Shorter than a text, longer than a sentence: Source text length for ecologically valid translation experiments

Arndt Heilmann, Tatiana Serbina, Daniel Couto Vale and Stella Neumann

Abstract

This paper investigates what effect the length of the source text has both on the translation process and on the translation product. In an eye-tracking and keystroke logging experiment, we compared three conditions, namely full texts, three-sentence sequences and single sentences as source items. The results suggest that translations of single sentences differ significantly from full texts, whereas three-sentence sequences are representative of the full text condition. Therefore, research in process-based translation studies might benefit from using shorter source texts without endangering the ecological validity of experiments.

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Table of contents

Process-based translation studies, the branch of empirical translation studies that is concerned with investigating the actual process of translating from language A into language B and specifically with how cognitive factors affect the outcome of this process, is riddled with methodological problems. One of the most important insights into translation is that it operates on text as a unit rather than on individual words or sentences – even if most of the time the actual translation is partitioned into smaller units (see Alves 2003 on the translation unit). This is in line with language-theoretical claims about text as the unit of meaning (Halliday and Hasan 1976). Alves and Couto Vale (2011), for instance, discuss translators’ patterns of modifying parts of an unfolding translation based on their linguistic decisions elsewhere in a text – rather than in a sentence. Such patterns also underline the role cohesion plays for the translator. Dragsted and Hansen (2008) report early identification of translation problems by translators long before they actually translate a challenging source text element. This, in turn, corroborates the holistic character of translating, which consists of an orientation phase, during which possible translation problems are identified, the drafting phase, during which the translation is drafted, and the revision phase, during which the drafted target text is reviewed (e.g., Jakobsen 2002; Carl, Dragsted, and Jakobsen 2011).

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