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What is The Interpretive Theory of Translation?

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What is The Interpretive Theory of Translation?

Translation is a greatly misunderstood and underestimated discipline. It is a practice that can appear relatively simple – take words from one language and render them in another. Tidy up the grammar a bit and you have a useable and effective result. Or do you?

Science  Art

Translation is about much more than word substitution and grammar. Indeed, what could be described as word for word translation is almost the opposite of what most translation theories would now identify as the principal purpose of the work.

The reality is that translation is a multidisciplinary activity which sits somewhere between science and art. The finest translations move beyond linguistic equivalence and require translators to possess an understanding of both context and cultural nuances.

Translators are more than linguists, they are communicators. They must ensure that translated work represents ideas and intended messages of the source material but also that it resonates with a new audience, enabling them to comprehend and then connect with it.

Opposing approaches to translation

Opposing sides to Translation

There are two possible approaches to translation:

  1. Deliver translations which adhere as closely as possible to the words, phrasing and style of the source material. 

  2. Adopt a communicative approach, placing an emphasis on meaning and sense rather than literal translation, using language as a channel through which to communicate a message and not as an end in itself.

Most professional translators now adhere to a communicative approach to the discipline. This is usually referred to as interpretative translation and emphasises the importance of intended meaning.

The triangular process

The Interpretive Theory of Translation (ITT) is a concept that was first established in the 1970s by Danica Seleskovitch, a French interpreter and scholar.

Seleskovitch did not believe that translation was merely a linguistic activity. She viewed translation as a triangular process: source language to sense and then sense to target language. In other words, the translation process is one of comprehension followed by deverbalization and then reformation.

The triangular process ITT

ITT recognises that meaning is not confined to any language, or the graphic symbols used to display that language. Cues provided by the language are combined with cognitive inputs from the reader to render meaning. So, as sense is dependent on the cognitive inputs of individuals, interpretation is always to some extent variable according to the knowledge and experience of the individuals concerned. However, there are always significant overlaps between the comprehension of different individuals or groups to the extent that communication can be effectively established. 

Deverbalisation in ITT

Deverbalisation in ITT

The translation process is understood by many to be merely one of comprehension followed by reformation. ITT lends a third stage to the process – deverbalization. We can all understand this concept as we experience it every day. For instance, we will remember the sense or core message of a news story but not the exact words used to convey it. Awareness of an event and its significance is retained while the signs and symbols used to communicate it are quickly forgotten. Deverbalization in translation is the practice of focussing on the awareness and understanding of a message rather than the precise sequence of signs and graphic symbols used to communicate it.

Reformation in ITT

The Interpretive Theory of Translation suggests that translators will retain awareness of the sense of messages and should then evolve the best way to convey that understanding in the target language. This could result in translations that bear little relation to the words and expressions featured in the source material. The prudence of this approach is support by neuropsychology as it is understood that language and thought are processed in different areas of the brain.


Prior to the establishment of ITT, translation studies generally made a distinction between literal and free translation. But ITT has demonstrated that translation is always a fusion of word correspondence and equivalences of meaning. This is because no precisely literal translation could ever be possible due to the differences between languages. Even when words or phrases in two different languages may appear to have identical meanings, those meanings will always be nuanced and could depend on context. For this reason, ITT can be seen as an explanation rather than a theory. It is an explanation that suggests purely literal translation cannot exist. There is no line between literal and interpretive translation. There are only degrees to which meaning or word substitution is prioritised.

The use of equivalences will always be necessary during the reformation stage of translation. Languages differ greatly in their lexicons and grammatical rules. In addition, speakers of different languages vary in the way they express their thoughts. The use of deverbalized messages as the basis for reformation gives translators greater freedom and so should deliver translations that better communicate the intended meaning to the target audience.

Polysemy and ambiguity

Polysemy and ambiguity

Scholars have questioned whether polysemy (multiple meanings) and ambiguity are potential issues when translating and whether ITT could exacerbate these. 

It is true that many words in most languages have multiple meanings and so the possibility of ambiguity always exists. However, polysemy is rarely a problem as context will always identify the intended meaning of a word or phrase. It is usually obvious which meaning is intended and therefore which meaning would be deverbalized by a translator before being rendered in a different language. ITT is no more likely to produce erroneous translations than the use of a more literal approach. 

A practical theory

It is easy to see that ITT is much more than a mere theory. It is an explanation that is firmly rooted in reality, and one that is an almost universal feature of translation practice these days. It is an explanation of language and communication that emphasises the efficacy of prioritising meaning. Translators around the world apply the principles of ITT in their work every day.  Research is ongoing and continuously validates the efficacy of ITT in the translation of all language pairs and every type of source material.

Beyond translation, ITT reveals much about how language and communication truly work. It is a holistic theory and practice that informs all aspects of the translation process and that ensures translators meet both the expectations and the needs of readers. 

Translators are more than linguists. They are mediators that create bridges between source material and readers. They move beyond words before rendering a translation to ensure that they truly communicate the intended meaning.

A practical theory

Noel Myatt

4 min read

May 21



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