The Communicative Role of the Translator: The Translator as Writer

[F]or a translation is a bit of writing
like any other […].
Hilaire Belloc, On Translation, 1931

It is commonly agreed that the task of the translator does not consist in a linguistic transcoding, but in a production of a communicative act. This is, of course, an act sui generis, since translators do not transmit a ‘personal’ message, but puts their skills at the service of an already existing message. Nevertheless, the mere fact that this act generates a text means that the translator is performing an act of ‘writing’, to be intended as the production of a communication, as the producer of the source text did. The difference between the two acts – the one of the source writer and the one of the target writer – is to be found in the content and purposes of the act performed, but not in the nature of the act of writing itself. This is crucial because it directly concerns the status of translators, and ultimately the dignity of their role. Are translators mere transcoders, or are they real communicators/writers? That is the question.

The British writer Hilaire Belloc was particularly clear on this. Speaking of the skills the translator must possess, he noted that:

He must write well in the tongue into which he translates, for a translation is a bit of writing like any other and varies like any other in vernacular excellence. (Belloc, On Translation, 1931)

According to Belloc, translating is writing, and the work of the translator can be compared to work of the source writer. For this reason, the translator’s writing must be a quality work too. In other words, the quality of the translation cannot depend only on a formal adherence to the source text, as could be the product of a simple transcoding. Rather, the correspondence between the source text and the target text should be based on communication analysis, since communication is the core and purpose of writing. Therefore, the translator must also be a good communicator and writer.

At this point it is necessary to analyse further the meaning given here to the term ‘writer’. In common usage, in fact, this term is mainly related to the world of literary texts. However, from the point of view of linguistics, before being classified as ‘technical’, ‘commercial’, ‘scientific’, or before being included into a literary canon, any text is primarily a communicative act, a ‘text’ in the broad meaning of the term. A writer is, therefore, a producer of texts. It may be a literary writer writing detective novels, a technical editor issuing an installation manual, a copywriter preparing advertising texts, a PR officer writing a corporate press release, a spokesman drawing up a speech, and so on.

This approach to the meaning of ‘writer’ does not mean that anyone can be defined as such only because they are writing a text. In fact, one can produce a poorly communicative text, and we regularly see plenty of such texts every day. No one can be a good literary writer without training, and the same applies to the technical writing or copywriting. As a matter of facts, there exists no ‘easy writing’. The case of literary writing involves the discussion of the concepts of ‘talent’ and ‘literary canon’, which is outside the scope of this article on translation. The case of technical writing, on the contrary, is easier to define. For instance, to become a technical writer one would always need a quite long training on a specific cultural, technical and scientific knowledge. This knowledge, in turn, will allow the technical writer to master and use specific ‘technical languages’ and to produce effective technical texts, as in the case of a research paper written by a physician, a risk analysis edited by an engineer, etc. The writers who work in these areas have therefore specific knowledge and competencies allowing them to write communicative texts in their field.

What stated above does not mean, of course, that we should opt for a broad classification to include a poem on the same level of an installation manual, on the grounds that both are a product of writing. This approach tends, on the contrary, to establish the specificity of each field, precisely by insisting on the fact that each act of writing, be it literary or technical, requires specific knowledge and training.

As for the writers, the same applies for the translators, who are required not only to translate, but to generate a communicative act in their own language. In fact, when translating, the translator is performing an act of writing, and the quality of this product will depend primarily on its capacity of being a writer in that specific field. The mere fact of being a translator does not automatically mean that one is able to tackle an essay on nuclear physics. To perform such a task, the translator should qualify firstly as a writer on that subject, and prove relevant expertise.

This approach to the translator as writer is twofold. On the one hand, it aims at enhancing the role of translators as communicators and to improve the dignity of their role, so often underestimated. On the other hand, it allows tackling the frequent lack of quality in translations, which is due to a lack of awareness about the nature of the act of translating. In fact, if translators were more aware of the fact that they are communicators and not transcoders, they would become more attentive when it comes to determining what kind of texts they are able to translate, depending on their knowledge and skills.

The article has been published by Tommaso, he is English to Italian principal translator at If you need a professional translation service in any language, at your translations are in safe hands, believe me. As a translator you a welcome to easily subscribe for translation jobs here.

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11 thoughts on “The Communicative Role of the Translator: The Translator as Writer

  1. HJChapman, said:

    Interesting post, for which many thanks.

    As a lawyer and frequent editor of translated legal text, I would reinforce the author’s point above, in that a translator of legal text should also be a good writer of legal text. There is a difficult boundary to find on this, however: it remains important for translations made in the legal profession not to deviate too far from the original text. Otherwise, the effects of even beautifully crafted target language text can greatly deviate than the intended purpose of the original source despite the translation being more elegant.

    Clear and effective writing and good idiom in the target language is for sure the difference between a mediocre and a good legal translation. In my opinion, however, an excellent legal translation will also provide for a third dimension, and allow for the specific language animals of the source language jurisdiction to become understandable to target language readers in a form as close as possible to the original. That is certainly not an exact science, it is a detailed very species of target language skill combined with total proficiency in the source language (perhaps even ahead of proficiency in the target language). This goes well beyond the current EN15038 requirements and, in my view, is also why excellent legal translations are very hard to come by.

    Second, as is notorious in the law, source text can be so complex that it is hardly understandable even in the source language. As is said, one cannot make a silk purse out of a sow’s ear – and the poor old translator all too often carries the can for not being able to do so.

    With best wishes

  2. translate to english, said:

    Nice article on translation but a long comment ARTICLE to such a good ARTICLE.

    Thanks for sharing such a good article.

  3. Riky, said:

    In my opinion, however, an excellent legal translation will also provide for a third dimension, and allow for the specific language animals of the source language jurisdiction to become understandable to target language readers in a form as close as possible to the original

  4. A translator may have different roles and writer is one of those. It all depends how they perform in their role of a writer as by doing translation they have a great mind with creativity and ideas and that’s why they don’t find complexity or difficulty in doing different types of translation like a document translation, language to language or even medical or legal translation.

  5. Thanks for sharing nice information in this article…………….

  6. David, said:

    Translators are some what writers too. A translator has to play different roles many times sometime he is a writer, sometime he is an advisor and sometime he is a creator too. I love this industry and working as a translator is fun.

  7. Thanks for sharing this. I learned something new today!

  8. Pingback: Portafolio Business English Translations | eliluzavila

  9. I think a translator should not only translate a text but look at it as a final reader so that he/she could transform a text in an understandable manner.

  10. I definitely agree with Profvertimai, since most often a translator misses the message of a text translated.

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