Individual Differences In The Translation Process Cultural Studies Essay

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Differences in the act of translation between two groups of ESL Japanese students

The purpose of this study was to identify the differences in translation processes between Japanese students who have less experience and those who have the experience of having lived in the United States. In order to achieve this goal, participants who were six Japanese students at Indiana University of Pennsylvania were asked to translate a short passage from Japanese to English and then interviewed as to their translation processes. This study lastly discusses the difference in translation process among Japanese students and the relationship between their word choices and their translations.


The Grammar-Translation method has been widely applied to EFL Japanese contexts. Thus, Japanese students are quite familiar with translation. These students are expected to translate English sentences into Japanese word by word, so that translation is one of the necessary approaches in their language learning. In addition, translation is the only way for middle and high school students to understand 'English' because they are taught to do so by teachers and at the same time, it is a shortcut to getting high scores in exams or to passing the entrance examinations. For that reason, many students tend to misidentify successful language learners as those who are able properly to translate English texts into Japanese. In contrast, the fact is that a test-based approach has provided situations in which students have to cram as much English as possible. More specifically, these students are required to memorize not only vocabulary items but also grammatical aspects of the English language. As a result, students must be dependent on the strategy, which is 'memorization.' One of the main problems in this approach is that students must translate the given texts on the basis of literal meanings of words, ignoring the perspective as to how these words are used in English-speaking countries. In other words, they do not study English in practical terms. Overall, all students are expected to translate the English texts in the same way as their classmates do.

However, the fact is that, even though translators translate the same source text from L1 to L2, the produced documents vary, primarily due to individual differences (Coba, 2007), including genders, translators' L1 and L2 aptitudes, L1 and L2 proficiencies, cultural backgrounds or learning styles. With these differences, how do second language translators negotiate the given texts? How do they choose words appropriate for the texts? Ultimately, what factors determine their translation? This study will examine the differences among Japanese students when translating a Japanese text into English. It will also address whether there are, among interviewees, any specific translation strategies described by Howell (2001): foreignizing or naturalizing translation; and linguistically-oriented or culturallly-oriented translation.

Previous Studies in Second Language Translation

Translation Studies have been conducted since the 1950s, but it is the past thirty years when there has been a noteworthy movement away from a prescriptive approach towards more objective research so as to better understand the concept of translation (Matrat, 1992). Translation Studies have developed since then, but translation theories which all translators can apply to their own practices have not been found yet. For that reason, Translation Studies have been controversial from various viewpoints: what is the exact meaning of 'translation' and what is a 'good' translation (Matrat, 1992); two completely different aspects of studies which are the translation process and the translation product (Aly, 2004); problematizing translation between two languages (Muller, 2007); and the concept of equivalence (Pym, 2007).

From a general perspective, similar to the process of second language learning, the translation process varies according to translators. More specifically, their individual differences which can affect their translation include: gender; L1 and L2 aptitudes; L1 and L2 proficiencies; cultural background; and learning styles (Coba, 2007). Especially, cultural sensitivities are one of the important factors translators need to consider.

Translation and Cultural Significance

Muller's (2007) study emphasized the significance of cultural awareness in translation. This study reported on the relationship between language and politics in translation and discussed that the act in translating is not just a neutral medium of communication but strictly connected with politics. A crucial consideration in translation is to accept the imperfection and recognize the impossibility of meaning equivalence, because there exist more or fewer both cultural and linguistic differences. The argument of the study is that translation is "a conscious ethical-political choice" (p.212) and this feature determines the language use in producing translation. Cultural sensitiveness, therefore, is the key factor in translation.

William's (2005) study also indicated the cultural significance in the act of translation. The study defined culture as life itself, neither simply as knowledge nor as manner. From this viewpoint, translation referred to the action of negotiating cultural and linguistic codes, and the perspective supported Kramsch's theory: "nature, culture and language are interrelated" (p.24). In short, William's study indicates that a lack of cultural knowledge can cause misusage or misunderstanding of language, and the feature negatively affects the performance of translation.

McCleanahen (1995) mentioned the importance of cultural correctness and linguistic accuracy necessary for translation. His perspective of translation is not simply language conversion but a cultural phenomenon which is more important than just customs or traditions. Freeman discussed that translators should "be aware that people may perceive words in very different ways because of their cultural background" (as cited in McCleanahen, 1995, p.19). In this way, cultural significance is the one of the important factors which translators need to keep in mind.

Translation and Equivalence

From a more specific point of view, the primary concern in Translation Studies is 'equivalence.' Pym (2007) reported on the concept of natural and directional equivalence in translation theories. The concept of equivalence has been the assumption that "a source text and a translation can share the same value (equi-valence) on some level (p.272). Natural equivalence consists of "two-way of equivalence: 'natural,' at least in the sense that the correspondence exists in some way prior to the act of translation" (p.278), while directional equivalence refers to non-natural translation in that translators go straight from a source text to the target one. Pym's study revealed that perfect equivalence between languages never exists and it is always assumed equivalence.

The study of natural and directional equivalence (Pym, 2007) is closely related with the concept of a semantic-pragmatic framework. Vendepitte (2007) examined, from a Dutch translation of an English text, how the semantic and pragmatic framework works and it affects translation products. The study reported on the necessity of both semantic and pragmatic approaches in translation and at the same time, it emphasized the importance of a semantic-pragmatic framework to gain awareness of the concept of equivalence in Translation Studies. The study of Pym (2007) and Vendepitte (2007) has provided two distinct implications: there are natural (pragmatic) and directional (semantic) meanings necessary for the translation, but these meanings are not associated with the concept of equivalence; and a semantic-pragmatic framework is prerequisite in producing translation, and its framework can heighten the degree of equivalence.

Translation Process

In addition to the topic of equivalence, Translation Studies have been focused on identifying the differences in translation processes between experienced or novice translators or between high and low proficiencies of bilinguals. Groot and Poot's (1997) study has reported on the relationship between translation process and bilinguals (L1 is Dutch, and L2 is English) with different proficiency levels. This study indicated that less fluent bilinguals greatly depended on word association translation which is based on a semantic approach and that bilinguals of various L2 fluency levels accessed and applied conceptual memory representations into their translation most of the time. Malkiel (2006) examined the following four features in translation generated by both experienced and novice translators (L1 is Hebrew, and L2 is English): interference, lexicalization, false cognates, and difficulties. Malkiel's study revealed that trained and experienced translators produced higher-quality of translations and better performance than untrained and inexperienced translators, but that translation process became neither easier nor faster even in the case of trained and experienced translators.



Participants were six Japanese students whose majors were Education, Business, International Politics and MA TESOL at Indiana University of Pennsylvania. All participants had similar educational backgrounds in English language learning. They had learned English based on Grammar Translation Method in middle and high schools in Japan. They did not have any working experiences relevant to translation either in Japan or the United States.

The six students were divided into two groups by the length of time they had attended college in the United States. The first was the 'less experienced group' which consisted of three students (two male and one female) who were exchange students from Kansai Gaikokugo University in Kyoto, Japan. Seven months had passed since they arrived in the United States, and it was the second semester for them to attend the class. The remaining three were the 'experienced group.' These three students who were all male had been in the United States for more than one year. Two students had lived in the United States for one year and eight months and one had lived here for more than three years.

Data Collection

Data were collected from the following three sources. First of all, all participants were given a source text which they were asked to translate from L1 (Japanese) into L2 (English). The source text was chosen from a short passage (four sentences long, and 184 words total) in Talking about Japan--Q&A. The text was about the explanation about typical Japanese behaviors in the society, which were related to the concept of 'bending the truth.' In doing their translation, the participants were allowed to use everything they needed, such as electronic and online dictionaries, laptop, etc. In addition, time spent on a series of translation procedures was measured.

Next, in order to examine participants' translation process, a questionnaire was administered soon after the participants finished translating the source text. The questionnaire consisted of the reflection on their process, their strategy used, their word choice, their approach to the translation. All participants were given the option to answer the questions using either Japanese or English.

Finally, based on both the translated text and the questionnaire, an interview was conducted. The main purpose of the interview was to understand more about the problems they encountered and the difficulties they had to translate from Japanese into English.

Data Analysis

In order to examine how the experience of having studied abroad in the United States affects their translation, participants were divided into two groups depending on how long they have lived there: less experienced and experienced groups. Data were analyzed quantitatively to explore the difference in translation processes between the two groups, their strategy use and the relationship between their word choices and their translation.


Time Spent and Word Counts

The following tables indicate how much time the two groups of subjects spent on translating and how many words they used in their translations. The experienced group devoted less time than the less-experienced group did. However, there was no significant difference in the number of English words used for the translation between two groups.

<Less-experienced Group>





Time Spent




7 months


20 min.




7 months


23 min.




7 months


22 min.


<Experienced Group>





Time Spent




3 and 3 months


17 min.




1 and 8 months


19 min.




1 and 8 months


15 min.


Translation Process

All subjects in both the less-experienced and experienced group used a similar translation process, though there were some differences in the points of grammar to which they paid attention in translating (i.e. trying not to use the passive forms, clarifying the framework of each sentence). All participants translated the text from Japanese to English in the following sequence.

read through the source text.

interpret the content of the text.

think about what each sentence means.

translate each sentence (using dictionaries, if necessary).

check the translated sentences (and to fix them, if necessary).

All students, except for student D, paid attention to the rhetorical differences between Japanese and English especially in starting to work on translation (in procedures 3 and 4). In contrast, Student D tried to find and apply to his translation similar sentences, which he had practically used in the United States. As for translation strategies, all participants used dictionaries to a greater or lesser degree. However, the use of dictionaries between the two groups was different. The experienced group used a bilingual English-Japanese dictionary only to check the usage of vocabulary, not to get literal meaning of words. They also used a bilingual Japanese-English dictionary to look up unfamiliar expressions, but they never used the words the dictionary mentioned, because these words are different from what they wanted in their translations. Their approach is based on pragmatics which refers to their practical language use in the United States. On the other hand, the less-experienced group used both English-Japanese and Japanese-English dictionaries in order to check the spelling as well as to get the literal meaning of difficult words. As a result, the translated text turned out a word for word translation.

In this way, these results indicate that, though all participants took the same sequence in producing translations, the expressed group was inclined to use a pragmatic approach while the inexperienced group depended on semantic translations.

Word Choices

Regardless of the participants' level of experience, various factors influenced their word choices in translating. Their word choices varied depending on how difficult were the words used in the source text. For easier and more familiar words, all the participants could choose intuitively, so that they didn't need much time to think about their word choices, nor did they encounter any problems. In contrast, once they encountered difficult or unfamiliar expressions in the source text, they first guessed what word could be the most appropriate for the context and then checked whether the word fit into the sentence. Dictionaries, especially Japanese-English dictionaries were used in the following situations: they had no idea as to what English word could be applied to describe a specific Japanese expression in the source text, although they were familiar with a basic English structure to be used; they did not come up with the possible choices immediately after seeing a sentence in the source text. The decision of whether they applied an English word found in Japanese-English dictionaries to the target text varied according to the participants.

These results demonstrate that individual differences affected the participants' word choices including the use of dictionaries in the process of translation. What kinds of dictionaries each of the participants use varies depending on their preferences. In addition, one participant's perception of the degree of difficulty of the words used in the source text is completely different from the others', and the perception is related to each participant's language proficiency. In this way, individual differences are the key factor to choose words in translating.

Factors to Enhance the Quality of Translation

As for the interview question of what factors affect the quality of the translation, the less experienced group argued the significance of grammatical points including vocabulary items, more specifically the meaning of English words. The more English words they had learned, the higher the quality of translation they could produce. In contrast, the experienced group highlighted the importance of 'experience' of using English in English-speaking countries rather than just memorizing the meaning of English words. The more 'authentic' English, i.e., the language actually used in English-speaking countries, they had learned, the more nuances they could express in their translations. One of the common features in this group was that they had learned English in terms of language use. In addition, the experienced group insisted on the necessity to understand the L2 cultural background in translating.


One of the findings is that, similar to second-language learning, all participants are inclined to use their own approaches in translating. Each participant's translation process was a distinct process, different from that of the others.

The earlier chart, which reports on the relationship between the time spent and word counts in the two groups, indicates that experience does not necessarily make translation easier and faster. This result supports Gerloff's hypothesis of translation process: "Translation Does Not Get Easier" (as cited in Malkiel, 2006, p.356), even though professional translators or bilinguals work on it. All participants felt that this translation from the source text into the target text was not easy (nobody checked 'very easy' nor 'quite easy' in the questionnaire). Along with that, five participants were dissatisfied with their product (only student E checked 'quite satisfied,' while others checked 'somewhat dissatisfied.') Furthermore, student F answered, in the interview, that the reason why he spent only 15 minutes on his translation was not because he had long-term experience of living in the United States but simply because he was familiar with the topic of the source text. These results imply that a long-term experience of living in the United States is not the only component to make translation easier and faster. Rather, the long-term staying in the country does not affect the time spent and word count.

However, experience influences the translation process, including what approach is used or what translation strategy is applied to the translation. The primary difference between the less-experienced and experienced groups was whether a semantic or pragmatic approach was used in translation.

The less-experienced group translated the source text word for word while the experienced group translated in terms of pragmatics. In other words, the translated document produced by the less-experienced group is less natural than that of the experienced group. This result is similar to Groot and Poot's (1997) study which discussed that less fluent bilinguals used 'word-associated' translation, which is based on the direct connection between the corresponding L1 and L2 word-form representations, so that they cannot use the natural approach in their translation. From this point of view, one of the crucial elements to enhance the quality of translation is knowledge of pragmatics, more specifically when, how, and in what situation the target language is used in the society. All participants in this study confirmed that both L2 linguistic and cultural knowledge gained through the experience of having lived in the United States is necessary for better performance, and that it is required to go beyond the concept of 'word-associated' translation to enhance the quality of translation.

This idea is associated with Bruner's (1986) theory of world creation in that the nature of transaction consists of syntax, referring, meaning, and constitutiveness. Especially constitutiveness plays an important role in connecting inner idea to outer notion, and the feature can allow us to situate ourselves in a world of shared reality. His statement, "learning how to use language involves both learning the culture and learning how to express intentions in congruence with the culture" (p.65) is fundamental in thinking how language use shapes thinking. His central perspective is that world creation occurs through the process of negotiating meaning and culture, more specifically cultural or social facts provide people with the pattern of human action, growth, and understanding. Bruner's theory is associated with the concept of cultural awareness in the act of translation. It is, therefore, vital for translators to understand how L2 culture is different from L1 culture and how the use of L2 is different from that of L1.

Vygotsky's (1989) theory can also be applied to Bruner's perspective. Vygotsky's main idea is that inner speech always develops from external speech, and the dynamic process involved in the transformation from inner to external speech. More concretely, our life is always bound by context, and contextual significance becomes the key factor for us to combine our thoughts with words. The process of connecting the two factors can allow our thoughts to have meanings, which can be shared with others in a specific context.

Both Bruner's and Vygotsky's theories include an important implication for Translation Studies. The fact is that there are many cases in which the translation does not make sense even though the source text is literally translated word for word. It occurs because of lack of cultural significance. From this viewpoint, a natural approach which is based on pragmatics is more important than a directional method in terms of using expressions to be more appropriate for the target (L2) text. The difference in translation between less-experienced and experienced group is the level of practical L2 use proficiency. Hence, even though participants in the less-experienced group attempted to translate the source text naturally, a lack of pragmatic knowledge resulted in a word-associated translation.

This constraint affects translators' strategy use and word choice. For instance, the use of a dictionary is a major strategy in both the less-experienced and experienced group. However, what dictionary and how it is used varied depending on the groups. A finding gained through the interview is that participants in the experienced group tried not to use any dictionary, especially a Japanese-English dictionary. It is because they had realized, from their experience of second-language learning, that the meaning of words provided in the dictionary is not always appropriate. As a result, they attempted to organize the text and produce a better result using some expressions they had actually used in their life in the United States. On the other hand, participants in the less-experienced group struggled with the use of a Japanese-English dictionary, but they had to rely on the meaning found in the dictionary because of a lack of pragmatic knowledge.

Word choices in the act of translation seem to depend on the participants' experiences. A few participants mentioned that intuition determined word choices, but those who were in the less-experienced group tried to translate the source text using the literal meaning of each word. On the other hand, participants in the experienced group attempted to do so within their knowledge which they had already gained through their experience of studying in the United States, and arrange the source (Japanese) text to be most appropriate for the English expressions. Even when an English word they chose did not have exactly the same meaning as the Japanese word, they regarded their translation as being fine because the translated sentence made sense in the given context. In other words, participants are inclined to choose words appropriate for the text which needs to be translated.


From a qualitative analysis, this study has reported on individual differences in translation process. As for the first research question, "what are the differences in the translation process among Japanese students," each of the Japanese students is inclined to use fundamentally a process like the following: reading through the source text; interpreting the content of the source text; thinking about what each sentence means; translating each sentence; and finally, checking and revising the translated sentences. However, the translation approach and the strategy used, including the use of dictionaries, vary depending on students. In addition, each student tends to choose different L2 words. This result is related to the second research question, what is the relationship between word choices and translation. The act of translation is affected by various factors, but one of the most important ones is 'experience.' Experience refers to learning L2 in a country where the language is actually used. Along with that, it includes a greater understanding of L2 culture through experience. It affects both process and product in translating. The less experience translators have, the more directional and word-associated translation they produce, while the more experience they have, the more natural meaning they can generate. Overall, individual differences in translation come from experience.

There are some limitations in this study. First of all, the number of participants was small. For that reason, it is difficult to generalize these findings to other contexts. Second, this study focused only on the translation from L1 (Japanese) to L2 (English), but the opposite process which refers to the translation from L2 (English) to L1 (Japanese) was not researched. From this viewpoint, the study just reported on one side of the act of translating. Previous studies (e.g. Aly, 2004) have indicated that translation from L2 to L1 is more difficult than that of L1 to L2. Hence, conducting research on the translation from L2 to L1 could provide more valid outcomes.

Nevertheless, this study is meaningful in terms of experience affecting the act of translating. As discussed, it highlights the significance of having 'experience' of actually living in a country where the target language is used. Translation reflects two linguistic systems, as well as two cultures (Matrat, 1992). Hence, a significant consideration is for translators to develop not only their L2 usage proficiency but also their cultural awareness. Learning both the target language and its culture is the key to produce better performance and can allow translators to access a pragmatic approach and make their translation more natural. Translation is not just language negotiation, but also a cultural phenomenon (McCleanahen, 1995). It is essential, therefore, to translate the source text with a greater understanding of the differences between the two languages and cultures. Likewise, translated documents should be produced from the perspective of appropriateness in both linguistic and cultural features by going beyond the notion of literal translation through which the words found in dictionaries are thoughtlessly applied to the target text.

This study has implications for second and foreign language teaching. A suggestion is that it is necessary for language teachers to have students become culturally sensitive in language learning. Culture and language are inseparable, so it is not efficient to learn the target language from just one aspect, which is the semantic approach. Hence, teachers should try to teach the target language from the viewpoint of how the language is used in the culture. A pragmatic approach, which is another suggestion in this study, should be applied in language teaching. From the pragmatic aspect, language teachers should keep in mind that the concept of appropriateness in language use is crucial. Concentrating on 'appropriateness' can provide students with freedom to produce the target language in their way, and enable them to develop their language usage proficiency. More importantly, students don't have to be afraid of making mistakes in the context, because the main focus of the approach is not on grammatical accuracy but on communicative fluency. The situation will decrease the anxiety in language learning and ultimately students will feel more comfortable to generate output of the target language. To sum up, cultural sensitiveness, pragmatic approaches, and the concept of appropriateness are the key factors in developing students' communication skills in both ESL and EFL contexts.