Assessing morphologically motivated transfer in parallel corpora

Bart Defrancq and Gudrun Rawoens
Ghent University | Independent scholar


This paper proposes a new way of identifying and analysing positive transfer on the basis of corpus data. Taking stock of process-oriented research into what is called ‘literal translation’, transfer is defined as an instance in which a translator is primed into using a target language item that is formally similar to the source item to be translated, when alternatives are available. In order to measure the extent to which morphological transfer is present in translation, a study is conducted on translations of negative prefixes in parallel corpora of French, Swedish and Dutch. The corpus study revealed that (1) transfer is by far the main translation option translators choose in all corpora involved, (2) transfer is more frequent when translators have the opportunity to use a cognate prefix in the other language, (3) transfer is more frequent between languages belonging to the same language family. The results of the study contradict the generally acknowledged fact that transfer is more likely from a language which is culturally dominant to a language which is not.

Table of contents

The aim of this paper is to propose a corpus-based method to detect transfer in a corpus of translations. Transfer is taken here as the process whereby a translator opts for a target language item that reflects in some way formal or structural properties of the source language item with which it corresponds semantically, regardless of whether the process results in patterns which are atypical of non-translated text in the target language. Transfer resulting in atypical patterns is generally called negative transfer or interference (Toury 1995; Mauranen 2004). Interference is a widely studied topic both in translation and interpreting studies and in language didactics, for one main reason: interference evidently has a bearing on the quality of the translation and interpreting process (Hansen 2010; Lederer 1981) and on the outcome of the language acquisition process (Swan and Smith 2001). In this context, studying interference is a means of making translators, interpreters and language learners aware of atypical patterns and helping them avoid these patterns. Interference is also claimed by some translation scholars to be a translation universal (Toury 1995) and, therefore, a quintessential and defining property of translation itself.

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