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Review of  Corpora in Translation

Reviewer: Jonathan Downie
Book Title: Corpora in Translation
Book Author: Tengku Sepora Tengku Mahadi Helia Vaezian Mahmoud Akbari
Publisher: Peter Lang AG
Linguistic Field(s): Applied Linguistics
Text/Corpus Linguistics
Issue Number: 22.2209

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AUTHORS: Tengku Mahadi, Tengku Sepora; Vaezian, Helia; Akbari, Mahmoud
TITLE: Corpora in Translation
SUBTITLE: A Practical Guide
SERIES TITLE: Series: Linguistic Insights. Volume 120
YEAR: 2010

Jonathan Downie, Department of Languages and Intercultural Studies, School of
Management and Languages, Heriot-Watt University, Edinburgh, Scotland.


Tengku Mahadi, Vaezian and Akbari offer us a book with a fairly straightforward
argument: corpora have played an important part in the development of
translation theory and can be a useful tool in developing the translators of the
future. Few readers could deny the plausibility of this view and only an unkind
reader could deny that the book is an informative report of some evidence in
favour of this hypothesis. Nevertheless, as with all books, there are areas
where improvements could be made. In the case of this particular book, some of
these are much more serious than others.

The book has an easy-to-follow structure, moving from general discussions of
what corpora are and the different kinds of corpora in use, to more specific
discussions of their contributions to translation studies, professional
development, and lastly, the training of translators. For the purposes of their
study, Tengku Mahadi, Vaezian and Akbari see a corpus as any collection of more than
one authentic text that is in some way representative of a larger body of work
(pp. 6-7). In other words, the texts within a corpus must not have been written
specifically to be included in such a body of work and must share features that
can be said to be in some way typical of a larger, hypothetical sample.

The book focuses on corpora which have been prepared for analysis using
specialist software tools. The advantage of this kind of corpora, in their view,
is that they allow much quicker processing and searching than is possible with
manual methods (p. 9). Much of the first chapter is taken up with explanations
of different types of corpora, how they are compiled, and the different ways
they can be analysed. These include General Reference Corpora, such as the
British National Corpus, which are used to give information on a language as a
whole and must therefore include examples from as wide a range of genres as
possible (p. 10), and learner corpora, which are compiled from the work of
language learners (p. 14). These latter corpora can play a useful role in
language acquisition research (Granger 1998). This chapter is illustrated with
examples of corpora in use, including screen captures where appropriate.

The second chapter is a short summary of the contribution of corpora to
theoretical advances in Translation Studies. It summarizes how corpus-based
studies have shed light on the unique characteristics of translations as texts.
This includes the tendency for translations to have shorter sentences and less
lexical variation than comparable untranslated texts (p. 40). Next, the authors
examine the use of corpora in evaluation and skills training, where they can be
used to provide a more objective basis for translation evaluations (p. 47),
before examining the use of corpora in the quantification of the styles of
different translators and their current use by professionals. This latter
application can be seen in the increasing use of Computer Aided Translation
(CAT) and Translation Memory (TM) packages. On the basis of this trend, the
authors feel that translators must be ''familiar with the state of the art
translation technology'' (p. 49) in order to compete. The accuracy of this remark
is something which will be returned to later in this review.

The third chapter underlines the importance of corpora by further exploring
their usefulness for professional translators. Here, the authors concentrate on
the benefits for those working professionally into their second or other
language. Their analysis therefore covers the use of corpora to help translators
find information on collocations, the commonality of different words, their
conceptual and semantic fields, and the use of corpora in glossary building.
Examples include the use of corpora to explore the conceptual field of
''multilateralism'' (p. 69) and a brief examination of the use of the word ''civil''
in English political texts (p. 71).

Chapter Four takes us back one stage in the training process by exploring the
usefulness of corpora for student translators, concentrating on reports of the
use of different types of corpora in the translation classroom. These reports
are therefore arranged according to the type of corpora used: from pre-made
General Reference Corpora (pp. 77-80) to ad hoc ''DIY'' (''Do-It-Yourself'', a term
borrowed from the home improvement sector) corpora made by students in the
classroom (pp. 91-96).

The following chapter takes us even further into the world of corpus-based
translation teaching by exploring how corpora could be of use to translation
teachers. In this context, the authors feel that there is a need for translation
teachers to act as guides, leading students towards a measure of independence in
their use of corpora (p. 111). On the other hand, they also feel that corpora
can be used to ''justify [teachers'] answers and criticisms of students'
translations'' (p. 112), despite their earlier stated position, in the previous
chapter, that the use of corpora empowers students to find their own solutions
(pp. 94-102). They also feel that corpora can be used as a resource for the
preparation of translation assignments (p. 112) and to provide longitudinal data
on problems occurring in different cohorts of students. This latter use would of
course be restricted by any data protection legislation in place in a given country.

The book ends with the conclusion that corpora have proven to be a useful tool
and should be applied in every classroom. However, the authors believe that
there are certain barriers in the way of this goal, not least the limited number
of languages and situations covered by research to date and the reticence of
some teachers to adjust their teaching methods (p. 122).


Despite some of the issues mentioned below, this book will still be of some use
to both researchers and translation teachers. For the former, it could easily
serve as a concise introductory report on the research that has been done in
this field, given the clear explanations of previous work and the easy-to-follow
structure. The judicious use of screen captures will also be useful to those who
are not currently familiar with corpus analysis tools. For translation teachers,
while the book is not quite yet a ''practical guide,'' it does suggest some ways
in which corpora could be used in the classroom, alongside some encouraging
early findings.

However, this book is not without its faults. The vast majority of these would
seem to stem from the fact that the book sets out to be a practical guide to the
use of corpora, rather than a balanced account of the issues involved in using

On a theoretical level, there are places where the authors' explorations of the
uses of corpora seem to go against the grain of the thinking of the wider world
of Translation Studies. Their habit of focussing on smaller units of
translation, even single words (pp. 66, 68, 72, 78-79, 83, etc.), will be
unnerving for those readers who are familiar with cognitive research into the
translation process. Such research has demonstrated that highly skilled
translators spend more of their time on much larger units, such as phrases and
sentences, as well as on matters of style and text design (see Jääskeläinen 2008
and Kenny 2008: 305 for an overview). Surely, if this is the case, translation
trainers should be helping students to move away from a term-centred approach
and towards thinking more about the purpose and audience of their translation
and what these imply for their work (cf. Nord 1997/2007).

Given that some of the occurrences of word-centred approaches are found when the
authors quote previous work, such an emphasis is understandable. The treatment
of these earlier studies, however, is an area where improvements could be made.
In general, the authors opt for describing the findings and general
methodologies used in previous research without much in the way of obvious
critical engagement. This can be seen in the repeated use of phrases like ''one
of the most important studies on [x] is'' (e.g. pp. 44, 79, 84, etc.), followed
by a brief explanation of the study in focus, before following a similar
procedure with the next.

Of course, one could argue that the balance between reporting the findings of
earlier work and offering a critical perspective on them is
culturally-determined. Nevertheless, readers are still likely to be put off by
the fact that studies involving two subjects are given the same credence as
studies involving fourteen (pp. 100-101) and that work available online in a
non-peer reviewed publication aimed at professional translators appears to be
given as much weight as work published in a respected peer-reviewed linguistics
journal (pp. 84-85). Similarly, some notes on the limitations of corpora might
have been helpful (cf. Bowker 1998: 18).

If the text had succeeded in fulfilling the remit of providing ''A Practical
Guide'' (front cover) then such issues could be easily overlooked. After all, the
expectations readers have of a practical guide for teachers are very different
to the requirements of a critical introduction. However, even here, this
reviewer finds it wanting: for a practical guide, it offers little in the way of
solid guidance on the use corpora in the translation classroom.

There is, for example, a disappointing lack of any detailed discussion of the
steps to be taken to ensure the quality of the texts used in corpora, especially
DIY corpora (cf. pp. 92-94, 117, etc.), despite the fact that previous studies
have shown this to be a vital issue (cf. pp. 92-94). Given that so much of the
authors' argument relies on corpora offering reliable data on acceptable
translation options, it would seem to be a rather unfortunate oversight not to
include anything substantial on how to ensure this is the case.

In a similar vein, it must also be pointed out that the equation of
''professional'' translation with ''good'' translation (see pp. 81, 112) is surely
an oversimplification, given the fragmented and unregulated state of the
translation market in most countries. One might also suggest that the authors'
claim that translators must be familiar with state-of-the-art technology in
order to compete (p. 49) is an unsubstantiated generalisation at best. After
all, one need only to point to a few cases of professional translators who
continue to gain clients without using such tools, such as this reviewer or many
literary translators, to refute this claim. Suggesting that students can use the
same corpus to translate and later evaluate the same translation (p. 111) could
also be criticised as an example of circular logic. After all, the reasoning
here seems to be that correct translations and term uses are found in the
corpus, and since they are in the corpus, we know they are correct. Lastly, not
all of the authors' views on the use of corpora by professional translators will
be backed by practising translators and translation associations, especially
when they recommend their use in checking the grammaticality of phrases. After
all, readers may, with much justification, question whether translators who
cannot tell that ''the states which their systems'' (p. 72) is ungrammatical in
English should be translating into the language at all (cf. ITI n.d.: 4.1.1).

The penultimate chapter purports to offer much needed practical advice by
outlining the implications of what ''Saying yes to the Corpus'' (p. 115) might
mean for translation teachers. However, with the exception of the discussion of
the usefulness of different types of corpora for translation classes with
different emphases (pp. 115-116), this chapter tends towards describing many
possible uses of corpora rather than examining any one in detail. Some examples,
following the pattern set down in the first chapter (especially pp. 19-27),
would have made this chapter, and the book as a whole, much more helpful.

In conclusion, this book has much in common with the corpora it describes. It
will no doubt prove useful to future researchers and translation teachers, as it
provides useful insights into what has been written. Nevertheless, there remains
some way to go before it can be used as the sole or even primary tool for
translation teaching. The authors have succeeded in providing the field with a
helpful summary of previous work and some inspiring suggestions for future
directions. What the book has not done is provide teachers with the kind of
step-by-step, methodical account that the title seems to suggest.


Bowker, Lynne. (1998). ''Using Specialized Monolingual Native-Language Corpora as
a Translation Resource: A Pilot Study.'' Meta: journal des traducteurs / Meta:
Translators' Journal, vol. 43, n° 4, pp. 631-651. Available from: retrieved 5th February, 2011.

Granger, Sylviane. (1998). Learner English on Computer. Longman: London.

Institute of Translation and Interpreting. (no date). Code of Conduct
(individual members). Available from:, retrieved 5th
February, 2011.

Jääskeläinen, Riita. (2008). ''Think-aloud protocols.'' In Baker, Mona and
Saldanha, Gabriela (eds.), Routledge Encyclopedia of Translation Studies.
London: Routledge, pp. 290-294.

Kenny, Dorothy. (2008). ''Unit of Translation.'' In Baker, Mona and Saldanha,
Gabriela (eds.), Routledge Encyclopedia of Translation Studies. London:
Routledge, pp. 304-306.

Nord, Christiane. (1997/2007). Translation as a Purposeful Activity, Translation
Theories Explained. Manchester, United Kingdom: St. Jerome.

Jonathan Downie is a professional conference interpreter and translator and a PhD student at Heriot-Watt University in Edinburgh, Scotland. His research is related to the use and improvement of translation and interpreting in churches and Christian organisations. His work is currently centred on user expectations of sermon interpreting.

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