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Translation and linguistics

It may seem strange to hold off discussing language until this late in a book

on translation. Translation is, after all, an operation performed both on and in

language. In Latin translation used to be referred to as translatio linguarum, the

translation of languages, to distinguish it from other kinds of translation, like

translatio studii, the translation of knowledge, and translatio imperii, the translation

of empire.

And until verv recently, virtually all discussions of translation both in class and

in print dealt primarily or exclusively with language. The ability to translate was

thought of largelv as an advanced form of the ability to understand or read a foreign

language. Translation studies was thought of as a specialized branch of philology,

applied linguistics, or comparative literature. Translator training revolved around

the semantic transfer of words, phrases, and whole texts from one language to

another. The chief issue in the history of translation theory since Cicero in the first

century before our era has been linguistic segmentation: should the primary segment

of translation be the individual word (producing word-for-word translation) or the

phrase, clause, or sentence (producing sense-for-sense translation)? Even in our day,

most of the best-known theorists of translation — J. C. Catford, Kornei Chukovskii,

Valentin Garcia Yebra, Eugene A. Nida, Jean-Paul Vinay and Jean Darbelnet, Peter

Newmark, Basil Hatim and Ian Mason — are linguists who think of translation as

primarily or exclusively an operation performed on language.

And it should be clear that this book is not an attempt to dismiss or diminish the

importance of language for translation either. Language is an integral part of every

aspect of translation that we have considered thus far. The purpose of discussing

"people" or "working people," rather than, say, equivalence or terminology studies,

has not been to downplay the importance of language but rather to place it in a

larger social context — the context in which language takes on meaning, and in which

linguistic matters are learned and unlearned.

What my approach in this book does downplay, however, is a specific deductive

approach to the verbal aspect of translation: one usually known as "linguistics."

Traditional linguistic approaches to the study of translation have been given a

relatively peripheral status in the argument of this book because they are relatively

peripheral to what translators do, and thus to how one becomes a translator.

To be precise, traditional linguistic approaches to the study of translation begin

with an extremely narrow and restrictive conception of what Anthony Pym calls

"the external view" - the demands placed on translation by clients. The problem,

in other words, is not simply that traditional linguists find it very difficult to account

for translators' own internal view of their professional work; it is also that they

cannot account for very many of the client's real-world demands either. All their

precepts are based on the requirement that the translator should strive for linguistic

equivalence with the original text. And, as we saw in Chapter 1, equivalence is

only one demand clients often place on translators, and indeed only one kind of

demand: traditional linguistic approaches cannot, for example, tell us anything about

clients' demands for low cost or timeliness, or even translator reliability, and have

historically been notoriously unforthcoming about types of textual reliability other

than equivalence.

Linguistically oriented translation scholars have, however, recently begun

to venture outside the equivalence bubble — the narrow place where the scholar's

only conceivable task is to define linguistic equivalence rigorously enough to help

translators achieve it — and to explore the amazing variety of linguistic phenomena

faced by the translator. We will be examining some of these new approaches under

"Deduction," below.