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Review of  Becoming a Translator

Reviewer: Claire Louise Ellender
Book Title: Becoming a Translator
Book Author: Douglas Robinson
Publisher: Routledge (Taylor and Francis)
Linguistic Field(s): Applied Linguistics
Issue Number: 23.5012

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AUTHOR: Robinson, Douglas
TITLE: Becoming a Translator
SUBTITLE: An Introduction to the Theory and Practice of Translation
PUBLISHER: Routledge
YEAR: 2012 (Third edition)

Claire Ellender, UFR des LEA, Université de Lille III, France


“Becoming a Translator”, now in its third edition, is a popular textbook which targets undergraduate and postgraduate students, teachers of translation and practising translators interested in further study. It provides its readers with advice about the practicalities of translating, and introduces them to the theory and practice of translation by fusing together these two approaches.

In his introduction, Robinson argues for a translation pedagogy which is based both on ample practical experience and on a slower, more thoughtful method, that is, a balance of “subliminal discovery and assimilation” and “conscious analysis” (p. 2). “Becoming a Translator” is divided into ten chapters which combine a wealth of practical information regarding the translation profession with an introduction to a broad range of theoretical perspectives on translation. These include a range of theories: psychological (Chapter 5), terminological (Chapter 6), linguistic (Chapter 7), social (Chapter 8) and cultural (Chapter 9). Each chapter is followed by ideas for discussion, a series of hands-on exercises and suggestions for further reading. A wide-ranging and comprehensive bibliography complements the work.

Robinson introduces Chapter 1 by distinguishing between translation as seen from an external perspective -- from the client’s or other user’s point of view -- and from an internal perspective, that is, through the eyes of the translator. The user considers translation to be a text, while for the translator, translation is the activity which produces such texts. Against this background, the first chapter is devoted to the external perspective, which clearly has a considerable influence on the work of the translator. Robinson outlines the client’s wish to have a text translated reliably (the concept of reliability has many definitions and the notion is inherently subjective) and to employ a translator who is both reliable (that is, professional with regard to the text, the client and technology) and who can produce a text which is not only timely but also reasonably priced. If the client has high expectations on all of these fronts, it is nevertheless important that he/she is realistic.

In Chapter 2 the focus switches from client to translator. Honest insights are provided into the profession, amongst which are the tediousness of daily routine and the qualities required to become a successful practitioner (the ability to impersonate, interests in reading and in visiting foreign countries and a will to develop specialised knowledge). A wide range of other issues are then addressed, from reliability and ethics, through income and speed of work, to translation technology. In this connection, the concept of Translation Memory is clearly explained, and a thorough survey of different tools on the market, provided. After discussing free online translators and the need for post-editing, Robinson also deals swiftly with the subjects of project management and raising the status of the profession, and offers sensible advice about learning to enjoy the job.

The third chapter is devoted to the process of translation. Borrowing a metaphor taken from weaving, Robinson presents the idea of the translator ‘shuttling’ between two mental states and processes; a subliminal ‘flow’ in which he/she works on auto pilot, and a highly conscious state in which he/she operates analytically. While subliminal flow allows translations to be produced with speed, heightened consciousness enriches the translator’s job and thus makes it more enjoyable. In order to establish connections between the concepts of experience and habit and the process of translation, Robinson gives detailed explanations of the work of American philosopher and semiotician Charles Sanders Peirce and that of Karl Weick. Reference to these theorists enables translation to be viewed as a cyclical process in which an instinctive approach is followed by experience. This then leads to the formation of certain linguistic habits which, in turn, allow the translator to rely on his or her instinct which has been informed by his or her experience.

The theoretical approaches outlined in Chapter 3 pave the way for the tripartite approach which becomes a leitmotif through the book’s remaining chapters. In this vein, Chapter 4 focuses on experience and examines how translators initially rely on their intuition, which can mislead them. It then pays attention to translators’ experience of languages, cultures, subject matter and language resources. In turn, rules and theories can arise from this experience and from building certain patterns. Here, Robinson constructs a case for the importance of translation theory in the training of practical translators: “Exposure to other people’s rules and theories about the field can coax translators with […] ingrained assumptions past the limitations of their own experimental worlds” (p. 85). Reinforcing the inseparability of intuition, experience and theory, Robinson concludes this chapter by stating that: “Rules and theories without surprises from the world of intuitive leaps, or a solid grounding in professional practice, would be sterile and empty” (p. 86).

The subsequent chapter centres on the importance of social interaction in the translator’s experience. Following the tripartite ‘intuitive leaps -- pattern building -- rules and theories’ structure, Chapter 5 stresses the importance of tuning into first impressions, developing one’s emotional intelligence and reinforcing this knowledge by studying a psychology-based course. The better the translator is at understanding and communicating with people from all walks of life, the better able he/she will be able to understand the thinking which underpins the client’s written texts and subsequently ‘mimic’ these appropriately in the chosen target language (TL).

Again emphasising the role of human contact in the translator’s job, Chapter 6 considers the workplace as an interactive setting in which to use specialised terminologies. As with all language, specialised terminology is most easily learned in context. Robinson recommends that, in addition to ‘faking it’ (using his/her intuition in order to imitate the writing style of doctors, economists or other professionals when translating their work), it is important that translators gain experience of different jobs in order to develop their own knowledge of fields in which they could specialise. Attending classes in subjects such as Law or Medicine can, Robinson suggests, further consolidate and extend such knowledge.

Beginning with the premise that “translators don’t translate words, they translate what people do with words” (p. 124), Chapter 7 makes explicit links between translation and linguistics. Briefly listing key players in the history of translation theory who consider translation to be an operation performed on language, Robinson explains that the concept of linguistic equivalence has become peripheral in Translation Studies in recent years; linguistic studies are now combined with more socially oriented approaches.

Translation as a social activity is the focus of Chapter 8. At an early stage in his or her career, the translator intuitively ‘pretends’ to be the same kind of author for the TL reader as the original author was for the source language (SL) reader. He/she then builds certain patterns, learning to be an effective practitioner by participating in a community of translators. The translator as social being can be theorised by reference to two ‘sociological turns’ in Translation Studies. The first of these, the ‘skopos’ or functionalist school, occurred in the mid-1980s in Germany. The second has emerged in the 2000s and is based on sociological theory, namely that of Pierre Bourdieu. Robinson provides detailed explanations of each of these movements which, he argues, are precisely the areas in which translation theory and practice truly come together. First, theorists attempt to understand the social networks controlling translation in order to teach others how to better understand them. Second, while practitioners generate rules in order to understand their work, theorists and teachers draw on practical experience when devising their deductive principles. Indeed, these sociological turns view translators as language professionals rooted in social contexts; they have moved far beyond the concept of translation as a mere search for linguistic equivalence.

If translators have always been aware of cultural differences and their significance for translation, in Chapter 9 Robinson warns that it is dangerous to trust our intuition about cultural knowledge and difference; no single culture is unified or harmonious. Pattern building is, nevertheless, again advocated. The more steeped the translator becomes in cultures other than his/her own, the better equipped he/she will be to understand other peoples. This understanding can be assisted if the translator is aware of the work of certain theorists. In recent years, translation scholars have been placing increased emphasis on the collective control or shaping of cultural knowledge, that is, the role of ideology in constructing cultural knowledge. Sketching trends in Translation Studies which have emerged since the late 1980s and 1990s, Robinson describes this ‘cultural turn’. In the 2000s this has developed into an ‘activist’ movement, based on the belief that no human being can be morally or ideologically neutral; translators invariably intervene in the texts which they translate.

In an interesting twist, Robinson takes the tripartite approach which structured Chapters 4 to 9 and reverses its order in Chapter 10. When translators’ intuition alerts them to a translation problem, they revisit lexis, syntax and norms (rules), search for other solutions (build patterns) and ultimately rely on their intuition when choosing a solution. Robinson then returns to the argument presented in his introductory chapter; although all translators do rely on their instinct, this can be much more finely tuned if it is informed by conscious analysis, experience and reference to some theory.


If the success of “Becoming a Translator” is to be evaluated thoroughly, it is important to recall the book’s objectives, as outlined by Robinson, and to consider the extent to which each of these has been met. At the outset, Robinson states:
i) that his work aims to give novice and practising translators advice and information about the practicalities of translating;
ii) that it aims to provide an introduction to the theory and practice of translating, fusing these two approaches;
iii) that it targets a diverse audience of undergraduate / postgraduate students, teachers of translation and practitioners interested in expanding their knowledge through further study.

i) “Becoming a Translator” does indeed provide a wealth of practical information concerning, and insights into, the work and life of the professional translator. These include self-help tips and suggestions for cultivating professional behaviour. Its realistic advice is often underpinned by a positive psychological approach which can be applied beyond the field of translation to life in general. Of particular interest in this connection is Robinson’s reference to Daniel Goleman’s concept of emotional intelligence.

ii) In recent years, the relationship between theory and practice has become an important debate in Translation Studies; increasing acknowledgement has been given to the inseparability of these. In line with this thinking, “Becoming a Translator” is founded on an approach which interweaves theory and practice. This is particularly evident in Chapters 8 and 9 which are written clearly and articulately and give a thorough survey of some of the most recent developments in Translation Studies; the translator, a socially and culturally situated being, has a wealth of practical experience which can, and indeed should, directly inform the theory of translation. This combined theoretical and practical approach is also reflected in the exercises which feature at the end of each of the book’s chapters and which are inspired by a range of sources, from translator discussion groups to classic theoretical texts including those of Baker (1992), Lefevere (1992) and Nida (1969).

iii) A number of this book’s features make it an appropriate resource for all of Robinson’s intended readers. First, its layout and clear structure, which is repeated in several of the chapters, ensure that it is user-friendly for a diverse audience. The discussion points and exercises which follow each individual chapter are also potentially useful not only to students and teachers, but also to those engaged in personal study. Second, Robinson’s chapters are, for the most part, written in a chatty, accessible style and his basic definitions and explanations are clear. This renders ‘Becoming a Translator’ attractive to a wide audience, perhaps especially to students and those new to the field. Last, the work contains a number of humorous touches. If some of the exercises which Robinson suggests are not necessarily advisable or appropriate, they do serve to counter the seriousness of some of the book’s subject-matter.

Robinson’s “Becoming a Translator”, which is in its third edition, is a product of years of work, use, revision and updates. Much of the advice which it contains demonstrates that the author is an experienced, enthusiastic translator and, as the above evaluation suggests, this work meets the three principal objectives which it presents at the outset.

In spite of this book’s many positive attributes, it could be argued that it has one shortcoming. Given the diversity of the audience for which it is intended, “Becoming a Translator” does, at times, discuss certain theorists (namely Charles Sanders Peirce and Karl Weick) in such depth that it may be off-putting to certain readers, especially those more interested in the practice of translation.

To conclude, given that Robinson ‘shuttles’ between theoretical and practical approaches, the present book may be best used as an additional resource, once readers have a grounding in translation theory (Munday 2001) and practice (Samuelsson-Brown 1993/2010). Prior knowledge of some core texts in the field would enable all readers, regardless of their particular interests, to have an enhanced appreciation of Robinson’s valuable work.


Baker, Mona. 1992. In Other Words: A Coursebook on Translation. London and New York: Routledge.

Lefevere, André. 1992. Translation, Rewriting and the Manipulation of Literary Fame. London and New York: Routledge.

Munday, Jeremy. 2001. Introducing Translation Studies. London and New York: Routledge.

Nida, Eugene A. 1969. The Theory and Practice of Translation. Leiden: E.J. Brill.

Samuelsson-Brown, Geoffrey. 1993/2010. A Practical Guide for Translators. Clevedon and Adelaide: Multilingual Matters.

Dr. Claire Ellender has previously worked as an in-house translator in Paris and as a consultant course author for The Open University, England. She is currently Maître de Conférences in Translation at the Université de Lille III, France, where she contributes to a range of theoretical and practical courses on the Master’s in Specialised Translation (EMT). Her principal research interests are audiovisual and literary translation; recent publications explore the subtitling of dialect in a number of films, including ‘Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels’ (2012), and ‘Bienvenue chez les Ch’tis’ (ed. Jorge Diaz-Cintas, forthcoming). She is author of the forthcoming ‘Preserving Polyphonies: Responding to the Writings of Claude Sarraute’ (Peter Lang).

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