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Research in Translation and Interpreting

Research in Translation and interpreting

Many people, especially language practitioners, think that theories (and research) are a waste of time. What relevance could a translation theory possibly have for a practising translator, for example? Dr Kim Wallmach and her research team take a different view, namely that research is a vital tool for informing both translation and interpreting practice and ensuring world-class, relevant training. South Africa, with its multilingual environment, is a unique forum for translation and interpreting research. So if you are interested in doing postgraduate research in translation or interpreting, why not do a masters or doctorate at Wits? Or if you’re simply interested in what is out there, look at upcoming events and T&I associations.

Translation and interpreting in South Africa

Language and language policy have played a vital role in the transformation of post-apartheid South Africa. Since South Africa's democratic transition in April 1994, government has taken on the challenge of moving from two official languages to eleven in an attempt to empower previously disadvantaged linguistic communities. Our Constitution, probably one of the most progressive constitutions in the world, not only specifies the use of eleven official languages at national level, but also recognises South African Sign Language and the “heritage” languages of South Africa (French, German, Portuguese, Urdu, Gujurati, Tamil, etc.)

Translation and interpreting are obvious tools in facilitating multilingualism, and it is clear that government has recognised this. The National Language Policy Framework (February 2003) makes three major stipulations: firstly, all national government structures and public institutions must adopt one or more working languages (for intra and interdepartmental purposes). Translation and/or interpreting are the obvious tools to facilitate implementation of this policy: “Every effort must be made to utilise language facilitation facilities such as translation and/ or interpreting where practically possible.” Secondly, all official government publications must appear in all eleven languages, failing which, in six languages on a rotational basis. Thirdly, official correspondence and oral communication with members of the public must occur in the language of the citizen’s choice, and where this is not possible, “every effort must be made to utilise language facilitation facilities such as interpreting (consecutive, simultaneous, telephone & whispered interpreting) where practically possible.”

And indeed, there is ample evidence to show that translation and interpreting practice in the languages of South Africa have increased dramatically over the past few years. The growth in the use of interpreting services of all kinds and at all levels in South Africa in particular has been exponential over the past few years. While interpreting in court, in hospitals and at community level have long been a daily occurrence in South Africa, though generally performed on an ad-hoc basis by untrained interpreters (Moeketsi & Wallmach 2005), conference-level simultaneous interpreting in African languages, Afrikaans and South African Sign Language is now being used for conferences, in national parliament and in the regional legislatures of at least five provinces, for meetings of the Pan South African Language Board, for annual general meetings where the floor language is a language other than English, at Metropolitan Councils, even at Senate and Council meetings in the case of some universities (Wallmach 2000). Not to mention foreign language conferences and seminars, which have been interpreted for over thirty years!

Interpreting research linked to training

But interpreter training in South Africa has not been able to keep pace with the changes in interpreting practice in the market. Translation and interpreting are the one of the main areas in which the technical registers of the languages of South Africa (including South African Sign Language) are being developed and standardised, but in the normal course of events, terms created and strategies used as part of the translation or interpreting process are not being recorded. With the increase in translation and interpreting practice, there is a need to begin to reflect on norms and standards, and to incorporate this knowledge into training using authentic practical examples. Currently interpreter training in South Africa is based mainly on research into interpreting practice conducted outside South Africa. Dr Kim Wallmach’s research project (together with a number of masters and doctoral students) is aimed at addressing this gap – on developing corpora of interpreting practice in various contexts not only to provide insight into interpreting strategies and norm-based and context-based interpreter behaviour, but also to determine some of the differences and similarities between spoken and signed language interpreting in various contexts, and thus improve interpreter training.

How can we gather information on norms and standards in interpreting practice? There are a number of existing theoretical models, as well as experiments carried out in artificial settings, but there are far fewer empirical studies based on performance in authentic settings. One answer is to take a corpus-based approach to interpreting research. If one has access to authentic recorded data on computer, it is possible to analyse norms and strategies over large electronic corpora of text using computer-assisted research methods. As the corpus grows, it is then possible to make a major leap from prescriptive to descriptive statements, from methodologising to proper theorising, and from individual and fragmented pieces of research to powerful generalisations.

This is precisely why corpus-based research is particularly relevant for interpreting studies. Compiling electronic corpora of recordings of the interpretations at conferences, in hospitals or in a community context, for example, provides researchers with a large amount of information about the ways in which interpreters in particular solve linguistic and cultural problems, as well as providing indigenous language users with a rich terminological, syntactic and stylistic database which can be used in the standardisation of these languages. There are obvious spin-offs for interpreter training, since the training of interpreters must keep pace with changes in practice.