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Review of  The Pragmatic Translator

Reviewer: Elena Gheorghita
Book Title: The Pragmatic Translator
Book Author: Massimiliano Morini
Publisher: Bloomsbury Publishing (formerly The Continuum International Publishing Group)
Linguistic Field(s): Pragmatics
Issue Number: 25.667

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‘The Pragmatic Translator’ was conceived for a quite unfashionable purpose in the age of case studies: it aims to provide a general, deductive theory of translation, based on the observation of a large number of processes and products of translation (in Italian and English). It will be of particular interest to academics and postgraduates researching in translation studies and related fields, as well as to advanced students studying translation and interpreting modules.

Chapter I re-reads the key theories from which the author’s study stems. It briefly discusses the birth of translation studies as a discipline and presents the theory of the three functions of translation: performative, interpersonal and locative. Chapter II treats functional theories and accounts of specialized translation. The performative function of translation is examined in the context of literary and specialized translation. Chapter III revisits commonly held scholarly views on the translation of poetry. Poetic translation is discussed in performative terms. Most of Chapters IV and V, centred on the interpersonal function of translation, is dedicated to the analysis of English classics in Italian translation and vice versa. Both prose and poetry are addressed. Chapter IV is a review of so-called ‘translator-centred’ approaches, from Lawrence Venuti’s works to more recent collections of essays on the translator as writer. Chapter V discusses ethnographic theories of translation, as well as a number of studies on canonicity and translation. Chapter VI picks up on the effects of geographical, historical and even intertextual distance in translation, from Ezra Pound to James S. Holmes and André Lefevere. It studies what happens to the locative function of texts in the translation of non-standard writings. Chapter VII briefly discusses the critical literature on constrained translation, audiovisual translation and the translation of comics, briefly touching upon aspects of translating humour. In particular, it deals with the locative transfer of humour in cases of audiovisual translation and in the translation of comics.

Morini has accomplished a very difficult task: he explains difficult theoretical issues in extremely clear and lucid language, providing plenty of relevant microlinguistic examples in Italian and English. The theory developed in this book will help translation trainers not only to explain to their students that all translation is essentially manipulation, but also to set more or less clear limits on these manipulations and provide theoretical background for those limits. Thus, after reading this book, trainees as well as researchers will be less prone to fall back on old tricks and habits whenever they get in a situation that is not quite straightforward, as they will learn about the translation act and translation process rather than existing translations or interactions between translation and culture.

The book is quite successful at gauging the unfortunate gap between translation theory and practice. Practitioners are often too busy to write books and if they do, they often produce collections of empirically-based practical advice for fellow translators and translation trainees, leaving theory aside. This does not happen because they find theory useless. The reason is more pragmatic: translation theory is frequently helpless when it comes to making a decision concerning the choice of equivalent, for example.

What makes Morini’s book stand out from previous research is the fact that it aims to formulate a general pragmatic theory of translation and this goal was certainly achieved successfully. The word ‘theory’ here is used in its etymological sense of ‘observation’ and defined as deductive rather than inductive. More than two decades have passed since the last similar attempt was made in Mary Snell-Hornby’s ‘Translation Studies’ (1988). The theory proposed in ‘The Pragmatic Translator’ is itself linguistic, but takes into consideration the momentous changes which have occurred in linguistics since the 1970s. This material is covered in a sufficiently detailed manner in Chapter I.

Previous translation theories have described things that are external to the process of translation. They were theories of ‘translations’ rather than of 'translation’ or ‘translating’. Morini’s pragmatic theory may truly be called ‘integral’ as it aspires to reconcile existing theories instead of trying to disprove or supplant them, which is very welcome. A theory is good if it meets two requirements. It must accurately describe a large class of observations on the basis of a model that contains only a few arbitrary elements, and it must make definite predictions about the results of future observations. Morini's theory is good as it is based on observation of vast array of translation processes and products. It is a step towards a single theory that would describe both the process and the product of translation. Morini’s theory will provide a good framework for observation of translation processes and products. It presents translation as something done to the text in space and time and involving people. Again, this may seem obvious, but looking at translation along these three axes simultaneously indeed amounts to a small revolution, if not yet a paradigm shift.

‘The Pragmatic Translator’ is not organized as a handbook, certainly, but it can be read as a critical survey of translation theory. Throughout the book, theory and practice mix quite naturally and easily. This ease may give rise to the impression that his approach is just another rather obvious, neutral and probably not very useful way of looking at translation. That would of course be wrong. First, many scientific discoveries provided humankind with an obvious way to look at things. Second, the author’s pragmatic view of observing translation will be very useful to both practicing translators and translator trainers as it is based on observations of a large number of processes and products. The author has practical experience in translation and has interacted with other representatives of the profession, which definitely adds value to the ideas set forth and the conclusions drawn.

Oftentimes both translators and translator trainers continue to apply the old tricks and ‘rules’ which so frequently have nothing to do with recent developments in translation theory. The pragmatic theory proposed in ‘The Pragmatic Translator’ will provide a necessary theoretical matrix that starts from the acceptance that translation is manipulation (i.e., has a performative function) and describes many ways in which that manipulation may be exercised in translation of poetry, constrained translation, audiovisual translation and the translation of comics et al. Theoreticians of translation, after reading this book, will have an up-to-date definition of translation practice provided by a practitioner, which is valuable, giving them a more realistic picture of not only translation as product, but also translation as process.

Morini is far from the view that translation is mere rewriting of an original text in another language. He brings up a very sensitive issue for both translation practitioners and theoreticians: all or almost all available up-to-date translation theory is about existing translations or the intersection between translation and culture (typical of Eastern European schools of translation theory) and very little about the translation process itself, its nature and key elements. Thus, even when translation trainees and researchers know the works of Bassnett, Lefevere and others, they still do not apply their insights to practice and tend to follow older descriptions of the craft when they do their job, i.e. translate. Moreover, many retain the vague idea that ‘faithfulness’ or ‘closeness’ in lexicon, syntax, metaphors and so on is a desirable quality of their work, which, along with insufficient linguistic skill both in the native and foreign language, may truly be the scourge of all translator training courses.

Morini accepts that all translation is manipulation, and looks at this manipulation from a translator’s point of view. His theory tries to define various kinds of manipulations which are possible or necessary in a certain textual situation, as well as their effects on the performative, interpersonal and locative functions of the translated text. By doing so, the theory proposed in ‘The Pragmatic Translator’ makes explicit many things that have been vaguely defined in translation practice. For example, translators often work with incomplete and somewhat misleading concepts like text-type or genre. By seeing each text as performing an act they will be able to consider more of the aspects of what a text does or should do. The proposed theory will also give the translators a sense of their own position as secondary authors as well as of the personal voices inscribed in the source text. They may have a number of techniques at their disposal for translating dialectal or historical variations of source language, but the pragmatic theory will enable them to consider the options of maximizing the interpersonal and performative value of texts.

To sum up, the integrated theory outlined in the book has the advantage of being practically applicable and theoretically valuable, because it is descriptive and open-ended in nature. Just like descriptive translation studies, the theory looks at the product and process of translation as it is and not as it should be. The theory finally makes it loud and clear that there is no stable connection between a given translation problem and its solution (which obviously does not mean that there is no connection at all, it is the nature of the connection that is to be seen in a different manner). There is great potential for similar studies, both empirical and theoretical, micro- and macro-linguistic.

Snell-Hornby, Mary 1988. Translation Studies: An Integrated Approach. Amsterdam: John Benjamins.

Holmes, James S. 1972/88. The name and nature of translation studies, in ‘Translated! Papers on Literary Translation and Translation Studies’. Amsterdam: Rodopi, pp. 67-80.
Elena Gheorghita is a post-doctoral researcher at State University of Moldova and a practicing conference interpreter, collaborating with many international organizations present in her home country, the Republic of Moldova. Among her research interests are: translation studies, research methodology, cognitive and pragmatic aspects of translation. She is a member of Scientific Committee of Lumen Publishing House, Romania, and of academic journals both in her home country and abroad. She is also running an MA student research group “The Craft of Language”, working on stylistic, pragmatic and cognitive aspects of translation.

Format: Hardback
ISBN: 1441151303
ISBN-13: 9781441151308
Pages: 208
Prices: U.K. £ 75.00