The descriptive paradox, or how theory can affect practice


  • Andrew Chesterman


The article discusses and illustrates the potential tension between theory and the practice that it describes, beginning with the claim by Jean Boase-Beier (2011) that theory can affect translation practice. By way of introduction, a comparison is made with the way artists are influenced by theories e.g. of perspective and colour, following Gombrich. With respect to translation practice, three possible channels are proposed whereby theory might affect practice: prescriptive teaching, tacit theory, and descriptive theory. Each of these channels raises problems. Prescriptive theory is mentioned only briefly; most translators nowadays are untrained. More attention is given to tacit, implicit theory, and its role in the practice of (trained or untrained) translators. But the main focus is on the descriptive paradox itself, as manifested in Descriptive Translation Studies. This paradox arises when the act of describing affects the phenomenon described, so that the description itself no longer fits. The author then draws on his own experience of how his explicit knowledge of translation theory may have influenced his translation of a Finnish novel (Canal Grande, by Hannu Raittila; not yet published in English). He is not entirely convinced, however, that he can actually prove the influence of theory in this case.