On randomness

Imogen Cohen

Andrew Chesterman’s 2008 article “On Explanation” examines what it means to explain translational phenomena. In doing so, it explores the nature of explanation itself and raises one crucial question: How much is beyond explanation? In other words, to what extent could translational phenomena be due to mere chance? This article addresses this question by drawing on six landmark experiments within the field of psychology. These experiments suggest (1) that we, as translators, might unknowingly be injecting random elements into our translations, and (2) that we, as Translation Studies scholars, might be ‘seeing’ causes in that randomness where there are none. This article also draws on psychologist Daniel Kahneman’s ideas about the ‘illusion of causation’ and on Nassim Taleb’s definition of randomness within the humanities and social sciences. It concludes by arguing that retrospective explanations of translations should pay far more than lip service to the notion of chance.

Publication history
Table of contents

Explanations are ubiquitous, come in a variety of forms and formats, and are used for a variety of purposes. Yet, one of the most striking features about most explanations is their limitations. For most natural phenomena and many artificial ones, the full set of relations to be explained is enormous, often indefinitely large and far beyond the grasp of any one individual.

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