A Cognitive Approach to Source Text Difficulty in Translation

Stuart Campbell
University of Western Sydney Macarthur

The notion of "difficulty" is of practical relevance to many of the stakeholders in the business of training and accrediting translators. This article proposes that difficulty can be tackled in terms of source text, translation task, and translator competence. Focussing on text difficulty, a case study is reported that shows that the source text can be an independent source of translation difficulty and that a substantial proportion of the items can be equally difficult to translate into typologically different languages. The study also highlights possible reasons for text difficulty at the level of lexis, and suggests that difficulty can be interpreted in cognitive terms, with the support of models of working memory and of language comprehension and production.

Table of contents

The notion of "difficulty" in written translation is of practical relevance to many of the stakeholders in the business of training and accrediting translators, including those involved in syllabus design, teaching and assessment. Difficulty has not, however, received a comprehensive treatment in the field of translation studies, and I believe that translator educators are somewhat [ p. 34 ]hamstrung by the lack of a suitable model that would allow them to effectively build the notion of difficulty into courses and tests. It is intriguing also that there appear to have been no studies that enquire whether the same text can be equally difficult or easy to translate into multiple target languages, a matter of some importance to both accrediting authorities and training institutions. This article proposes a framework in which difficulty can be tackled, and reports a case study that aims to establish whether the source text is an independent source of translation difficulty and whether such difficulty is common to typologically different target languages. The case study also highlights possible reasons for text difficulty at the level of lexis, and suggests that difficulty can be interpreted in cognitive terms.

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