Why Sociology Translation Requires In-depth Research and Reflection

Academic Translation of Sociology Texts

Student looks for a research book in university library

Translation in the field of sociology poses unique challenges due to the rigorous requirements of academic translation and the nature of the subject.

The need for sociology translation

As the scientific study of society and the many strands of social relations, interactions, and cultural patterns that comprise it, sociology is key to understanding the shifting world we live in. It is a social science with a universal scope, covering topics from language, gender, and class to economics, education, and politics; from the urban to the rural, from technology to health--and everything in between.

As a research-focused discipline with such a wide reach, sociology is publication-rich. And publications naturally raise the question of translation, with many researchers compelled to translate their work in order to share their research with a broad audience. (See Renato Ortiz’s article “The Hegemony of the English Language in the social sciences.”)

A major challenge

For the academic translator, sociology papers can be a daunting task, a process wherein, to quote Ortiz, “different intellectual traditions must be taken into consideration.” Failure to recognize and convey these traditions means that the rigorous research, careful analysis, and theoretical arguments of the authors may not be understood by their colleagues in different parts of the world. These cultural gaps can create an obstacle to the sharing and comparing of ideas which help to develop the discipline as a whole.

Another difficult area is the highly specialized vocabulary of sociology. David Dressler and George W. Korber, in their article A Comment on the Language of Sociology defend “the special language of sociology” which, as a rule, is not written for the general public but for fellow sociologists accustomed to the same language. When translators approach sociological texts, getting the specialized language right must be a priority.

Research and dialogue

These challenging aspects mean that painstaking and intelligent research is crucial to the process of translating sociological papers. Since an academic translator is not necessarily a specialist in every area of the texts that need translating, it is important to spend time immersed in the theme and give the relevant concepts the chance to bed in. This involves exploring the work of key figures in a particular culture’s realm of sociology, as well as finding and reading relevant articles online. Useful sources include the academic portals JSTOR (English), Cairn.info (French), and Dialnet (Spanish).

This level of research will help translators approach ideas with the sort of understanding necessary to render them effectively in another language. In terms of vocabulary, while the specialised nature of the language of sociology can make it harder to grasp initially, the advantage is that the terms will often remain similar from one language to another. However, the translator must show the same degree of rigor and critical acumen in choosing translations of the terms as the sociologist employs when writing them.

A further aspect of this translation process is the need to stay open to spending time on discussions with the authors over the exact meaning of a term or a sentence. A single word in a paragraph may well change time and again as the translator and author explore its ramifications in both the source and the target language. While this level of interaction is certainly time-consuming, the reward comes in the form of a fruitful linguistic collaboration and fascinating new insights into a sociological sphere.


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