Posts in embodiment

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.
 
Affordances
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)
 
References
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

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