Between Babel and Bytes - The Discipline of Translation in the Information Age

Frank Austermühl, Diplom-Übersetzer
Johannes Gutenberg-Universität Mainz
Fachbereich 23: Angewandte Sprach- und Kulturwissenschaft
Institut für Anglistik und Amerikanistik
An der Hochschule
76726 Germersheim, Deutschland
Tel.: +49 6221 27628
Fax: +49 6221 21869

Much more than their colleagues in other fields of the Humanities, scholars and professionals in the field of translation work in a scientific and socio-cultural context that is significantly influenced by the exponential growth of international communication. The snowballing increase of available information, the rising number of intercultural encounters, and the continuing virtualization of the private and business life have initiated drastic and sustainable changes in the discipline of translation studies. Digitalization and the globalization of economic, political, social, and cultural phenomena are leading to high expectations as far as the competencies of all three translation scholars, teachers, and professionals are concerned.

The aim of this paper is to show the challenges that the information age poses to those involved in the field of translation, and to demonstrate measures that can be taken to meet these challenges, while at the same time providing the discipline with ways to successfully reorganize its approach to translation in the digital age.

In addition to stressing the role of translation as an organon of international technical communication, the information age emphasizes the necessity to closely analyze the role of translation in intercultural communication. Translation becomes the potential key to understanding the peculiarities of foreign cultures, which is of special importance if one takes into consideration the irreversible increase of cross-cultural encounters and the consequent rise in potential miscommunications. The translator - equipped with profound intercultural knowledge - can be considered a "natural" actor in cross-border communication.

The rapprochement between elements of technical communication and elements of intercultural communication in the field of translation is closely interconnected with the world's metamorphosis into a networked global village.

This development shows that the successful implementation of the two main tasks of translation - transfer of technical and cultural information - can only be achieved through the use of extensive knowledge bases. In the information age, translation, seen as a knowledge-based activity, requires a completely new strategy with regard to the logistics of information. This reflects a paradigm shift in the methodological-practical aspects of translation that is not only restricted to the professional world of translating, but that also influences the areas of teaching and researching.

In the following, I will give three examples of how translation scholars can make effective use of modern means of ICT, thus enhancing their discipline's standing by:

  1. providing high-quality electronic translation tools
  2. optimizing the academic training of translators through ODL
  3. improving scientific discussion through online publications.
Projects related to these areas have been initiated by the author at both the Institute for Translation and Interpretation at Heidelberg University and at the Faculty of Applied Linguistics and Cultural Studies of the University of Mainz at Germersheim.

As far as the development of electronic translation tools is concerned, special attention has to be paid to the Internet. Here, the creation of a so-called "Translator's Homepage" that provides clearly-structured links to thoroughly evaluated Internet resources for translator's (linguistic and encyclopedic databases, archives, corpora, etc.) can be seen as a first step. The researcher's task will be to provide objective criteria for the analysis and evaluation of the listed resources.

As far as the integration of ICT in academic training is concerned, universities need to be aware of the possibilities that telematics-based ODL activities offer. The interdisciplinarity of translation studies makes it impossible for academic institutions to provide teaching modules in each and every relevant field. The marriage of telecommunication and teaching enables universities to cost-effectively enhance their local curricula through the on-demand import of teaching modules. In the fall semester of 1997, the Institute for Translation and Interpretation at Heidelberg University conducted a series of five video-conferences with the Translation and Interpretation Department of the Monterey Institute of International Studies. Through ISDN-based video-conferencing both sides presented the latest findings in their areas of specialization, thereby filling gaps in each other's curricula. In the fall of 1998 this exchange will again be held, this time also incorporating a third site, i. e. the University of Mainz at Germersheim.

Another example of the use of ODL in translation goes beyond an à la carte approach to picking single teaching modules. It aims at setting up an entire post-graduate program in Terminology Management. This project has been proposed as part of a planned International Tele-University Germany. It addresses the discrepancy between an ever increasing demand for multilingual terminology and the scarcity of university programs in that area. Regardless of their location, students will be able to earn a degree via the Internet and selected videoconferences. One fourth of the time of study will be spent on-campus and will be connected with an internship.

Similar to the restructuring of professional translation activities and academic training, ICT has strongly influenced the modalities of scientific discussion. More and more scholars are turning to the Internet to communicate with their international colleagues. Research and teaching are thus becoming increasingly global and transparent. This development is not welcomed by all scholars, not only in translation, but in the Humanities in general. In the worst case scenario this attitude, in an attempt at self-defense, might lead to self-isolation.

A more open attitude towards the modifications in scholarly discussion patterns is represented by "Beyond Babel", a trilingual online journal on translation co-edited by the author. Its name implies the ability of ICT to provide solutions for overcoming the communication gap that ICT itself helped open up. Among other things, "Beyond Babel" will feature several permanent sections covering for example, new trends in computer-assisted translation, multilingual terminology management, ODL, technical translation, and intercultural communication.

In conclusion, it can be said that the discipline of translation is clearly able to react quickly and efficiently to the challenges posed by the information age. International and intercultural communication has always been the natural habitat for translation scholars and professional translators. The exponential growth of this habitat that has been brought about by a rapid increase of internationalization patterns, is causing an increasing demand for professional pathfinders, both in linguistic and in cultural terms.

However, as far as the tools of the trade of both professionals and scholars in translation are concerned a paradigm shift has already taken place. This new paradigm considers the application of electronic tools as the decisive instruments for the generating of the special knowledge bases indispensable for a successful linguistic and cultural transfer.

Academic institutions for translator training need to react quickly to the dramatic changes. This includes the development of modern strategies of information logistics, the creation and evaluation of online and offline translation tools, the integration of ODL modules in translator training, and the acceptance of the Internet as the future means of scholarly communication.