The Leipzig School

Chomsky’s views on language were extremely influential in the first wave of postwar studies of translation and interpreting. Language was to be studied in psychological terms, rather than in sociological terms (then more associated to structuralist linguistics). However, the main interest was in the language rules and not in actual production or reception, and such rules could be accessed through introspection. Hence, most scholarly efforts became deductive instead of inductive.

In September 1956, the Institute of Interpreting at the Karl Marx University in Leipzig (East Germany) opened its doors. Since 1964, several scholars such as Gert Jäger, Otto Kade (deputy director from 1956), Albrecht Neubert,Heide Schmidt and Gerd Wotjak worked therein a joint effort to develop a Science of Translation that would come to be known as the Leipzig School. They agreed that all languages can express anything, but that they will do so in different ways. Translating was thus a special case of communication, a matter of code-switching. The Science of Translation was to be a branch of linguistics aimed at making statements on the mental mechanisms involved in linguistic replacement and in the transfer of meaning, that is, at developing “translation grammars.”


In 1965, the Leipzig Institute hosted what probably was the first international translation conference ever, with the motto “Grundfragen der Übersetzungswissenschaft” (‘basic questions for the Science of Translation’). Kade acknowledged three components bearing on a text: an intellectual component (K1), an emotional component (K2), and a formal component (K3). Thus, he recognized the historical and social aspects of translation, but considered them idiosyncratic to each communicative event, and thus not acceptable as a basis for generalization. Consequently, personal, social and cultural aspects were intentionally left out of research and literary translation became an outcast.

In spite of its restrictive approach, the contributions of the Leipzig School were far richer and varied than history has acknowledged. They soon recognized a “double nature” of translation (linguistic and communicative) and developed the notion of communicative equivalence, which put an end to the extreme formalism inherited from MT. Kade realized that the study of translation and interpreting needed to go beyond linguistics; Neubert was very pragmatic and first included sociocultural aspects and text linguistics later; Wotjak slowly drifted towards cognitive-linguistic approaches. To little avail, because some basic assumptions inherited from MT and the information-processing paradigm of cognition remained unshattered in their approaches and, by the mid 1980s, the Leipziger model of a science of translation based on generative linguistics was breaking through the seams.

Mary Snell-Hornby

[…] the 12th and last issue of Übersetzungswissenschaftliche Beiträge, with the theme “Interference in Translation,” edited by Heide Schmidt, was published in 1989, and contained contributions, not only by Švejcer (Moscow), Neubert (Leipzig) and Klaudy (Budapest), but also by Wilss (Saarbrücken), Kussmaul (Mainz-Germersheim), Holz-Mänttäri (Turku) and Snell-Hornby (Zurich).

Many ideas from the Leipzig School had already been taken up elsewhere in the Western stream of translation theory, as in the work of Peter Newmark (cf. Newmark 1981). What is not so well known is Kade’s contribution to the then still embryonic field of interpreting studies. As a practising conference interpreter Kade made a substantial contribution to interpreter training (e.g., Kade 1965) and also to interpreting theory (e.g., Kade 1970) and took up contact with Danica Seleskovitch in Paris […]

Snell-Hornby (2006: 29)

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