Getting to grips with translation theory: A (very) brief introduction.

Given that my previous post delving into the world of translation theory (5 mini reviews) saw a fair amount of interest, I decided that it would be worthwhile to keep writing on the topic, and what better place to start than from the beginning?!

Translation studies as a discipline, though relatively small, can still appear daunting when first taking the plunge. This is where the introductory literature (much of which was mentioned in my reviews) proves to be useful, but I also wanted to write a brief introduction of my own just to provide a point of orientation for anyone currently lacking the time or inclination to wade into a more thorough exploration of the subject.

While there is an undoubted void between translation theory and practice and an elitism that sees the translation of literature and poetry researched much more than the practical texts which make up the working translator’s staple diet – both of which will no doubt deter many already-established freelancers from making the effort to explore translation theory, arguing that they can work perfectly well without it – I am of the firm conviction that a good understanding of the ground that has been covered throughout the history of translation is extremely beneficial to the practicing translator.

As such, there are a few key progressions that I will briefly detail, followed by suggestions for further reading, and hopefully I will have the opportunity to provide more detailed explanations in the future.

As thought on translation has developed over the centuries, there have always been prevailing ideas of the correct level of translation and correct method of translation and first of all we will cover the level of translation.

The passage from word to culture

From the idea of translating ‘sense-for-sense’ over ‘word-for-word’ put forward by Jerome (the patron saint of translators) which replaces the individual word as the unit of translation with the phrase, dualistic oppositions have often featured prominently in translation theory.

The bipolar ‘free vs. literal’ translation for example, which questions whether a translated text should remain close to the source text or be rendered in flowing prose, is widely known and Eugene Nida’s idea of formal equivalence vs. dynamic equivalence (which roughly equates to retention of original form (FE) against naturalness of expression (DE)) follows along similar lines.

Today, the most widely cited theoretical idea is Lawrence Venuti’s thought based on deviation from domestic norms. This sees him develop a methodology in which he attempts to overturn the standard translation practice of ‘domestication’ – making a text fit in with the dominant norms of the target culture – with a method labelled as ‘foreignisation’ which involves avoiding standard usage and allowing the ‘foreignness of the text to shine through’.

In this way translation theory has moved from the level of the sentence to the level of text or indeed culture as a whole, emphasising context, and this ‘cultural turn’ is the area of preoccupation for many contemporary scholars.

Origins of the discipline and different theoretical stances

The discipline name ‘translation studies’ was first coined by poet and translator James Holmes, who was one of the first scholars to really explore the science of translation. His precocious and comprehensive map of the discipline is still quite widely used in translation literature today due to its wide scope and its accuracy in addressing both practical and theoretical issues. Indeed, his ‘Applied translation’-‘Translation Aids’ designation still provides one of the only links between translation theory and modern translation technology.


Moving on from this general map of the discipline as a whole, scholars have tended to focus their attention on specific areas of translation, each pertaining to certain established schools of thought. There are those who focus on linguistic ideas, seeing the way that language works as the key to understanding the process of translation. Meanwhile, there are others who follow Gideon Toury’s descriptive translation studies with its ideas of polysystems (which is praised for taking social contexts into account) and translation norms, claiming that the methodological study of translations over a period of time and within particular contexts will show patterns that can lead to a better understanding of the translation process.

The other major school of thought in translation theory is that of functional translation which takes a more practical view of the translation task and is most applicable to the work of freelance translators. With its key idea of Skopostheorie developed by Hans Vermeer and Katharina Reiss, which assigns a ‘skopos’ or aim to a particular translation (rather like a translation brief), it forces translators to consider the consequences of their decisions and to carefully think about the purpose of their translation in order to make more informed decisions.

Finally, it is worth considering the increasing influence of philosophical ideas on translation theory with Jacques Derrida’s post-structuralist concepts of ‘différance’ and ‘deconstruction’ widely mentioned in contemporary translation theory. These ideas, which emphasise the pivotal role of context in the act of translation and the unstable nature of meaning, prove to be very attractive to the translation scholar but ultimately tell us very little about how to actually translate.

Overall this can be seen as one of the main issues with translation theory as much research tends asks more questions than it answers and, in spite of all that has been written to date, the question remains to what extent do we really know how to translate better due to theoretical knowledge?

Or, as Eliot Weinberger put it: ‘Translation theory, however beautiful, is useless for translating. There are laws of thermodynamics, and there is cooking.’

Suggestions for Further Reading

One great series which cover most ideas in translation theory is St Jerome publishing’s ‘Translation Theories Explored’ (Nord’s Translating as a Purposeful Activity – covering the functional approach – is a personal favourite)

Meanwhile, for a discussion of more practical topics which apply only the relevant amount of theory, their ‘Translation Practices Explained’ series has many great titles.

The best introductory texts are listed in this blog while Venuti’s The Translator’s Invisibility is an excellent next step.

For linguistically-focused theory try Hatim and Mason’s Discourse and the Translator.

Finally, for descriptive translation studies Toury’s Descriptive Translation Studies: and Beyond is a good place to start while Gentzler’s Contemporary Translation Theories adequately covers this area while also starting to examine philosophical contributions.

9 thoughts on “Getting to grips with translation theory: A (very) brief introduction.

  1. Georg says:

    Weinberger’s statement says it all. You can be a good translator without any knowledge of translation theories. Some of these theries, such as the Skopos ones, are self-evident. Knowing the purpose of an individual translation and translating accordingly without the result sounding like a translation have always been the objective of any serious translator.

    • jaltranslation says:

      For me, some of the most interesting literature to come out of translation studies (Venuti’s major work for example) tackles exactly why a translation should not be able to sound like a translation as well as addressing translation’s marginalisation, and I find that very interesting. However, I can’t really argue with your point about Weinberger and the necessity of translation theory. The quote perfectly reflects the void between theory and practice within the discipline. The scholarly preoccupation with poetry and ‘worthwhile’ literature means that their work is often a million miles from the work of an actual translator and, while being a keen translation theorist. I’ve certainly struggled to find practical applications in my work. Thanks for an insightful comment!

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s