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A Use of Thematic Structure Theory in Translation

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September (2008)


According to systematic functional grammar model; language is said to fulfill three functions: the ideational macrofunction, the interpersonal macrofunction, the textual macrofunction. The textual function is as it is the focus of this study, express the discoursal meaning by drawing on the system and network of THEME to create text in actual communicative event.

This paper attempts to apply thematic structure theory in the translation. Translator must not underestimate the cumulative effect of thematic choices on the way the text is interpreted.

This present paper shed lights on the importance of taking into account the thematic structure of the original text in translation. Based on the following points some sentences of Hemingway’s book “The Old Man and the Sea” and its translation made by Mr. Najafe Darya Bandary are compared and contrasted to see whether they are handled properly in translation or not.

Key words: Theme, Thematic Structure (T structure).

1. Introduction

Translation is definitely a complicated activity. Although much discussion has been held as to such question as it is science or art, whether theory in translation, etc. it has been widely accepted that translation is an interdisciplinary practice, particularly related to the linguistic, so during 1960s and 1970s came the immensely influential linguistic turn in translation, which enriched translation study tremendously.

As a branch of linguistics, Discourse Analysis (DA) also made its valuable contribution, including the application of T structure. Since both DA and translation have their primary focus on text, the use of DA theory is likely to be very productive.
Theme and thematic structure of the clause and text play a fundamental role in producing the same SL discourse in TL. Theme as the point of departure of the message play a pivotal part not only in the text interpretation but also in implication derived from the text.

Modification in theme or thematic structure from SL into TL falls the text foul of futile translation at the expense of losing some aspects of SL discourse, and herby, necessary to embody knowledge based on the thematic structure of the SL. on the one hand it is significant to keep thematic structure (T structure) of the source text in the target text; on the other hand, it is also necessary to make some appropriate alternation because of the difference between languages.

2. The Theory of Thematic Structure

Vilem Mathesius, first put forward the ideas of Theme and Rheme in his work Functional Sentence Perspective (1939). According to him, Theme is the part that comes first in a sentence, and Rheme remains the following part. In general Theme holds the old information, and Rheme carries the new. In 1970, F. Danes in his paper “On Linguistic Analysis of Text Structure” used the term thematic progression to signify the intricate relations between Themes in a text, and stated clearly that such thematic progression reflects the framework of the text. Based on these previous findings, M.A.K. Halliday, the representative figure of functional grammar, conducted a full investigation on T structure. Halliday analyzed this subject from the perspective of functional grammar.

Since it is embedded in the framework of functional grammar, Halliday’s theory of T structure is instrumental in analyzing a text from three metafunctions: ideational, interpersonal and textual. The textual metafunction covers language used as an instrument of communication with which we build up cohesive and coherent sequences. Each clause carries a message, and so the textual aspect can be seen as fulfilling a message function of clauses and is therefore very closely connected to their information structure. In his masterpiece An Introduction to Functional Grammar, Halliday indicated, “As general guide, the Theme can be identified as that element which comes in first position in the clause. His definition is functional, as it is with all the elements in this interpretation of grammatical structure”.

3. Application of the Thematic Structure Theory in Translation

In most cases the T structure is not arranged at random; instead, there is usually some meanings behind it. In other words, it is not only a grammatical phenomenon, but also a kind of writing skills employed by the author.

4. Theme in Other Languages and Translation

The most important point for source text thematic analysis is that the translator should be aware of the relative markedness of the thematic and information structure. Again, what is marked varies across languages. Problems in copping the ST pattern into the TT are given by Vazquez-Ayoraand and Gerzymisch-Arbogast. The former emphasizes that calquing a rigid English word order when translating into a VS language such as Spanish would produce a monotonous translation. The latter, in her detailed study of German and English (Gerzymisch_Arbogast 1986), considers the German calquing of English cleft sentences (e.g. what pleases the public is…., what I mean to say was….) to be clumsy.

According to Keenan (1978) and Hawkins (1983) verb initial languages are minority among the world languages; probably not consist in more than 10 percent in total. The difference of markedness of these language systems causes the translation among them to be complicated.

Translating from Arabic into Persian will face us with the controversy. The mismatch is that Arabic maps onto the verb in an unmarked case. Classical Arab grammarians state that the Arabic sentences should start with the verb. They regard verb initial sentences as displaying the normal syntactic word order in Arabic (Abdul-Raof, 1998).

Arabic seems to permit almost as many ways of ordering the constituents of the sentence as possible. Arabic, according to Bakir (1980) is one of the human languages that tolerate variation in the order of words in its sentences.

Schreiber and Anshen (1974:21) claims that Arabic is at any underlying level a V-first language and that NP- first sentences in Arabic are transformationally derived from V-first structure. Therefore, Noun initial construction in Arabic is derived structures. Translation noun initial construction as noun-noun initial constructions will modify the discourse organization of the SL.

5. Significance of the thematic structure in translation

5.1. Information distribution

It is doubtless that the T structure mirrors the information distribution of a text. Then when translated, the T structure of the original text should remain unchanged as long as the translated text reads smoothly. There are at least two points supporting this argument:


As many people commended, translation means translating meaning. And the meaning of a text is constructed by bricks of information, so rearranging the T structure is likely to reverse the relationship between the old and the new information, consequently distorting the original meaning value to his choice of information order.


In communication two propositionally equivalent but structurally different sentences can differ contextually and communicatively, choosing one specific forms at the expenses of others is not a random structure, to a great extent shows an image of the author’s flow of thought.

Here is an example:

I may lose so much line that I will lose him,

T1                  R1

if he makes his effort and the drag made by the oars

  T2           R2                   T3             R3

is in place and the boat loses all her Lightening.

       T4              R4

ممکن است آن قدر ریسمان تلف کنم که دیگر نتوانم او را بگیرم ،اگر ماهی شروع به تلاش کند و من پارو ها را برای گرفتن سرعت بسته باشم و قایق سبکی اش را پاک از دست داده باشد  .

The T structure of the translation goes exactly the same as the original one, so the internal relationship looks clear and coherent.

5.3. Unmarkedness and markedness

If the Theme of the clause is unmarked, it means that the Theme is normal and usual choice. “A Theme that is something other than the Subject in declarative clause is referred to as MARKEDTHEME”. The marked themes are the themes not conflated with the subject (Baker 1992, p.129). Marked theme according to classification of Baker is as follows:

A.     Fronted theme: a. Fronting of the time and place adjunct

b. Fronting of object or complement

c. Fronting of the predicator

B.       Predicated theme

C. Identifying theme

Such kind of unmarked ness and markedness should be preserved in the translated text as well. Because when the author puts his word in an abnormal way, there must be something unusual he tries to express, for instance, he wants to make an emphasis and draw the reader’s attention, or he intends to show his personal emotion or attitude.

In the following examples, the cognitive meaning of all sentences are same what is different is the textual meaning.

A. a. In China, the book received the great deal of publicity. 


  در چین، کتاب به شهرت زیادی رسید.  

A.b. A great deal of publicity, the book received in China 


       شهرت زیادی کتاب، در چین کسب کرد.  

A.c. Well publicized the book was.


B. It was in China that book received the great deal of publicity. 

  شهری که کتاب در آن به شهرت زیادی رسید، چین بود. 

Or. It was the book that received the great deal of publicity.

آن چه که به شهرت زیادی در چین رسید ، کتاب بود. 

C. What the book received in China, was the great deal of publicity.

  آن چه کتاب در چین به آن رسید ، شهرت زیادی بود.   

Here are two examples from the book: “The Old Man and the Sea” and its translation. Translator does his best to preserve marked theme of the original:

In the first forty days a boy had with him.

     MT                                        R

در چهل روز اول پسر بچه ای با او بود.

When the wind was in the east a smell comes across the harbor from the

          MT                                                    R 

shark factory.

هنگامی که باد از مشرق می وزید، بوی کارخانه سل به بندرگاه می آمد.

Thematic choices of unmarked or marked elements in the clause should be treated carefully by the translator because it is a meaningful choice made by writers to orient or guide readers properly.  


In most cases, if not in all the T structure is organized on purpose by talented writer. Behind it there is likely to be some covert significance that the translator is responsible to convey, otherwise the accuracy of the translation is questionable. The case study reveals that except those differences embedded in the grammatical structures, the T structure bearing the author's intention should always be reproduced in the translation. Therefore, awareness to the T structure is valuable tool as to measure whether a translation is good, and how to translate. 


Abdul-Raof, Hussin (1998) Subject, Theme and Agent in Modern Standard   Arabic.Richmond:Curzon.

Baker, M. (1992). In Other Words:" A Coursebook on Translation",  London: Taylor and Francis Limited.

Bakir, M.j. (1980) Aspect of Clause Structure in Arabic. Unpublished Phd  Thesis, Indian University.

Halliday, M. A. K. (1985). Introduction to functional grammar. London:  Edward Arnold.

Hemingway, E. (1996). The old man and the sea. London Penguin    Books

Hawkins,JA,(1983)Word Order Universals. New York: Academic Press.

Schereiber, p and F. Anshen .(1974). Arabic Topicalisation: Alternative  Approaches. Language Sciences, P.29, 19-21. 


همینگوی،ارنست" پیر مرد و دریا "ترجمه نجف دریا بندری ،انتشارات خوارزمی،تهران1363

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