Touching on Issues in the Translation of Social Science Texts

Social science texts can be considered as distinct from the natural science texts (chemistry, physics, mathematics) and posing particular issues for the translator. This post is going to highlight some of these issues.

In both the social sciences and natural sciences, the translator needs sound knowledge of the subject matter being dealt with. Within the natural sciences, theories reach a level of generality meaning that language for dealing with physical phenomena, their measurement and reporting tends to be relatively free of ambiguities and language choices are clearer. On the other hand, theories in the social sciences have the ambition of reaching a level of generality, but they are often affected by specific sociocultural, political and historical contexts. There can be more ambiguities and language choices become less clear. Theory and research can involve terminology that may not adequately reveal particular empirical realities because the theoretical language involves an interpretation. There are times when interpretation can alter the reality to which a social science text refers.

During a recent comparative analysis of an extract of ´La Sociedad de la Transparencia’ (Vattimo, 1990) translated from Spanish to English, the translator was required to capture the use of Foucault’s concept or metaphor of the Panopticon as the basis for a Digital Panopticon, a twenty-first century application of a seminal idea in social theory. The translator opted to use language such as ‘Big Brother’ and the ‘Nanny State’, but these terms are loaded with connotations that distort the source text’s concern with, and emphasis on, mutual surveillance by citizens themselves – not by the State. This attempt to use intertextuality (i.e. Big Brother from Orwell’s 1984 and the Nanny State frequently appearing in English tabloids) was inappropriate, revealing a misunderstanding of the concepts in the source text or a misguided attempt to select language recognisable to a Western reader.

This example also serves to highlight that social science discourse is distinctive in that it involves shared or disputed concepts within a particularly community of theorist and researchers. Consequently, certain concepts and the technical term have a sociocultural specificity. The challenge for the translator is being not only familiar with a text’s subject matter, but a broader field of meanings in that area of theory and research. And, of course, terms are loaded with assumptions and connotations held within a certain area of study.

This post has touched on some issues related to working with social science texts and is by no means exhaustive, meriting further exploration in future blog post.


Vattimo, G. (1990). La Sociedad transparente/The Transparent Society. Spain: Paidos Iberica Ediciones S.A.



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