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Review of  Exploring Translation Theories

Reviewer: Diana Gorman Jamrozik
Book Title: Exploring Translation Theories
Book Author: Anthony Pym
Publisher: Routledge (Taylor and Francis)
Linguistic Field(s): Translation
Issue Number: 25.5114

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Review's Editor: Helen Aristar-Dry


“Exploring translation theories, Second edition” by Anthony Pym is a thought provoking book on prevailing paradigms of Western translation theories. Each chapter is clearly laid out with an opening summary, a bulleted list of the chapter’s key points, a section in which key terms are defined if necessary, and a segment that offers supporting and opposing arguments about the chapter’s theories. Additionally, each chapter contains a closing summary and a list of suggested activities that relate to the chapter’s paradigm, making it an ideal addition to an advanced course on translation.

In the first chapter, “What is translation theory?”, Pym discusses the development of translation theories. Should a translator be confronted with a problematic text, the translator must formulate various possible translations and then choose the one that best fits the situation. What solutions are possible? How does the translator judge what is the best solution? The answers to these questions are informed by a theory of translation. Similarly themed perspectives on translation are presented together as “paradigms”. Pym emphasizes that while the book is arranged somewhat chronologically, more recent theories do not necessarily supersede older ones. The author concludes this chapter by chastising translation education programs for often separating theoretical study from hands on practice; rather he is in favor of theoretical formulations and discussions springing from practice (1.5).

Chapters 2 and 3 both deal with theories of equivalence, albeit from different perspectives. Pym notes that the equivalence movement of translation arose in response to the ideas of structural linguistics, which believed that language reflects worldview, and therefore an equivalent translation between two languages and world-views is not a realistic end (2.2). Chapter 2, “Natural equivalence”, examines the view that equal values of expressions between languages can and do occur, and therefore a start text (ST) and a target text (TT) can be equivalent. The ST can be translated into the TT and back again into the ST language without losing either the form or the function of the ST. Pym cites various theorists who have determined levels of equivalence, and offers a useful chart adapted from the work of Muñoz Martín (1988) comparing “translation solution types” by the theorists Vinay and Darbelnet, Ayora, and Malone (2.3). Among the arguments against natural equivalence listed is that “new” information (e.g. technological terms) will not have naturally occurring equal structures in all languages (2.7). Several of Pym’s suggested activities reinforce this notion on a practical level. The author notes that equivalence theories have fallen out of favor in many circles, though in Chapter 7 he argues that they are still quite relevant today because of localization.

Natural equivalence is contrasted with “Directional equivalence” in Chapter 3. Whereas natural equivalence theories purport bi-directional equivalence between languages, the directional equivalence paradigm contends that translating a ST into a TT is a one way street. These theories claim that a back translation from that TT into the ST language would not create a text that is the same as the original ST (3.3). He states that in these theories, “naturalness is certainly an illusion” (p. 30). The theories of Kade (3.2) and Gutt (3.6) are given relatively lengthy discussions in this chapter. Additionally, scholars whose views fall under this paradigm, such as Schleirmacher, Nida, and Levy, often offer just two dichotomies of equivalence from which a translator can choose (3.4). This dyadic view is listed as a criticism of directional equivalence in the “Frequently had arguments” section, and some of the suggested projects ask students to work through and compare translations based on the theorists’ views.

The theories presented in the fourth chapter, “Purposes”, shift their perspective from focusing on the purpose of the start text to that of the target text. The central idea of this paradigm is that translations are done to achieve a specific purpose. Therefore one text could be translated in different ways depending on the intended function of the text in the target culture. While equivalence might be achieved in special circumstances, it is not the goal. These theories have been labeled “functionalist”, however Pym suggests that translation theories under the descriptive paradigm in Chapter 5 could be categorized as functionalist as well (p. 48). The author provides an historical overview of theorists who work under the “purposes” paradigm, including Reiss and Vermeer and the “Skopos” theory (4.2), Holz-Mänttäri’s work based on “action theory” ( 4.3), and Gouadec’s concept of “job specifications” (4.8). Most of the theorists under this paradigm argue that the translator should be given instructions regarding the purpose of the translation to guide the translation process. Several of the “Frequently had arguments” for this paradigm relate to the theories’ emphasis on the target culture’s purpose rather than the original reason for the ST. Additionally, other theorists take issue with the decision making power of the translator and clients in this paradigm. The suggested activities walk students through various activities to show how one text could be translated differently depending on the purpose of the translation.

In Chapter 5, “Descriptions”, the theories take a different view of equivalence, in which equivalence is not a distinctive feature, but rather is found in “all translations” (p. 63). The theories under this paradigm were based on scientific inquiry, which set out to objectively describe features of translations and what translators actually do, versus proposing what translators should do when translating. Pym’s website,, has an expanded version of this chapter which details the history of the paradigm’s development beginning with the Russian formalists in late 19th and early 20th centuries. This history culminates with Toury’s (1995) work, “Descriptive translation studies”, which is based on literary translation. This theory has a TT focus, and sees the TT as an artifact of the target culture; this claim is noted to be a source of contention among translation theorists of other paradigms (5.4, 5.9). Differences in STs and TTs are referred to as shifts, and can be analyzed by either a bottom-up or a top-down approach (5.2). In this chapter, Pym references the work of Holmes, Even-Zohar, and Chesterman, among others. These theories seem to be more research based than the theories in other paradigms. Research on translation done by descriptive theorists shows patterns (often called “norms” (5.3) or “universals” (5.6)) that translations tend to follow. While Pym argues that, “these theories were out of touch with the growing number of training institutions” (p. 63), the study of these patterns can be highly beneficial to translation students, with the understanding that norms are culturally based. The activities section requires students to delve into some interesting literary translation issues.

The title of Chapter 6, “Uncertainty”, describes two different categories of translation theories – those that claim there is uncertainty over translation accuracy because one text can have multiple viewpoints and therefore multiple translations, and those that claim there is uncertainty in communication in general because the meanings of all words and texts are subjective. As an illustration, Quine’s (1958) classic hypothetical example of a linguist attempting to discern whether the word “gavangai” means simply “rabbit” or if it has a different or more nuanced meaning is given (6.2.4). The works of numerous philosophers (including Plato, Locke, and Heidegger) are briefly mentioned, and while these thinkers are not discussing translation itself, Pym makes connections between their theories and translation theory. Because the concept of uncertainty questions meaning, and therefore the translation process as a whole, the author provides ways that translators can work around uncertainties, including applying the ideas of hermeneutics (6.4.3) and non-linear logic (6.4.6). This chapter also discusses deconstruction, or the pulling apart of language in order to decipher meaning, and its application to the translation process, particularly by Arrojo (1977) (6.5). The “Frequently had arguments” section mentions that the theories in this chapter may not seem applicable to working translators, and I admit that the philosophies presented, while making for an interesting discussion in a translation class, are not necessarily practical. In fact, they may make students question the meaning of everything, and therefore stymie the translation process. However, the activities section offers a few practical activities (ones that easily could be applied to the other paradigms as well), and in keeping with the philosophical nature of the chapter, contains mostly questions for critical application and discussion.

Chapter 7, “Localization”, deals with the translation of a text into multiple languages, with the purpose of marketing a product to a local area or adapting a product’s operating language for local use. Rather than a direct ST to TT process, localization adds a third step. A ST is converted to an internationalized text, and that version is then translated into multiple TT languages (7.3). Types of texts subject to localization are software, websites, or mass market books intended for global audiences. This process of “globalization” of a text happens even before a translator is involved, and the translation process is but a small part of the entire product development. Equivalence between the function of the ST and TT comes into play again, as the end users of a website or software must be able to interact with the product in the same way as those in the original ST language (7.5). A translator may only see extracted segments of the internationalized text to translate, rather than an entire ST (7.6). Pym notes that because translation through localization is not bi-directional, and sometimes results in a partial translation of texts, there are ethical issues to be considered in terms of equal accessibility to information (7.8). Very few theorists (of translation or any other discipline) are mentioned in this chapter other than Pym (2004) himself. The suggested activities offer an entertaining view of translation via exploring international websites.

The final chapter, “Cultural translation”, takes a broad view of the term translation. In this paradigm, the idea of translation transcends actual texts; rather, it implies the intersection of cultures. Pym discusses Bhabha’s (1994) ideas on cultural translation and the idea of a hybridity that lies between cultures (8.2). The theories under this paradigm tend to focus more on a translator’s ability to bridge cultures than on text translation itself. As with Chapter 6, few actual translation theorists are mentioned, notably Jakobson (8.3.2), Evens-Zohar (8.3.3), and Spivak’s (2007) work that connects psychoanalysis with translation (8.6). Other theories mentioned come from the fields of social anthropology and ethnography, which Pym then applies to translation. One critique in the “Frequently had arguments” section is that cultural translation is outside the realm of translation theory. However, this paradigm may be of more use to interpreters, who mediate communication between people of different cultures in real time. The immediacy of live interaction makes cultural differences transparent, and these differences must be negotiated through cultural translation. The activities for this chapter tend to require more cultural and ethnographic reflection than practical translation work.


As an advanced course book, “Exploring translation theories” offers an interesting perspective on equivalence that translation students need to consider for their practical work. It is far too advanced to be an introductory book for an undergraduate course, as its cursory overview of translation paradigms assumes prior knowledge of the translation theories and theorists presented. However, the “Suggested projects and activities” sections at the end of each chapter are a welcome addition to any translation classroom. The activities are fun and informative, as they will challenge students to think through the different paradigms on a practical level. Pym is correct in his suggestion that the activities be completed at the beginning of class and then used as a springboard for discussion about the various paradigms. Students will benefit from the practical application, and from that application will be able to construct their own view of the translation theories.

As a working interpreter, I found the few mentions of interpreting theorists (such as Seleskovich, Breslin, and Pöchhacker) to be welcome gems of information. As Pym (2011) himself has argued that interpreting is translation, I would have liked more connections between the theories from these two highly related fields. In fact, Pöchhacker’s (2004) “Introducing interpreting studies” has a chapter entitled “Paradigms”, so a comparison of these theories would be interesting. However, as “Exploring translation theories” is focused on translation theory only, this is a minor point.

Overall, I highly recommend Anthony Pym’s “Exploring translation theories, Second edition” for advanced students, and encourage all translation teachers to explore the “Suggested projects and activities” sections for use in their classrooms.


Bhabha, Homi K. 1994. The location of culture. London and New York: Routledge.

Gouadec, Daniel. 2007. Translation as a profession. Amsterdam: John Benjamins Publishing.

Holz-Mänttäri, Justa. 1984. Translatorisches handeln: Theorie und methode. Helsinki: Suomalainen tiedeakatemia.

Muñoz Martín, Ricardo. 2000. Translation strategies: somewhere over the rainbow. In Beeby, Allison, Ensinger, Doris, and Presas, Marisa, (eds.), Investigating translation. Amsterdam: John Benjamins. p. 129-138.)

Pöchhacker, Franz. 2004. Introducing interpreting studies. London and New York: Routledge.

Pym, Anthony. 2004. The moving text: localization, translation, and distribution. Amsterdam: John Benjamins Publishing.

Pym, Anthony. 2011. Interpreting is translation. Lecture at the Monterey Institute of International Studies. Accessible at:

Pym, Anthony. 2014. Exploring translation theories website.

Quine, Willard Van Orman. 1960. Word and object. Cambridge: MIT press.

Reiss, Katharina, and Hans J. Vermeer. 2014. Towards a general theory of translational action: Skopos theory explained. London and New York: Routledge.

Spivak, Gayatri Chakravorty. 2007. Translation as culture. In Paul St-Pierre and Prafulla C. Kar (eds.), In translation – Reflections, refractions, transformations. Amsterdam: John Benjamins Publishing.

Toury, Gideon. 1995. Descriptive Translation Studies. Amsterdam: John Benjamins Publishing.
Diana Gorman Jamrozik is an Associate Professor of ASL-English Interpretation at Columbia College Chicago, where she teaches upper level undergraduate translation and interpretation courses. A nationally certified American Sign Language (ASL) interpreter, she holds an MA (1998) in Interpretation from Gallaudet University, and an MA (2013) in Linguistics from Northeastern Illinois University. Diana’s research interests include translation processes, turn-taking in ASL, and fingerspelled word recognition.

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ISBN-13: 9780415837910
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ISBN-13: 9780415837897
Pages: 178
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