LINGUIST List 24.2655

Mon Jul 01 2013

Review: Translation: Toury (2012)

Editor for this issue: Joseph Salmons <>

Date: 15-May-2013
From: Jonathan Downie <>
Subject: Descriptive Translation Studies – and beyond
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Book announced at

AUTHOR: Gideon TouryTITLE: Descriptive Translation Studies – and beyondSUBTITLE: Revised editionSERIES TITLE: Benjamins Translation Library 100PUBLISHER: John BenjaminsYEAR: 2012

REVIEWER: Jonathan Downie, Heriot Watt University

SUMMARYFor anyone entering into Translation Studies, especially those looking atwritten translation as opposed to interpreting, this revised edition of GideonToury’s book will be a foundational, though by no means fault-free, textbook.It describes the basic tenets, principles and methods used in DescriptiveTranslation Studies (DTS) and shows how these can be applied to the study ofwritten translation. It is, however, a great pity that this book shies awayfrom anything more than a fleeting (or even dismissive) engagement withcriticisms of DTS.

Much of the book’s value lies in its thorough and detailed treatment of thefundamental principles of DTS. This begins in part one, which locates DTS onHolmes’ (1988) conceptual map of Translation Studies as a scientific fieldbetween the theoretical and applied branches. This placement will prove vitalthroughout the book, as Toury asserts repeatedly that research in DTS shouldnot be done with the immediate goal of making changes in practice or societyat large (pp. 11-13, 20ff.) but later acknowledges that in two specific casesDTS 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 ofDTS 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 asartefacts of the target or receiving culture, rather than beginning with thesource text (p. 18). Thus, in DTS, the choices made by the translator areaffected much more by the intended place of their translation in its receivingculture 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 widelydiscussed. Norms, socially sanctioned regularities of behaviour (p. 63), arearguably the most crucial contribution of DTS to Translation Studies as awhole. They also form the methodological foundation for Toury’s case studies.It is no surprise then that three chapters -- 4, 6 and 7 -- cover themethodological 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 awayfrom norms to more general methodological concepts and approaches that can beused in DTS. It is in this chapter that Toury most ably bridges the possiblegap 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 atranslation 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 onHebrew poetry -- to studies treating the translation processes of a singletranslator, in chapter 12. Chapters 13 and 14, as well as the chapter labelled“Excursus C” stand a little outside the rest, with their emphasis ontranslation-specific lexical items, experimentation in Translation Studies andthe development of bilinguals into “socio-culturally significanttranslator[s]” (p. 277) respectively. This is a shift that will be examinedlater in this review.

The last part, Part Four, Toury moves from DTS proper to a discussion of whathe terms “laws of translation behaviour” (p. 295). These laws are expected todescribe and predict translational behaviour, taking into account theconstraints and circumstances that might affect it (p. 302). Thus, rather thanbeing strict dictums of the kind “if X happens then Y will happen” they areprobabilistic, describing translational behaviour in the terms “if X then thegreater/lesser likelihood that Y” where Y is an observed behaviour and X aconstraint or factor (p. 301). Toury illustrates with two possible laws. Thisfirst is the “law of growing standardisation”, which states that “intranslation, textual relations obtaining in the original are often modified,sometimes to the point of being totally ignored, in favour of habitual optionsoffered by a target repertoire” (p. 204). The second is the law ofinterference, which states that “phenomena pertaining to the make-up of thesource text tend to force themselves on the translators and be transferred inthe target text” (p. 310). Both these laws are described in detail and theapplications explored.

EVALUATIONA 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 ofTranslation Studies, Brownlie 2009, pp.77-81). However, there are places whereissues with DTS as a paradigm and with this book as an independent entitycoincide. As the SUMMARY section suggests, one of these is in the treatment ofcriticisms of the approach.

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

It is unsurprising then that the book in many places reflects an overlyoptimistic attitude to DTS. Toury is quite happy to accept that the outcome ofpublic discussions over the application of the idea of norms to interpretingwas favourable (p. 81 on Shlesinger 1989 and Harris 1990) despite the factthat even a casual reader of these papers would be hard pressed to come tothis conclusion. The norms suggested by Harris (1990) actually represent thekind of “normative pronouncements” (p. 88) that Toury discourages researchersfrom taking at face value. That some of these same norms have already beenshown by Diriker (2004, pp. 81-130) to have a problematic relationship withthe actual practice of interpreters is evidence that the discussion is notnearly 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 hocfrom childhood (pp. 277-294). It is difficult to avoid the conclusion that thereason 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 translatorsare moving from ad hoc to professional translation) is that the very notion ofa “native translator” problematizes one of the foundational principles of DTS,it’s “target-orientedness”. After all, unless it is assumed that each languagein the bilingual household represents a separate culture then during the adhoc translation phase, native translators would be translating within andbetween different languages within the same culture.

The challenge that both native translators and much professional practiceposes to Toury’s explanation of why translations are performed in the firstplace is even greater. In Toury’s view, cultures resort to translation as away of “filling in gaps” (pp. 21-22) in the target culture that do not existin the source culture in question. Again, the experience and performance ofnative 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 ofliterary translation -- Toury’s focus -- it is difficult to see how Toury’sargument holds at all. Instead, the more commercial and goal-focussed viewexpressed by Vermeer (1996) and other skopos theorists who argue that alltranslation is commissioned by people for a given purpose, would seem moreprobable. The emphasis would then shifts from what cultures are trying to dotowards what people are trying to do, even if the latter might involve suchcomparatively low status and small-scale activities as selling products orpublishing research.

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

Yet, it could and perhaps should be claimed that such criticisms may beunfair. Nowhere in the book does Toury ever claim that DTS is the only or eventhe most useful approach to analysing translation. In fact, by placing DTSbetween translation theory and applied extensions to translation studies,Toury encourages readers to see DTS as one of a number of approaches totranslation. The book therefore deserves to be read first and foremost as anaccount 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’squestionable claim that it is possible and even vital to study translationwithout changing practice (see his own counter case above), the contributionof DTS in general and this book in particular, in providing empirical data ontranslation and in encouraging the formulation predictive hypotheses oftranslator behaviour is highly laudable. No matter how open some of the claimshe makes may be to criticism, and no matter how disappointing it may be thatToury has not taken this opportunity to deal fairly and thoroughly with someof the criticisms that have emerged, this book remains the best account of theconceptual principles of DTS and the finest account of its methodologicalprinciples. As Brownlie (2009, p. 81) observes, despite its flaws, DTS remainsthe dominant approach in Translation Studies; this book remains the bestintroductory textbook and illustrative guide to this approach.

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

REFERENCESBrownlie, S., 2009. Descriptive vs. Committed Approaches. In Baker, M. andSaldanha, G., Routledge Encyclopedia of Translation Studies. London & NewYork: Routledge, pp. 77--81.

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

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

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

Pym, A., Shlesinger, M. & Jettmarová, Z., 2006. Sociocultural aspects oftranslating 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 TranslationStudies, 1(2), pp. 111--115.

Vermeer, H.J., 1996. A skopos theory of translation: (some arguments for andagainst), Heidelberg, TextconText Verlag.

ABOUT THE REVIEWERJonathan Downie is a PhD student at Heriot-Watt University, studying clientexpectations of conference interpreters. Aside from research, he is also aconference interpreter, public speaker, and co-editor of the LifeinLINCS blogfor the Languages and Intercultural Studies department at Heriot-WattUniversity.

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