LINGUIST List 17.187

Fri Jan 20 2006

Review: Translation: Pokorn (2005)

Editor for this issue: Lindsay Butler <>

Directory         1.    John Kearns, Challenging the Traditional Axioms

Message 1: Challenging the Traditional Axioms
Date: 17-Jan-2006
From: John Kearns <>
Subject: Challenging the Traditional Axioms

AUTHOR: Pokorn, Nike K. TITLE: Challenging the Traditional Axioms SUBTITLE: Translation into a non-mother tongue SERIES: Benjamins Translation Library 62 PUBLISHER: John Benjamins YEAR: 2005 Announced at

John Kearns, Centre for Translation and Textual Studies, Dublin City University, Ireland


The eponymous 'traditional axioms' which Pokorn aims to challenge in her highly relevant and engaging study are those which relate to the received wisdom maintaining that responsible, professional translators should not translate into their second language (hereafter L2). To this end, Pokorn sets out to answer a number of more specific questions: ''Can the native language of the translator be considered as a criterion for assessing the acceptability or even the quality of a translation? Are translations out of one's mother tongue indeed inferior in quality to those carried out by native speakers of the TL [Target Language]? [...] Can we identify typical features of the translation that are the result of the translator's or translators' mother tongue?'' (ix).

Pokorn begins by surveying the fairly extensive research literature on the twin notions of ''mother tongue'' (hereafter L1) and ''native speaker'' to demonstrate that both are highly problematic and, as such, not entirely helpful in academic discourse. This is ground fairly well trodden in applied linguistics, though necessary nonetheless for her discussion. More interesting from a translation point of view, however, is the second chapter, in which she surveys the history of attitudes to inverse translation in translation theory. This she divides into four parts -- insistence on translation into the L1 on the grounds of the translator being ''owner'' of her/his native language, insistence on an idealised translator who is perfectly bilingual, the tacit assumption that translators always work into their L1, and attitudes to a translation team in translation practice. From her presentation one is led to understand that the odds are stacked heavily against inverse translation in Translation Studies discourse.

From here she moves on to discuss a series of English translations of literature by the Slovene writer Ivan Cankar, an analysis which takes up the greater part of her study. She selects a number of translations of selected passages by a range of translators -- both native and non- native speakers of Slovene, as well as translators working in pairs with various permutations of native languages -- and discusses in meticulous detail both source and target texts, along with the biographical and linguistic backgrounds of the translators themselves. She then sets out her own conclusions regarding the visibility of nativeness and non-nativeness in these translations before presenting the experiment which she conducted. This involved selecting passages from several of these translations -- four translations of the same passage, two translations of another passage, and one of a separate passage -- and presenting them to 46 third-level educated native-English speakers in Britain and North America to see if they could identify which had been translated by native and non-native Anglophones. Her conclusions demonstrate that native English speakers are not always able to identify inverse translations as such: ''...the assumption that every native speaker is able to rapidly detect any non-member of his/her linguistic community, when confronted only with a written document, has no solid foundation [...] On the other hand [...] translations into a non-mother tongue are often regarded as acceptable by the target readership, with the degree of acceptability depending on the individual capacities of the translator'' (117).


Pokorn writes that translation into the L2 ''has always been frowned on within Translation Studies in Western cultures with a dominant language'' (ix). Of course we are all only too painfully familiar with the kind of translationese which is the product of inadequate linguistic abilities in the TL and, as such, we may be tempted initially to agree instinctively with Pokorn without even examining what Translation Studies discourse has said on this subject.

Yes, Pokorn is obviously right to criticise the dearth of research which has hitherto been conducted in mainstream Translation Studies on inverse translation, and is I believe (along with many others in Translation Studies, I suspect) also right in maintaining that the reputation of inverse translation is in urgent need of rehabilitation. Nevertheless, there is another sense in which Pokorn is being quite hard on Translation Studies as an academic discourse, when she notes, for example, how Gorazd Kocijancic refers to ''the invisible sclerosis of theory'' (Pokorn x). Much research from the past thirty years has been highly unequivocal about the need to challenge negative attitudes to inverse translation (and this, of course, must be understood with the rider that a significant proportion of L2 translation research will itself be subject to limited diffusion as it is likely to be published in 'minor' languages). Looking at three recent volumes devoted to inverse translation and interpreting -- Campbell 1998, Grosman et al. 2000, and Kelly et al. 2003 -- one can see that huge (albeit insufficient) progress has been made in Translation Studies in ''challenging the traditional axioms'' in recent years -- more than Pokorn acknowledges (for a survey of the trajectory of this research in Translation Studies, see Kearns (in press)). In fact, Pokorn's enterprise can also be seen to be part of a more general investigation into whether translated language can be identified as such (cf. Tirkkonen-Condit 2002), though this larger enterprise is not discussed in her book.

So why does inverse translation continue to have such a bad reputation? Rather than looking to Translation Studies for an answer, I would contend that it is more appropriate to examine contemporary professional discourse in translation. Recently a guide to buying translations has been co-published by three major national bodies representing professional translation and linguistic interests, a publication which subsequently gained the endorsement of FIT, the International Federation of Translators (Durban 2003). In it we find the highly dogmatic statements that ''professional translators work into their native language'' and that ''a translator who flouts this basic rule is likely to be ignorant of other important quality issues as well'' (Durban, unpaginated). This is particularly disheartening for those of us in communities of languages of limited diffusion ((LLDs) who know there will never be enough native English speakers to cater for the demand for translation into English from our communities' languages. Yet when we train translators to work from their LLD mother tongue into languages such as English, the implications of the 'traditional axioms' are that they will be doomed at the outset to be denied adequate professional recognition in major-language translation communities. Without in any way wishing to belittle Pokorn's achievement in this study, changing mindsets within the TS community appears far easier -- following groundwork already laid by the likes of Campbell, Grosman et al., Kelly et al., Pokorn herself, and others -- than does changing the mindset of the professional community. As such, I feel that the orientation of Pokorn's challenge might have been better refocused from academic to professional circles.

This criticism may impinge on the study more generally -- in some ways the focus is overly theoretical in its reliance of applied linguistic notions of nativeness, to the neglect of messier real-life considerations. For example, one extremely important point that both Pokorn and much of the research she quotes fail to address is the relevance of L1 training in second- and third-level education to the development of mother tongue competence (and, concomitantly, L2 training on the part of the inverse translator, though this is a point to be developed elsewhere). If one were to pursue the implications of some of the loftier claims of those who believe that translation should only be into the L1, then it would stand to reason that absolutely every native speaker has the same literary potential as the greatest literary geniuses of their native literary culture. Yet practising English teachers will be quite ready to admit that not every student pursuing A-level English in England, for example, is a budding Shakespeare (or -- to even further emphasise the absurdity of this stance -- a budding Conrad, Nabokov, or any of the other non-native English users who have enriched the English literary canon). The wide range of abilities of such students in all cultures is itself testament to the fact that, put simply, some of us are better with language than others, just as some of us are better at maths, physics, geography, etc.

Yet even Pokorn herself makes statements which seem to challenge this, such as when she claims that adults approach learning a foreign language differently to children because of their ''...having a perfect knowledge of at least one language, their mother tongue...'' (15). Without even mentioning more anomalous examples such as language attrition (though language attrition is far from an anomaly for many L1 translators working in L2 environments) the mere fact of variable student performance on second-level language and literature courses puts paid to many of the myths of native-speaker authority, such as that of a 'perfect' knowledge.

While I would not wish to claim a close parallel between the two discussions, I can see discourse on this subject following a slightly similar path to that surrounding native speaker authority in L2 teaching. For example, many of us still recall the time, following the collapse of the Iron Curtain in the late 1980s and early '90s, when native Anglophones flocking to Eastern Europe to teach English could often claim a huge, and often largely unearned, authority within the educational establishment there, simple by dint of their authority in their native language. Sixteen years on, many involved in the TEFL industries in these countries now realise that native competence in a language is often no replacement for methodological competence as a language teacher. Of course the native translator debate is different to this in many ways, but one can see it oriented towards the same horses-for-courses conclusion (which is also Pokorn's conclusion): the best person for the job is the person who does the job best. Attempting to guess who this may be at the outset on the sole basis of mother tongue background is often as fallacious as it is presumptuous.

There are other shortcomings in Pokorn's study. While some presentation of Cankar's biographical and literary background is desirable, too much space is devoted to it, and, arguably, to the author's own analysis of his translations in general. More significantly, however, I had a problem with her decision that the texts to be analysed were to be literary. Pokorn defends herself on this point with the post-structuralist claim that traditional boundaries between fiction and non-fiction are blurred in twentieth-century literature and with the argument that '''literature' is a functional term and not an ontological one [...] which echoes Toury's definition of translations as texts presented or regarded as translations within the target culture'' (41). Nevertheless, the selected passages were all linguistically highly suggestive of their providence being fiction. Also in Pokorn's defence, one could add that her decision to choose Cankar (in spite of it probably having been born of necessity -- there are simply more translations of his works than of any other Slovene writer apparently, thus more easily facilitating comparison between multiple translations) is significant in another respect as well. Cankar is a writer with a highly distinctive literary style: he ''admitted that if having to choose between grammatical correctness and stylistic clarity and beauty, he would immediately opt for grammatical irregularity'' (52). Initially I was concerned that this would skew results of the experiment, with duplication of this grammatical irregularity in English being misinterpreted as non-native translation strategy. My fears in this respect ultimately proved unfounded -- far more relevant were the strategies of foreignisation and domestication adopted by individual translators.

Yet more worrying is the manner in which literature is a discourse which naturally privileges the native speaker in the first place in its common assumption of a native-speaker audience. (It could be argued, for example, that Pokorn's decision to replicate this receptive environment by using exclusively native-speaker subjects itself indirectly valorises native-speaker authority, just as the subjects are called on to valorise the translations in their assessments of their authorship.) Literary translation represents such a small and rarefied position within the translation industry that translators who work in this area are often highly exceptional themselves (linguistically, 'interculturally') in the first place. As such, whether one wishes to ''challenge the traditional axioms'' of TS (as Pokorn does), or of professional translation practice (as I want to), it would be more interesting to investigate the functionality of inverse translations of run- of-the-mill, non-literary texts. Better still, one could investigate, say, non-native technical texts which display language which is *obviously* that of an L2 translator, but which nonetheless function efficiently in their target cultures.

The kind of research I have in mind here dates as far back as 1978, when Karl-Johan Ahlsved published an excellent paper on why Finnish translators were better at translating Finnish forestry texts than non-Finns -- what one might lose on grammaticality, one would often gain in clarity, with Finnish translators being less inclined to introduce literary caprices or more idiomatic turns of phrase than might native English-speaking translators. Non-literary translation into English presumes a native-Anglophone readership to far less a degree than does literary translation. In this respect an interesting point has been noted by Gerard McAlester in his criticism of Christiana Nord's skopos-theory account of translation evaluation: ''it seems to equate adequacy with (near) perfection. [...] She does not indicate that there may be some level of adequacy that is acceptable without being complete'' (McAlester 233). Such considerations are not within the remit of Pokorn's study however, which is a shame as their power to legitimise inverse translation might well be greater than those of native assessments of inverse literary translation.

Yet, this is not to detract from the significance of Pokorn's study -- as only the second monograph in English devoted to this subject (to my knowledge), it is extremely significant and points the direction for much of the future research which needs to be conducted in this field. To end on a positive note, I found it interesting that at no point is it stated as to whether Pokorn herself is a 'native speaker' of English -- the brief biographical snippets which we can ascertain lead us to suppose that her first language is probably Slovene. If so (and making obvious allowances for the distinction between linguistic competence in writing and translation) the book itself stands as an eloquent testament to the abilities of non-native speakers working in their L2, presenting a prose style which never fails to be clear and engaging.


Ahlsved, Karl-Johan. (1978) ''Translating into the Translator's Non- Primary Language.'' Translating -- A Profession: Proceedings of the Eighth World Congress of the International Federation of Translators, ed. Paul A. Horguelin. Paris: FIT / Ottawa: Conseil des traducteurs et interprètes du Canada. 183-188.

Campbell, Stuart. (1998) Translation into the Second Language. New York: Addison Wesley Longman Ltd.

Durban, Chris. (2003) Translation, Getting it Right: A Guide to Buying Translations. Milton Keynes / London / Paris: Institute of Translation and Interpreting / The National Centre for Languages / Société Française des Traducteurs. Available online at

Grosman, Meta, Mira Kadric, Irena Kovacic, & Mary Snell-Hornby (eds.) (2000) Translation into Non-Mother Tongues: In Professional Practice and Training. Tübingen: Stauffenberg.

Kearns, John. (in press) ''Translate and Be Damned! Professional Recognition for Translators Working into Their Non-Native Languages.'' Warsztaty Translatorskie V / Workshop in Translation 5. Lublin / Ottawa: Towarzystwo Naukowe Katolickiego Uniwersytetu Lubelskiego, Lublin / Slavic Research Group, University of Ottawa.

Kelly, Dorothy, Anne Martin, Marie-Luise Nobs, Dolores Sanchez, Catherine Way (eds). (2003) La direccionalidad en traducción e interpretación. Perspectivas teoréticas, profesionales y didacticas. Granada: Atrio.

McAlester, Gerard. (2000) ''The Evaluation of Translation into a Foreign Language.'' Developing Translation Competence, ed. Christina Schäffner and Beverly Adab. Amsterdam / Philadelphia: John Benjamins. 229-241.

Tirkkonen-Condit, Sonja. (2002) ''Translationese -- A Myth or an Empirical Fact? A Study into the Linguistic Identifiability of Translated Language.'' Target, 14:2, 2002. 207-220.


John Kearns studied at the Universities of Kent and Manchester in England and subsequently worked for several years as a translator and translator trainer in Poland. He is currently researching curriculum design for translator training in the context of the Bologna Process and divides his time between Ireland and Poland. He is on the committee of the Irish Translators' and Interpreters' Association (ITIA), and editor of a forthcoming ITIA publication on translator and interpreter training. He also edits the quarterly Bulletin for the International Association of Translation and Intercultural Studies ( Currently he is also developing a bibliography of Polish translation studies, in association with St. Jerome Press in Manchester and UJ and APK in Kraków, Poland.