The Corpus Analysis Tool English Language Essay

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Despite the fact that corpus analysis tools are widely used by researchers in the fields of linguistics and translation studies, they seem to be neglected by practising translators. Michael Wilkinson looks at the reasons for this and provides a glimpse at how translators can exploit these tools, especially when translating specialized texts into a foreign language.

Q1) Are you a practising translator?

Q2) Are you familiar with corpus analysis tools?

Q3) Do you use corpus analysis tools in your work?

I would hazard a guess that amongst those of you who answered "yes" to Q1, the majority answered "no" to Q2 and Q3. I would also hazard a guess that if translation studies researchers were asked the same questions, the proportion of "yes" answers would be relatively high.

Corpus analysis tools have for many years been widely used by researchers to examine electronic corpora of original and translated text, and the results of this research have shed valuable light on both the translation product and the translation process. An excellent overview of corpus-based translation research is provided by Olohan (2004).

Corpus analysis tools allow you to access, display and investigate the information contained within a corpus - a large collection of texts, usually in plain text format - in a variety of ways. Corpus analysis packages often comprise a variety of tools. Probably the most useful of these from the translator's point of view is the concordancer, which will find all the occurrences of a search word, or search pattern, and display them in the centre of your screen, together with a span of co-text to the left and right, as shown in Figure 1. The display shown in Figure 1 is known as a Key Word in Context (KWIC).

Figure 1: Some of the 36 concordance lines generated by WordSmith Tools for the search pattern

panorama* using a 670,000-word corpus of tourist brochure texts

You can manipulate the KWIC quickly and easily in various ways: for example in Figure 1 the words immediately preceding the search word have been sorted in alphabetical order in order to look for suitable adjectives to use with panorama(s). By double-clicking on a line, you can view it in its full context, as in Figure 2.

Figure 2: Display showing a concordance line in fuller context

Translators regularly consult printed or on-line "parallel" texts in the target language in order, for example, to search for terminology or look for idiomatic phraseology. However you can consult large quantities of text far more rapidly and systematically if you use corpus analysis tools.

So why isn't the use of these tools more widespread amongst translators? Firstly, until recently corpus analysis tools have not been very user-friendly from the translator's point of view. Although these tools have been around for several decades, they have been designed primarily with linguistic researchers, computational linguists, lexicographers and language teachers in mind. However the latest versions of corpus analysis packages such as WordSmith Tools (Scott, 2004) and MonoConc Pro (Barlow, 2002) include concordancers that, though not tailor-made for the translator, are fairly user-friendly and can be effective translation aids.

A second reason for your lack of awareness about corpus analysis tools is that there was little or no mention of them when you were being trained as a language service provider. You may have heard about them in passing on CATT courses, or you may have been introduced to them during a course on corpus linguistics, where the focus was on the uses of these tools as research aids. But they weren't integrated into your translation courses, so you didn't practise using them as translation aids.

However in recent years a growing number of researchers and trainers (e.g. Bowker & Pearson, 2002) have drawn attention to the fact that electronic text corpora can be a powerful performance-enhancing resource. Consequently there have been numerous recommendations to integrate the use of corpora into translator education (e.g. Zanettin, 2002; Maia, 2003; Varantola, 2003).

Students at Savonlinna School of Translation Studies are nowadays strongly encouraged to make use of corpora in their translation courses, particularly when translating into the foreign language. Students in Savonlinna have access to various corpora, including a 670,000 word corpus of English language tourist brochures that they consult with WordSmith Tools when translating Finnish tourism texts into English. They use this corpus to, for example, obtain information about collocates, especially adjective-noun collocations, as illustrated in Figure 1.

In addition, students use the corpus to confirm intuitive decisions and to verify or reject decisions based on other tools such as dictionaries. For example, a student seeking a translation equivalent for poreallas in a bilingual dictionary would be offered the following translation candidates: Jacuzzi / jacuzzi , swirl pool, whirlpool bath, whirlpool. Searching the Tourism Corpus for these terms generates 25 hits for Jacuzzi and 26 hits for jacuzzi (see Figure 3a); no hits for swirl pool; and 20 hits for whirlpool, including 4 hits for whirlpool bath (see Figure 3b). However whirlpool, though widely used in North American brochures, seems to be rarely used in British brochures, whereas Jacuzzi / jacuzzi is widely used on both sides of the Atlantic. All of this information helps the translator to choose an appropriate translation equivalent. Furthermore, while perusing the concordance lines, and looking at some of them in context, students often acquire valuable knowledge of target language patterns and learn how use new expressions.

Figure 3a: Some of the concordance lines generated by WordSmith Tools for the search string jacuzzi/whirlpool/swirl pool

Figure 3b: Some of the concordance lines generated by WordSmith Tools for the search string jacuzzi/whirlpool/swirl pool

Another reason that corpus analysis tools are not yet widely used amongst translators is that in order to use a corpus analysis tool you need a corpus! A number of multi-million-word general language corpora, such as the British National Corpus, are commercially-available, and are treasure troves for researchers. However translators of non-literary texts benefit most of all in their work from corpora of specialized language, and there is a serious lack of these on the market. So you need to compile your own corpora, and this can be done for example by downloading material from the web.

Moreover, if you are working as an in-house translator for a company engaged in a specific sector, you may be able to cooperate with other translators and pool texts to create a joint corpus. It is also probable that you receive many of your commissions in electronic format. For example, if you are translating from Finnish to English and vice versa, it is highly likely that you will gradually accumulate a large number of authentic source texts in both English and Finnish in Word format. In this case, it is very easy to create corpora of your source texts by re-saving them in plain text format. For online tips on compiling corpora for use as translation resources see Wilkinson (2006).

If you regularly translate texts belonging to one or several special-fields, building up target-language corpora in those fields may well, in the long-run, enable you to enhance the quality of your work and increase your productivity.

This article has hopefully given you a brief glimpse of the potential of the corpus analysis tool as a translation aid. For a more sweeping panorama of the ways in which specialized corpora can be exploited, including more examples of search strategies, see Wilkinson (2005a, 2005b). For a closer look at WordSmith Tools, visit Mike Scott's website at and read his "step by step guide".