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The History of Translation

From the early theorists, we inherited guidelines on how to translate. They warned against word-for-word translating and drew attention to the fine line between free and literal translation – an approach, which called for a balance, a weighing out of terms. Translators in the Middle Ages and beyond built on this sense-for-sense approach and added to it a focus on the reader, the Frenchman, Englishman etc. Promoting new national identities and cultivating emerging literatures meant translation had to sound natural in the vernacular. This balancing out is what we now refer to as equivalency.

Here then are the three founding beliefs that have prepared a fertile ground for domestication to take firm root: sense-for-sense, naturalness and target reader orientation. The three-fold approach of equivalency closely considers exchanges at word level, sentence level and concept level whilst always bearing in mind the receiver of the message.

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J. C. Catford in his 1965 Linguistic Theory of Translation, describes the process of translating as uni-directional, going always from the ST to the TT, and defines it as “the replacement of textual material in one language (SL) by equivalent material in another language (TL)” (Steiner 74).

However, although equivalence offers a careful systematic linguistic consideration of texts, it does not allow for cultural considerations in translating. It assumes the target reader will be shocked, surprised, confused or troubled if the equivalence is not exact. Catford expresses his concern for the reader who may experience “cultural shock” or “collocational shock” (20). Roman Jakobson laments readers being baffled, astounded or even being reduced to despair when encountering language differences (cultural, linguistic, etc.) in translation (102).

The equivalent exchange must be completely equal for the translation to pass successfully into the TC and be accepted by the target reader. Here we can recall one of the principles of Tytler, that translations “should have all the ease of original composition.” That is to say, the goal of the translator is to produce a text that sounds natural in the TC. Eugene Nida in his Theory and Practice of Translation states that “the best translation does not sound like a translation” (cited in Steiner 32). Nida’s theory of equivalence was formed in the context of Bible translations that were traditionally carried out using the word for word method.

Nida differentiates between two types of equivalence: Formal equivalence reproduces as closely as possible, word for word, sentence for sentence. There should be a close match between the two. The TL is compared to the source language for correctness and accuracy. Nida calls this a gloss translation, which allows the reader to identify with the person in the ST as much as possible (customs, thinking, expressions). This type of translation is source-oriented which, says Nida “is designed to reveal as much as possible of the form and the content of the original message” (Nida and Taber 12).

One of its features is “concordance of terminology” where word usage, grammatical units and meaning in the ST are matched or reproduced “more or less literally”. According to Nida, this type of translation results in text that “will obviously contain much that is not readily intelligible to the average reader” (Nida and Taber 166). What Nida is talking about here is “Translationese” which “is caused by an excessively literal approach to the translation process” (165).

Formal equivalence means that the translation retains its sense of otherness but for Nida it is at the price of style and acceptability in the TL. Rather, the translation must conform, according to Nida “to the receptor language and culture.” He says that this conformance “is an essential ingredient in any stylistically acceptable rendering… such an adjustment to the receptor language and culture must result in a translation that bears no obvious trace of foreign origin” (Cowie 186).

Nida’s solution is Dynamic Equivalence: it focuses attention on the “receptor response.” Again, the lean towards naturalness is apparent in Nida’s own description of dynamic equivalence, “the closest natural equivalent to the source-language message.” Dynamic equivalence attempts to reproduce the same relationship between text and reader as it is in the original. Here the TL will use modes of behaviour and thinking familiar to the target reader and culture. This is the dichotomy between Venuti’s home and abroad and Schleiermacher’s movement toward and away from the original author.

Nida makes it clear that the move must be away from the author, away from the foreign. He cites William A. Cooper to perfectly illustrate his position: If the language of the original employs word formations that give rise to insurmountable difficulties of direct translation, and figure of speech wholly foreign, and hence incomprehensible in the other tongue, it is better to cling to the spirit of the poem and clothe it in language and figures entirely free from awkwardness of speech and obscurity of picture. (167)

Oppositional theories to natural equivalence include detailed discussions about the illusion of symmetry it creates between languages (Mary Snell-Hornby, Ernst-August Gutt 1991/2000), and generally speaking, socio-cognitive factors that have been overlooked in favour of linguistic detail. However, the most pertinent objections are those that question the perceived power of the ST over the TT and those that reject the over simplistic dichotomy of “natural, fluent translation = good, foreign- sounding, strange translation = bad.”

Despite variations on the equivalence theme the polarisation remains the same, only the terminology changes. To illustrate the diversity of labels in the Great Debate we can look at Anthony Pym’s shortlist of polarities. While the polarities vary greatly and are by no means synonymous it is interesting to note how many of these theorists tend to think in opposites.

Cicero: ut interpres ut orator

  • Schleiermacher foreignising domesticating
  • Nida formal dynamic
  • Newmark semantic communicative
  • Levy anti-illusory illusory
  • House overt covert
  • Nord documentary instrumental
  • Toury adequacy instrumental
  • Venuti resistant fluent
    (Pym 33)

The limitations of equivalence in terms of attempting to reproduce the sense of the ST in the most natural and balanced way gave way to ideas of functionalism or “purposes” as Anthony Pym puts it. By focusing attention on the function of the text (not just the sense but the intended purpose of the text) translators could solve problems of faithfulness, cultural transfer and linguistic mismatch.

The power of decision-making could be in the hands of the translators. Functionalist theory involved categorising texts and their types and genres in order to establish their orientation and their function. Katherine Reiss describes three “communicative forms” or “text-types”; informative, expressive and operative. Reiss recommends reverbalising or reprogramming in order to meet the function of the text and suggests that establishing the text type is essential if the translator is to avoid compromising “the functional equivalence of the TL text by naively adopting SL conventions” (Reiss 173).

Similarly, Christiane Nord defines four possible functions: referential, expressive, appellative, and phatic. Nord admits that there are problems with the referential approach “when source and target readers do not share the same amount of previous knowledge about the objects and phenomena referred to.” She gives the following example of an American journalist talking about learning Mandarin to highlight possible difficulties.

The journalist compares one of the tones in Mandarin to “wading into the waters of Maine.” Nord points out the problem here for a target reader who may not know that the waters of Maine are ice-cold (Nord Translating as a Purposeful Activity: Functionalist Approaches Explained 41). Her expressive function also provides challenges for translating due to the differing value-systems of both SC and TC.

She gives the example of a man in India comparing his wife’s eyes to those of a cow as a form of compliment and suggests that the same comment would not be received as favourably in Germany (42). The appellative function in Nord’s theory is openly target-reader oriented or “receiver-oriented” according to Nord. Again her example highlights the concern for the target-reader who may not get the point of the text and Nord reminds us that.

While the source text normally appeals to a source-culture reader’s susceptibility and experience, the appellative function of a translation is bound to have a different target. This means the appellative function will not work if the receiver cannot cooperate.

A good example of this can be found in Frances Hodgson Burnett’s The Secret Garden (Hodgson Burnett The Secret Garden 9). The second chapter is titled “Mistress Mary Quite Contrary” and contains an account of the child Mary Lennox and her cross and unappealing manner at the beginning of the story. The appellative function of the text is to make us feel how unpleasant and spoiled she is and does this by reference to the old nursery rhyme.

Burnett continues referring to the character as Mistress Mary and the reference to the old rhyme strengthens the reader’s impression of her. We are not supposed to like her. So according to Nord, those unfamiliar with this English rhyme will not enjoy the full description of her character. For the appellative function to have its full effect here the translator must find an equivalent or similar rhyme in the TL/culture.

Although Reiss and Nord do not advocate domesticating strategies, neither do they offer any solutions. In fact Nord states ” functionalism does not mean that the waters of Maine should generally be replaced by those of a Norwegian fjord, nor that cows’ eyes should become deer’s eyes or whatever the TC’s favourite animal is. Functionality simply means translators should be aware of these aspects and take them into consideration in their decisions” (Nord Translating as a Purposeful Activity:Functionalist Approches Explained 45).

The Skopos Theory

The functionalist theory not only placed the decision-making in the hands of the translator; it allowed either the source function or the target function to inform the translation process depending on the overall purpose of the text. This means it is possible for a TT to have a different purpose than the original text. In other words, “The dominant factor of each translation is its purpose” (Reiss and Vermeer cited in Pym 45).

This skopos theory presents two faces. On one hand, it allows the translator to escape from the confines of the ST and allows the TC to dictate the outcome. Through the theory of skopos the translator can freely choose a position somewhere between the two poles using the function of the text as a guide. There is no good or bad, just a range of choices to be made depending on multiple factors – who, why, where and what.

The possibilities are endless and limitations seem to be few. Vermeer explains: What the Skopos states is that one must translate, consciously and consistently, in accordance with some principle respecting the TT. The theory does not state what the principle is: this must be decided separately in each specific case. (cited in Venuti The Translation Studies Reader 198) The skopos approach potentially gives the translator the freedom to choose a position and strategy.

Vermeer clarifies that this theory “in no way claims that a translated text should ipso facto conform to the TC behaviour or expectations” (201) and that the only goal of skopos is to know what the point of a translation is. Critics of the skopos and functionalist approach bemoan the fact that the skopos or the commission of the translation have superiority over the ST. The skopos dictates the fate of the ST and whether it is to be “translated”, “paraphrased” or completely “re-edited” (Kuhiwczak and Littau 55).

Despite the freedom of choice, the prevailing trend of maintaining focus on the target reader overshadows the potential of Vermeer’s skopos theory. In Vermeer’s own words the point is “to produce a text in a target setting for a target purpose and target addressees in target circumstances” (cited in Baker and Saldanha 117). Justa Holz-Manttari theory of ‘translatorial action” involves transferring information from one culture to target readers in another culture.

The translator is the professional expert whose task it is to produce texts for a client that will function effectively in the TC, even if this means re-writing or diverging from the ST. Holz-Manttari’s approach begins with a “product specification” and results in a “message transmitter” and is also essentially a target-reader/culture oriented approach that would seem to efface the ST entirely. According to Christiane Nord the ST for Holz-Manttari exists solely in order to “meet the requirements of the situation” (Nida and Taber 161). Holz-Manttari is not the only theorist who prioritizes the TT and TC.

According to Gideon Toury “there is nothing perverse in claiming that a text’s position and functions, including those that go with a text’s being regarded as a translation, are determined first and foremost by considerations originating in the culture that would host it” (Cowie 189). Toury’s choice between “adequacy” – source-text orientation and the converse “acceptability” is clear. Toury believes that attempts to produce a TT that reflects norms, features and traditions of the ST will result in “incompatibilities with normal TC practices”. Toury prefers the second option of “acceptability” which sees the ST being relegated to a secondary position (20).

Venuti reminds us that many of the functionalist theories with their target-text orientation arose in the context of translator training (a practical endeavour), and the professional translation of non-literary texts such as operations manuals, official documents and news reports (The Translation Studies Reader 137). It is clear that the functionalist approach with the priority given to the client and the commission of the translation or the job description in the TC allows a place for domestication in nonliterary translating.

Mona Baker in her course book for translators provides excellent practical examples of domestication through the functionalist approach in non-literary contexts. One of her examples includes a leaflet from a museum of classic cars. The leaflet wishes to promote the museum’s restaurant facilities and makes a cultural reference to the British Cream Tea. Baker commends the Italian translator who renders the cream tea as pastry as it would be more familiar to the Italian reader (31). If the skopos of the translation is to attract as many Italian customers to the restaurant as possible (which is most likely), then the translator has respected the brief.

However it is not always clear who the client is and sometimes no specific purpose is obvious. This is one of the common objections to the skopos theory. In Baker’s above example the commission might have been two-fold – to retain a sense of Englishness to charm Italian visitors as well as attract business. Baker calls the strategy used by the Italian translator cultural substitution.

We can also call it domestication. In literary translation, functionalism amounts to equivalence. Christiane Nord provides a thorough and fairly balanced framework for discussing functionalism in literary texts. She defines four requirements of equivalence in literary translation: interpretation, text function, cultural distance, text effect and offers for each a skopos suggestion to provide a “purpose-oriented approach” (Translating as a Purposeful Activity:Functionalist Approches Explained 92).

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