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Review of  Translation Theories Exemplified from Cicero to Pierre Bourdieu

Reviewer: Jonathan Samuel Fleck
Book Title: Translation Theories Exemplified from Cicero to Pierre Bourdieu
Book Author: Ali Almanna
Publisher: Lincom GmbH
Linguistic Field(s): Translation
Subject Language(s): Arabic, Standard
Issue Number: 26.397

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Review's Editor: Helen Aristar-Dry


Translation Studies has been developing as an autonomous field since the 1970s. Researchers generally separate scholarly critique (translation theory) from applied techniques (translation practice). Translation Theories Exemplified from Cicero to Pierre Bourdieu reverses this trend, explicitly linking theory to practice. The author means to bridge the divide by providing concrete examples of Arabic-to-English and English-to-Arabic translations for the concepts in question. Even when introducing a wide range of concepts, the chapters emphasize examples and exercises more than lengthy explications. In general, the book is primarily meant as a course book for an undergraduate or graduate level seminar on translation.

Besides accompanying a university seminar, the monograph will also be of some interest as a theoretical text that explicates previous literature in the field. Seminal works are reviewed and summarized, although readers seeking a rigorous source for the purposes of new scholarship will need to supplement the explanations found in Translation Theories Exemplified. The breadth of scholarship covered precludes extended discussions of any single theorist. Readers can refer to the “Further Readings” sections and rich bibliography to locate additional sources (see especially Bassnett 2002; Lefevere 1992; and Venuti 2004).

The book begins by surveying key interventions in the history of thought on translation as it has evolved into a contemporary analytic paradigm of analysis. Following the section on historical precursors, the remaining seven chapters focus on particular theoretical approaches, as well as practical critiques of existing translations. Each Chapter begins with a list of Key Concepts to be broached. There are “Further Reading” and “Exercises” Sections at the ends of chapters and of some sub-sections.

Knowledge of Arabic will allow readers to learn the most from Translation Theories Exemplified, since every example involves Arabic. Even so, the book can benefit those without knowledge of Arabic, since the author provides ‘back-translations’ for many of his examples. In these examples, the original English text is provided, and then the relevant Arabic translation or translations appear, followed by a back-translation, or a literal re-rendering of the Arabic into English. For examples that do not include a back-translation, the author explicates the relevant textual divergences between the source text and the translation. These helpful tools facilitate comparison of Source Texts and Target Texts.


The writing style of Translation Theories Exemplified is generally clear, and only relies on technical language in particular cases when reviewing theoretical concepts. There are a few redundancies between sections, but they do not significantly interfere with reading. The physical book is well-produced and aesthetically pleasing, although there are some typographical errors and misspellings. Most notably, the author confuses “calque” with “claque.”

The example translations come from a variety of sources, including published translations; citations from previous scholarship; translations offered “for the purpose of this study by four translators from different perspectives” (29); and examples solicited from college students (61) or from a “trainee translator” (85). Supplementing published translations with ones solicited specifically for Translation Theories Exemplified is a necessary step, especially for cases where multiple examples of existing translations are unavailable. However, the work does not include enough metadata about the translators. The reader is left without specifics about the ‘different perspectives’ mentioned and without information about how much contact the student translators had with the author.

The ‘Historical Background’ surveys prominent precursors to the field of Translation Studies. The overview is well-researched and provides a ‘who’s who’ of historical thought, with subsections on Antiquity, the Middle Ages, the Renaissance, Modern Times, and Contemporary Translation Theories. Given the brevity of the chapter and the number of thinkers covered, concepts are introduced but not explicated in depth. The chapter juxtaposes historical thought from Western traditions with concepts and practices developed in the Arab world. Other works in mainstream translation theory often mention the history of translation in the Arab world but do not give it adequate space. That being the case, Translation Theories Exemplified will be of use to those seeking a comparative reading. Arab translation practices were wide-ranging and of key historical importance, especially during the Middle Ages. As the author explains, during the 19th century, the Arab world focused on developing techniques and practices of translation, while Western scholars were more concerned with theorizing. The Chapter concludes with a concise synthesis of wider trends in Translation Studies leading up to the current state of the field: there has been “a series of shifts from word to sentence, from sentence to text, from text to context, from language to culture and/or society” (23 / 70).

‘Equivalence vs. Indeterminacy,’ reviews the ever-evolving historical debate between those who promote strict linguistic fidelity and those who prefer more free translation strategies. The question initially arose for Cicero and Horace in Ancient Rome, who considered the difference between “word-for-word” or “sense-for-sense” translation. The debate was reformulated and readdressed at key moments throughout history, and gained more analytical backing in the latter part of the twentieth century. As Translation Theories Exemplified reviews a variety of theoretical interventions from the 1960s to the present, the multiple concepts and thinkers tend to run together. The difficulty is partly due to the brevity with which the different methodologies are introduced, but primarily due to the fact that differences between paradigms of equivalence/indeterminacy often differ more in terminology than in substance.

In all of the chapters, a variety of illustrative examples accompany each theoretical concept. While the abundance of examples helps to clarify nuanced topics, the strategy sometimes leads to issues of miscategoricization. Translation Theories Exemplified does not always attend to the difference between theorists who posit translation as a mode of analysis and those who advance a practical strategy. While bridging theory with practice is the key contribution of the book, the project would benefit from a more thorough accounting of the tensions arising from such a crossover.

‘Translation Process’ covers both linguistic and cultural-studies approaches. The discussion succeeds in objectively doing justice to both approaches, even when they are in tension with one another. As the schemata become abstract, the author’s examples prove especially useful as clarification. However, the overabundance of terminologically complex paradigms makes the prose difficult to read at times. Some sections introduce multiple terms without adequately explicating each of them. In the subsection on “Translation as an ideological move – an ideological approach,” the author cites “‘transitivity,’ ‘cohesive device,’ ‘over-lexicalisation,’ ‘style-shifting,’ and so on” (60) without sufficient explanation of how the terms may be used in a translation studies context. While the chapter is inconsistent in the extent to which it explicates theories of ideology, the overall discussion of cultural approaches serves as a solid introduction to the topic. As the author explains: “[o]ver the past three decades, the focus of translation studies has been shifted from endless debates about equivalence to broader issues, including culture and its effect on both process and product of translation” (55). Multiple definitions of ‘culture’ are counterpointed as they pertain to translation studies.

‘Translation Strategies: Global Vs Local’ addresses translators’ choices at the level of words, phrases, and texts. The author provides a particular depth of examples for J.L. Malone’s list of local strategies (Equation Vs Substitution; Divergence Vs Convergence; Amplification Vs Reduction; Diffusion Vs Condensation; and Reordering). Several alternative translations for a given text are compared, classified and evaluated based on the criteria presented in the subsection. The wealth of concrete examples will help readers understand the terms that scholars have used to talk about stylistic differences between languages, and the strategies with which translators have approached these differences. The chapter also comments upon general linguistic differences between English and Arabic, and how these differences affect translators’ options.

‘Translation Brief: Macro Factors’ analyzes the circumstances that limit translations. These constraints originate from the party that commissions the translation, as well as the cultural givens and goals that are involved in each particular case. The overview of these constraints helps explicate the important theoretical interventions in the field. Hans Vermeer’s concept of “skopos” deals with functionality: a translation should perform a function in the Target Language that is equivalent to the functionality of the original text in the Source Language. Other scholars theorize how the mandate of appeasing a patron is reflected textually. While there are some instances in which the chapter glosses over potential contradictions between theorists, overall the chapter succeeds showing how translation theory addresses the contextual factors that constrain acts of translation.

The final chapters deal with ‘System Theories,’ ‘Register and Translation,’ and ‘Discourse Analysis and Translation.’ The “polysystems” approach emphasizes the impersonal literary system rather than individual innovation, while a “manipulations” view focuses on how the translator directs and intervenes within the work. ‘Register and Translation’ close-reads linguistic differences between selections of Source and Target texts. M.A.K. Halliday’s broad paradigm of linguistic transitivity is applied to critique examples of translation that fail on the grounds of transitivity. The analysis of grammar successfully elucidates problematic divergences between Source and Target texts, but the overall use of transitivity theory comes off as idiosyncratic. A simpler concept of grammar would accomplish the same explanation more efficiently, since many of the critiques of incorrect translations deal with basic mistakes such as erroneous treatment of deixis or a misreading verbal tense-aspect. ‘Discourse Analysis and Translation,’ finally, recommends strategies for communicating with trainee translators. The chapter introduces and then critiques translations that are lacking, and then offers more adequate original contributions. The pedagogical goals become more central as the book comes to a close.

The growing field of Translation Studies fundamentally maintains that translation is not a transparent process. In both in the production and critique of translation, scholars and practitioners must be conscious of intricacies, distortions, and manipulations. “Translation Theories Exemplified” furthers the field by applying an abundance of effective examples, although the number of examples leaves less space for detailed treatment of theoretical paradigms. While some of the treatment of theory is oversimplified, the work succeeds in providing an overview of Translation Studies for the purpose of a college course. Outside of the classroom, Translation Theories Exemplified is a helpful step for examining how the divide between theory and practice can be challenged.


Bassnett, Susan. 2002. Translation Studies. London/New York: Routledge.
Lefevere, André (ed.). 1992. Trtanslation/History/Culture: a Sourcebook London/New York: Routledge.
Venuti, Lawrence (ed.). 2004. The Translation Studies Reader, 2nd edn. London/New York: Routledge.
Jonathan Fleck is a PhD student exploring how the synergies between Comparative Literature and Linguistics can be used to understand the power of texts and translations. His particular contribution is to advance Translation Studies as a paradigm for the analysis of a wide variety of and practices and products in the Americas.