Why Translation is an Intellectual Pursuit

Translation: An Intellectual Pursuit

Written by Kristina Temelkova

I'm from Stara Zagora, Bulgaria and I'm currently pursuing an English degree at the University of Vienna. My lifelong passions are languages and writing. I speak English, Bulgarian, German and Russian.

May 25, 2021

What exactly is an ‘intellectual pursuit’?

It is any activity that requires research and study in order to find answers to specific questions.

In other words, it is the pursuit of knowledge. An intellectual pursuit can be studying for a university degree, writing a research paper, or, believe it or not, translating content.

Some people underestimate the amount of intellectual activity that the process of translation requires. Keeping in mind the recent technological advances in this sphere, translation seems like a fairly straightforward process to many.

You put the text into the translation program and then you get the output.

Machine translation and CAT tools can never entirely replace human translators. In fact, these tools’ main purpose is not to take the place of the linguist.

Also Read: CAT Tool -Features & Benefits- Why Every LSP & Translator Should Use One

Rather translation software aims to automize the repetitive, time-consuming tasks and thus, save time and sometimes reduce costs.

What’s more, translation is oftentimes regarded as simply a service and thus, limiting it only to its result – the end product. Even translators are reduced to copy editors of machine translation output or just translation service providers.

All these assumptions overlook the fact that translation is a fairly complex process that requires intellectual activity.

Translation is not just substituting a word for its equivalent in the target language – this is what a machine does. We, as thinking beings, are able to convey specific ideas and concepts with words – something that computers can’t and presumably will never be able to do.

Therefore, a skilful translator should know the difference between what a text means and what it conveys. What’s more, the words in a language mirror the culture in which they are used.

As a result, translators should be able to catch the subtlest shades of meaning and adapt them to a completely different culture.

In a nutshell, translation is not simply a service. It requires a thorough understanding of the source and target languages as well as the distinct cultural ecosystems.

This blog aims to reject this false, yet widely-held perception of translation as a product that is manufactured by computer software. Here are 5 reasons why translation is an intellectual pursuit:

1. Language is the reflection of a culture

Language and culture are so closely intertwined, yet this connection remains unseen for many people. Indeed, a translator needs to understand both the meaning of a text as well as the cultural concepts behind each word.

A very simple example of the relationship between words and culture would be what people in different countries think of “food”. For an Italian, food might refer to pizza and pasta, while for a Viennese person it would probably be a schnitzel or a wurst (sausage) with fried potatoes.

You can clearly see how complicated a translation might get when you have to consider not only the meaning of a word but also the concept behind it in a particular culture. This is what translators do on daily basis!

Also Read: 7 Practical Tips For a Successful Career as a Freelance Translator

But what does it mean to know a culture?
Culture is a rather vague, abstract concept, and thus, it could be hard to fathom its intricacy. Culture is the relationship between customs, beliefs, laws, habits, and arts of human societies.

Intellectual Pursuit - Language is the reflection of a culture

Thus, for a translator to produce a high-quality translation, they must know the target culture as well as the world views that accompany it.

The word ‘homeland’

Moreover, culture oftentimes shaped by historical events. Let’s take the word homeland, for instance. After 9/11, the Department of Homeland Security was created in the US.

This governmental institution aimed to protect the country from terrorist attacks. Consequently, ‘homeland’ has become related to the notion of defending our home country.

The Spanish equivalent of homeland seems to be Patria. However, in the context of Mexican history Patria denotes a completely different concept. Patria stands for the blending of the Spanish colonizers and the native population.

What’s more, Patria is not limited to the borders of Mexico. California, Nevada, Utah, parts of New Mexico, and Arizona belonged to Mexico until the Mexican Cession in 1848.

After that many Mexican people became American citizens. However, is it enough to call themselves Americans?

A machine would never be able to recognize these subtle levels of meaning since it does not consider the context or the culture or the historical implications behind words.

In addition, machines work on word level and their decisions are based on the likelihood of a word to appear in a particular phrase or consequences of characters.

Simply put, machine translations are the product of databases of previous translations. Regardless of the size of these corpora, machines do not go beyond words and thus, would never differentiate between the different meanings of homeland and Patria.

Also Read: Machine Translation and Post Editing: Everything You Need to Know

A human translator, on the other hand, does take into consideration these cultural and historical associations.

2. Objectivity

We have already covered the importance of understanding the culture behind the language, however, you might be surprised that there is more than that.

Objectivity is an essential element of every translation project. A translator should be able to discern between fact and opinion so that their translation remains unbiased and truthful.

Intellectual Pursuit - Objectivity


Objectivity is as vague of a concept as culture. In fact, Barry Ritholtz, an American newspaper columnist, and author offer a very comprehensive explanation.

In his article “Two Rules Underpinning Intellectual Pursuits” he highlights that one needs to get so well-acquainted with the theory, ideologies, and dogmas of a culture so that they are able to think independently from them and not let them shape and govern their way of thinking.

This is a good synopsis of what translators are expected to do to achieve objectivity. In other words, the translator is an observer; they do not express their own views and never participate in the events but rather chronicle what is being said.

3. Constant improvement

Translators are experts in the specific fields they translate in. For instance, medical translations are done by interpreters who have a medical degree and thus, are knowledgeable on the terms and concepts of this realm.

Medial Interpretation

Translators work with huge glossaries of words and concepts which aid the translation process. This, however, is not enough since translators should always acquire new or develop their expertise in their field of work.

For instance, when faced with the COVID-19 situation, medical translators had to learn a whole new set of words related to the pandemic. They even had to come up with translations for concepts such as ‘social distancing’ and ‘lockdown’.

Clearly, we live in a fast-paced world in which change and innovation are inevitable. Therefore, translators need to be constantly exploring.

Keeping up with all the novelties in a sphere, in turn, means dedicating time to learning and expanding your knowledge in the field.

As an intellectual pursuit, translation demands translators to stay curious. They should look high and low for new words or new ways of translating.

What’s more, cultural and political events might have an effect on particular concepts/ phrases.

Thus, it is imperative for translators to stay up to date with the news around the world and be as informed as possible.


4. Excellent command of the working languages

Translators have to be able to convey an idea or a concept from one culture to another via semantic similarity. For this to happen, they need to have an excellent command of both the target and source language.

Excellent command of the working languages

The translation is not always clear-cut and thus, an interpreter should know very well the exact context in which a particular word is used.

For instance, fleuve in French means a river that flows into a sea or an ocean, while riviere means a river that flows through the country. In English, there is no such division of rivers.

But what about cultural events or other phenomena? Should a translator simply create a new name for it or keep its original name so that the connection to the source culture is still evident (e.g. déjà vu in both English and French)?

The celebration of the 16th birthday in the US is a cultural phenomenon referred to as a sweet-sixteen birthday party. A similar concept exists in the Mexican culture – quinceañera or the celebrating the fifteenth birthday in Mexico. Now the question is could we use sweet-sixteen birthday party and quinceañera interchangeably?

To make these decisions, a translator needs to be fluent in the vocabulary, grammar, history, culture, and nuances of both languages.


5. Writers in disguise and much more

Being fluent in two languages is definitely not enough for a person to become a good translator. Translation in its core is a creative process of writing. So every translator should be a skilled writer as well.

The translation process is very complex and requires various skills. The translation is not simply substituting words from the source language with their semantic equivalents in the target language.

Here is a more detailed outline of its elements:

  1. Reading the text
  2. Understanding it in terms of meaning
  3. Processing the information in regard to culture, history, etc.
  4. Translating or expressing the content in another language so that it fits the target culture
  5. Editing or polishing the final product so that it can be then brought to a new audience

Maybe you are asking yourself which part of reading-understanding-conceptualizing-writing-polishing is an intellectual activity? Every. Single. One.

It is also important to mention that even if the source text is poorly written the translation should have a natural flow.

This clearly shows that every translator is required to not only have a conceptual understanding of how to balance language with culture but also to know how to write well.

To Conclude

Clearly, translation is an intellectual pursuit – the pursuit of honing one’s skills and enhancing their knowledge.

Learning one, two, or three languages is not enough, though. Understanding the culture and its impact on language as well as knowing how to express these cultural aspects through language is the essence of translation.

A translator should be capable of conducting research, have cultural expertise, be a skilful writer and editor as well as be willing to devote time to learning and expanding their knowledge.

All of this requires computing and processing – cognitive and intellectual activities.

Machines lack the thoughtfulness and intellect of a human and hence, they fail to replace human translators in the industry. Still, they will remain greatly beneficial tools in the intellectual pursuit of translators!

If you’re a business looking to expand to a foreign country, get in touch and we can help you with your language strategy.  


Submit a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Book Meeting Now!

You May Also Like…