Translation Theory

In a recent entry entitled “Translation Theory” in the newly published Encyclopedia of Applied Linguistics (Blackwell 2013; online 2012: Maria Tymoczko sets forth a series of nine “theoretical principles currently accepted in translation studies.” I have a brief observation (or two) to make in response to each of these (citing in part from the online article):
1. “Translation involves negotiating fundamental linguistic and cultural anisomorphisms and asymmetries.” In general terms then, translation has to do with transferring a text from one language and cultural setting to another in the most efficient and effective way possible for a particular audience-reader group. This intertextual process involves maximizing the formal-semantic-pragmatic similarities between the two texts (SL—TL) and minimizing their differences, to the extent possible.

2. “It is…misleading to say that the task of the translator is to preserve meaning or to create a text that has the same meaning as the source.” On the other hand, such “preservation” of the author’s intended “meaning” can be a viable, indeed a principal, goal to aim for when translating, especially when dealing with “high value” texts, such as the sacred Scriptures of a religious community (e.g., the Christian “Bible”). Of course, a close cross-textual comparison will reveal that the meaning of the TT (target text) is never exactly the “same” as that of the ST (source text). But why not strive to make this as close as possible?

3. “Literary translators are called upon to be attentive to functionalist aspects implicit or explicit in form.” A functionalist approach to translation (evincing many branches and sub-types) is one of the most helpful methodologies to adopt, no matter what the type (genre) of text being rendered. What are some of these “functionalist aspects” of a genuine “literary” text? I might just note three major features: artistry (pertaining to the formal and semantic beauty of the text, whether in the SL or the TL); rhetoric (pertaining to the power and persuasiveness of the text); and structure (pertaining to the compositional organization, unity, and symmetry of the text). Such functionally vital qualities are also abundantly manifested in the Bible (Translating the Literature of Scripture, SIL International, 2004).

4. “Because translation involves decisions, choices, and constructions related to meaning, there is no single correct way to translate. Translation equivalence is a posteriori in nature.” To be sure, speaking generally, the process of translating has no single “correct” path to follow towards its ultimate goal. However, the functionalist approach has taught us that it is possible to considerably clarify the task for translators by specifying a particular communicative goal, or “Skopos,” within the framework of an explicit job description (“brief”) that indicates a given project’s operating principles, management procedures, essential personnel, time frame, testing and review methods (involving the a posteriori comparative check for relative “equivalence”), and so forth.

5. “An entailment of the decisions, choices, and constructions involved in translating is that translation is a metonymic process. Translations are partial representations of their source texts.” It would have been helpful to define the key term “metonymic” here, but I assume that the notion of “substitutionary” is in view: In translation, one text (TT) is substituted—formally, semantically, perhaps also pragmatically—for another (ST) and, to be sure, as noted above (#2), this can only result in a “partial representation.” How “partial” might be specified more fully by means of a comparative conceptual approach (based on the insights of cognitive linguistics and frame semantics) involving interrelated “frames of reference” (cognitive, sociocultural, organizational, situational, and textual; cf. Contextual Frames of Reference in Translation, St. Jerome, 2008). Finally, granted that a broad sort of “metonymy” is involved in translation–but then, why not “metaphor” as well, which is based on the crucial principle of implied similarly?

6. “Translation equivalence can be stipulated explicitly or implicitly, as can any linguistic behavior including grammar or lexis.” Many translation theorists disparage or reject outright the notion of “equivalence” in translation studies. It is too nebulous, uncertain, or misleading, they claim, but the problem is that no universally agreed replacement has been found in the field of translation studies. The principle of “relevance” (Relevance Theory) has made an effort to do this, but in actual practice it fails in the absence of some notion of equivalence, keeping in mind the fact that “translation equivalence is a form [more precisely, involves varying degrees and levels] of similarity rather than identity” (Tymoczko, #4). The relative degree of equivalence desired in a given project can be either stipulated or prescribed in advance (a functionalist approach) or observed after the fact (a comparative descriptivist approach).

7. “Translation is a form of rewriting and as such has many commonalities with other forms of rewriting… Investigating the commonalities that translations share with rewritings illuminates both the processes and products of translation, and vice versa.” The term “rewriting” would seem to favor one specific mode of translation; perhaps “re-signifying” or “re-presenting” would be more accommodating of other channels of communication, in particular, the audio (e.g., simultaneous oral interpretation). Furthermore, while the various “commonalities” of translation are important, it is arguable that the differences between and among them are more significant and instructive with reference to both “processes and products.”

8. “On the level of the texts themselves, translations and translation choices relate to cultural systems such as language, the repertory of text types, and poetics. Translations themselves form subsystems of textual systems—notably literary systems—and collectively can be grouped by parameters such as function, audience, text type, formal effects, and patronage.” At a deeper, more basic theoretical level than “cultural systems” one might arguably place conceptual systems (i.e., “frames of reference,” such as world-views, sets of values, motivating goal priorities, and so forth). Similarly, more fundamental than “textual systems” one should expect to find socially integrated communication systems involving other types of semiotic signification within culturally-shaped behaviors (e.g., involving gestures, facial expressions, body stances, even clothing, etc.).

9. “Translations are an ideological and political form of cultural production. . . . ranging from postcolonial and feminist aspects of translation to translations that have figured actively in the service of ideological movements and political programs.” The exact “political nature” of “postcolonial and feminist” movements could be questioned, though they are indeed important “ideological” influences on translation practice. And while one might be prepared to grant the idea that “translation is a cluster concept,” a clear definition of this notion would be helpful. Furthermore, one might justifiably object to the assertion that “It is not possible to specify necessary and sufficient conditions that can be used to identify all instances of translation and that at the same time exclude all non-translations across time and space.” It all depends on what definition is being used to characterize “translation,” and whether this happens to be narrower (the traditional sense) or broader in scope (increasingly in modern usage). Thus, it should in fact be possible to define translation exclusively across time and space, though not necessarily in terms that would be acceptable to everyone, or even a contemporary majority.

As one “conclusion” (among several proposed) arising from her “theoretical principles,” Tymoczko notes: “Taken together these theoretical assertions provide an integrated framework that serves to explain the data associated with observed translation products and processes. In some cases they also have predictive power.” To be sure, one appreciates the author’s attempt to provide such “an integrated framework,” which is most instructive. However, one may wonder about what sort of “predictive power” these principles might have—and whether a posteriori “definitive,” “explanatory,’ and/or “evaluative” power might not be more to the point and illuminating with regard to what translation is all about.

About ewendland

I am currently an instructor at the Lutheran Seminary, Lusaka, ZAMBIA (since 1968). My academic training has been in biblical studies (BA, Northwestern College; MST, Wisconsin Lutheran Seminary), Bible translation (several SIL courses), linguistics (MA, University of Wisconsin, Madison), and African languages (PhD, UWM). I am a “retired” translation consultant for the United Bible Societies (having worked with projects in Malawi, Zambia, and Zimbabwe). I currently still serve as an external examiner in Zambian languages (University of Zambia) and as visiting professor in OT, NT, and Ancient Studies at the University of Stellenbosch, South Africa, with an affiliation to the Centre for Bible Interpretation and Translation in Africa ( My research and writing interests focus on the literary (structural, poetic, rhetorical) analysis of biblical texts and their oratorical translation, especially in southeastern Bantu languages (
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