Translation ‘errors’: Teaching, negotiation, and power

Susanne Hagemann (Johannes Gutenberg-Universität Mainz)

“There are plenty of ‘defective’ but still entirely successful translations!”

Hans J. Vermeer. „Ein Rahmen für eine allgemeine Translationstheorie.“ Lebende Sprachen 23, 1978, p. 101.

This paper takes its cue from Vermeer’s seminal article, “Ein Rahmen für eine allgemeine Translationstheorie”, in which he argues that translation ‘errors’ do not necessarily involve dysfunctionality: “There are plenty of ‘erroneous’ but still entirely successful translations!” (1978: 101) The general context of this provocative statement is Vermeer’s so-called coherence rule, according to which “a translation is successful if recipients interpret it as sufficiently coherent with their situation and raise no protest, in any form, against the transmission, the language, and what is meant (the sense)”. More specifically, the statement serves to reject the demand for a translation to be “accurate” or “factually correct” (1978: 101). The scare quotes around ‘erroneous’ might mean that a translation which fulfils its purpose and is therefore successful should not be referred to as ‘erroneous’, ‘defective’, or ‘inaccurate’, and/or that the very concept of ‘errors’ is flawed.

The connection between the concept of ‘errors’ and the communicative function of a translation has been widely discussed in Translation Studies, as have the implications of this connection for translation teaching and learning. However, the teacher’s ability to judge a given translation’s coherence with the real or fictitious target situation often seems to be taken for granted. In this paper, I shall discuss the role that negotiation and power play in assessing coherence. Methodologically, I shall use examples from my own translation teaching to explore how concepts such as ‘error’ and ‘situational coherence’ are affected by the classroom setting in general and the social roles of students and teachers in particular. I shall argue that, while Vermeer’s dictum can help us relativize and contextualize the importance of ‘errors’, it can also draw attention away from the difficulties of applying the coherence rule to classroom translations (or, in fact, to translations in general).


Vermeer, Hans J. (1978): “Ein Rahmen für eine allgemeine Translationstheorie”, in: Lebende Sprachen: Zeitschrift für fremde Sprachen in Wissenschaft und Praxis 23.3, 99–102.