Specificity of Social Science Translation in Dubai: Literary Style

Previously, this blog touched on social science texts and this entry builds on that. The specificity of social science texts is considered in terms of the challenge posed when a translator is faced with discourse and concepts. Taking examples from the works of Julia Kristeva, a psychoanalyst, literary critic and semiotics theorist, this post will consider how translation of social science texts becomes even more challenging when an author’s style of written expression is inextricably linked, inseparable, from their theoretical position.

Social science discourse is distinctive because it communicates shared or contested concepts within a particular group. And these concepts tend to take the form of technical terms that, in turn, are inextricably bound to and influenced by the time and space in which they emerged and how they continue to circulate nowadays. These concepts may implicitly contain historical, sociocultural and political realities that a particular society takes for granted: the presence of ethnic and ideological characteristics. A simple translation of a term may fail to capture subtle differences in meaning. This is not only potentially misleading for the reader, but the translator is at risk of creating cultural losses (highlighted in a previous post).

It is not just concepts that pose difficulties for the translator who wishes to be faithful to original. Some social scientists and theorists write in a style that is closer to literature where meaning, impact and expressive language contribute to the writer’s preoccupations. A prime example is Julia Kristeva, a psychoanalyst dealing with semiotics, aspects of sociology and literary criticism. She opens her book, Strangers to Ourselves (translated from the original French version), with this line: ‘Foreigner: a choked up rage deep down in my throat, a black angel clouding transparency, opaque, unfathomable spur.’ (Kristeva, 1991, p. 1). In short, she is introducing the idea that we recognise aspects of a foreigner or stranger within us and, as a result, direct our hatred outwards. But consider the language: literary, perhaps even poetic. The concept being presented is tightly bound to Kristeva’s expressiveness; a major challenge for a translator who is not only required to intimately know and understand the psychoanalytic theory advanced by Kristeva, but also the literary quality of the work.

Kristeva’s written expression is also evident in her other works and is an inseparable part of her theorising. For example, Black Sun we are treated to the following poetic reference to depression: “I live a living death, my flesh is wounded, bleeding, cadaverized, my rhythm slowed down or interrupted, time has been erased or bloated, absorbed into sorrow…” (Kristeva, 1989, p. 4). Here, the symptoms of depression are presented in a literary style intended to impress upon the reader a sense of the reality about the mental illness. Once again, an incredible challenge for the translator for must be an expert in this aspect of the social sciences and have the capacity for literary translation.

With examples from social theory, this post has highlighted perhaps one of the greatest challenges for translators of social science texts – the individuality of the author, their style, and how this affects the way in which they communicate their ideas.


Kristeva, J. (1989). Black Sun. New York: Columbia University Press.

Kristeva, J. (1991). Strangers to Ourselves. New York: Columbia University Press.

Leave a Reply

Web Statistics