The translator as a cognitive entity

June 20, 2017 9:15 am

According to classical theories, the translator is only a channel, an intermediary during an act of written communication, between people who speak different languages. In the last few years, thanks to the advances in cognitive psychology and the cooperation between translatologists and cognitivists, a new trend has been gradually formed in translatology which views the translator not only as a mediator of meaning but also as a cognitive entity, that is to say, a human being who puts his cognitive skills at the service of multilingual communication.

This post was originally published in French, please click here to access the original text.

Translator as cognitive entity

This approach has enriched the translatological thinking by attempting to reveal previously ‘hidden’ or ‘obscure’ aspects of the translator, ranging from what he expresses when asked to verbalise his thought to what happens in his brain and in his soul while translating. The first attempts were aimed at understanding what is happening inside the translator’s brain by applying methods of cognitive psychology, such as the Think Aloud Protocol (TAP) method, and later more ‘sophisticated’ methods, such as the approach used during Alexandra Kosma’s experiment at the University of Caen (1), allowed the study of the specific functioning of the working memory during the translation act, based on the model of the working memory proposed by Baddeley and using an eye-tracking system as the main tool (2).

In this short note we will limit ourselves to a very schematic presentation of the functioning of the memory system during the act of translation, following the cognitivist approach. Indeed, the memory system of the translator plays a vital role when processing the information contained in the text to be translated. When reading the source text, the translator’s ocular system captures the information on paper or on the screen, which then passes through the ‘sensory register’ in his or her memory system and becomes an object of specific treatment. Once in the memory system, this information is processed in the working memory, a memory subsystem which plays a fundamental role, in order to produce the translation of the specific passage. The core of this subsystem is, according to Baddeley, the ‘central administrator‘ responsible for managing all this information. To translate a passage, the working memory uses information from the source text as well as information which has already been stored in the long-term memory (3). This information can be of a linguistic or procedural nature, accumulated as a result of the translator’s training, experience and expertise. If it is insufficient for the production of the requested translation, the translator makes use of extrinsic information, obtained from terminological or documentary research, or consultations with experts.

This process involves simultaneous mobilisation of several of the translator’s cognitive resources, as it requires a multitude of decision-making acts based on elements explicitly or implicitly contained in the text to be translated, including the translation act itself, the cognitive background of the translator, etc. Sometimes these decisions are also influenced by the translator’s emotional reaction to the source text (5). Such reactions are not limited to the translation of literary texts, but can also be triggered during the translation of other types of texts with strong emotional connotations.

Furthermore, several studies have been devoted to analysing different types of readers and reading strategies during the act of translation. Each translator, depending on his or her cognitive background, specific experience, physical and emotional state, adopts different reading strategies depending on the function of the particular reading. Freddie Plassard in his work Lire pour traduire (6) explores different types of reading used by the translator as he tries to understand or analyse the source text, to consult sources of documentation, to verify the translation, etc.

Research continues in two main directions: exploring the existing domains in greater depth, and studying new fields while applying disciplines not traditionally used in translatology, such as neurosciences. In the latter case, we are just at the beginning of the journey, and no one can predict the future…

Written by Michel Politis, Associate Professor. He has been teaching since 1988 at the Department of Foreign Languages, Translation and Interpreting of the Ionian University. His expertise lies in the areas of political and legal and economic translation, as well as cognition and translation. From 2000 to 2003 and from 2006 till nowadays he is the director of the Laboratory for Legal, Economic, Political and Technical Translation of the Ionian University. From 2003 to 2010 he was the director of the joint master in Sciences de la Traduction – Traductologie et Sciences cognitive (collaboration between the Ionian University and the University of Caen Basse-Normandie, France). For his contribution to the advancement of the academic cooperation between Greece and France he was awarded in 2003 the Academic Palms (Knight) by the President of France and in 2014 the Academic Palms (Officer). He has published widely on specialized translation and he has also guest-edited an issue of META on cognition and translation.

Post edited by Doris Fernandes del Pozo – Journalist, Translator-Interpreter and Communication Trainee at the Terminology Coordination Unit of the European Parliament. She is pursuing a PhD as part of the Communication and Contemporary Information Programme of the University of Santiago de Compostela (Spain) and Katerina Palamioti, Translator, Social Media and Content Manager, Communication Trainee and Foodie at the Terminology Coordination Unit of the European Parliament.

Disclaimer_External contributions to blog


  • (1) Within the framework of the joint Master “Translation Sciences – Translatology and Cognitive Sciences” (collaboration between the University of Caen and the Ionian University).
    (2) Kosma Alexandra (2007) “The specific functioning of working memory in translation”, META, vol. 52-1, Montréal, Presses de l’Université de Montréal
  • (3) Petit Laurent (2006) La mémoire, Collection « Que sais-je ? », n° 350, Paris, Presses Universitaires de France
  • (4) Politis Michel (2007) «L’apport de la psychologie cognitive à la didactique de la traduction», META, vol. 52-1, Montréal, Presses de l’Université de Montréal
  • (5) Durieux Christine (2007) « L’opération traduisante entre raison et émotion », META, vol. 52-1, Montréal, Presses de l’Université de Montréal
  • (6) Plassard Freddie (2007) Lire pour traduire, Paris, Les Presses de la Sorbonne Nouvelle

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