LINGUIST List 21.2648

Sat Jun 19 2010

Review: Applied Linguistics; Linguistic Theories; Translation: Pym (2009)

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        1.    Jonathan Downie, Exploring Translation Theories

Message 1: Exploring Translation Theories
Date: 19-Jun-2010
From: Jonathan Downie <>
Subject: Exploring Translation Theories
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AUTHOR: Anthony PymTITLE: Exploring Translation TheoriesPUBLISHER: 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 themain trajectories of translation theory from the traditional, equivalence-basedapproaches to the currently fashionable perspectives on ''cultural translation''.With the inclusion of ''Suggested projects and activities'' at the end of eachchapter, a 12-page bibliography and a subject and author index, this book willserve well as a university textbook, a guide for self-study or even astraightforward introduction to the field.

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

The second chapter covers the paradigm of ''natural equivalence,'' in which itemsin 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 thatlanguages were so inherently different that translation must be impossible (p.10). In the natural equivalence paradigm, there was instead a belief in alinguistically neutral element of comparison, which meant that the sense of atext was expressible in any language, deftly leapfrogging the barriers erectedby structuralism.

As the author states in the ''Frequently Had Arguments'' section, this paradigm isnot without its faults. Translation theorists have attacked it from a variety ofangles, ranging from questions about its assumption that all translations can bepresented as natural to criticisms of the supposed imperialism of presentingforeign ideologies as natural to the target culture (p. 21). To this he addsreservations about the utility of such theories for texts that are not stableentities such as websites and product documentation, where it is not clear whatthe 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 directionsbetween one language and another. Instead, equivalence is seen as an illusion,which can be created on different levels and using different types ofequivalence (p. 30, 37). Here we enter into the well-trodden territory of theclassic dichotomies of translation, from foreignisation vs. domestication inSchleiermacher 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 basisof much debate in Bible translation (Downie 2009: 25).

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

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

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

Many of the criticisms of these paradigms have therefore been linked to thismove away from the assumption that the source text alone is the foundation fortranslation decisions. Thus we have the assertion that translators translatewords, not purposes (p. 58) and the view that such theories contradict theprinciples 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. Scholarsof 'skopostheorie' will therefore wonder why the principle of loyalty (see Nord[1997] 2007), one of the main attempts to resolve this problem, is relegated toa single paragraph. While the author obviously feels that this addition is notenough to resolve the ethical questions involved in 'skopostheorie' (p. 165), itis unfair to reduce this attempt to confront the issue to a passing reference.

In the fifth chapter, we are introduced to another paradigm that sidestepsethical issues, namely the Descriptive paradigms, whose aim is to describe thenature and features of translations. The starting point for this paradigm is thepoint where equivalence-based paradigms end: the view that equivalence is anassumed feature of all translations (p. 64). One possibility then is to describeequivalence in terms of the differences between target texts and source texts.Analysis can either start from smaller units, such as words and phrases, andwork upwards to describe the translation as a whole (p. 67) or it can begin fromthe position of translations in culture and a few hypotheses about why shiftsmay 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 typicalor socially expected ways to translate, here called ''norms'' (pp. 73-76). Wherethese norms are specific to translation, they may in turn be assumed to beuniversals (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 inthis approach. Of these, the circular logic behind the descriptivist positionthat the definition of a translation is whatever is assumed to be a translation(p. 76) has presented rich pickings for critics. Similarly, others have accuseddescriptivists of avoiding issues related to the role of observer and theobserver's culture in the description of translations (p. 85).

While the importance of the role of the observer presents a challenge to theassumed objectivity of the descriptivist paradigm, it provides the basis of the''uncertainty'' paradigm, which is the focus of chapter 6. This chapter alternatesbetween historical summaries of the reasons behind uncertainty and theirapplication to linguistics and translation. Theories of uncertainty argue thatit is impossible to be sure about the meaning of a text and there are thereforeirresolvable questions over how to translate it (p. 90). However, if we musttranslate, there is a need for theories of how to live with indeterminacy and agood number of these are covered in this chapter. The common thread runningthrough all of them is the use of ideas from fields outside translation studiesand linguistics to help guide us through the issues involved, even though theycannot offer a final solution.

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

It is a relief then that chapter 7 leaves behind such philosophical ruminationsand returns to more practical considerations. This chapter examines the''localisation'' paradigm, which has become prominent due to the spread ofinformation technology and the internet. The foundational principle oflocalisation is that stable artificial linguistic and cultural parameters - suchas how to handle dates, times and currencies - can be created as guidelines forthe preparation of a product for use in a given target locale, here defined as astable 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 singlesource text to a single target text, localisation is a two-step process startingwith an original text, which is adapted to become an internationalised version,which is in turn localised into many different locales. This allows informationto be made available in a number of different formats in a much more efficientway than was previously possible. Most of the rest of the chapter is dedicatedto the technologies that help make localisation more efficient and the place oftranslation and translation theory within the localisation paradigm.

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

In the final full chapter, we return to more philosophical concerns with adiscussion of ''cultural translation.'' The name itself is slightly misleading astheories in the cultural translation paradigm are not centred on translation inthe 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 theoriesget. In place of a settled definition, we have an interest in the translator asa metaphor for people who live as cultural hybrids and a borrowing of''untranslatability'' as a refusal to fully integrate into a single society (p.145).

As nebulous as these ideas might seem, they have found a home in translationstudies. Their emphasis on culture has inspired a call for a ''cultural turn'' (p.149) whereby the field would concentrate on the cultural effects of translationsor on an analysis of the cultural variables at work in translations. Alongsimilar lines, scholars such as Even-Zohar (1990: 74) have argued thattranslation studies itself must become a study of cultural transfer in a moregeneral sense. It is this wider focus of translation studies that is examined inmuch of this chapter, with special emphasis given to the political potential ofsuch 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 andcross-cultural movement is ''translation'' then translation as textual transfer isat risk of becoming of marginal interest in its own field. In this sense, ratherthan the ''cultural turn'' acting as a catalyst for a greater awareness of theplace of culture in translation, an overemphasis on cultural systems at theexpense of translation itself calls into question the uniqueness of theperspective offered by translation studies as a field.

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


In conclusion, most readers will agree with the author when he asserts that nosingle paradigm can claim to have all the answers and that all of them haveimportant things to say (p. 165). While the book may have been designed forclassroom use, there is no reason why it cannot be used for personal study or asan introduction to the field. The only disappointment is that theories that havearisen from the sub-field of interpreting studies are rarely mentioned. Eventhough the theories presented can be applied to interpreting, the book itselftends to concentrate on written translation rather than Translation Studies as awhole. Any disappointment from this is offset however, by the generous amount ofsupporting material, including video presentations, available on the author'swebsite []. There is alsoa 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? Aprofessional 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'' inBoulogne, Pieter (ed.). Translation and Its Others. Selected Papers of the CETRAResearch 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.

Page Updated: 19-Jun-2010