The Paris School or Théorie du Sense

Danica Seleskovitch was the most prominent figure of the Paris school. She had been a top conference interpreter for years when she joined the Sorbonne University in 1957, where she remodelled the Institut des Hautes Etudes d’Interprétariat as a section of the École Supérieure d’Interprètes et de Traducteurs (ESIT, today part of the Sorbonne Nouvelle or Paris 3). Between 1959 and 1963, she was also AIIC’s executive secretary. She defended her PhD dissertation on note-taking in consecutive interpreting in 1973 and then created a PhD program which would become the mainstay of the théorie du sense, later known as the Interpretive Theory of Translation.

The Paris School developed as a reaction against the narrow views imposed by linguistics, then represented by the Leipzig School, but it also aimed to meet the pedagogical needs of interpreter (and translator) trainers. Rather than challenging the received views in linguistics on language and meaning, Seleskovitch drew from semiotics (through Mounin) and psychology to complement them. Meaning might well be stable and subject to equivalence and “transcoding,” but in human translation such transcoding would be reduced to specialized terminology as well as to proper names and units of measurement for which, Seleskovitch argued, 1:1 correspondences between languages did exist. On the other hand, in her view interpreting was a matter of sense: a conscious, non-verbal representation in memory that emerged from the interaction of linguistic meaning and the interpreters’ “cognitive complements” (language command, world knowledge, situation appraisal). Interpreters would basically strip off language from messages to grasp their deverbalized sense and clad it later in the words of a different language.

The Paris School mistrusted experimental research by psychologists and, instead, favored observation and mainly introspection, much in the Chomskyan fashion. Hence, being an interpreter was very important to do such kind of research, and a whole generation of researchers led by Seleskovitch would be dubbed the “practisearchers”. Seleskovitch’s was a very abstract and deductive model, so that it was very difficult to falsify with any but logical argument. Also, its correlation with the then evolving models of the mind was sometimes doubtful. Marianne Lederer, Karla Dejean Le Féal, Jean Delisle (who added insights from discourse analysis) and Mariano García Landa, amongst others, made an effort to streamline Seleskovitch’s model and to flesh it out. Even so, many basic concepts, such as comprehension, remained highly idealized. The interpretive theory was first restricted to (conference) interpreting, then enlarged to apply to (nonliterary) written translation.

By the mid-1980s, many translation scholars had concluded that linguistics was not the right framework to study translation and interpreting, and that the discipline would never become an exact science. This, of course, was not solely due to the Paris School. In any case, several paths diverged at this point that seem to have been inspired by some trait from the interpretive theory. Many embraced James S. Holmes’ suggestion to enlarge the discipline with inputs from cultural and literary studies (e.g., works by André Lefevere), thereby echoing the Paris School bid for multidisciplinarity. This move led to the birth of Translation Studies.

Other scholars, such as Hans Vermeer, Katharina Reiss, Justa Holz Mänttäri and Christiane Nord, rejected linguistics and embraced the deductive, rationalistic stance from the Leipzig and Paris Schools to develop functionalist approaches. Still others would stick to empirical approaches but switched their referential framework back to psycholinguistics, thereby following Seleskovitch in focusing on translators rather than on translations. This later trend would come to be known as process studies.

Karla Dejean Le Féal

The main objection to the [interpretive] theory was and is that the authors failed, in the opinion of their critics, conclusively to prove [deverbalisation]. Seleskovitch and Lederer had in fact supported their hypotheses with a number of recorded interpretations, but their critics apparently did not feel that the recordings constituted sufficient proof. And this is where the matter still stands today, as neither the authors nor those who subsequently adopted their theory have been able to devise other methods of proving to the satisfaction of the sceptics that deverbalisation does in fact occur. The only thing that has changed is the terminology: Seleskovitch (1975, 1978: 333-341) and Lederer (1981a) referred in their early work to deverbalisation but in later publications (1981b) they have tended to use the term “conceptualisation” instead. They have never explained why they changed the terminology, so there is no telling whether the change was stylistic and/or semantic or whether the use of a more conventional term was simply an attempt to defuse criticism (which it didn’t).

 […] One suspects (though this is really neither here nor there) that the failure to disprove it is due to the same causes as the failure to prove it.

Dejean Le Féal (1998: 42)

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