Academic journal article Studia Anglica Posnaniensia: international review of English Studies

Reading for Translation: Investigating the Process of Foreign Language Text Comprehension from an Information Processing Perspective

Academic journal article Studia Anglica Posnaniensia: international review of English Studies

Reading for Translation: Investigating the Process of Foreign Language Text Comprehension from an Information Processing Perspective

Article excerpt


The purpose of this article is to look at foreign language text comprehension from a translator's perspective. Contrary to traditional translation theory interpreting the meaning of the text to be translated is not taken for granted but attention is being drawn to the fact that many problems which occur in the process of translation stem from insufficient or incorrect understanding of the source text. In order to retrace the complex task of information processing that is carried out by a translator the research data was collected in the form of Think Aloud Protocols and on the basis of a translation task-based questionnaire. Having such a complementary set of data allows to look at reading for the purpose of translation as a challenging information processing activity which requires a text analysis on a macro and micro level. Tentative conclusions that can be drawn show that the process of foreign language text comprehension is only superficially highly focused on detailed meaning interpretation prior to the onset of meaning transfer. It allows the translator to gain a general insight and sketch out an approximated vision of the target text while many comprehension problems will become apparent only when they hinder the transfer of meaning.

1. Introduction

Traditional translation theory did not display much interest in comprehension processes and took successful and sufficient understanding of a source language (hence SL) text for granted. It is in the descriptive approach to translation that the process of comprehension responsible for interpreting the SL text meaning received more attention. Studies conducted by Dancette (1992), House (1986) Krings (1986), Lorscher (1986, 1991, 1997), Thelen (1992) and Tirkkonnen-Condit (1992) show that successful comprehension is a necessary prerequisite for adequate translation and point out that interpreting the meaning of the SL text is not a problem-free process even for professional translators. Thus, it is possible to put forward a hypothesis that many transfer problems in translation from a foreign language into a native language which put the translator in the position of a decision maker do not have their roots in the semantic/lexical differences between languages but are due to difficulties in the interpretation of meaning conveyed by the source language text. Consequently many mistranslations are likely to be misinterpretations of the SL text meaning.

To test the above hypothesis it is necessary to take a closer look at the actual process of foriegn language (here English) text comprehension for the purpose of translating it into the translator's native language (here Polish). In this article I intend to share the results of my own research (see Whyatt 2000) in which I investigated the process of the SL text comprehension by student-translators in the hope that the conclusions I arrived at will contribute to our understanding of the complex process of text comprehension (cf. Honig 1991).

2. Some assumptions about the interpretation of meaning in translation

According to the model adopted from Larson (1984:17) the first step in the process of translation lies in 'discovering' the meaning of the SL text as intended by the original author. The term 'discover' already suggests that the meaning is not directly and objectively available to the reader-translator. Meaning is not statically contained in the text "but is rather a function of the interactive process of negotiation into which it has to be reconverted (...) from the only evidence he (the translator) has got: the linguistic tokens and their distinctive arrangement" (House, 1986:181-182). In this sense a text is a frame (Fillmore's 1977) which refers to a given scene or in other words a text is an object that needs to be interpreted (Pym 1993) as showing a 'picture of reality' (Lev,) 1967) even if this reality is fictional or imaginary.

Since meaning is not directly given by signs but has to be derived from signs, the translator's cognitive effort aimed at comprehending the meaning encoded in a foreign language text involves complex mental operations that are set off by reading and the ensuing processing of linguistic forms and information they carry. …

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