Early in its development, translation studies quickly abandoned a quest for a general theory. Rather, approaches to translation have evolved toward fragmentary theorisations. There was first the ‘linguistic turn’ about fifty years ago; the ‘cultural turn’ some twenty years later; and, most recently, there has been a ‘sociological turn’. Throughout this evolution, translation as an object of study has increasingly moved from being viewed as a linguistic transfer ‘process’ to being seen as a final ‘product’, sometimes to be compared to its source text, sometimes to other (re)translations. However, the study of translation as a process has continued, and in more recent translation studies scholarship such study typically occurs within sociological investigations that seek to uncover how the social production of translations unfolds.

In parallel to these developments in translation studies, translation has been used metaphorically in portraying, for example, genetic decoding (molecular biology), dream interpretation (psychoanalysis), transfer and exchange of knowledge (medical research), and property transfer (law). And translation is used figuratively in conversation, as in, ‘this idea must be translated into concrete action’. But these translational metaphors have only played a marginal role in translational theorising.

A ‘philosophy of translation’, I argue, should incorporate not only the various perspectives on translation as an object of study, but also its metaphorical uses. Indeed, translation can be seen as a philosophical paradigm in itself, and can be studied and applied outside the bounds of language, culture, and metaphor. Hermeneutics serves as a starting point, but any philosophy of translation needs to be conceptualised within translation studies, which may require a new epistemological sub-discipline. Once we have a suitably conceptualised philosophy within the frame of translation studies, further issues can then be explored – for instance, could it deepen the understanding of translation as an heuristic tool in not only the humanities, but also in the natural and social sciences?