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.

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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.

Reading up on translation: 5 mini reviews

There’s something a little different in store for my post today with an attempt to give a little something back: over the course of the last few years, I’ve spent many long hours poring over books of all shapes and sizes to satisfy my need for all things translation and I thought a few mini-reviews of what I consider to be the best introductory texts would be a great way to try to provoke a little bit of interest in the field.

Personally, I find translation theory fascinating and have read much of what translation studies as a discipline has to offer, even to the extent of reading Palumbo’s ‘Key Terms in Translation Studies’ (essentially a glossary of the key terms in the discipline) from cover to cover. If it sounds like a far-fetched claim, it is important to consider that, as a fairly young discipline, the amount of literature on the subject isn’t actually that big and can be covered in a few months of intensive study.

Of course, the list is not comprehensive by any means; despite my constant scouring of the market for new literature, there remain texts that I maybe should have come across and if you can recommend anything I may have overlooked, or anything that you think will be of interest, then please leave a comment or drop me a line on Twitter.

The reviews only scratch the surface of what each of these great books has to offer, but hopefully it is enough to whet the appetite:

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Found in Translation – Nataly Kelly and Jost Zetzsche

I thought I would start with one of the more recent additions to my bookshelf, and a book that is currently making waves in translation circles following its release last year and many positive reviews. ‘Found in Translation’ is a collection of anecdotes on the subject which are both accessible and hugely entertaining. Anyone with even a passing interest in languages or translation will find it fascinating and it is the perfect place to start if you want to indulge a potential interest in the area. While the bold claim in the blurb describing it as ‘by far the most meaningful book on the subject of translation that I have ever seen’ may be going a bit far, this book takes steps to put translation on the map and that is exactly what the profession and the discipline need.

Is that a fish in your ear – David Bellos

This book pre-dates ‘Found in Translation’ by a year or two and is written to largely the same end goal: another collection of anecdotes which aim to inspire interest in the field, and it is one that really delivers. Written with a sense of humour that makes it a joy to read, Bellos provides an insight into how translation has shaped the world we live in and how it affects our daily lives. Criticised as being slightly inaccessible for the uninitiated while also lacking adequate substance for more academic tastes, it may not be as suited to testing a tentative curiosity as the previous book, but the author’s style and the content actually make this my (marginal) pick of the two.

In Other Words – Mona Baker

Rather than a collection of anecdotes on the subject, this book is more scholarly in nature and stands as an invaluable companion to the budding translator getting to grips with the subject. There are other introductions to the discipline out there (Susan Bassnett’s ‘Translation Studies’ is the go-to book for many people looking to get into the field and has an excellent, detailed history of the discipline) and other introductory textbooks (Peter Newmark’s ‘Textbook of Translation’ and Jeremy Munday’s ‘Introduction to Translation Studies’ among the best known) out there, but Baker’s coursebook is an amalgamation of the best aspects of each of these and provides a substantial guide to the challenges that translation offers, all coupled with practical examples which serve to help the new student orientate themselves in an alien discipline full of terms and ideas that can otherwise seem overwhelming.

The Scandals of Translation – Lawrence Venuti

The name of Lawrence Venuti has become one that goes hand in hand with translation studies as a discipline, and it is his work that forms the core of the canon. While Baker’s book ventures into more scholarly territory, Venuti’s goes far beyond the outskirts and represents the heart of scholarship. This can make it heavy-going for readers looking for something more accessible but with that said, there are very few authors who have managed to show the extents of translation’s power in the globalised world, and this book is absolutely fascinating for anyone interested in the humanities. ‘The Translator’s Invisibility’ is a similarly absorbing read which further develops his theoretical ideas, but I feel that ‘Scandals’ provides just a little more accessibility to merit its inclusion here.

Can Theory Help Translators? – Chesterman and Wagner

The last of the books on the list is a bit of a departure from the others as it doesn’t represent an introduction to the area at all. However, it addresses a question that causes ongoing debate in the field, and a question which I personally have tried to find answers to. There is a clear vacuum between translation theory and practice; many (maybe even most) freelance translators have very little or no knowledge of theory and still manage to do their job to exceptionally high standards, calling into question the necessity of theory. As such, this book throws a theorist and a professional together in an attempt to ascertain whether or not one can help the other and, while ultimately posing more questions than it answers, it is a must read for anyone curious of the link between the two and the benefits of theoretical knowledge.

As mentioned before, please get in touch with suggestions for books that I may have overlooked or books you have enjoyed, I’m always looking for new reads in the area!