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News article6 April 20217 min read

Translation and scale

Triangle with horizontal divisions to illustrate a scale

By Prof. Dr. Sonia Vandepitte, Ghent University

Globalization has been heralded and criticised simultaneously for some time now, but what the COVID-19 pandemic has taught us all is that we do need to think at a level that encompasses a larger geographical area than what many of us had been used to. If not all countries can participate in a vaccination programme, we will not be able to conquer the virus and its variants: nobody is safe when not everybody is safe.

For translators, though, thinking across national boundaries is an activity that they carry out on a daily basis. Their 'scale' of thought, as well as that of translation scholars, is clearly one that jumps across linguistic and cultural borders that communities have created. Could their social and cognitive activities be a pathway for the world to follow? Could the study of the translation event as a whole contribute to a world without a pandemic? What do we learn from translation studies regarding the notion of 'scale' in the first place today?

From one of its ancillary disciplines, i.e. terminology, we learn that a word need not be conceived in the same way by everyone. There is no reason, for instance, why the word scale in English would be conceived by all of us in exactly the same way. Many of the non-native speakers of English will probably relate this word to the mental representation they had built for the word in their first language, whether that was for example, escala, échelle, Skala, κλίμακα or 規模. A multilingual terminological analysis which investigates the term scale from a multi-perspective conceptual approach would actually allow us to arrive at a diversified notion of scale. Through crowdsourcing on a large scale for translations of the word scale and the units of measurement in many languages, we would probably discover a wide array of connotations linked to the term. Similarly, the occurrence of the terms in both translated and non-translated corpora (e.g. the Translational English Corpus and the British National Corpus) would reveal translators' transfer of the notion of measurement from one culture to another. The following examples may illustrate how the notion of scale may differ between a source text and its translation:

source text:
soep van longvlees, zestig pfennig voor een pond (NL)
[soup of lung meat, sixty pfennig for a pound]

target text: lung soup, sixty pfennig a pint (EN)

While the Dutch source text reader in this example is led to connotations of scales to measure weight, the English reader will think of scales for liquids. But the notion of scale may also disappear in a translation, as the following example from the Dutch Parallel Corpus reveals:

source text:
Was this celebrity hubris on a massive scale? (EN)

target text: Dacht hij dat hij zich dat als beroemdheid zomaar kon veroorloven? (NL)
[Did he think he - being a celebrity - could afford this just like that?]

Here, the source text refers to a (massive) degree of celebrity hubris, whereas the target text identifies a problem with the consequences of his behaviour. A line of inquiry investigating the subtle meaning differences between source and target texts would certainly contribute to conceptual and corpus translation studies as described in e.g. De Sutter, et al. (2012) and combine both a qualitative and a quantitative method simultaneously.

Besides the field of terminology, there is another line of research in translation studies in which the notion of scale plays an important role and further scale-related research may be worthwhile. Translation process studies, with its eye tracking and keystroke logging studies (e.g. Vandepitte et al. 2015), may well want to further explore the relationship between the scales used in their experiments such as the number and duration of pauses, eye fixations and regressions, and the number and type of revisions. Questions that are not yet answered satisfactorily arise quickly: how do all these measurements and their units of scale directly relate to (1) the black box in the mind, (2) to the translation product itself and, for instance, the scaling issue of translation units (Jakobsen & Jensen 2009) and (3) to the impact the product has on the reader (e.g. Göpferich 2009, Chiaro 2012).

These relationships all entail bringing together scales of a different nature with each other. For instance, if at all possible, how can the data points from a process study on metaphors in sight-translation (Xiang & Zheng 2013) be compared to a process study of the translation of metonymic expressions? Or to what extent can the quantitative results from comprehensibility investigations of texts (e.g. the Hendi[1] project) be related to the scales that sociologists employ for their inquiry into sociological aspects of translation (Tyulenev 2013)?

A third line of translation studies research that relies on the notion of scale focuses on the issue of translation quality assessment. This is a matter that is widely debated both in the professional world with its metrics (e.g. Bleu scores), among literary translators and translation critics, in the academic world and in translation training. The debates usually centre around the juxtaposition of scales of different natures, each with their own purposes and users' agendas. What exactly are the similarities and differences between the scales that have been adopted and which items are being put into the scales and which have been omitted - consciously or unconsciously?

We could look at an example within the area of translation training, for instance. In order to offer texts to students that are appropriate for their level of learning progress, trainers may want to assess the translatability of a source text. This characteristic of a text may often play a large role in the assessment process: the number of difficulties involved in the translation and the degree of their difficulty are not easily or uniformly determined. Is translatability a scalable notion in itself? Well-known translation studies scholar Toury would think so when he defines and characterises translatability as follows: 'the initial potential of establishing optimal correspondence between a T[arget]L[anguage]-text [...] and a corresponding S[ource]L[anguage]-text [..].. This correspondence may be anywhere between 0 and 1, non-existent and absolute, without ever reaching any of the two extremes (this depends of course on how the scale of translatability is calibrated)' (Toury 2011). But is this valid in all circumstances and do the existing metrics used today bear any resemblance to what Toury was aiming for?

All in all, there does not seem to be a line of research yet that could directly be related to the question whether or not translators and translation scholars embody characteristics that may contribute directly (or most probably indirectly) to the solution of the present crisis. This is not a question that can be immediately answered. What is clear, however, is that while the pandemic obliges us to scale up our thoughts to include all of humanity for the solution of the present crisis, and while our awareness of the decrease in biodiversity and of the dangers forecast by climate change push our considerations in the same direction, this blog already presents a clear and beautiful example of a collaboration at a larger scale than translation trainers have worked at ever before.


Chiaro, Delia (ed.). 2012. Translation and Humour 2. London: Bloomsbury.

De Sutter, Gert, Patrick Goethals, Torsten Leuschner & Sonia Vandepitte. 2012. Towards methodologically more rigorous corpus-based translation studies. Across Languages and Cultures, 13:2, pp. 137-143.

Göpferich, Susanne. 2009. Comprehensibility assessment using the Karlsruhe Comprehensibility Concept. The Journal of Specialised Translation 11, pp. 31-53.

Jakobsen, Arnt Lykke & Kristian Jensen. 2009. Eye Movement Behaviour Across Four Different Types of Reading Task. In: Susanne Göpferich, Arnt L. Jakobsen & Inger Mees (eds.). Looking at Eyes – Eye Tracking Studies of Reading and Translation Processing. Copenhagen Studies in Language 36. Copenhagen: Samfundslitteratur. pp. 103-124.

Toury, Gideon. 2011. Handbook of Translation Studies 2 (pp. 169–174). [Online]. [31.05.2015].

Tyulenev, Sergey. 2013. Social systems and translation. In: Yves Gambier, Luc van Doorslaer, Handbook of Translation Studies 4. pp. 160-166. [Online].… [31.05.2015].

Vandepitte, Sonia, Robert Hartsuiker & Eva van Assche. 2015. Process and text studies of a translation problem. John Schwieter and Aline Ferreira (eds.), Psycholinguistic and cognitive inquiries in translation and interpretation studies. John Benjamins Translation Library. Amsterdam: J. Benjamins. pp. 127-143.

Xiang, Xia & Binghan Zheng. 2013. Processing metaphorical expressions in sight translation: an empirical–experimental research. Babel 59:2, pp. 160-183.

[1] Hendi developed an automatic clarity tool for English and Dutch discourse in parallel and comparable texts.



Publication date
6 April 2021
  • Dutch
  • English
EMT Category
  • Translation issues