Linguistic Approach to Translation Theory Translation Theory translation jobs
Home More Articles Join as a Member! Post Your Job - Free! All Translation Agencies

Linguistic Approach to Translation Theory

Become a member of at just $12 per month (paid per year)

Peter Hodges photoJoseph F. Graham in his article Theory for Translation (p.24) asks the question if the time-honoured act of translation really is a subject that begs to be theorized. It seems to me that this is indeed the case if the wealth of literature on the subject available today is any indication. Early attempts at theory can be traced back over 2000 years to Cicero and Horace, with the key question being whether a translator should be faithful to the original text by adopting a “literal” (word-for-word) approach or whether a “free” (sense-for-sense) approach should be taken. This discussion continued right through to the second half of the 20th century when more systematic analyses were undertaken by Western European theoreticians. These systematic analyses, which elevated translation studies from its role of being primarily a language-learning activity, centred on theories of translation in new linguistic, literary, cultural and philosophical contexts (Munday p.162). It is the linguistic approach that is the subject during the course of this discussion.

The linguistic approach to translation theory focusing on the key issues of meaning, equivalence and shift began to emerge around 50 years ago. This branch of linguistics, known as structural linguistics, features the work of Roman Jakobson, Eugene Nida, Newmark, Koller, Vinay, Darbelnet, Catford and van Leuven-Zwart. It wasn’t long however, before some theorists began to realize that language wasn’t just about structure – it was also about the way language is used in a given social context. This side of the linguistic approach is termed functional linguistics (Berghout lecture 7/9/05), with the work of Katharina Reiss, Justa Holz-Mänttäri, Vermeer, Nord, Halliday, Julianne House, Mona Baker, Hatim and Mason figuring prominently.

Of course other theorists have contributed to the development of a linguistic approach to translation, but the abovementioned have been singled out for discussion primarily because of their influence, and also because they are perhaps the most representative of the trends of the time.

Douglas Robinson writes that for some translators “the entire purpose of translation is achieving equivalence.  The target text must match the source text as fully as possible” (p.73). Linguistic meaning and equivalence are the key issues for the Russian structuralist Roman Jakobson who, in his 1959 work On Linguistic Works of Translation, states that there are 3 types of translation:

1) intralingual – rewording or paraphrasing, summarizing, expanding or commenting within a language

2) interlingual – the traditional concept of translation from ST to TT or the “shifting of meaning from one language to another” (Stockinger p.4)

3) intersemiotic – the changing of a written text into a different form, such as art or dance (Berghout lecture 27/7/05; Stockinger p.4).

For Jakobson, meaning and equivalence are linked to the interlingual form of translation, which “involves two equivalent messages in two different codes” (1959/2000: p.114). He considers Saussure’s ideas of the arbitrariness of the signifier (name) for the signified (object or concept) and how this equivalence can be transferred between different languages, for example the concept of a fence may be completely different to someone living in the suburbs or a prison inmate. He expands on Saussure’s work in that he considers that concepts may be transferred by rewording, without, however, attaining full equivalence. His theory is linked to grammatical and lexical differences between languages, as well as to the field of semantics.

Equivalence is also a preoccupation of the American Bible translator Eugene Nida who rejects the “free” versus “literal” debate in favour of the concept of formal and dynamic equivalence – a concept that shifts the emphasis to the target audience. This was done in order to make reading and understanding the Bible easier for people with no knowledge of it ( Formal equivalence centres on the form and content of the message of the ST while dynamic equivalence, later termed functional equivalence (Venuti p.148), “aims at complete naturalness of expression” (Munday p.42) in the TT. His 1964 Toward a Science of Translating and his co-authorship with Taber in 1969 of Theory and Practice of Translation aim at creating a scientific approach incorporating linguistic trends for translators to use in their work (Munday p.38). He views Chomsky’s theory of Universal Grammar as a way of analyzing the underlying structures of the ST in order to reconstruct them in the TT, so that a similar response between the target audience and TT and source audience and ST can be achieved.

His linguistic theory moves towards the fields of semantics and pragmatics, which leads him to develop systems for the analysis of meaning. These include:

1) Hierarchical structures (superordinates and hyponyms), such as the hyponyms “brother” or “sister” and the superordinate “sibling” (Libert lecture 24/3/05). In a cultural context it may not be possible to translate “sister”, so “sibling” may need to be used.

2) Componential analysis, which identifies characteristics of words that are somehow connected, such as “brother” in Afro-American talk does not necessarily refer to a male relation born of the same parents.

3) Semantic structural differences where the connotative and denotative meanings of homonyms are identified, for example “bat” the animal and the piece of sporting equipment (Berghout lecture 14/9/05).

The British translation theorist Peter Newmark, influenced by the work of Nida, feels that the difference between the source language and the target language would always be a major problem, thus making total equivalence virtually impossible (Munday p.44). He replaces the terms “formal equivalence” and “dynamic equivalence” with “semantic translation” and “communicative translation”, and alters the focus of the translation back to the ST with his support for a literal approach.

Nida’s attempt at a scientific approach was important in Germany and influenced the work of Werner Koller for whom equivalence “may be ‘denotative’, depending on similarities of register, dialect and style; ‘text-normative’, based on ‘usage norms’ for particular text types; and ‘pragmatic’ ensuring comprehensibility in the receiving culture” (Koller in Venuti p.147). He also works in the area of correspondence, a linguistic field dedicated to examining similarities and differences between two language systems. One example of this would be looking at the area of “false friends”, such as the French verb rester, which does not mean “to rest” but “to remain”.

Although discussion on equivalence has subsided, it still remains a topic that manages to attract a certain amount of attention from some of translation theory’s leading figures. Mona Baker and Bassnett both acknowledge its importance while, at the same time, placing it in the context of cultural and other factors.

The emphasis of the structural approach to translation changes towards the end of the 1950s and early 1960s with the work of Vinay, Darbelnet and Catford, and the concept of translation shift, which examines the linguistic changes that take place in the translation between the ST and TT (Munday p.55). According to Venuti “Translation theories that privilege equivalence must inevitably come to terms with the existence of ‘shifts’ between the foreign and translated texts” (p.148).

Vinay and Darbelnet in their book Stylistique comparée du français et de l’anglais (1958) compare the differences between English and French and identify two translation techniques that somewhat resemble the literal and free methods (Vinay and Darbelnet in Venuti p.128).  Direct (literal) translation discusses three possible strategies:

1) Literal translation or word-for-word

2) Calque, where the SL expression is literally transferred to the TL, such as the English character ‘Snow White’ in French becomes ‘Blanche Neige’, because the normal word configuration in English of ‘white snow’ would be transferred as ‘neige blanche’

3) Borrowing – the SL word is transferred directly into the TL, like ‘kamikaze’.

Oblique (free) translation covers four strategies:

1) Transposition – interchange of parts of speech that don’t effect the meaning, a noun phrase (après son départ) for a verb phrase (after he left)

2) Modulation – reversal of point of view (it isn’t expensive / it’s cheap)

3) Equivalence – same meaning conveyed by a different expression, which is most useful for proverbs and idioms (‘vous avez une araignée au plafond’ is recognizable in English as ‘you have bats in the belfry’)

4) Adaptation – cultural references may need to be altered to become relevant (‘ce n’est pas juste’ for ‘it’s not cricket’) (Vinay and Darbelnet in Venuti pp129-135).

Two other important features arise from the work of Vinay and Darbelnet. The first of these is the idea of “servitude”, which refers to the compulsory changes from ST to TT; and “option”, which refers to the personal choices the translator makes, such as the modulation example above. Option is an important element in translation because it allows for possible subjective interpretation of the text, especially literary texts (Munday pp. 59-60).

In 1965 the term “shift” was first applied to the theory of translation by Catford in his work A Linguistic Theory of Translation. Here he discusses two types of shift:

1) Shift of level, where a grammatical concept may be conveyed by a lexeme (the French future tense endings are represented in English by the auxiliary verb ‘will’).

2) Category shifts, of which there are four types – structural shifts (in French the definite article is almost always used in conjunction with the noun); class shifts (a shift from one part of speech to another); unit or rank (longer sentences are broken into smaller sentences for ease of translation); selection of non-corresponding terms (such as count nouns).

His systematic linguistic approach to translation considers the relationship between textual equivalence and formal correspondence. Textual equivalence is where the TT is equivalent to the ST, while formal correspondence is where the TT is as close as possible to the ST (Munday p.60). Catford also considers the law of probability in translation, a feature that may be linked to the scientific interest in machine translation at the time.

Some thirty years after Vinay and Darbelnet proposed the direct and oblique strategies for translation, Kitty van Leuven-Zwart developed a more complex theory, using different terminology, based on their work. Her idea is that the final translation is the end result of numerous shifts away from the ST, and that the cumulative effect of minor changes will alter the end product ( She suggested two models for translation shifts:

1) Comparative – where a comparison of the shifts within a sense unit or transeme (phrase, clause, sentence) between ST and TT is made. She then conducts a very detailed analysis of the “architranseme” or the core meaning of the word, and how this meaning can be transferred to the TL. She proposes a model of shift based on micro-level semantic transfer.

2) Descriptive – situated in the linguistic fields of stylistics and pragmatics deals with what the author is trying to say, and why and how this can be transferred to the TT. It deals with differences between the source and target cultures and serves as a model on a macro level for literary works (Berghout lecture 31/8/05; Munday pp 63-66).

The 1970s and 1980s sees a move away from the structural side of the linguistic approach as functional or communicative consideration is given to the text. Katharina Reiss continues to work on equivalence, but on the textual level rather than on the word or sentence level. She proposes a translation strategy for different text types, and says that there are four main textual functions:

1) Informative – designed for the relaying of fact. The TT of this type should be totally representative of the ST, avoiding omissions and providing explanations if required.

2) Expressive – a “higher” level of literary text such as poetry in which the TT should aim at recreating the effect that the author of the ST was striving to achieve. In this case Reiss says “the poetic function determines the whole text” (Reiss in Venuti p.172).

3) Operative – designed to induce a certain behavioral response in the reader, such as an advertisement that influences the reader to purchase a particular product or service.  The TT should therefore produce the same impact on its reader as the reader of the ST.

4) Audomedial – films, television advertisements, etc supplemented with images and music of the target culture in the TT (de Pedros p.32).

Criticism has sometimes been levelled at Reiss because the chosen method for translation may not depend only on the text type, which may also have a multifunctional purpose (Berghout lecture 7/9/05; Munday pp73-76).

Within the realm of functional linguistics is Justa Holz-Mänttäri’s theory of translational action that takes into account practical issues while, at the same time, placing the emphasis firmly on the reader of the TT.  This means, for example, that things like the source text type may be altered if it is deemed to be inappropriate for the target culture. She sees translation as an action that involves a series of players, each of whom performs a specific role in the process. The language used to label the players very much resembles that of Western economic jargon – initiator, commissioner, ST producer, TT producer, TT user, TT receiver, that is adding another dimension to the theory of translation as yet rarely mentioned (Munday pp77-78).

The Greek expression “skopos” that means “aim” or “purpose” was introduced to translation theory by Hans Vermeer in the 1970s. Skopos theory, which is linked to Holz-Mänttäri’s translational action theory (Vermeer p.227), centres on the purpose of the translation and the function that the TT will fulfil in the target culture, which may not necessarily be the same as the purpose of the ST in the source culture.  The emphasis once again stays with the reader of the TT, as the translator decides on what strategies to employ to “reach a ‘set of addressees’ in the target culture” (Venuti p223). Cultural issues in a sociolinguistic context therefore need to be considered. Skopos is important because it means that the same ST can be translated in different ways depending on the purpose and the guidelines provided by the commissioner of the translation.

In 1984 Vermeer and Reiss co-authored Grundlegung einer allgemeine Translationstheorie (Groundwork for a General Theory of Translation) based primarily on skopos, which tries to create a general theory of translation for all texts. As a result, criticism has been levelled at skopos on the ground that it applies only to non-literary work (Munday p.81); it downplays the importance of the ST; and does not pay enough attention to linguistic detail.  I tend to disagree with this last point because I look at skopos as a means of reflecting the ability of the translator.  If he/she is able to produce a TT that meets the requirements stated at the outset of the assignment, which may lie somewhere between the two extremes of a detailed report or the summary of a sight translation, whilst working with possible time and financial constraints, then the linguistic level is not an area that merits criticism.

Christiane Nord in Text Analysis in Translation (1989/91) states that there are two types of translation:

1) Documentary – where the reader knows that the text has been translated.

2) Instrumental – where the reader believes that the translated text is an original.

She places emphasis on the ST as she proposes a ST analysis that can help the translator decide on which methods to employ. Some of the features for review are subject matter, content, presupposition, composition, illustrations, italics, and sentence structure (Munday p.83). In Translation as a Purposeful Activity (1997) her theory is developed as she acknowledges the importance of skopos. The information provided by the commissioner allows the translator to rank issues of concern in order before deciding on inclusions, omissions, elaborations, and whether the translation should have ST or TT priority. By also giving consideration to Holz-Mänttäri’s role of players, she manages to provide a viewpoint that accommodates three important concepts in the functional approach to translation.

Linked to Nord’s theory of ST analysis is discourse and register analysis which examines how language conveys meaning in a social context. One of the proponents of this approach was the Head of the Linguistics Department of Sydney University, Michael Halliday, who bases his work on Systemic Functional Grammar – the relationship between the language used by the author of a text and the social and cultural setting. Halliday says that the text type influences the register of the language – the word choice and syntax. He also says that the register can be divided into three variables:

1) Field – the subject of the text

2) Tenor – the author of the text and the intended reader

3) Mode – the form of the text

all of which are important on the semantic level. Some criticism has been directed at Halliday’s complex terminology and his approach, mainly because it is English-language based (Munday pp89-91; Berghout lecture 7/9/05).

Juliane House’s Translation Quality Assessment: A Model Revisited (1997) also examines ST and TT register, and expands on Halliday’s ideas of field, tenor and mode.  She creates a model for translation, which compares variables between ST and TT before deciding on whether to employ an overt or covert translation (Stockinger p.18). An overt translation is one that clearly centres on the ST, in no way trying to adapt the socio-cultural function to suit the target audience (like Nord’s documentary translation).  This means that the target audience is well aware that what they are reading is a translation that is perhaps fixed in a foreign time and context. Such is the case with Émile Zola’s Germinal, first published in French in 1885 and translated into English by Leonard Tancock in 1954.  Readers of the English know that they are reading a translation of a description of coal mining conditions in northern France in the 1800s, which retains all proper nouns of the original French text (Ma Brûlé, Philomène, Bonnemort, Mouque – p.282). This is just one of the techniques used to reveal the overt nature of the text. A covert translation (like Nord’s instrumental translation) is one in which the TT is perceived to be an original ST in the target culture.  Such is the case with the guide leaflets distributed to visitors at Chenonceau Castle in the Loire Valley, which seem to have been created individually for an English audience and a French audience (and possibly German, Spanish, Italian and Japanese audiences), so much so that it is almost impossible to tell which is the ST and which is the TT.

In Other Words: A Coursebook on Translation (1992) by Mona Baker, taking advantage of Halliday’s work, raises a number of important issues. She examines textual structure and function and how word forms may vary between languages, such as the substitution of the imperative for the infinitive in instruction manuals between English and French. Gender issues are raised as she discusses ways in which ambiguous gender situations can be overcome, such as adjectival agreement in French. She also discusses three pragmatic concepts where pragmatics is “the way utterances are used in communicative situations” (Baker in Munday p.95):

1) Coherence relates to the audience’s understanding of the world, which may be different for ST and TT readers.

2) Presupposition is where the receiver of the message is assumed to have some prior knowledge. “It’s a shame about Uncle John!” assumes the reader knows that something bad has happened to that person called Uncle John. This raises problems in translation because TT readers may not have the same knowledge as ST readers. Possible solutions are rewording or footnotes.

3) Implicature is where the meaning is implied rather than stated. “John wanted Mary to leave” may imply that “John is now happy that Mary left” (Libert lecture 24/3/05), which can lead to a mistranslation of the intention of the message.

Basil Hatim and Ian Mason co-authored two works: Discourse and the Translator (1990) and The Translator as Communicator (1997), in which some sociolinguistic factors are applied to translation. They look at the ways that non-verbal meaning can be transferred, such as the change from active to passive voice which can shift or downplay the focus of the action. They also examine the way lexical choices are conveyed to the target culture, for example “Australia was discovered in 1770 by Captain Cook” to an Aboriginal audience (Berghout lecture 12/10/05). However, I believe that they tend to revert to the literal versus free discussion with their identification of “dynamic” and “stable elements within a text, which serve as indicators for a translation strategy (Munday p.101). Mason, in his essay Text Parameters in Translation: Transitivity and Institutional Cultures (2003) thinks that Halliday’s Systemic Grammar should be viewed in the context of translational institutions, such as the European Union where it “might make a more significant contribution to translation studies” (Venuti p.333). Interestingly, the outcome of this paper reveals a tendency for EU translators to “stay fairly close to their source texts” (Mason In Venuti p.481).

Like all other theories, discourse and register analysis has received its share of criticism. It has been labelled complicated and unable to deal with literary interpretation.  The possibility of the author’s real intention being determined, along with its fixation in the English language are also subject to some scrutiny.

The linguistic approach to translation theory incorporates the following concepts: meaning, equivalence, shift, text purpose and analysis, and discourse register; which can be examined in the contexts of structural and functional linguistics, semantics, pragmatics, correspondence, sociolinguistics and stylistics. Meanwhile, as translation strives to define its theory through the linguistic approach, Eugene Nida’s scientific approach has evolved into a quest for a more systematic classification of all translation theories, which he says should be based on linguistics, philology and semiotics (Nida p.108).


Primary Material

Berghout, Anita. Lectures at Newcastle University 27/7/05; 31/8/05; 7/9/05; 14/9/05; 12/10/05

de Pedros, Raquel. “Beyond the Words: The Translation of Television Adverts.” Babel Revue Internationale de la Traduction. Vol. 42 1996. pp 27-43 John Benjamins Publishing Company

Graham, Joseph F. “Theory for Translation.” Translation Spectrum. Essays in Theory and Practice. Gaddis Rose (ed.) pp 23-30. Albany: State University of New York Press, 1981.

Halliday, M.A.K. An Introduction to Functional Grammar. Edward Arnold: London, 1994.

Jakobson, Roman. “On Linguistic Aspects of Translation.”  1959. pp 113-119. Translation Studies Reader. (2nd Edition). L. Venuti. New York: Routledge, 2000.

Libert, Alan. Lectures at Newcastle University 24/3/05; May 2005

Mason, Ian. “Text Parameters in Translation: Transitivity and Institutional Cultures.” pp 477-481 Translation Studies Reader. (2nd Edition). L. Venuti.  New York: Routledge, 2000. 

Munday, Jeremy. Introducing Translation Studies.  Theories and Applications. London: Routledge, 2001.

Nida, E.A. Contexts in Translating. Amsterdam/Philadelphia: John Benjamins, 2001. pp 107-114.

Nord, Christiane. Translation as a Purposeful Activity.  Manchester: St Jerome, 1997.

Reiss, Katharina. “Type, Kind and Individuality of Text: Decision Making in Translation.” 1971. Translation Studies Reader. (2nd Edition). L. Venuti.  New York: Routledge, 2000. Pp. 168-179.

Robinson, Douglas. Becoming a Translator. An Introduction to the Theory and Practice of Translation. (2nd Edition). London: Routledge, 2003.

Snyder, William. “Linguistics in Translation.” Translation Spectrum. Essays in Theory and Practice. Gaddis Rose (ed.) pp 127-134.

Steiner, George. After Babel: Aspects of Language and Translation. London: Oxford University Press, 1975.

Stockinger, Peter. Semiotics of Cultures. Culture, Language and Translation.  Paris: ESCoM, 2003.

Venuti, Lawrence. The Translation Studies Reader. (2nd Edition). New York: Routledge, 2000.

Vermeer, Hans J. “Skopos and Commission in Translational Action.” pp 227-237. Translation Studies Reader. (2nd Edition). L. Venuti. New York: Routledge, 2000.

Vinay, Jean-Paul and Darbelnet, Jean. “A Methodology for Translation.”  1958.

Translation Studies Reader. (2nd Edition). L. Venuti. New York: Routledge, 2000. pp 128-137.

Secondary Material

Visitor’s Guide to Chenonceau Castle / Château de Chenonceau. No details.

Zola, Émile. Germinal. Paris: Gallimard, 1978.

Zola, Émile. Germinal. Hammondsworth: Penguin, 1954.  Translated by Leonard Tancock.


Published - July 2009

Submit your article!

Read more articles - free!

Read sense of life articles!

E-mail this article to your colleague!

Need more translation jobs? Click here!

Translation agencies are welcome to register here - Free!

Freelance translators are welcome to register here - Free!

Free Newsletter

Subscribe to our free newsletter to receive news from us:

Recommend This Article
Read More Articles
Search Article Index
Read Sense of Life Articles
Submit Your Article
Obtain Translation Jobs
Visit Language Job Board
Post Your Translation Job!
Register Translation Agency
Submit Your Resume
Find Freelance Translators
Buy Database of Translators
Buy Database of Agencies
Obtain Blacklisted Agencies
Advertise Here
Use Free Translators
Use Free Dictionaries
Use Free Glossaries
Use Free Software
Vote in Polls for Translators
Read Testimonials
Read More Testimonials
Read Even More Testimonials
Read Yet More Testimonials
And More Testimonials!
Admire God's Creations

christianity portal
translation jobs


Copyright © 2003-2024 by
Legal Disclaimer
Site Map