriate. “In fact, this is one of the ways we decide how to allocate a particular translator to a job” explains Andréa. “We know that some of our translators enjoy the nitty gritty of a manual, and others like the challenge of a piece of literature – so maybe we are already considering the science vs art argument when we are allocating tasks”.

As the discussion continued Rubén and Andréa conceded that each other’s arguments were powerful, and we were unable to give a definitive answer to the question: “Is Translation an art or a science?” Andréa suggested that in fact good translation needs both art and science.

Rubén agreed: “As Andréa says the human element is important in translation, so perhaps I have to agree that some art is also needed as well as the accurate, scientific way”.

Do you have a view on this? If so, Tweet this article or share it on LinkedIn – it will be interesting to see which argument wins!