Intuition in Literary Translation

During the 54th annual conference organized November 6-9, 2013 by the American Translators Association (ATA) in San Antonio, I attended a session titled Intuition in Literary Translation, presented by Séverine Hubscher-Davidson, a French-to-English translator based in England. She is a lecturer in Translation Studies, as well as a Learning and Teaching Enhancer for Languages and Translation Studies at Aston University.

The topic that Séverine chose to present during her debut as a speaker at an ATA conference is extremely interesting and calls for more reflections on our translation process. Actually, this is something that I have hoped to delve into, maybe reading some books and papers on the psychology of translation, but my “intuition” (pun intended) had always pushed me to give some advice on the matter to students who expressed frustration for being “stuck” on a word or sentence.

Whenever my students come to me with such a problem, I tell them to leave the translation alone for a few minutes. “Go get yourself some coffee, read a book or magazine, do the dishes or the laundry, change the baby's diaper...” is my usual recommendation. “If you take your mind off the problem and tend to some routine tasks, you'll be preoccupied with it, but your brain will keep gnawing at the issue. Soon, maybe before you go back to your translation, you'll come up with a solution.”

What a surprise it was to hear the speaker explain eloquently and in proper psychological terms that exact process, which is supported by her research for her Master's in Psychology. Séverine defined intuition as “a feeling or sixth sense that you know it feels right,” but poses a problem: Can we rely on intuition as a translator? In other words, while it is a scientific phenomenon, intuition isn't always trustworthy; it's not conscious, but rather spontaneous, effortless, fast, and associative.

The presenter went on to explain that there are two types of intuition. The first one is aimed at problem-solving, which uses pattern-matching based on specific domain knowledge, and it happens rather quickly, being useful for simpler and more straightforward problems. The other one is a creative type of intuition, that propels new combinations of knowledge based on integration of knowledge across different domains and happens slowly, thus being useful for highly complex problems.

In regards to the level of reliability, Séverine pondered that whenever intuition is backed up by sound knowledge, it is safe to trust your sixth sense. However, if it remains unchecked and is not analyzed, it can be harmful to a translator. “Intuitive responses can inspire feelings of confidence and result in wrong answers!”

As the she explained, translators use their intuition based on visuals and their own experiences, which sometimes cannot be completely relatable to other people who may not be able to identify with quite the same thing, considering their own personal experiences. That is, if translators use a word that is familiar to them, but won't be quite understood by the target audience, their use of intuition may not be quite accurate. “Intuitions are hard to shake off,” Séverine said. “Successful translating equals knowledge plus intuition.”

Additional considerations on the topic included the fact that tight deadlines encourage reliance on intuition, which can be a good thing if you're an experienced translator and have useful intuition to rely on, but it may not be as fruitful if you're a beginner. “Semi-experts know enough to be cautions, and not enough to rely on intuition,” she pointed out. “Translators should (re)consider intuitions at different stages of the translation.”

The speaker concluded her presentation by giving the audience some practical advice on how to properly rely on intuition while translating:

  • Be mindful
  • Think aloud
  • Seek peer/mentor opportunities
  • Pursue new learning situations

RAFA LOMBARDINO is a translator and journalist from Brazil who lives in California. She has been working as a translator since 1997 and, in 2011, started to join forces with self-published authors to translate their work into Portuguese and English. In addition to acting as content curator at eWordNews, she also runs Word Awareness, a small network of professional translators, and coordinates two projects to promote Brazilian literature worldwide: Contemporary Brazilian Short Stories (CBSS) and Cuentos Brasileños de la Actualidad (CBA).