Volume 9, No. 4 
October 2005

  Leandro Wolfson


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Index 1997-2005

TJ Interactive: Translation Journal Blog

  Translator Profiles
Translators and Translations: Paintings and Shades in Their Frames
by Regina Alfarano, Ph.D.

  The Profession
The Bottom Line
by Fire Ant & Worker Bee

  TJ Cartoon
Great Moments in Languages: Twelve-step Program to Recover from Translationese
by Ted Crump

  Translators Around the World
Translation Accreditation Boards/Institutions in Malaysia
by Dr. Kulwindr Kaur d/o Gurdial Singh

  Translators and Computers
La traduction automatique par opposition à la théorie interprétative — analyse d'un corpus de productions réelles
Chidi Nnamdi Igwe

Strategies for New Interpreters: Interpreting in the Indonesian Environment
by Izak Morin

Picturesque German—German Idioms and Their Origins
by Igor Maslennikov

  Translator Education
Training of Interpreters: Some Suggestions on Sight Translation Teaching
by Elif Ersozlu, Ph.D.
The Contact Between Text, Mind, and One's Own Word in a Translation Workshop
by Leandro Wolfson
A Competent Translator And Effective Knowledge Transfer
by Dr. Kulwindr Kaur a/p Gurdial Singh

  Literary Translation
L'Épreuve de l'autre dans la traduction espagnole de Vivre me tue
Dr. Nadia Duchêne

  Translators' Tools
Translators’ Emporium
Discovering Translation Equivalents in a Tourism Corpus by Means of Fuzzy Searching
by Michael Wilkinson
CAT Tools and Productivity: Tracking Words and Hours
by Fotini Vallianatou

  Caught in the Web
Web Surfing for Fun and Profit
by Cathy Flick, Ph.D.
Translators’ On-Line Resources
by Gabe Bokor
Translators’ Best Websites
by Gabe Bokor

Translators’ Events

Call for Papers and Editorial Policies
  Translation Journal

Translator Education

The Contact Between Text, Mind, and One's Own Word

in a Translation Workshop*

by Leandro Wolfson

e translators work in the field of communication by way of the word. "Communication" and "word" are linked to the very essence of what is human.

In the past few years, a productivist pragmatism which presents itself as an unquestionable and universally valid doctrine seems to be subjecting human exchanges to the empire of its economical laws. All pursuits are reduced to their lucrative and income-producing aspects. From a purely professional perspective, translation has now come to be thought of as a way of earning a living, while the historical role it had within human evolution as a means of communication through the word is forgotten. I'm far from proposing that the practical aspects of the profession be neglected, but in my opinion if the transcendent humanistic character of our work is not taken into account in the first place and mere profitability is sought, the very essence of our profession is distorted.

The purpose of this paper is to present a way of conducting a translation workshop so as to make the most of this reciprocal learning environment [ámbito de enseñaje], not only with reference to the subject at hand but also with regard to the spirit with which the work is undertaken. The goal is to reaffirm translation as a spiritual endeavor. To this end, I will enumerate the stages into which I usually divide my courses, after which I will show what role I assign to the spirit in each of these stages.

First, however, I must clarify some of the terms I will use in this brief exposition. Because I am a translator, that is to say, a staunch investigator of meanings, the meanings of words have a special weight for me. When I write, no matter what the subject is, I take care to be explicit about what I understand each word to mean. In the alchemy of speech, even the most common terms pass through personal alembics, and each one of us is a unique living dictionary.

I will clarify, then, what I mean by "workshop," "contact," "text," "mind," and "one's own word," just as they appear in the title. I will also have to indicate what I mean by reciprocal learning environment, a phrase I have just used.

The term workshop is of a material and illustrious lineage. In Latin a workshop is called astellarium, the origin of astillero [shipyard] in Spanish, which in French gave rise to atélier, as in that of a carpenter, modiste, painter, or sculptor. "A place where one carries out manual labor," according to María Moliner's definition.1Its etymology speaks of practical tasks and in no way means free of theory, as Aristotle well knew and as we were reminded, more recently, by Valentín García Yebra.2 Theory is part and parcel of practice, is inserted in it, intertwined with it, it penetrates and sustains it. However, in a workshop it very rarely comes to the fore.

Some characteristics distinguish the workshop environment, as I view it, from other places designated for translation practice. They are the following:

  • A workshop is not part of a program of academic studies. It is extracurricular. It is not governed by grades, points, credits, or exams. It is not a course taken to comply with certain curricular requirements but rather a voluntary encounter.
  • A workshop is a place for bilateral communication between the coordinator and the participants, for "reciprocal learning," [enseñaje] as set forth in the formula by Argentine thinker and psychoanalyst Enrique Pichon Rivière,3 that is, for him4 who is teaching to learn and for him who is learning to teach, "rejecting—as Nicolás Bratosevich rightly says, referring to literary workshops—the temptation of the magisterial class and the illuminated voice."5
  • In a workshop one does not inculcate knowledge in the way a traditional course does; rather, ways of reading, interpreting, and communicating are discussed freely. A certain creative liberty, a departure from the necessarily stricter framework of formal education reigns therein, though it does not imply that no method is used. To set up a radical opposition between the concept of creative freedom and that of method is as fallacious as drawing a strong dividing line between theory and practice. A workshop is meant to be an experience in reflective practice, a practice that is in no way detached from reasoning and analysis, but that does seek to free itself from previous "theories," remaining unconditioned by a strict and coherent system of ideas, as a theory normally is. The intention is for the workshop to serve not only to assimilate techniques, skills, or knowledge from the outside but to acquire an attitude vis-à-vis texts, a way of working with them that could serve as a model for future professional undertakings.
  • A translation workshop is an intermediate entity between a language course and a literary workshop. I would say it is a space to learn to read and write: to write like a writer and to read as only a translator can do it. Borges put it very succinctly: "The translator is a very close reader."6 But the translator is also a rapporteur7 and a writer working within certain fixed limits. Whether it is a question of a poem, a short story, a computer manual, or a birth certificate, translating is always a literary operation. Naturally, the translator is subject to the golden rule of being faithful to the original text; this is the translator's model of beauty, his aesthetic ideal, as Milan Kundera rightly points out.8 But aside from this, the translator's manipulation of what resources are available in the target language places him clearly as a language craftsman, one who must avail himself of the same linguistic abilities as a creative writer. What I will say from here on is therefore applicable to any type of workshop, not only a literary translation workshop, regardless of the subject matter or the type of texts used.

Heretofore we have been concerned with the term workshop. I would now like to discuss what I mean by mind. According to epistemologist Gregory Bateson, the mind is not enclosed within the limits of a person's body. The mind originates in the group one lives in and directs itself toward that group. The mind is an ecological matter.9 I believe that the Batesonian concept of mind can be translated as espíritu [spirit]. I bring this terminological variant up for two reasons:


(1) There is an intellectualist tradition present in the use of the term mente [mind] in the Spanish language according to which mind is taken as a synonym of intellect. However, when I say that a contact between minds takes place in the workshop, I am not referring only to a process of reasoning but to the entire conglomerate of sensations and emotions that accompany our ideas in our daily translating. Besides, this contact between minds is something more than a contact between isolated individuals, for language, in fact, belongs to no one: it is a social patrimony. In the same sense, the language philosopher Jerome Bruner asserts that we have to stop conceiving of one's being as a unique, lasting nucleus and start to conceive of it rather as "parceled out in texts and conversations, localized within a community of learning."10

(2) The phenomenon generated in the group transcends the acquisition of information and knowledge and, if the approach is correct, gives rise to an exchange of another order. In the workshop, when we concern ourselves with the Word, in particular with one's own word, we are tackling a topic that is in no way secondary and the magnitude of which frequently surpasses us. It is a question of communication between minds or mental communication, nothing more nothing less; or, if I may suggest after all the aforesaid preambles, a question of spiritual communication.

I would also like to clarify the term text. This is simpler, since decades of discourse analysis have shown us that énoncé is one thing and énonciation another; the first is the text and the second the discourse; the first one is mere printed type and the second all the life it contains, all the communication it embodies. In the workshop we are not concerned with texts as dead entities, but with the reflections of texts in each participant, that will in turn give way to a new text, the translated one, which should contain the same life as the original.

Having made these clarifications, let us see what the material process in the workshop is and how it can be used in a spiritual way.

I will enumerate the stages: (1) A text is handed out for translation accompanied by a brief instruction about the source and intended readership. (2) Each participant should draft a first version at home and bring it to the following meeting. (3) During this meeting, oral comments are encouraged regarding the content of the original text. (4) One participant reads a paragraph of his translation, sentence by sentence, while the others follow along, first with the original and then with their own. (5) All questions and comments that point to dissimilarities between the different versions are formulated. (6) The coordinator asks for a clean copy of the corrected translation for the next class. (7) At the next meeting, the coordinator collects the translations, reviews them at home, and returns them with his own comments at the following class.

In these seven stages, the process undertaken with each "text" is completed in its materiality. But it can be the origin of other, very diverse, mental contacts. I will go back to these steps one by one to see what there is or may be beneath the dry letter.

(1) A text is handed out for translation accompanied by a brief instruction about the source and intended readership.

Given what has been said, one never hands out a text for translation. One hands out what at the time of writing was a living communication of one human being with his contemporaries or with his future fellow human beings, a communication that at that time had a purpose, fulfilled a function, and may have been impregnated with enormous expressiveness. The brief instruction about the source and intended readership urges, in the present, a reenactment of the dialogue that the author sustained in the past with his audience and transforms it into a new living communication. What one must seek is compenetration with the text, literally speaking: to penetrate it and let oneself be penetrated by it, until it becomes a very part of oneself.

(2) Each participant should draft a first version at home and bring it to the following meeting.

The fact that each person must produce his own version for the workshop, a place of receptivity and voluntary attendance, of uncensored acceptance, leads to the internal shaping, at the time of translating, of the image of an attentive and friendly receptor—a benign interlocutor. This is the first prerequisite for translating in the most proficient way one is capable of. The creativity of the translator, a fundamental element of his proficiency, depends on this image being successfully established throughout the workshop, dislodging that of other excessively critical, despairing, or invalidating voices.

This ties in with the need to restore the workshop participant's confidence in his own word. Frequently, misdirected grammar or language courses leave in their wake a jumble of idiomatic cripples. By placing excessive stress on rules and norms, without a correlative stimulus of creativity, some teachers inculcate their pupils with a constraining and repressive attitude about their potential as speakers of a language. It is then nearly a task of therapeutic rehabilitation to restore the translator's lost confidence in his capacity for expression in order for him to regain the idiomatic treasures buried in his inner memory and circulate more freely among the signified and signifiers that inhabit within him—sometimes without his awareness.

(3) At the beginning of this meeting, oral comments are encouraged regarding the content of the original text.

As a step previous to the checking and evaluation of the translation, the oral recounting is the best way to verify that the function, intent, and style of the text have been correctly grasped, without which it is very likely that the translation will fail. Useful guides at this stage are questions such as those suggested by Bénard and Horguelin: Who wrote the text? For whom? How? Why? and the most important of all, With what intent?11 The purpose of recounting is not only to demonstrate good comprehension of, or compenetration with, the original but also to situate the translator in his function as communicator, as Hatim and Mason call him.12 "A translation is reported speech," Roman Jakobson wrote.13 During the recounting, the coordinator should pretend that he knows nothing about the message, so that the participant pushes to the extreme his grasp of what is essential in the text and the communicative situation, as well as his capacity for synthesis and expressive ability.

(4) One participant reads a paragraph of his translation, sentence by sentence, while the others follow along, first with the original and then with their own.

We thus reach the most delicate of the workshop stages, a process that demands a clear assessment by the coordinator of the intellectual effort involved, in order to facilitate it or alleviate it. When a participant reads his version, and after that a different version is read by another one, each person must simultaneously retain in his consciousness three utterances (the original added), among which a complex series of comparisons and search for equivalencies must be made. These steps cannot be carried out all together; if the process is to be satisfactory, it is best to divide it as follows.

4a. When a participant reads his translation of the paragraph, the rest should follow along with the original, putting their own versions completely aside. It is an opportunity to pull away from one's own translation and, with as much objectivity as possible, to evaluate what a fellow participant has done. It is a moment, then, of detachment from the ego, and of generosity. It is also an excellent time for the coordinator to help fine-tune the collective ear and to detect the most important errors that may have been made, distinguishing these from secondary deficiencies.

4b. In asking the same participant to repeat his translation sentence by sentence, the others now look at their own versions, seeking to discern where these are significantly different from the read-aloud one and whether the latter contributes something worth being taken into account.

Let us now proceed to the fifth stage.

(5) All questions and comments that point to dissimilarities between the different versions are formulated.

In a climate of recognition for what was done well, the precise pointing out of what is comparable or equivalent in different versions, by way of contrast with preferable or outstanding solutions, affords the type of discernment that we are trying to inculcate. The possibility that one term or expression can be translated in many valid ways gives rise to an expressive pluralism that is one of the greatest fruits of a translation workshop, a source of collective idiomatic enrichment—including, of course, that of the coordinator. It should be a democratic interchange, not an authoritarian imposition. In this sense, I would like to recall what has been said by the Argentine therapist and thinker José Bebchuk with regard to the process of psychotherapy: "Do I want to live in a world in which I am the one who knows and the patient obeys me as one obeys authority? Do I want to coexist with my interlocutor so that he/she grants me power in exchange for what I know? Do I want to behave like an authority that produces change in the other without going through a mutual collaboration?"14

An open attitude toward the potential contribution of everyone, removing the coordinator from the position of having the preferred truth, is one of the conditions for conducting the workshop experience and at the same time the one that permits to gain the most positive elements from it.

(6) The coordinator asks for a clean copy of the corrected translation for the next class.

When the individual mind retires into privacy after the experience of the ecological mind, it does so accompanied by the voices of the group. Nevertheless, one's own word need not be lost. If the work of discernment has been well done, each participant will know what to retain and what to change in his original version. Making a clean copy of the first version affords the opportunity of a new "virtual" meeting with the group (with fellow participants and the coordinator), where recollection of what was discussed in class allows a keener sense of judgment to be applied to choices without giving up one's own personality.

It is often said that the translator should disappear, that he should not be perceived as such; that the ideal is for the reader not to realize that the translator exists and to have the sensation of reading the author directly. I also believed in this illusion and aimed for this ideal, until someone told me that he used to recognize my translations even when my name was omitted. It seems that I have a style of translating. I have accepted my unavoidable idiolect. I am an intermediary, not a nothing. Though I may try to hide, my word gives me away.

(7) At the next meeting, the coordinator collects the translations, reviews them at home, and returns them with his own comments the following class.

Here, it is the coordinator who maintains a new "virtual" meeting with the participants through their translations, and it is essential that he learn to adapt to each one's own word. The same idea may be transmitted in as many diverse ways as there are participants in the group, and the skill of the coordinator as a reviewer-trainer15 consists in accepting the other's word, his way of expression, to the fullest possible degree in order to show how to make his version approximate what can be considered most faithful and natural.

Before returning the translations that have been reviewed, the coordinator may mark some general problems or the ones worth sharing. Oral comments on these difficulties should be done in an anonymous fashion. The faults noted have no name; the problem of one participant is the problem of the group. Pointing out a mistake made is not only useful for the person who made it; for the others, it is the time to reflect on the problems that anyone could have in translating, or in the face of a similar case. It is a warning.

Finally, let us highlight the pedagogical importance of noting not only the faults, but rather, with no less emphasis, the achievements; the discoveries; the apt, original, or novel solutions; the fruits of creativity.

I have exposed, very briefly and in general terms, a model of work. This scheme can be utilized in small groups of four to ten persons who get together regularly over a period of two or more months in two- or three-hour meetings. If the workshop is of a longer duration, it would be appropriate to intercalate every so often a "text" to translate without an ensuing discussion in class, in order to follow up on the evolution of each individual. Shortening some steps and introducing some modifications in the basic procedure, it is possible to work similarly with larger groups, of up to 30 persons, who get together once a month or sporadically for more lengthy meetings.

Beyond the diverse formats available, what is important is to keep in mind the tenets that preside over this way of working. To recapitulate, they have to do with acknowledging translation as an act of human communication, valuing the enriching contact between minds that the workshop environment fosters, and respecting each person's idiosyncrasy expressed in what is most unique: his own word.


* Paper read (in Spanish) at the Second Latin American Conference on Translation and Interpretation, organized by the Colegio de Traductores Públicos de Buenos Aires, April 23-25, 1998. The author thanks Judith Ravin for her help in the translation of this paper into English.

1 "Taller," in María Moliner, Diccionario de uso del español, Madrid, Gredos, 2 vols., 1966.

2 "La teoría sola es estéril, y la práctica sin teoría, rutinaria y ciega." (Theory alone is sterile, and practice without theory, routine and blind.) Valentín García Yebra, Teoría y práctica de la traducción, Madrid, Gredos, 2 vols., 2nd. ed., 1984, p. 16.

3 Enrique Pichon Rivière, El proceso grupal. Del psicoanálisis a la psicología social, Buenos Aires, Nueva Visión, 1989, p. 14. The word "enseñaje" has been coined through the blending of "enseñanza" (teaching) and "aprendizaje" (learning).

4 The masculine pronoun is used for the sake of brevity. It refers to both genres, of course.

5 Nicolás Bratosevich, Taller literario. Metodología/Dinámica grupal/Bases teóricas, Buenos Aires, Edicial, 1992, p. 15.

6 Quoted by his translator Norman Thomas di Giovanni; see my article "I Know You Know," ATA Source, Vol. 28, 1998, pp. 1 and 13-14.

7 See Brian Mossop, "The Translator as Rapporteur: A Concept for Training and Self-Improvement," Meta, vol. 28, # 3, 1983, pp. 244-247.

8 "A translation is only beautiful when it is faithful. It is the passion for faithfulness that distinguishes the authentic translator." Milan Kundera, "Traducción y pasión por la palabra," Gaceta de la Traducción, # 1, 1993, p. 78.

9 See Gregory Bateson's two seminal works, Steps to an Ecology of Mind and Mind and Nature.

10 Jerome S. Bruner, Acts of Meaning, Cambridge, Harvard University Press, 1990.

11 Jean-Paul Bénard and Paul A. Horguelin, Pratique de la traduction: version générale, Montreal, Linguatech, 1979, p. 25.

12 Basil Hatim and Ian Mason, The Translator as Communicator, London, Routledge, 1997.

13 Roman Jakobson, "On Linguistic Aspects of Translation," in R. A. Brower, ed., On Translation, Cambridge, Harvard University Press, 1959. See also Mossop, op. cit.

14 Bebchuk, J., "Proceso y resultado en psicoterapia," Sistemas Familiares, Vol. 13, # 13, November 1997, p. 58.

15 For more on this topic, see my article "Revision as a Teaching Experience," Proceedings of the 37th Annual Conference of the American Translators Association, 1997, pp. 163-171.