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Review of  Exploring Translation Theories

Reviewer: Jonathan Downie
Book Title: Exploring Translation Theories
Book Author: Anthony Pym
Publisher: Routledge (Taylor and Francis)
Linguistic Field(s): Applied Linguistics
Linguistic Theories
Issue Number: 21.2648

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AUTHOR: Anthony Pym
TITLE: Exploring Translation Theories
PUBLISHER: Routledge (Taylor and Francis)
YEAR: 2009

Jonathan Downie, unaffiliated scholar, Wishaw, Scotland


Anthony Pym's 186-page textbook offers an informative but succinct tour of the
main trajectories of translation theory from the traditional, equivalence-based
approaches to the currently fashionable perspectives on ''cultural translation''.
With the inclusion of ''Suggested projects and activities'' at the end of each
chapter, a 12-page bibliography and a subject and author index, this book will
serve well as a university textbook, a guide for self-study or even a
straightforward introduction to the field.

The first chapter, ''What is a translation theory,'' explains how translating can
lead to theories, which in turn can become paradigms, before demonstrating ''how''
and ''why'' translation theories should be studied. A case is made throughout for
maintaining the link between theory and practice, a link which is all too often
lacking in translation teaching (p. 5).

The second chapter covers the paradigm of ''natural equivalence,'' in which items
in one language are seen as having equal value to items in another language,
with the relationship working in both directions in any given language pair (p.
7). This paradigm is seen as radically opposing the structuralist view that
languages were so inherently different that translation must be impossible (p.
10). In the natural equivalence paradigm, there was instead a belief in a
linguistically neutral element of comparison, which meant that the sense of a
text was expressible in any language, deftly leapfrogging the barriers erected
by structuralism.

As the author states in the ''Frequently Had Arguments'' section, this paradigm is
not without its faults. Translation theorists have attacked it from a variety of
angles, ranging from questions about its assumption that all translations can be
presented as natural to criticisms of the supposed imperialism of presenting
foreign ideologies as natural to the target culture (p. 21). To this he adds
reservations about the utility of such theories for texts that are not stable
entities such as websites and product documentation, where it is not clear what
the translation should be equivalent to (p. 22).

In the third chapter, we are introduced to a second equivalence-based paradigm:
''directional equivalence.'' Unlike theories in the natural equivalence paradigm,
these theories do not assume that the equivalence will run in both directions
between one language and another. Instead, equivalence is seen as an illusion,
which can be created on different levels and using different types of
equivalence (p. 30, 37). Here we enter into the well-trodden territory of the
classic dichotomies of translation, from foreignisation vs. domestication in
Schleiermacher to Toury's opposition of adequacy and acceptability (p. 31-32).
We might also add the ''free vs. literal'' dichotomy that has served as the basis
of much debate in Bible translation (Downie 2009: 25).

Despite the historical importance of any of these dichotomies, we are still left
with the fact that they are nevertheless different labels for illusions created
by translators rather than descriptions of any objective linguistic relations, a
fact which essentially terminates the usefulness of these two paradigms (p. 37).
Readers who have worked hard to move debates away from such outmoded concepts
may therefore question whether it was necessary to spend two chapters covering
this ground. After all, if the author must admit that the distinction between
the paradigms of natural and directional equivalence is not present in the
original writings (p. 30), surely a single chapter covering both perspectives
would have sufficed.

In chapter 4, discussion moves on to the purpose-based paradigms, the basic
tenet of which is that translations are written to serve a purpose (p. 43) and
that therefore a single source text may be translated in a number of ways to
suit different purposes (p. 49). This chapter gives a brief overview of the main
purpose-based approaches, including 'skopostheorie' (p. 44-47), the
functionalist theories of Holz-Mänttäri (p. 50-51) and Hönig and Kussmaul (p.
52-54) and lastly the applications of purpose-based approaches to project
analysis in the work of Gouadec (p. 59-60).

What all these approaches have in common is that they emphasise the fact that
translation does not take place in a vacuum and demonstrate the key role that
all the social actors involved will play. By including such social dynamics in
the discussion of translation, purpose-based paradigms can be seen as rescuing
translations from ''theories that would try to formulate linguistic rules
governing every decision'' (p. 56).

Many of the criticisms of these paradigms have therefore been linked to this
move away from the assumption that the source text alone is the foundation for
translation decisions. Thus we have the assertion that translators translate
words, not purposes (p. 58) and the view that such theories contradict the
principles of truth and accuracy (p. 59). Even the concern that 'skopostheorie'
does not tell translators what to do when there are conflicting purposes (ibid)
can be related back the need for a stable ethical basis for decisions. Scholars
of 'skopostheorie' will therefore wonder why the principle of loyalty (see Nord
[1997] 2007), one of the main attempts to resolve this problem, is relegated to
a single paragraph. While the author obviously feels that this addition is not
enough to resolve the ethical questions involved in 'skopostheorie' (p. 165), it
is unfair to reduce this attempt to confront the issue to a passing reference.

In the fifth chapter, we are introduced to another paradigm that sidesteps
ethical issues, namely the Descriptive paradigms, whose aim is to describe the
nature and features of translations. The starting point for this paradigm is the
point where equivalence-based paradigms end: the view that equivalence is an
assumed feature of all translations (p. 64). One possibility then is to describe
equivalence in terms of the differences between target texts and source texts.
Analysis can either start from smaller units, such as words and phrases, and
work upwards to describe the translation as a whole (p. 67) or it can begin from
the position of translations in culture and a few hypotheses about why shifts
may exist and work downwards to their manifestation in a given translation (pp.
68-76). In the latter direction, we could also look for and explore the typical
or socially expected ways to translate, here called ''norms'' (pp. 73-76). Where
these norms are specific to translation, they may in turn be assumed to be
universals (pp. 78-81) and, if the reason for their existence can be found,
these reasons may be accepted as ''laws'' (pp. 81-83).

This all seems very objective and scientific but there are clear weaknesses in
this approach. Of these, the circular logic behind the descriptivist position
that the definition of a translation is whatever is assumed to be a translation
(p. 76) has presented rich pickings for critics. Similarly, others have accused
descriptivists of avoiding issues related to the role of observer and the
observer's culture in the description of translations (p. 85).

While the importance of the role of the observer presents a challenge to the
assumed objectivity of the descriptivist paradigm, it provides the basis of the
''uncertainty'' paradigm, which is the focus of chapter 6. This chapter alternates
between historical summaries of the reasons behind uncertainty and their
application to linguistics and translation. Theories of uncertainty argue that
it is impossible to be sure about the meaning of a text and there are therefore
irresolvable questions over how to translate it (p. 90). However, if we must
translate, there is a need for theories of how to live with indeterminacy and a
good number of these are covered in this chapter. The common thread running
through all of them is the use of ideas from fields outside translation studies
and linguistics to help guide us through the issues involved, even though they
cannot offer a final solution.

Despite the tendency of theorists in this paradigm to make recommendations on
how translation should be done (pp. 111-112), the main criticism of these
theories is that they present a problem without offering a final practical
solution. Thus, the view that those behind the uncertainty paradigm are ''not
translators and do not care about translation'' (p. 114) may be read as
frustration with the paradigm itself rather than with any individuals. However,
as the author of the book readily admits (Pym 2008), those who work as
translators are likely to see this part of the book as irrelevant. Certainly, as
a practising translator myself, I find it difficult to foresee any practical
application of this paradigm to everyday work.

It is a relief then that chapter 7 leaves behind such philosophical ruminations
and returns to more practical considerations. This chapter examines the
''localisation'' paradigm, which has become prominent due to the spread of
information technology and the internet. The foundational principle of
localisation is that stable artificial linguistic and cultural parameters - such
as how to handle dates, times and currencies - can be created as guidelines for
the preparation of a product for use in a given target locale, here defined as a
stable target region or language (p. 121-122).

As the author admits, defining such parameters is not unique to localisation;
what makes localisation new is the importance placed on internationalisation:
the production of a culturally neutral intermediary version (p. 123). Thus,
while translation is traditionally seen as a one-step process from a single
source text to a single target text, localisation is a two-step process starting
with an original text, which is adapted to become an internationalised version,
which is in turn localised into many different locales. This allows information
to be made available in a number of different formats in a much more efficient
way than was previously possible. Most of the rest of the chapter is dedicated
to the technologies that help make localisation more efficient and the place of
translation and translation theory within the localisation paradigm.

While localisation may be feared as a way of belittling the work of translators
by restricting their input to a small, tightly controlled part of the overall
work process (p. 137) it would nevertheless seem that it is likely to remain as
a ubiquitous part of globalisation (p. 138). In this context, the author's
decision to examine the possible consequences of localisation (p. 138-140)
should not only be read as an attempt to bring localisation under the purview of
translation studies but also as a necessary exploration of the ethical issues
surrounding a process whose popularity has been primarily due to financial
advantages. This chapter then will help to soothe some of the worries of current
translators while providing an ideal springboard for future theoretical work.

In the final full chapter, we return to more philosophical concerns with a
discussion of ''cultural translation.'' The name itself is slightly misleading as
theories in the cultural translation paradigm are not centred on translation in
the traditional sense of the word. Instead, theories in this paradigm use
''translation'' as a general term for communication between cultural groups (p.
143). As much of this chapter shows, this is about as specific as these theories
get. In place of a settled definition, we have an interest in the translator as
a metaphor for people who live as cultural hybrids and a borrowing of
''untranslatability'' as a refusal to fully integrate into a single society (p.

As nebulous as these ideas might seem, they have found a home in translation
studies. Their emphasis on culture has inspired a call for a ''cultural turn'' (p.
149) whereby the field would concentrate on the cultural effects of translations
or on an analysis of the cultural variables at work in translations. Along
similar lines, scholars such as Even-Zohar (1990: 74) have argued that
translation studies itself must become a study of cultural transfer in a more
general sense. It is this wider focus of translation studies that is examined in
much of this chapter, with special emphasis given to the political potential of
such a change.

Even if we accept the author's position that the use of the word ''translation''
cannot be limited to a single meaning (p. 160), its metaphorical uses in
''cultural translation'' could lead to confusion. If all cultural hybridity and
cross-cultural movement is ''translation'' then translation as textual transfer is
at risk of becoming of marginal interest in its own field. In this sense, rather
than the ''cultural turn'' acting as a catalyst for a greater awareness of the
place of culture in translation, an overemphasis on cultural systems at the
expense of translation itself calls into question the uniqueness of the
perspective offered by translation studies as a field.

If we are to search for a use for this paradigm, it would most likely be found
in the emphasis some of its scholars have put on translators themselves. This
kind of Translation Sociology (p. 154-156) is probably overdue in the field.
Taken alongside the emphasis on the purpose(s) of translation examined in
functional theories and the tools that scholars such as Balci (2008) and Eraslan
Gercek (2008) have used to examine the roles of interpreters in social
situations, such descriptions could form an important part of our knowledge of
the social importance of translators.


In conclusion, most readers will agree with the author when he asserts that no
single paradigm can claim to have all the answers and that all of them have
important things to say (p. 165). While the book may have been designed for
classroom use, there is no reason why it cannot be used for personal study or as
an introduction to the field. The only disappointment is that theories that have
arisen from the sub-field of interpreting studies are rarely mentioned. Even
though the theories presented can be applied to interpreting, the book itself
tends to concentrate on written translation rather than Translation Studies as a
whole. Any disappointment from this is offset however, by the generous amount of
supporting material, including video presentations, available on the author's
website []. There is also
a lively discussion group on Facebook, created by the author.


Balci, Alev. (2008) ''Interpreter Involvement in Sermon Interpreting,''
Unpublished Advanced Diploma dissertation, Dokuz Eylül University, Turkey /
Universitat Rovira i Virgili, Spain.
Downie, Jonathan (2009), ''Are you using the right Bible translation? A
professional translator's perspective on translation choice.'' The Pneuma Review,
vol. 12 no. 3. , Summer 2009, pp. 24-43.
Eraslan Gercek, Seyda (2008) ''''Cultural Mediator'' or ''Scrupulous Translator''?
Revisiting Role, Context and Culture in Consecutive Conference Interpreting'' in
Boulogne, Pieter (ed.). Translation and Its Others. Selected Papers of the CETRA
Research Seminar in Translation Studies 2007 [internet] Available from: [Accessed 29th January 2009].
Even-Zohar, I (1990) ''Translation and Transfer'' Poetics Today, vol. 11. no. 1,
pp. 73-78.
Nord, Christiane ([1997] 2007), Translation as a Purposeful Activity,
Translation Theories Explained, Manchester, United Kingdom, St. Jerome.
Pym, Anthony (2008), Interview on Exploring Translation Theories [Internet],
Available from:
[Accessed 29th Jan 2010].

Jonathan Downie is a freelance translator and interpreter and independent scholar based in Scotland. His research is related to the use and improvement of translation and interpreting in churches and Christian organisations. He is currently seeking funding to begin PhD study at Heriot-Watt University in Edinburgh.

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