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What Is to Be Considered as A Unit of Translation?

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Being one of the fundamental concepts always argued about in the realm of translation, the unit of translation (UT) has been given various definitions by different theorists. Shuttleworth and Cowie (1997) define it as: "a term used to refer to the linguistic level at which ST is recodified in TL" (p. 192). In other words, it's an element with which the translator decides to work while translating the ST. Barkhudarov (1993) defines a UT as "the smallest unit of SL which has an equivalent in TL" (as cited in Shuttleworth and Cowie, 1997, p. 192). He recommends that this unit of translation, no matter how long, can itself "have a complex structure" (as cited in Shuttleworth and Cowie, 1997, p. 192) although its parts separately cannot be translated and replaced by any equivalent in the TL. Phonemes, morphemes, words, phrases, sentences and entire texts are probable units of translation for him. What determines the appropriate UT, according to him, is the wording at a given point in ST.

When a translator commences his work, i.e. translation, in accordance with the type of ST he's working on, he decides about the basic segments in ST to be translated into TT. These segments range from a whole text, as in poetry, to a single phoneme.

The argument about the length of a UT also dates back to the conflict between free vs. literal translation. Literal translation is much focused on individual words, or even sometimes morphemes. Therefore in literal translation UTs are as short as words. On the contrary, a free translation "aims at capturing the sense of a longer stretch of language" (Hatim and Munday, 2004, p. 17).It always chooses the sentence. Of course by the arising of text linguistics, the concentration of free translation has moved from the sentence to the whole text. Once a translator decides to work on larger segments than is necessary to convey the meaning of ST, this is free translation which is at work. In the same way, while translating smaller segments than is needed, literal translation is under discussion. In Koller terms (1979/1992), translating from a SL which is not that much related to TL and will usually result in choosing larger units, while closeness of SL and TL involves smaller UTs.

Vinay and Darbelnet (1985/95) totally draw on the concept of word as a basis for UT. Of course they do not believe in non-existence of words, especially in written languages. For them, a translator doesn't need dictated criteria about a UT since what he does during the translation process is all done semantically. So sentencing a formal segment as a basic UT is not desired at all. Consequently, what should be identified and distinguished as a unit for a translator, who's translating thoughts and concepts, is a unit of thought. Vinay and Darbelnet consider three following terms as being equivalent: "unit of thought", "lexicological unit" and "unit of translation". What they suggest as a definition for UT is" "the smallest segment of the utterance whose signs are linked in such a way that they should not be translated literally"(as cited in Hatim and Munday, 2004, p. 138). Lexicological units of Vinay and Darbelnet contain "lexical elements grouped together to from a single element of thought" (as cited in Hatim and Munday, 2004, p. 138).

Several types of UT are recognized by them as: 1- functional units, 2-semantic units, 3- dialectic units and 4- prosodic units. The last three types are, according to them, counted as UT but the functional units are almost too long to include just one UT.

Three other different categories arise while looking at the relationship between units of translation and words inside a text:

1 - Simple units: Vinay and Darbelnet correspond this type to a single word. It's the simplest, as they state, and at the same time the most widely used unit. In this case, number of units equals number of words. Replacement of words will not lead to a change in the sentence structure.

2 - Diluted units: These units contain several words which in turn shape a lexical unit, since they pursue a single idea.

3 - Fractional units: "A fraction of a word" is what this type of UTs are consisted of.

For Newmark (1988), "sentence is a natural unit of translation" (p .65). He then considers some other sub-units of translation in the sentence, the first of which is the morpheme. Unless placed in special cases, Newmark states, morphemes shouldn't be considered seriously. Clause, group, collocation and words including idioms and compounds are grammatical and lexical sub-units of translation proposed by him. For sure Newmark's proposed category partly relies on a scale formerly established by Michael Halliday in 1985. The following scale is the one according to which Hallidays performs a systematic analysis of English:






Newmark considers no priority for each of the lexical or grammatical units, since wherever they exist, he believes, enough importance should be paid toward them.

Briefly speaking, Newmark (1988) labels paragraphs and texts as higher UTs, while sentences, groups, clauses and words as lower UTs. He contends that "the mass of translation uses a text as a unit only when there are apparently insuperable problems at the level of the collocations, clause or sentence level" (p. 64). Recent emphasis on communicative competence and language is what Newmark counts as a factor which had made the text as unit renowned.  In his terms, most of the translation is done at the smaller units, i.e. word and clause.

Trying to delve more into the details and providing a clearer elaboration on the concept of UT, Newmark (1988) states that in informative and authoritative texts, the focus is on the word, in informative texts on the collocation and the group and in vocative texts on the sentence and the text, as a unit.

He concludes in this way: "all lengths of language can, at different moments and also simultaneously, be used as units of translation in the course of the translation activity… to me the unit of translation is a sliding scale, responding according to other varying factors, and (still) ultimately a little unsatisfactory" (pp. 66-67).


Shuttleworth, M. & M. Cowie. (1997). Dictionary of translation studies. Manchester: St. Jerome.

Barkhudarov, L. (1993). The problem of the unit of translation. In P. Zelateva (Ed), Translation as social action: Russian and Bulgarian perspectives (pp. 39-46). London and New York: Routledge.

Hatim, B. & Munday, J. (2004). Translation: An advanced resource book. New York: Routledge

Vinay, J. P & Darbelnet, J. (1958/ 1995). A methodology for translation. In L. Venuti (Ed.), The translation studies reader (pp. 84-93). London: Routledge.

Newmark, P. (1988). A textbook of translation. Singapore: Prentice hall international (UK) ltd

Halliday, M. A. K. (1985/1994). An introduction to functional grammar. London, Melbourne and Auckland: Edward Arnold.

Koller, W. (1979/1992). EinfÜhrang in die Übersetzungswissenschaft. Heidelberg: Quelle and Meyer.

Published - February 2010

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