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Review of  Translation Universals

Reviewer: Gabriela Saldanha
Book Title: Translation Universals
Book Author: Anna Mauranen Pekka Kujamäki
Publisher: John Benjamins
Linguistic Field(s): Translation
Issue Number: 15.2244

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Date: Thu, 29 Jul 2004 19:50:31 +0100
From: Gabriela Saldanha
Subject: Translation Universals: Do they exist?

EDITORS: Mauranen, Anna; Kujamäki, Pekka
TITLE: Translation Universals
SUBTITLE: Do they exist?
SERIES: Benjamins Translation Library 48
PUBLISHER: John Benjamins
YEAR: 2004

Gabriela Saldanha, Centre for Translation and Textual Studies, School
of Applied Languages and Intercultural Studies, Dublin City University.

Mauranen and Kujamäki's edited volume consists of selected papers from
a conference with the same title held in Savonlinna in 2001. It is
divided into four parts. The first one presents two theoretical
explorations of the concept of universals and one discussion of the
limitations of corpus-based methodologies for the study of translation
universals. The rest of the volume consists of empirical studies
testing potential universals. The second and third parts present
corpus-based studies and the last one describes classroom-based

The introduction specifically addresses the problematic aspects of the
notion of translation universals and the methodological difficulties
involved in finding empirical evidence. In particular Mauranen and
Kujamäki point out that there are several potential explanations for
the patterns revealed in translated language: the cognitive process
involved translation, systemic differences between languages and social
and historical determinants. Distinguishing between the effects of each
of these factors is not easy, and the corpus-based methodology that has
been favoured - for good reasons - in studies of universals, needs to
be complemented by research into cognitive and social factors. The
editors also warn of the risks of drawing hasty conclusions from small-
scale studies with a limited scope.

Two of the papers in Part 1 (Toury's and Bernardini & Zanettin's)
prefer the term 'laws' to 'universals' on the grounds that a law can be
conditioned and has the possibility of exception built into it, and
exceptions can then be explained with resource to other laws operating
at a different level. Toury stresses that translational behaviour is
affected by a vast an heterogeneous array of factors which are present
all at once and affect each other apart from the observed behaviour.
This situation, argues Toury, requires explanations to be formulated in
probabilistic, rather than deterministic, terms, accounting for the
presence of more than one conditioning factor.

Chesterman compares three different ways in which Translation Studies
have attempted to go beyond the particular: from prescriptive, critical
and descriptive perspectives. Chesterman describes advantages and
problems in each of them, but focusing on the latter, which is the one
that relies on the notion of universals, or unrestricted descriptive
hypothesis as he also calls them. Still, Chesterman does not object to
the term universal, provided ''it is kept for claims that are actually
hypothesised to be universal, not specific to a subset of translations''
(p43). He concludes by pointing out ways in which the descriptive
approach needs to proceed to move forward. Chesterman mentions, among
other things, the need to further test and replicate work on restricted
hypothesis, standardise concepts and ways of operationalizing them, and
work on testable explanatory hypotheses to account for the evidence

Bernardini and Zanettin's concern is with evaluating the corpus-based
methodology typically applied for research in translation universals.
They highlight the difficulty of achieving representativeness in
translational corpora, with special emphasis on how to ensure the
comparability of the components in a parallel bi-directional corpora.
With reference to one such corpus, CEXI, they point out that the
different tendencies in terms of the text-types most commonly
translated from English into Italian and Italian into English can
impose a certain bias. In these cases there is a need to choose whether
to reflect the operation of different translation policies in each
culture or to prioritise the comparability of the components. In their
conclusion Bernardini and Zanettin stress the need to take into account
the social context in which translations are produced before attempting
to generalise beyond the relevant sample.

The three papers in Part 2 (Large-Scale Tendencies in Translated
Language) all deal with interference as a potential universal of
translation and present results from studies based in the Corpus of
Translated Finnish (CTF), compiled under the direction of Anna Mauranen
and held at the Savonlinna School of Translation Studies. The first
article, by Mauranen herself, discusses in some detail the related
concepts of interference and transfer, and also describes the
compilation of the CTF. Mauranen tests the hypothesis that tolerance of
interference is higher when the translation is from a language/culture
that is more prestigious than that of the target text. According to
this hypothesis, argues Mauranen, translations from English into
Finnish should deviate more from original Finnish than translations
form Russian into Finnish. Mauranen measures the distance between
components of the corpus (Finnish originals, Finnish translations from
English, Finnish translations from Russian and Finnish translations
from several languages) by comparing frequency ranked wordlists. The
subset of Finnish originals is taken as a standard and then the
wordlists are compared to this standard. Despite this being a rather
crude method, which apparently has not been tested before, some
interesting patterns are observed. The results indicate that
translation from English actually differ less from original Finnish
than translations from Russian. However, because only differences in
rank order are considered, this method can only show that there is a
source language effect, without any indication of what causes this
effect or what kind of shifts it brings about. Linguistic interference
could be one explanation, but the influence of factors such as those
highlighted by Bernardini and Zanettin in the previous article could
also have been considered.

Eskola adds to the variety of terms used to explain regularities in
translation by proposing to talk about 'local laws' (instead of norms)
and 'univeral laws' (instead of universals). Eskola looks at whether
the use of optional non-finite syntactic structures in translated
Finnish is affected by the existence (or not) of equivalent structures
in the source language. The results indicate that translations from
English and Russian into Finnish do tend to under-represent target-
language specific linguistic features, which supports Tirkkonen-Condit
unique-item hypothesis (see below). Eskola's findings, in line with
Mauranen's, also show translations from Russian differing more from
original Finnish than translations for English.

The aim of Jantunen's study is to demonstrate that translations show
untypical lexical patterns and that these are influenced by the source
language. Jantunen looks at the distribution, collocation and
colligation of three nearly synonymous words in non-translated Finnish,
translations into Finnish from English and translations into Finnish
from different source languages. In all cases the normed frequencies
for each of the lexical items were higher in the translation components
than in the corpus of non-translated Finnish. A chi-square test
revealed a significant difference between the non-translated Finnish
and the subset of translations from several languages, but not between
non-translated Finnish and translations from English or between the two
translation components. Jantunen attributes these results to a source
language effect. As in Mauranen's study, we see translations from
English differing less from non-translated Finnish than from
translations from several source languages. Still, the fact that the
frequencies are much higher for all the items in both translational
components remains without explanation. The patterns emerging from
comparisons of collocational patterns show each of the lexical items
behaving rather different, and the colligational patterns are again
less clear and more complex. In any case, Jantunen offers a good
example of the kind of detailed analysis needed in order to account for
the complexity of the data in these types of study.

The first paper in Part 3 (Testing the basics) again demonstrates that
translations have different lexico-grammatical patterns than original
tests by comparing the frequency and collocations of a grammatical word
(av) in Swedish translated and non-translated fiction. Nilsson's study
is very limited in its scope. Although the most typical patterns found
in translated texts are shown to be straightforward translations of
English structures, there is no attempt to explain why they are less
common in original texts (are other alternative options being used more
in originals?).

The next two articles in this section deal with explicitation as a
potential universal in translation. Pápai´s article explores instances
of explicitation in translations into Hungarian. First, explicitating
shifts in translations from English into Hungarian are identified
manually by comparing source and target texts. Then the overall
frequency of five of the linguistic features (for example,
conjunctions) used in the explicitating shifts identified in the
translated texts are compared with their respective frequencies in a
corpus of original Hungarian. The results are not without interest but
the article is poorly written (and edited), which makes it difficult to

Puurtinen's study is based on the hypothesis that frequent use of
clause connectives as explicit signals of clausal relations in
translation might be a manifestation of explicitation. The corpus used
is a monolingual comparable corpus of children's literature, part of
the Corpus of Translated Finnish. The results do not support the
hypothesis: Puurtinen found no clear overall tendency in either the
translational or the non-translational components. A closer look at the
data reveals that in some cases the higher occurrence of the
connectives in the translations could be explained by the existence of
more or less straightforward equivalents in the source language

Tirkkonen-Condit tests what she calls the Unique-items Hypothesis,
according to which target-language items that have no straightforward
equivalent in the source language tend to be less common in translated
texts. The corpus is again the Corpus of Translated Finnish and the
unique items are verbs of sufficiency and clitic particles typical of
Finnish. As predicted, they are considerably more common in original
than in translated Finnish. Tirkkonen-Condit then discusses the results
in the light of other studies that showed similar tendencies and that
offer possible explanations.

The last part of the book contains only two articles. Kujumäki also
explores the unique-items hypothesis but in a classroom environment.
Kujumäki wrote a short text in Finnish containing three lexical items
(hanki, kilos and keli) that have no straightforward equivalent in
English or German, then had this text translated into those languages
by native speakers. The student's task was to translate the text back
into Finnish. Few used the three lexical items present in the original
text. A control test was then designed to confirm that the students do
use these concepts when describing situations similar to that presented
by the text of the exercise. The results suggest that when translating
students tend to opt for lexical choices that are closer to the source
language. Kujumäki claims that these results challenge the translation
students' belief that theory has little relevance when it comes to
practice, and their strong belief in their L1 competence. However, it
seems to me that if the low frequency of unique-items in translation is
such a widespread phenomenon as some of the papers in this volume
suggest, then it cannot be considered an indication of deficiencies in
L1 competence.

Jääskeläinen deals with a different 'universal', the avoidance of
repetitions. In this case, the task set to students was to translate a
text were repetition was used as a stylistic device in order to
emphasise certain aspects of the message. Some groups were provided
with a set of general instructions that called attention to stylistic
patterns while others received no specific instructions. Students that
had received instructions generally showed more sensitivity to
repetitions. In the conclusion Jääskeläinen reflects on her methodology
and on how the student's background may also affect how they approach

It is interesting to note that despite the warnings in Chesterman's and
Bernardini and Zanettin's papers about the limitations of the corpus-
based methodology and the need to ensure replicability, few authors
reflect on the methodology applied or open the ground for questioning
representativeness. In Eskola's article, for example, the methodology
is not described in any detail.

In general, this book provides a good overview of the state of the art
in research on universals in translation studies: there are some
interesting findings, and evidence is accumulating that confirms the
existence of patterns that cut across translation cultures, genres and
individual language pairs as well as patterns that reflect the
influence of each of these factors. However, the research is still
patchy and very much at surface level. Identifying patterns (however
untypical) and differences is only worthwhile if they can tell us
something about the nature of translations or about the cultural and
social imperatives that shape them. In some areas results are fairly
consistent, and in others less, but in general there are missing links
between one and the other, links that could probably be explained by
the variables at work in each case, but that have not been explored in
depth. As some scholars in this volume point out, there is a need to
complement research on the translation product with research that
delves more deeply into the translation process and context. The
introduction and the first part of the book point in this direction,
but most of the empirical studies reported fail to engage with these
issues. Maybe a good idea would have been to add a conclusion as well
as an introduction, to provide an overall picture summing up and making
connections between the findings, discussing potential explanations and
implications, and refining the existing hypothesis.

Papers presenting empirical findings generally work on the assumption
that universals are indeed possible, but the question is far too broad
to be addressed in small-scale studies as the ones reported. Even
though the question in the title was probably intended to open a
discussion rather than elicit concrete answers, those authors that do
address it from a theoretical perspective suggest that it is not
accurately formulated, because it is not the existence of universals
that is at stake. In Toury's words: ''the whole question of translation
universals is not one of existence [?] but one of explanatory power''
(p. 29). In any case, as three of the papers suggest, it seems that the
term 'law' is probably a better choice to reflect the complexity of the
data and it seems to be less controversial.
Gabriela Saldanha holds an MPhil in Translation Studies from UMIST, UK
and is currently doing a PhD in the same area at Dublin City
University, Ireland, where she has also lectured on Corpus Linguistics
and Translation Technology. Her research interests include Corpus-based
Translation Studies, Corpus Linguistics, Stylistics, Translation
Technology, and Gender and Translation.