What Translators Can Learn from Darwinism


If you’ve read my post on Why Translators Should Think like Scientists or my Matrix series you’ve probably figured something out about me: I have a nerdy fascination with all things science and numbers. And why not? The computer on which I write my little posts every week is the product of scientific thought and engineering; my home, the product of architectural design (more math, more science, more numbers!); the food I’m going to eat tonight was brought to me by countless natural and human-made phenomena from photosynthesis to a farmer’s market to my kitchen, all of which can be explained by science and numbers! We are surrounded by science and pretty much every little thing we take for granted in our daily lives is, to some extent, cognoscible thanks to science.

So today, I would like to celebrate the birthday of Charles Darwin, one of the most influential thinkers of the modern scientific paradigm in life sciences, by thinking about what we, as translators, can learn from his theory. Though I realize the father of evolutionary theory could easily have been Alfred Russell Wallace (a.k.a. “the other guy that discovered evolution”), it’s Darwin who went down in history and who changed the course of human thought in his day. So, what can Darwin’s theory of evolution teach us about translation? Lot’s, actually; but since this is just a blog post, I’m only going to focus on one: adapt or die.

In the theory of evolution, adaptation to the environment is one of the keys to the survival of a particular species. However, that does not mean that members of the species will necessarily aggressively and immediately alter their form and behavior to their environment. Change occurs over time, from generation to generation, in a sort of natural trial and error (a.k.a. natural selection) where the weakest die out so that their genetic material does not make it to the next generation; while the strongest and better adapted reproduce and pass their awesomeness onto their offspring. Thus, each surviving generation is stronger and better adapted than the next.

According to Dr. Yuval Noah Harari, author of Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind, this basically means that change occurs over time and is “programmed” into the genes. When a certain trait is beneficial, those who do not have it, will not make it; while those that do have it, thrive in the natural world, breeding stronger offspring… and the species goes on for as long as it can adapt quickly and efficiently enough to survive. Thus, every animal alive today (including modern humans) carry the best traits acquired over time of their genetic lineage. How cool is that?

Humor me for a minute and imagine us, translators, as a species. We are currently experiencing sharp changes in our environment, a decreasing tendency in rates (despite increased investment in translation on a global level), Machine Translation (and its hype!), scammers, bottom feeders, asymmetrical and abusive contractual terms from LSPs, and more. All these trends and changes challenge us collectively. Survival no longer depends on knowledge and qualifications alone. We need to develop new traits and skills. But which ones? That is a question time may answer as some of us die out and others thrive in our new environment.

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