Monthly Archives: diciembre, 2011

Somebody is thinking —somebody is translating. Embodiment in cognitive translation research

diciembre 26th, 2011 Posted by affordances, blog, cognitive translatology, embodiment, on second thoughts No Comment yet

I couldn't agree more with Sandra Halverson when, in her post of 19 October 2011, she claims that translation would benefit from adopting integrated, non-dualistic approaches. Perhaps such approaches could help us solve difficulties like those humorously depicted by Jorge Amigo (see his posts on 21 November and 6 December 2011) when confronted with the task to teach "the culture of a country" to translation students. Understanding and describing translation processes without preconceived divisions and dichotomies might be helpful in the design of syllabi for translation or interpreting training programs. This is an area where current wisdom needs to be thoroughly revised. The way translation learning is still now conceived of, as reflected in current program syllabi, might be arbitrarily dividing the acquisition and development of translator's complex skills.

In the last decades, cognitive science has challenged traditional dualistic oppositions such as those of input and output, mind and body, and subject and object. Embodied, embedded and distributed cognition is the (compound) umbrella label for various approaches that try to offer an integrated picture of human cognition. In this post, I would like to take a closer view at embodiment from different perspectives, and also to outline some possible implications of these views for translation process research. What does it mean for translation to be embodied? Let's dig it out a little bit.
One of the more frequently cited conceptual precursors to embodied approaches is James Gibson's notion of affordance. It is a relational notion, in that if focuses on the possibilities for action that environments offfer to agents. This early case of a challenge to dualisms focused on the pair stimulus-response (Costall 2007). For Gibson (1979), the visual system has legs, i.e. we are not static machines receiving information from the exjavascript:void(0)ternal world, but creatures that move around and interact with the envorinment. This interaction is what provides us with information about the world. Instead of depicting action in terms of stimuli and responses, Gibson describes information and affordances as resources for embodied action in the world. One and the same thing can offer very different affordances to different agents or to the same agent at different times. However, affordances are not completely subjective. They represent possibilities of action and are partly constrained by things themselves. For instance, the canonical use of a plastic bag is carrying things inside it, but it may be used to protect oneself from the rain. We live in a sophisticated world plenty of affordances.
The concept of affordance has implications for research into cognitive processes of translators, because we cannot isolate those processes from the affordances offered to translators by the environment without paying too high a price for it. It is not just a matter of ecological validity. Interactions with online search machines, databases, translation management programs and cooperative networks are part of translation processes, which thereby become distributed between different agents. Hence, when translating, cognitive processes cannot be separated from embodied interaction with a sophisticated world full of affordances.
The embodied mind
For second-generation cognitive science, such as embodied, embedded and distributed cognition, minds are extended into bodily action in the world. The most radical approaches, like Varela, Thomson & Rosch (1991), base cognition only on embodiment and interaction, with no need for mental representations. According to this approach, we are intelligent agents within the world, and we don't need to internally represent what is out there. The environment affords scaffoldings like language, mnemotechnic rules, pen and paper, computers. From this viewpoint, embodied minds don't need representations at all. At least, they don't need abstract representations with arbitrary referents in the world. Representations, in any case, could be depicted as flexible patterns of interactions with the environment, but not as inner entities with external referents (Johnson & Lakoff 2002).
But don't we represent things internally with our imagination—and not only in dreams? Is language not inherently representational? (Ikegami & Zlatev 2007). A trivial understanding of embodiment such as relating cognition with a physical support system would blurr the difference between traditional and second-generation cognitive science. An embodied approach should have some consequences not only for sensorymotor processes involving the body, but also for "higher-level" cognition. Based on experimental evidence, Barsalou, Solomon & Wu (1999) and Svensen, Lindblom & Ziemke (2007) argue that the core of embodiment is that sensorimotor processes and "higher-level" cognition share neural mechanisms. This shared neural circuitries are the key to understand embodiment, because through their activation we can mentally simulate al kinds of sensorimotor processes, and these simulations are the matter that concepts and thoughts are made of. From this perspective, our mental representations are embodied in a non-trivial sense: they do not just have to deal with a physical support; they are constructed through the same kind of processes as bodily perception and motion.
Now, what does all this mean for translation?
If translation process research were to adopt a trivial notion of embodiment (that of considering the body just a supporting physical system), it would hardly have any implications for current research. But the notion of embodiment may have important consequences if its focus is widened to study the mind as extended through bodily action into the world. Under this scope, translators' mental processes cannot be studied as isolated sequences of thoughts taking place in individual brains. Translators also translate with their hands, their eyes and their computers. Research into cognitive translation processes is no limited any longer to what happens in the translators' brains, but needs to enlarge its scope to cover what happens in their bodily activities and interactions. The evolution of translation process research method for data-collection parallels this change of perspective: the focus has shifted from translators' thoughts (elicited through introspection) to their behaviour, which comprises interactive activities from different perspectives, such as typing on the keyboard, moving one's eyes on a screen, online searching for information, and interacting with other people. Translators' activities are viewed not just only as keys into, but also as part of, mental processes during translation, inasmuch as they demand control and monitoring and/or the activation of learned routines and entail a cognitive load for the system (Muñoz in press).
Adopting such an approach also raises several questions regarding the fact that the same mental circuitries are shared by perception and motor action, on one side, and "higher" mental activities, on the other. What does this mean for translation processes? Do translators work with mental images or mental simulations? How can this be researched? What can the consequences be, both for our understanding of translation and for our search for improvements in learning and practice?
Translation process research and technological developments
Under this light, translation process research may also be extended to studying the quality of current or developing translators' tools. Translation support systems make things easier for translators, but sometimes they may have counterproductive effects too. For instance, prompting dictionaries combined with eye trackers can provide a translation for a word when the reader keeps looking at it beyond a threshold in time (Stamenov 2009). Such a device should somehow be very rich and adaptive in order not to limit potential translation solutions, thereby curbing translators' creativity. Repeated interactin with such a devise might also train translators to move their focus of attention on isolated words.
The same concern of reducing potential options applies to the current trend of Internet personalization. Usually, Internet tools make things easier for us, but sometimes they may go beyond an optimal limit and have negative effects. For instance, search machines and web networks can become so personalized, that they filter out all information that supposedly represents a viewpoint different from that of the user, isolating her in an information bubble. This actually leads to a reduction of the potential options to choose from where the subject has nothing to say. This is bad news for translation (see fully developed argument here)
Barsalou, Lawrence W., Karen Olseth Solomon & Ling-Ling Wu. 1999. Perceptual simulation in conceptual tasks. @ Masako K. Hiraga, Christoper Sinha & Sherman Wilcox (eds). Cultural, Typological and Psychological Perspectives in Cognitive Linguistics. Amsterdam: John Benjamins. 209-228.
Costall, Alan. 2007. Bringing the body back to life: James Gibson's ecology of embodied agency. @ Ziemke,  Zlatev & Frank, eds., pp. 55–84.
Gibson, James. 1979. The Ecological Approach to Visual Perception. Boston: Houghton Mifflin.
Ikegami, Takashi & Jordan Zlatev. 2007. From pre-representational cognition to language. @ Ziemke,  Zlatev & Frank, eds., pp. 197–239.
Johnson, Mark & George Lakoff. 2002. Why cognitive lingustics requires embodied realism. @ Cognitive Linguistics 13/3: 245–263.

Muñoz Martín, Ricardo. (In press). Just a matter of scope. Mental load in translation process research. @ Translation Spaces 1.


Stamenov, Maxim I. 2009. Cognates in language, in the mind and in a prompting dictionary for translation. @ S. Göpferich, A. L. Jakobsen & I. M. Mees, eds. Behind the mind. Methods, models and results in translation process research. Copenhagen: Samfundslitteratur.
Svenson, Henrik, Jessica Lindblom & Tom Ziemke. 2007. Making sense of embodied cognition: simulations theories of shared neural mechanisms for sensorimotor and cognitive processes @ Ziemke,  Zlatev & Frank, eds., pp. 242–269.
Varela, Francisco, Evan Thompson & Eleanor Rosch. 1991. The embodied Mind. Cognitive Science and Human Experience. Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press.
Ziemke, Tom, Jordan Zlatev & Roslyn M. Frank (eds) Body, Language and Mind. Volume 1: Embodiment. Berlin: Mouton de Gruyter.
by C. Martín

Can we teach “culture” in Translation and Interpreting Studies? (2/2)

diciembre 6th, 2011 Posted by blog, culture, The sorcerer's apprentice, training No Comment yet

In my previous post I wrote about my first experience in teaching 'US culture' and the possibility of focusing course sessions on what Agar (1992:231) called rich pointsand/or what Seelye (1993:74-75) labeled culture capsules. This option, however interesting and widely used in ELF teaching, could pose some problems that I will address at the end of this post. Now I would like to focus on the second option I sketched in my first post on the issue:

(b) Focusing sessions on trying to reach a “right” definition of 'US culture'

I strongly believe that contributions to translation should start by defining the concepts they use. The word culture in itself is one of the little family secrets in the field of Translation & Interpreting studies: we all use it, we overuse it, and yet no one seems to know quite exactly what it means. We are often referred to definitions by the founding fathers of American anthropology such as Tylor (1871) and Kroeber and Kluckhohn (1952), to name but a few – a strategy that guarantees loads of philosophical nightmares because of their intricate analyses.

So, how could we define 'US culture'? This tiny noun, with no clarifying adjective, is one of the two or three most complicated words in the English language. This may be due to its historical development through different world regions, but perhaps mainly because it is normally used in several different disciplines and in several distinct systems of thought. For instance, definitions used in cultural anthropology do not necessarily matcht the views held and/or needed in cognitive translatology.

So, in order to get things right in our teaching methods, let's consider that culture is asemiotic concept (Geertz 1973:27). According to this Geertz, culture should be understood as interacting systems with interpretable signs (symbols). They are not tangible, indivisible entities to which social events, conduct patterns, institutions or social processes can be attributed. They are much more than that: they are contextswhere all these phenomena may be described in an intelligible way.

This should have been good enough to plan my lessons – I could have started with something such as 'Folks, 'US culture' in itself does not exist any longer. It is not about talking about stereotypes, foreign policies or different ways of conceiving reality. Of course, it has something to do with all these topics, but it is just a label for the context where that people live, act, and assume (or not) the consequences of their actions'.That might have been a beautiful philosophical starter, of course. But still I didn't find it good enough.

The idea of culture as a frame may not be useful when trying to make operationalize it for our research purposes in cognitive translatology. The reason is that we are still considering it as something that is "out there". The container metaphor survives, although it is now more flexible and open. For this reason, I'd rather try to depart from the notion of scaffolding (Martín 2005:147) as an alternative. Cultural scaffoldings are not containers of people and/or their cognitive capacities, but models established socially to support action and cooperation. Culture is thus envisioned as an inner process, a mental activity aimed at creating meanings and make their interaction possible for all people involved in the communicative process.

Consequently, there are no cultural frontiers or cultural barriers. Social groups are not closed entities and culture is no longer a Pandora's box where everything can be dropped. Cultural models are built thanks to traces and signs that are constantly re-elaborated while we live and interact with each other. This active role in the creation of meaning changes and gets corrected nearly on its own, thanks to our experience.

Some readers might feel that I am walking around the bush, that I'm doing exactly what I was not supposed to do. So, let's go to the main point: How can we reach to a "right" definition of 'US culture'? I am afraid that this question has no answer. As I wrote above, “US culture” does not exist as an entity, in the same way than there is not a 'Spanish culture' or a 'Polish culture'. A culture is not a state with neat borders – rather, it has to do with individuals and the way they construct meanings.

When planning “culture” lessons, we may implicitly mean cultural literacy, that is, a complete set of encyclopedic knowledge that is considered a property of a certain country. Any manual included in the reference section of any course syllabus on similar subjects may be taken as an evidence of this claim. In fact, one of the most successful bestsellers of last century in US is Cultural Literacy: What every American needs to know (Hirsch JR. 1988). This book includes some 5,000 "essential" names, phrases, dates, and concepts from 'American diversity' to 'Romanticism'. Both are used to teachculture – but ironically enough, culture is nothing that can be learnt in a formal educative context. Paraphrasing to Lakoff & Johnson (1980): culture is what we live by.

So... what did I do at the end? And what is my proposal about?

After thoroughly considering both options, I chose an eclectic approach. Students did not expect brow raising dissertations about the concept of culture in Translation & Interpreting Studies and their interests were far removed from this option. Basically, everybody expected the traditional teacher-centred methodology, i.e., I was expected to sit down in front of the class and start reading my notes about George Washington, Lincoln, etc.

But the two options helped me a lot at designing a sketch of a successful methodology that I hope to improve in the near future.

Option (a) was problematic because of a single reason: Who decides what is culturaland what is not? The teacher may select some traditional stereotypes (for example, 'Americans are very practical' or 'Americans believe that effort can make your dreams come true') but conclusions might be a bit risky. We all have a picture of the US, and making over-generalizations is as easy as it is dangerous. We are paddling through the troubled waters of very relative terms, and that may sink our boat in the lake of Manichaeism. Realities cannot be compared, only our impressions can be contrasted in a discussion. I believe this kind of activities can be carried out successfully when teaching foreign languages, where the main purpose is to practice oral skills in an active discussion. But that is another story discussed here.

Option (b) is obviously "optimal". Leading the students by the hand into different discussions about the concept of culture to show them that there is not a single 'US culture' seems the perfect option to me. But the contents of the subject are different and I had to summarize this as much as possible to make just this point: talking about a specific culture is useless, for there are as many cultures as individuals. And that was my point of departure.

In my view, teaching culture to would-be translators and interpreters needs to adapt to professional demands. By the end of their programmes, graduates are expected to know how to make business with their customers. So, perhaps a brief approach to the status of money and work in the US should be part of the syllabus. For example, I enjoyed an excellent session about attitudes towards work. For Americans, work is said to be a social concept –it is mainly what you are, the basis of your identity. For Spaniards, though, work is important but it is counter-balanced with other aspects that have the same or even higher relevance. From this "cultural difference" (option a), we can teach students how finances are being handled in the US (encyclopedic knowledge) and, most importantly, we can present them with relevant communication strategies for dealing with US customers. This would also lead us to the study of translation and revision markets there and to the possibility of getting a job there, as translator or interpreter of Spanish/English.

Other circumstances that are not worth mentioning here just led me to work with (b) first as an introductory session and with option (a) later, with some professional-orientation. But, at least, I was happy to see that most students seemed to think it made sense.

I know, rather than providing answers, my arguments in these couple of posts raise more questions. I am pretty sure that there are much more intelligent and pedagogic options out there. I reckon that mine was a partial success ant that the course on 'US culture' could have been far better. At the end of the day, everything seems to depend precisely on the arbitrary choices of the teacher.

But, if we are training future professionals... why don't we just professionalize our teaching programmes?


Agar, M. 1994. The intercultural frame @ International Journal of Intercultural Relations 18, 2: 221- 237.

Geertz, Clifford. 1973. La interpretación de las culturas. Barcelona: Gedisa Editorial.

Hirsch, JR., E.D. 1988. Cultural Literacy: What every American needs to know. New York: Vintage Books.

Martín de León, Celia. 2005. Contenedores, recorridos y metas. Metáforas en la traductología funcionalista. Frankfurt: Peter Lang.

Seelye, H. Ned. 1993. Teaching Culture. Strategies for Intercultural Communication. Lincolnwood: National Textbook Company Publishing book.


by J.J. Amigo

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