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Literary Approach to Translation Theory

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Peter Hodges photoIn the 1970s a literary approach to translation theory began to emerge, partly as a response to the prescriptive linguistic theories that had monopolized thinking for the previous two decades. Key elements of this new literary approach are the writings of the Manipulation School; systems theories; and Gideon Toury’s descriptive translation studies (DTS), which tries to identify laws in translation, of which Itamar Even-Zohar’s Polysystem Theory (PS) forms a vital part (Nam Fung Chang). At the Leuven Conference in 1976, Even-Zohar presented a paper entitled “The Position of Translated Literature in the Literary Polysystem” where he considers the position of translated literature within the literary, cultural and historical contexts of the target culture. He does not advocate the study of individual translations, but rather views the body of translated works as a system working within and reacting to a literary system, which, in turn, is working within and reacting to the historical, social and cultural systems of the particular target audience. Therefore, there is a system within a system within a system i.e. the polysystem.

The notion of “system” does, perhaps, need some clarification at this point. Literature viewed as a system can be traced back to Russian Formalist thinking of the 1920s when Yury Tynjanov is credited with being the first person to describe literature in these terms (Hermans, 1999, 104). Translated literature itself is also considered to operate as a system in at least two ways – firstly in the way that the TL chooses works for translation, and secondly in the way translation methodology varies according to the influence of other systems (Munday, 2001 109). Even-Zohar himself emphasizes the fact that translated literature functions systemically: “I conceive of translated literature not only as an integral system within any literary polysystem but as an active system within it.” (1976, 200).

PS functions as a system on the level of a series of relationships between apparent opposites. These are:

- canonized (high) and non-canonized (low) forms, which opens the door for the consideration of detective and children’s stories and their role in translation

- centre and periphery

- primary (innovative) and secondary (stagnant) models

- ST and TT

- Translated and non-translated texts (Hermans, 1999, 42).

The key idea of PS is that there is a continual repositioning of genres in relation to each other, “a continual struggle for power between various interest groups” (Hermans, 1999, 42), which helps give rise to the dynamic nature of literature. If literature is to remain vibrant, it needs to be in a constant state of fluctuation, with established, canonized forms being constantly nudged and eventually replaced by newer, more innovative, peripheral models. Therefore, translated literature does not occupy a fixed position in a literary system because the system itself is in a constant state of change, although Even-Zohar proposes that the secondary position is really the normal position for translated literature (Munday, 2001, 110). However, even though change to the core comes from the peripheral, new literary forms, when translated literature occupies this position, it is generally perceived to be fairly conservative, working within the confines of the target culture.

Even-Zohar does insist that there are occasions when translated literature forms part of the nucleus, and it is then that the boundaries between translated and original literature begin to merge, being virtually indistinguishable from one another (Even-Zohar, 1976, 200). There are three possible scenarios when this may occur:

1) When an emerging literature from a relatively new culture adopts translations from more established literatures in order to fill the gaps that exist within its own system, due to it being unable to instantly create a wide range of text types and genres. Translated literature introduces features and techniques that did not previously exist, such as new poetic structures.

2) When a smaller nation is dominated by the culture of a larger nation it may rely on imported literature from the dominant culture in order to keep its literary system dynamic, as well as being possibly the only source available for the creation of new genres, for example Breton culture in Brittany may rely heavily on literary styles from France in order o fill the gaps that exist in its own literary system.

3) When there are turning points in literary history, such as when established forms lose popularity or when there is no existing model. This could conceivably be the role that Harry Potter occupies in Chinese Mandarin.

There are also occasions when translated literature can occupy both a central position and a peripheral position within a literary system.  This may occur when major social changes are taking place. Even-Zohar exemplifies this with the role of translated literature in Israel in the early 1900s when literature from Russian into Hebrew was more dominant than translations from English, German or Polish (Munday, 2001, 110; Even-Zohar, 1976, 202).

Having briefly discussed the theoretical workings of the polysystem approach, it now remains to be seen how it affects translation methodology.  Even-Zohar says that when a translated work occupies the central position, it is generally strong in itself and doesn’t need to conform to target culture conventions. The translator doesn’t try to adapt to TL models, staying close to the original ST. If the position of translated literature is weak, the reverse trend occurs. The translator tends to adopt more features from the target culture, so the translation becomes target culture dominant, often providing a less than satisfactory translation (Even-Zohar, 1976, 203-204; Munday, 2001, 110).

PS is important because it moves translation away from the traditional ST-TT linguistic comparisons of shift and equivalence towards the viewing of translation in a social, cultural and historical context. There is also a change from the study of individual texts as a systemic approach tries to uncover the universal laws and principles that govern translation.  It is also quite significant because it can be applied to other systems other than literary systems, such as television programming and politics, making the system itself universal.

PS has been widely criticized on a number of issues:

- Gentzler questions Even-Zohar’s objectivity, claims that the universal laws are too abstract, criticizes the level of input and the relevance of Russian Formalism, and states that little thought has been given to limitations placed on translation and texts (Munday, 2001, 111).

- Berman condemns Even-Zohar’s proposition that translated literature generally occupies a role of secondary importance in the target culture because “it downplays their creative and formative aspect” (Hermans, 1999, 154). Berman also thinks that translated literature remains a separate entity within the target culture.

- Susan Bassnett thinks that comments describing target literature as “young”, “weak”, “vacuum”, etc are highly subjective.  Subjectivity also dominates the definition as to what constitutes canonized and non-canonized literature. She questions the abstract nature of the theory which tends to neglect concrete examples while, at the same time, wondering whether the theory has progressed much beyond the ideas of Russian Formalism of the 1920s (Bassnett and Lefevere 1998: 127 in Hermans, 1999, 109).

- André Lefevere claims that Even-Zohar is presumptuous in his claim that the systems he describes actually exist, condemns the nature of the theory, and describes the terms “primary” and “secondary” as “superfluous” (Hermans, 1999, 125).

- Philippe Codde believes that PS has become outdated as other systemic theories are presented as alternatives (2003, 26).

- Theo Hermans argues against one of Even-Zohar’s most fundamental principles by saying that the target culture may not necessarily select the ST. He cites the example of the period of European colonization when France and England were seen to be “dumping literary items on a colonized population” (1999, 111). He also claims that the series of binary opposites that constitute the polysystem theory doesn’t take into account those factors that are not diametrically opposed.

While PS could be seen as offering an intellectual approach to translation, I believe that it remains far too abstract in its presentation because it does not provide concrete evidence, it does not venture into specifics, or offer functioning examples. No mention is made of the concept of overt and covert translations (this comes later), although Even-Zohar says that it is difficult to differentiate translated literature from original when placed in the central position.

Gideon Toury worked with Even-Zohar before moving on to develop his own general theory of translation. In his “Descriptive Translation Studies – And Beyond” (1995), he calls for a systematic approach to translation rather than the study of individual cases. Firstly, he acknowledges that translation occupies a place in the social and literary system of the target culture, therefore recognizing polysystems. He proposes a three-phase TT-oriented methodology:

1) Consider the text in terms of the target culture to determine its significance and acceptability.

2) Compare segments of the ST and TT to determine the linguistic relationship, by mapping the TT onto the ST to find “coupled pairs”. (This point is controversial because the choice of segments would be subjective).

3) Distinguish trends, make generalizations, identify norms, and draw conclusions for future decision-making.

This allows for the creation of a profile for the genre, period and author. He argues for successive descriptions through time and concurrent descriptions of the various recognized genres in society (Gaddis Rose, 1997, 5-10). From this framework, and from comments made by publishers, reviewers and translators themselves, norms can be determined, which show up regularities and trends.

Toury sees different kinds of norms in action during various stages of the translation process. The first kind is the “initial norm” where the norm shifts either towards the ST or the TT. If the shift is more towards the ST, the TT is described as adequate. If the shift is towards the TT, the ST is described as acceptable. This is an interesting concept because Toury himself says that no translation is ever totally adequate or acceptable (57). He describes other norms:

1) Preliminary norms, which vary depending on translation policy, whether translation occurs, choice of text, and directness of translation.

2) Operational norms, which describe the presentation and linguistic nature of the TT.  This involves matricial norms that refer to the TT as a whole, such as the addition of footnotes and passages, or the omission or relocation of passages; and textual-linguistic norms that cover language and stylistic features.

Through the identification of norms, Toury hopes to formulate translation laws. The first law he proposes is “the law of growing standardization”(267-274), which refers to the loss of source language variations and features as the TT is made to conform to target language standards. The second law is “the law of interference” where ST norms are translated as such in the TT. This refers to such things as ST syntax being transferred across to the TT, making it “read like a translation.” This relates back to polysystems, because a target language is more likely to accept source language syntax if the position of translated literature is in the centre of the polysystem.

Toury’s work has been widely discussed:

- Gentzler (1993, 133-134) says that it has had a major impact on translation studies because it has now moved away from a one-on-one analysis, it considers literary tendencies in the target culture, an original message can be conveyed in different ways, and it considers both ST and TT in their own cultural systems. However, he thinks that it does over generalize.

- Hermans thinks that it overlooks the status of the ST in the source culture, and doesn’t believe it is possible to find all of the variables and laws that apply to translation. He also dislikes the terms “adequate” and “acceptable” because of other connotations, preferring the terms “ST-oriented” and “TT-oriented”.

- Munday (1997) says that “the law of interference” needs to consider the effects of patterning. He also says that there is a need for clarity and an attempt to avoid ambiguity in the TT.

Although Toury claims that his norms are descriptive, Andrew Chesterman (1997) states that the very concept of norms makes them prescriptive. Chesterman proposes an alternative set of norms:

1) Product or expectancy norms are what the reader would expect from a translated text in regards to fluency and readability.

2) Professional norms are those that “regulate the translation process” (1997, 67). There are three types of professional norms – the accountability norm that deals with professional standards of integrity, the communication norm that aims to ensure communication between all the parties involved, and the relation norm that deals with the ST/TT linguistic relationship.

In 1976, 1978 and 1980 The International Comparative Literature Association held meetings and conferences around the world on the subject of translated literature. The main outcome was a publication entitled “The Manipulation of Literature: Studies in Literary Translation” edited by Theo Hermans.  It viewed literature as dynamic and complex, and called for more interaction between theoretical models and practical case studies. The main issue was how to proceed with the case studies. In 1985 José Lambert and Hendrik van Gorp produced a paper called “On Describing Translations” which proposes a scheme to compare ST and TT literary systems and the relationships between the author, text and reader. There are four sections to their scheme:

1) Preliminary data, which includes information on the title page, in the preface, and any other information about the translation.

2) The macro level, which deals with the way the text is divided, the title, chapters and structure.

3) The micro level, which investigates linguistic shifts.

4) Systemic context involves a comparison of micro and macro levels, and text and theory, leading to the identification of norms.

Lambert and van Gorp do not believe that it is possible to determine all of the relationships involved in translation, but they do emphasize the fact that all translations and translators are inextricably linked to each other.


Chesterman, A. Memes of Translation. Philadelphia: John Benjamins, 1997.

Codde, Philippe. “Polysystem Theory Revisited: A New Comparative Introduction.”  pp 25-37
Poetics Today. Vol.24, No.1, Spring 2003.

Even-Zohar, Itamar. “The Position of Translated Literature within the Literary Polysystem.” 1976.
In Venuti, Lawrence. The Translation Studies Reader. (2nd Edition)
New York: Routledge, 2000. pp 199-204

Gaddis Rose, M. Translation and Literary Criticism. Manchester: St Jerome, 1997.

Gentzler, E. Contemporary Translation Theories. London and New York: Routledge, 1993.

Hermans, T. Translation in Systems. Descriptive and Systemic Approaches Explained.
Manchester: St Jerome, 1999.

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

Nam Fung Chang. “The Cultural Turn of Itamar Even-Zohar’s Polysystems Studies
Promises and Problems.”

Toury, G. Descriptive Translation Studies – And Beyond. Philadelphia: John Benjamins, 1995

Published - January 2010

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