Introduction to Translation Theory

This is a sample sequence for teaching an introductory unit on translation theory. It is meant to be used in conjunction with an online lecture that I will deliver via Skype.


Key concepts in translation studies and the relevance of theory to translation practice

Why Translation Studies? Let's see what Disney says...

Are you familiar with Disney movies? Over the years, Disney has come up with some very memorable characters inspired by the different literary traditions the world over. 

But have you ever wondered how these characters would sound if they were to sing in their respective first languages?  Let's watch the following video. 

Consider the languages used in the the clip you've just seen. In your opinion, which of film/language combination was the most unexpected?

  • Snow White (German)
  • Cinderella (French)
  • Sleeping Beauty (French)
  • The Little Mermaid (Danish)
  • Beauty and the Beast (French)
  • Aladdin (Arabic)
  • Pocahontas (English)
  • Hercules (Greek)
  • Mulan (Chinese)
  • The Princess and the Frog (English)
  • Tangled (German)
  • Frozen (Norwegian)
Choose one.

What made this film unexpected?


Translation is so familiar and yet so weird

What the preceding exercise tells us is that the process of translation is quite ubiquitous, particularly in multicultural societies such as Australia.

Yet despite its familiarity, translation still possesses that power to amaze us, as you yourselves have seen. We think we know so much of it, and yet we are often caught off guard when we experience how translation actually works.   

So what makes a 'good' translation?

  • A translation is good if it is faithful to the original text.
  • A translation is good if it is grammatically correct.
  • A translation is good if it is easily understood.
  • All of the above.


I like you when you keep silent because it's as if you're not around. 

Apologies to Chilean poet Pablo Neruda, whose poem Me gustas cuando callas inspired the title of this section, but I think this line best sums up the motivation behind Translation Studies.

Traditionally, many people in many English-speaking countries think that a translation is good only if it's invisible. In other words, it's a good translation if it doesn't read like one. 


Let's take it from Yoda.

We tend to judge how 'good' a translation is based on our notions of what's 'good' or at least 'acceptable' in our own language. 

But here's the thing: Even within a community that seems to share a common language, we can't seem to agree as to how we should call certain objects. It shouldn't be surprising that things may actually get even more complicated if we consider different languages.  

In the next session...

Translation Before Translation Studies 

In the next session, we will talk about how the process of translation has been described over the centuries. We'll meet a lot of men in robes, silly hats and powdered wigs, and we will even hear from a guy who thinks that a translation is like a beautiful yet unfaithful woman!