LINGUIST List 14.2770

Tue Oct 14 2003

Review: Translation/Pragmatics: Robinson (2003)

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  1. Wang Shaoxiang, Performative Linguistics

Message 1: Performative Linguistics

Date: Mon, 13 Oct 2003 13:30:18 +0000
From: Wang Shaoxiang <>
Subject: Performative Linguistics

Robinson, Douglas (2003) Performative Linguistics: Speaking and
Translating as Doing Things with Words, Routledge.

Announced at

Wang Shaoxiang, Foreign Languages Institute, Fujian Teachers University


Apparently inspired by J. L. Austin's famous distinction between
''constative'' utterances that convey information and ''performative''
utterances that perform actions(Austin 1962/1975), Douglas Robinson,
in his pioneering book under the present review, takes issue against
the ''constative'' approaches - the innate ''operative methodological
choice'' (p.4) - of the traditional ''linguistics'' and endeavors to
expand the realm of linguistics to include performative approaches
with a view to studying language in all its complexity. With his
habitually infectious argument and illuminating intellectual insights,
Robinson engages the reader throughout the entire book in the
discussion and development of ''performative linguistics'' and the
establishment of its place in the explanatory framework of language
against the hegemonic constative linguistics. Now let's take a closer
look at the full force of Robinson's argument.


The book is divided into three parts. Part I draws our attention to J.
L. Austin's distinction between constative and performative
utterances, first proposed in his posthumous work How To Do Things
With Words. Rather than taking the terms to apply to utterances,
Robinson chooses to apply them to approaches to utterances, and
proposes a new distinction between constative and performative
linguistics, with the former focusing on the stability of linguistic
structures and the latter language use in real-world contexts. By way
of introduction, Robinson explores the relationship between
linguistics and translation, pointing out that the inadequacy of the
explanatory power of traditional linguistics is largely due to the
treatment of translation as a ''mechanistic process'' (p.8) and it is
precisely here that performative linguistics excels.

Chap 2 highlights the rediscovery of the performative, its subsequent
changes by a number of scholars, a brief history of the tension
between the performative and the constative and the integrational
linguists' critiques of the constative.

In Chap 3 the ''key'' or ''definitive'' issue of the entire book -
''whether a translation might ever be thought of as a performative
utterance'' (p.19) - is raised, in which Anthony Pym is engaged for a

Part II provides Jacques Derrida's notion of ''iterability'' as one of
two possible answers Robinson offers to Austin's question of parasitic
speech acts, the other being Paul Grice's conversational implicatures
(see below). By way explanation, Derrida's theory is outlined in Chap
4. However, due to the fact that Derrida's abstract philosophical
concept may thwart easy understanding, a series of theoretical
approaches such as Robinson's somatic theory of language, Antonio
Damasio's neurological studies and Daniel Simeoni's the translator's
habitus, and more importantly, Mikhail Bakhtin's theory of ''double-
voicing'', is called for as the wonderful analytical tools to shed
illuminating lights on ''iterability'' and puts Austin's settled
problem of parasitism into the perspectives of language history,
language change and language evolution (p.20).

Part III is an extended discussion (totaling seven chapters: Chaps 8-
14) of Paul Grice's concept of conversational implicature (1975),
which is offered as the second answer to Austin's problem of
parasitism. Except for Chap 8 which is confined to the presentation of
the core of the theory itself (the cooperative principle and its
maxims), the rest 6 Chaps in this part are in fact devoted to a
drastic analytical expansion of the theory with an obvious bias in
favor of the performative approach. Starting from the constative
applications of Grice to translation, Chap 9 demonstrates that
Lawrence Venuti's critique of Grice is not only misdirected but fails
to see that Grice virtually solves ''all Venuti's problems''
(p.143). This is by no means a sure indication of Robinson's alliance
with Grice. In fact, the Gricean conversational implicature is,
according to Robinson, ''riddled with problems'' (p.143). Therefore,
as one of the series of explanations that follows, Chap 10 explores
illocutionary and perlocutionary implicature by framing Grice's
implicature in Austin's concept, and suggests a ''metalocutionary
implicature'' (148) which views translation as self-discovery. Chap 11
slots Grice into the ''interpretant triad'' of Charles Sanders Peirce
in order to show different levels of implicature, namely,
conversational and conventional implicatures in Chap 12 and
''invocative'' implicature in Chap 13. Chap 14 examines the
interpretive power of metalocutionary implicature in cross-cultural
contexts. The last chapter - Conclusion - ends the book with a
nutshell summary of the argument and a prediction on the ''next
thing'' in language study.


For the one thing, this is a very engaging book, though sometimes the
argument becomes lengthy and complex: appropriately so, given the very
nature of serious theoretical inquiry. However, when one proceeds to
venture into an intellectual dialogue with Robinson, one could not
help but be overwhelmed by his special rhetoric in developing his
argument: Robinson seems to have a knack of putting his idea across,
taking the reader along with him, and finally winning the reader over
in a particularly convincing way.

What Robinson is arguing is not absolutely ''new'', though. Some of it
has even been around for ''at least half a century'' (p.6). But this
does stop Robinson from pushing and prodding the force of his argument
through the pages of his work along the lines of performative
linguistics. Indeed, what he has been striving to do is the time-
honored trick of ''putting old wine into new bottles'', yet Robinson
does it creatively and persuasively. Taken separately, the
performative, iterability, double-voicing, conversational implicature
etc. are all but sporadic sparkles in the long intellectual history;
pieced together under a new banner of ''performative linguistics,''
they seem to be radiating with all the promises of ushering in a
''performative revolution'' (p.218). This is Robinson's rhetoric, to
say old things in new ways and bring other people's ideas into a new
framework (p.224).

Some people, however, may well complain that all that has changed are
names. In this very Information Age, we are bombarded almost every day
by neologisms spawned by electronic communication, and new terms seem
to keep popping up from God-knows-where places. Before we have
Linguistics, now we have Performative Linguistics. Before we have
Translation Studies, now we have Performative Study of Translation.
What will be the next thing? Well, we don't have to see eye to eye
with Robinson on everything he has said. And we don't even have to
echo Robinson on an imminent ''performative revolution''. But if we do
adopt a more tolerant attitude toward neologisms (Neologisms may not
be that bad, given that they do not claim all-encompassing explanatory
power), we may at least be aware of the fact that linguistics today is
not doing fine. If it IS doing fine, then we may miss the fascinating
interplay of different voices. The performative methodology is not the
only way but an alternative way to approach language. The task of
performative study of translation is not to eliminate the previous
constative study of translation altogether, but to emphasize the doer
- the more humane side of the act of translation, and as such expands
the scope of translation theory by including the more radical theories
of translation previously excluded by cultural studies such as TAP
theory, skopos theory etc. When we know that a new explanatory and
analytical framework of language study is transforming the way of
language study toward a significant and beneficial direction, we have
no alternative but just let it happen and surrender the final test
again in the hands of actual language?


Austin, J. L. (1962/1975) How To Do Things With Words. Second edition.
Edited by J. O. Urmson and Marina Sbisá. Oxford: Oxford University

Grice, H. Paul (1975/1989) ''Logic and Conversation.'' In Studies in
the Way of Words, 22-40. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.


Wang Shaoxiang is a lecturer and doctoral candidate at Foreign
Languages Institute, Fujian Teachers University, China. His research
interests include translating, interpreting and cultural studies.
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