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How I got into Translation Studies – Andrew Chesterman

The Electronic Journal of the Department of English
at the University of Helsinki

ISSN 1457-9960

Volume 4, 2009

Translation Studies


© 2009 Andrew Chesterman


Andrew Chesterman

My moves towards and within Translation Studies seem to have been largely due to a combination of luck and ignorance.

It all started at school, when I was about sixteen. Before entering the sixth form (lukio) we had to choose to specialize. I was interested in physics and in languages, but in those days we could not mix science and arts subjects. The best teacher I had was the French teacher, so I opted for languages. For nearly two years our class specialized in French and German, with a bit of English thrown in, but not much else.

At Cambridge University, I started reading French and German, with the vague idea of becoming a school teacher in these subjects. I thought linguistics was dry, and took only the minimum of compulsory linguistics  courses, including a couple in translation. The point of these translation courses was only to get us to write correct French/German. My real centre of interest was literature: I focused on broad periods of French and German literature, and in my last year added an option on modern Spanish literature (I had started Spanish in my final term at school).

After the BA, I decided to spend some time teaching English abroad, and had a choice of two jobs: one in Bogotá and one in Savonlinna. Savonlinna won (it would not be so hot, I thought). I lived there for a year, fell in love with the country, met my future wife, and started learning Finnish.  I remember spending hours studying the menus in the cafés, working out where the word-breaks were in items like oopperavoileipä, and wondering what it might have to do with the opera (I’m still wondering). A year later, via a lucky meeting, I found myself at Helsinki University, substituting as assistant lecturer for a teacher who had taken a year off to work on a doctorate in the US. And that’s when I first found myself really looking at translation.

Among my classes, I was given a first-year course in Finnish-English translation. My Finnish was pretty primitive, but the students seemed to enjoy helping me with it. A colleague helpfully gave me English versions of various translation exercises she had used. At the end of the year, another colleague asked me to translate the annual report of the Finnish Academy. This turned out to be a very slow task indeed. It took me ages to work out the syntax of this very formal text. Around this time I began writing short essay-exercises in Finnish for another friend, who corrected the many errors, in return for some English lessons. So I gradually learned the grammar. Several years later I translated Fred Karlsson’s Finnish for Foreigners, and this task gave me an excellent bird’s-eye view of Finnish. Later still I cooperated with Finnish teachers Anneli Lieko and Leena Silfverberg to put together Finnish for Translators (1999), which was mainly aimed at helping EU translators working from Finnish. So I had many good chances to improve my Finnish over the years.

Teaching English, I soon realized that I did not actually know much about (a) teaching or (b) English – which I had not studied at university. So in 1971 my wife and I moved to Edinburgh for a couple of years, where I did an M.Litt. in Applied Linguistics. At that time Edinburgh was one of the leading universities in this field, with well-known resident scholars such as Pit Corder, the grand old man of error analysis, and John Lyons, whose lectures on linguistics were legendary. Here, I discovered what linguistics was all about, and began to fill in some of the gaps left by my literature-based first degree. The course also included modules on research methodology, a topic which was very new to me. We lived on savings and odd jobs. At one stage, I went to Corder to say I would have to drop out unless I could get a grant. He kindly gave me the job of cleaning out a storeroom full of textbooks, which I dutifully tidied, slowly, over several weeks, for six pounds an hour. But we perservered, and eventually returned to Helsinki in 1973, when I got a permanent post as lecturer in the English department. (It was not a disadvantage that I succeeded in getting on with both the English professors, Ole Reuter and Tauno Mustanoja. Mustanoja was impressed that I had learned quite reasonable Finnish by that time, but warned me not to advertise this when interviewed by Reuter, who was a Swedish speaker.)

Through my teaching, I got to know the typical errors my students made. Many of these concerned the usage of the English articles. I had also noticed that many of my own errors in Finnish had to do with the choice between accusative or partitive case for objects: although I thought I knew the basic rule, it seemed very difficult actually to apply this rule correctly. In the mid-1980s I decided to take the opportunity of diving more deeply into this relationship by making it the subject of my PhD, on the expression of definiteness in Finnish and English. I spent a year at Reading University in the UK, getting the project off the ground, and completed it quite quickly a couple of years later. Much of the basic argument had already taken shape in my mind over the previous few years, deriving from my teaching and learning experience and from reading the background literature. I remember one article in particular, in the journal Pragmatics, which I came across by chance. Reading it, I suddenly realized it offered the key to a particular aspect of my research problem (about the zero article). An inspiring moment! But the real high point was not the doctorate itself, but the moment a couple of years later when I opened the letter from Cambridge University Press, saying they would published the revised version.

Some of the motivation for my PhD topic came from Kari Sajavaara, professor of English at Jyväskylä, where I had also taught for a year before we went to Edinburgh. He had started a contrastive analysis project, which I had found most interesting and continued to participate in. His many international contacts led to conference opportunities, too. My first ever international conference paper was on definiteness in Finnish, given at a conference in Poland. I was very nervous, but all went well, and I made several new friends. I also learned something about how to behave at conferences, which form a peculiarly interesting section in the zoo of human behaviour.  (Rule 1: keep your sense of humour!)

At Helsinki, I continued to teach translation courses, and again came to realize that I did not know enough about what I was doing. This time, my ignorance concerned the theory of translation itself. So I began reading around, became increasingly interested, and eventually  got permission to start an optional course in translation theory, which became quite popular, also attracting students from outside the English department. This then gave rise to a book project to put together a basic set of classical texts, which was published in 1989 by Finn Lectura: Readings in Translation Theory. I was amazed by the time and trouble it took to get permission to reprint the articles, horrified by the number of misprints in the book, and later embarrassed by the omission of several significant  scholars (such as Toury) who should have been included. I had not really been aware enough of more recent developments in the field, but I was pleased to have been able to publish one of the first English articles on Vermeer’s skopos theory, which I translated from German for the book.

My interest in theory had certainly been aroused. I followed some of the latest research in translation studies (such as Ritva Leppihalme’s elegant doctoral project on allusions). I began attending other conferences at different European universities, this time in translation rather than contrastive linguistics, and met several of the field’s leading scholars. I discovered that I could be a good speaker, and began to receive invitations, which led to more contacts, and so on. (Rule 2: pay attention to communication skills! ) Cay Dollerup’s three Danish conferences on translator training during the early 1990s were particularly influential, both socially and theoretically.  Eventually, I was elected to the board of the European Society for Translation Studies (EST), chaired at that time by Yves Gambier, in Turku. This was a great opportunity not only to experience some of the problems of running such an association but also to make lasting friendships. Within Finland the KäTu (käännöstutkimus) network has played a similar role. These have been wonderful environments, in which colleagues rapidly become friends. I have publicized Kätu on many occasions in other European countries, as a model of how to create and run a succesful research community in conditions where scholars are scattered over different institutions.

Memes of Translation came out in 1997. It had been inspired by my reading of Dawkins’ book The Selfish Gene, which first introduced the meme concept. Since then, I have often found inspiration in work outside Translation Studies itself. Memes represented my view of the state of the art at the time, and also my interest in exploiting connections with other fields, such as ethics.  Later, I came across the idea of consilience, meaning the unity of all knowledge (see especially the book Consilience, 1998, by the biologist / sociobiologist E.O. Wilson). In several articles, I used this idea to sketch how different branches of Translation Studies might be related. I still like to view translation as a form of memetic evolution, and have recently been working on a paper on what Translation Studies might learn from Darwin’s research methods and from his way of reporting his work.

In the early 1990s, I was lucky enough to be invited to spend a year working on Arto Mustajoki’s research project in contrastive analysis. During this period I wrote Contrastive Functional Analysis (published 1998), a book which aimed not only to promote a particular model of functional grammar but also to explore the theoretical relation between contrastive analysis and translation studies, for instance their different approaches to equivalence. One of the sources of inspiration for that book was Gerald Edelman’s work on the neurology of the brain, popularized in his Bright air, brilliant fire (1992). Once again I found myself excited by connections between my own field and another one. I have always had an amateur interest in psychology and the workings of the mind. My wife’s training had also been in psychology, which no doubt helped!

After Finland joined the European Union I was invited to move to the Romance Languages department in 1996 to help train Finnish translators working with French. This meant I needed to reawaken my dormant French and make more contacts with French-speaking colleagues, in Finland, France and Belgium. (Rule 3: keep up your other languages!)

I was amazed to be nominated CETRA professor in 1999, but found this international graduate school so stimulating that I have continued to work with them, and later also with Anthony Pym’s similar graduate school at Tarragona. These schools have become rich arenas for serious debate and warm friendship. They are an excellent way of keeping up with the research ideas of the next generation, and also catching up with friends from many countries.

During tutorial and supervision sessions with gradu (MA) and PhD students I became increasingly interested in questions of research methodology. Here again, I found my ignorance exposed. My own published research has been mostly in concept analysis, and I have very little experience of doing empirical research. In hindsight, I must say that this has been an academic weakness. I have always been interested more in ideas than in facts, and my research profile has not been balanced in this respect. This interest in ideas has led me more towards philosophy in recent years, in particular to moral philosophy and the philosophy of science.

I had discovered Popper’s philosophical work before I began my PhD, and found it enormously useful. The notion of a theory as a hypothesis that must be tested, exposed to criticism, and then refined or rejected, also influenced my views of translation. A translation, too, is a hypothesis:  about an interpretation of a source text, an interpretation that is assumed to be relevant to some purpose. I began to appreciate more and more the value of criticism, how important it is not just to give feedback but also to receive it and learn from it. For a long period I had the habit of submitting my own papers to Ritva Leppihalme for review: I grew to appreciate her unerring sense of English style and her eye for detail. (I tried to return the favour, too, but seldom found anything to correct!)

When the interpreting scholar Daniel Gile visited Finland in 2001, we found we shared this interest in criticism, and (fortunately) also a sense of humour. At a seminar in Helsinki we put on a performance we called “mutual constructive criticism”. Each took a published paper by the other, and criticized it in public, in what we hoped was a constructive way. The other then responded. It was rather like a double doctoral defence, but with two participants of equal status: an open peer review. It made for some excellent discussion – and we are still friends!

Critical responses are also needed when one writes book reviews and referee statements: I have done quite a few of these, and find them most interesting. In the same way, a supervisor needs to be both critical and encouraging. It is sometimes hard to get the balance right! But needing to respond to another scholar’s work is always a stimulating experience, and a good reminder of the communal nature of academic work.

Other scholars and translators were also interested in the relation between theory and practice. One colleague working at the EU, Emma Wagner, had reacted rather critically to my Memes book, and suggested that we might collaborate on a project which would really explain the relevance of theory to professional translators… We conceived of this project as a genuine dialogue. The book (Can Theory Help Translators? A dialogue between the ivory tower and the wordface) was great fun to write (mostly via email exchanges, which we then edited a bit; I of course represented the ivory tower), and it taught me a lot about the need to justify theoretical claims. Emma’s delightfully sceptical humour embodied a truly Popperian critical attitude.

A chance meeting at a Manchester conference with another colleague, Jenny Williams, led to another joint project. We found that we shared many ideas about research training at the Master’s level. At one of the conference breakfasts we sat down next to Mona Baker and announced that we had a great book project: would her company St. Jerome be interested? She said yes at once, and The Map appeared a couple of years later (2002).

I have often returned to more conceptual issues, reacting to interesting hypotheses proposed by colleagues or by scholars outside Translation Studies (e.g. concerning the notion of similarity, semiotic modalities, translation ethics and translation universals), and digging further into some central issues of research methodology (such as the underlying philosophical assumptions of different research approaches, the nature of a theory, of hypotheses, of causality, and of explanation). Some of these interests were reflected in the Target Forum debate on shared ground in Translation Studies starting in 2000, which started with a joint article I wrote with Rosemary Arrojo. (That whole project also came up by chance: the idea arose in a taxi in northern Spain, when Rosemary, Gideon Toury and I were returning to the airport after a stimulating conference at Vic.) Several of these methodological topics have partly arisen from the needs of the graduate schools (including the Finnish Langnet) where I have been invited to lecture or supervise.

I confess that I have found these topics rather more interesting than the bureaucratic tasks of my daily job… I am not good at administration, and I shall be thankful when Translation Studies at Helsinki University settles down in a more permanent environment, after the structural unrest of recent years. Scholars need some stability in their working conditions, if they are to realize their full potential.

Future plans? One of my own retirement projects will be to translate some Finnish literary classics into English. That would bring me back to my first love, literature, but now perhaps I could also profit by what I have learned over the years about translation. We shall see… Yet another hypothesis to be tested!