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Review of  Descriptive Translation Studies – and beyond

Reviewer: Jonathan Downie
Book Title: Descriptive Translation Studies – and beyond
Book Author: Gideon Toury
Publisher: John Benjamins
Linguistic Field(s): Translation
Issue Number: 24.2655

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For anyone entering into Translation Studies, especially those looking at written translation as opposed to interpreting, this revised edition of Gideon Toury’s book will be a foundational, though by no means fault-free, textbook. It describes the basic tenets, principles and methods used in Descriptive Translation Studies (DTS) and shows how these can be applied to the study of written translation. It is, however, a great pity that this book shies away from anything more than a fleeting (or even dismissive) engagement with criticisms of DTS.

Much of the book’s value lies in its thorough and detailed treatment of the fundamental principles of DTS. This begins in part one, which locates DTS on Holmes’ (1988) conceptual map of Translation Studies as a scientific field between the theoretical and applied branches. This placement will prove vital throughout the book, as Toury asserts repeatedly that research in DTS should not be done with the immediate goal of making changes in practice or society at large (pp. 11-13, 20ff.) but later acknowledges that in two specific cases DTS research has led to changes in translation practice in Hebrew (p. 309).

This position is in evidence in part two, which covers the underlying logic of DTS and its key definitions. Most pertinent and best-known here is the “target-orientedness” of DTS (pp. 17-34) and the notion of “norms” (pp. 61-92). The first pertains to the fact that DTS treats translations as artefacts of the target or receiving culture, rather than beginning with the source text (p. 18). Thus, in DTS, the choices made by the translator are affected much more by the intended place of their translation in its receiving culture than by any linguistic or lexicographical problems in the source text (e.g. pp. 191-194). This allows Toury to spend an entire chapter (pp. 48-60) discussing pseudotranslations, where no source text ever existed.

The latter notion, the concept of “norms”, has been much more widely discussed. Norms, socially sanctioned regularities of behaviour (p. 63), are arguably the most crucial contribution of DTS to Translation Studies as a whole. They also form the methodological foundation for Toury’s case studies. It is no surprise then that three chapters -- 4, 6 and 7 -- cover the methodological applications of norms from how to discover and extract them (pp. 79-92) to their application in comparative analysis (pp. 115-130).

The remaining chapter in part two, chapter 5 (pp. 93-114) moves slightly away from norms to more general methodological concepts and approaches that can be used in DTS. It is in this chapter that Toury most ably bridges the possible gap between the target-orientedness of DTS and the use of comparative studies, as well as providing the clearest overview of the DTS view of the concept of a translation problem (pp. 102-107).

Part three shows DTS in action with a range of mostly literary case studies. These move from more general, culture-wide studies -- such as chapter 8 on Hebrew poetry -- to studies treating the translation processes of a single translator, in chapter 12. Chapters 13 and 14, as well as the chapter labelled “Excursus C” stand a little outside the rest, with their emphasis on translation-specific lexical items, experimentation in Translation Studies and the development of bilinguals into “socio-culturally significant translator[s]” (p. 277) respectively. This is a shift that will be examined later in this review.

The last part, Part Four, Toury moves from DTS proper to a discussion of what he terms “laws of translation behaviour” (p. 295). These laws are expected to describe and predict translational behaviour, taking into account the constraints and circumstances that might affect it (p. 302). Thus, rather than being strict dictums of the kind “if X happens then Y will happen” they are probabilistic, describing translational behaviour in the terms “if X then the greater/lesser likelihood that Y” where Y is an observed behaviour and X a constraint or factor (p. 301). Toury illustrates with two possible laws. This first is the “law of growing standardisation”, which states that “in translation, textual relations obtaining in the original are often modified, sometimes to the point of being totally ignored, in favour of habitual options offered by a target repertoire” (p. 204). The second is the law of interference, which states that “phenomena pertaining to the make-up of the source text tend to force themselves on the translators and be transferred in the target text” (p. 310). Both these laws are described in detail and the applications explored.

A full critical review of DTS as a paradigm is beyond the scope of this review (readers may profitably begin with the relevant entry in the Encyclopedia of Translation Studies, Brownlie 2009, pp.77-81). However, there are places where issues with DTS as a paradigm and with this book as an independent entity coincide. As the SUMMARY section suggests, one of these is in the treatment of criticisms of the approach.

Symptomatic is Toury’s treatment of Pym’s criticism that DTS has neglected to study translation history and the contexts in which translations arise (p. 19). Not only is this relegated to a footnote but there is little attempt to engage with Pym’s view in any meaningful way. Instead, Toury simply states that he “fail[s] to understand” (ibid.) Pym’s criticism. Similarly, Snell-Hornby’s criticism that applying DTS to literary translation is tantamount to studying literary reception (pp. 203-205) while dealt with more thoroughly than that of Pym, seems to have been recruited as fuel to Toury’s argument rather than as a point with any real independent merit. Much of his response to Snell-Hornby’s view takes the form of an argument about the difference between “acceptability” -- which describes the assumptions made by translators as to the chances of a given translation, produced using given strategies, will be received, and “acceptance” -- which covers whether and how a given text was actually received, with the former being most of interest to Toury (p. 203). Thus, rather than examine in detail Snell-Hornby’s argument and its merits, Toury turns the criticism itself into a kind of straw man that allows him to demonstrate that DTS is different to previous approaches as it concentrates on “acceptability” over “acceptance”.

It is unsurprising then that the book in many places reflects an overly optimistic attitude to DTS. Toury is quite happy to accept that the outcome of public discussions over the application of the idea of norms to interpreting was favourable (p. 81 on Shlesinger 1989 and Harris 1990) despite the fact that even a casual reader of these papers would be hard pressed to come to this conclusion. The norms suggested by Harris (1990) actually represent the kind of “normative pronouncements” (p. 88) that Toury discourages researchers from taking at face value. That some of these same norms have already been shown by Diriker (2004, pp. 81-130) to have a problematic relationship with the actual practice of interpreters is evidence that the discussion is not nearly as clear-cut as Toury suggests.

The latter sections also pose a greater problem for DTS than Toury realises. Take, for example, the “Excursus” on the development of “native translators” -- those who are bilingual from a young age and translate and interpret ad hoc from childhood (pp. 277-294). It is difficult to avoid the conclusion that the reason why DTS terminology takes so long to appear in this section (the word “norms” first appears on p. 284, precisely at the point where the translators are moving from ad hoc to professional translation) is that the very notion of a “native translator” problematizes one of the foundational principles of DTS, it’s “target-orientedness”. After all, unless it is assumed that each language in the bilingual household represents a separate culture then during the ad hoc translation phase, native translators would be translating within and between different languages within the same culture.

The challenge that both native translators and much professional practice poses to Toury’s explanation of why translations are performed in the first place is even greater. In Toury’s view, cultures resort to translation as a way of “filling in gaps” (pp. 21-22) in the target culture that do not exist in the source culture in question. Again, the experience and performance of native translators would seem to form a powerful argument against this view. In this case, something much less noble but more interpersonal such as “enabling communication” would seem to be a better fit. In fact, outside of literary translation -- Toury’s focus -- it is difficult to see how Toury’s argument holds at all. Instead, the more commercial and goal-focussed view expressed by Vermeer (1996) and other skopos theorists who argue that all translation is commissioned by people for a given purpose, would seem more probable. The emphasis would then shifts from what cultures are trying to do towards what people are trying to do, even if the latter might involve such comparatively low status and small-scale activities as selling products or publishing research.

It is precisely these emphases on cultures rather than people and literary rather than commercial translation that might explain most of the shortcomings of the book. The only non-literary text covered in any real detail turns out to be a five line warning on a train (pp. 117-124), hardly the stuff of everyday commercial practice. That Toury can extract so much analysis from this short text is testament to both the power of DTS and the potential for the approach to generate complex explanations for simple decisions. The most common translator then in this book is one who is “socio-culturally significant” (p. 277) (a phrase which itself is pregnant with possible meanings and ambiguities) but one who works within the social mores of the literary sphere, importing models from other cultures and adapting them to create new models in their own within strict limitations. How far this resembles the attitudes and practice of the translators who perform most of the translation in today’s society is a matter for readers to decide.

Yet, it could and perhaps should be claimed that such criticisms may be unfair. Nowhere in the book does Toury ever claim that DTS is the only or even the most useful approach to analysing translation. In fact, by placing DTS between translation theory and applied extensions to translation studies, Toury encourages readers to see DTS as one of a number of approaches to translation. The book therefore deserves to be read first and foremost as an account of the basic principles of DTS by one of the founders of the approach. Read in this sense it is a very worthwhile volume. Leaving aside Toury’s questionable claim that it is possible and even vital to study translation without changing practice (see his own counter case above), the contribution of DTS in general and this book in particular, in providing empirical data on translation and in encouraging the formulation predictive hypotheses of translator behaviour is highly laudable. No matter how open some of the claims he makes may be to criticism, and no matter how disappointing it may be that Toury has not taken this opportunity to deal fairly and thoroughly with some of the criticisms that have emerged, this book remains the best account of the conceptual principles of DTS and the finest account of its methodological principles. As Brownlie (2009, p. 81) observes, despite its flaws, DTS remains the dominant approach in Translation Studies; this book remains the best introductory textbook and illustrative guide to this approach.

Descriptive Translation Studies and Beyond therefore stands as a revision of a landmark text of a landmark development in Translation Studies. It is difficult to imagine the development of modern Translation Studies without the contribution of DTS. For those new to Translation Studies, this book provides a useful introduction to one of the foundational approaches to the field, written by its founding scholar. The criticisms levelled against the book merely reflect the need for those working and writing from within this approach to acknowledge both the limitations pointed out by others and the more general move towards a more direct investigation of contextual factors involving discussions with those who commission, use and carry out translation (such as Diriker 2004; Pym et al. 2006, etc.) instead of perceiving these only through the translations themselves.

Brownlie, S., 2009. Descriptive vs. Committed Approaches. In Baker, M. and Saldanha, G., Routledge Encyclopedia of Translation Studies. London & New York: Routledge, pp. 77--81.

Diriker, E., 2004. De-/re-contextualizing conference interpreting: interpreters in the ivory tower?, Amsterdam, John Benjamins Publishing Company.

Harris, B., 1990. Norms in interpretation. Target, 2(1), pp.115--119.

Holmes, J.S., 1988. The name and nature of translation studies. In Translated!: Papers on literary translation and translation studies. Amsterdam, Rodopi, pp. 67--80.

Pym, A., Shlesinger, M. & Jettmarová, Z., 2006. Sociocultural aspects of translating and interpreting, Amsterdam, John Benjamins Publishing Company

Shlesinger, M., 1989. Extending the Theory of Translation to Interpretation: Norms as a Case in Point. Target: International Journal of Translation Studies, 1(2), pp.111--15.

Vermeer, H.J., 1996. A skopos theory of translation: (some arguments for and against), Heidelberg, TextconText Verlag.
Jonathan Downie is a PhD student at Heriot-Watt University, studying client expectations of conference interpreters. Aside from research, he is also a conference interpreter, public speaker, and co-editor of the LifeinLINCS blog for the Languages and Intercultural Studies department at Heriot-Watt University.