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Teaching and theorizing translation as a social activity (deduction)

In a later chapter of Translation and Text Transfer (1992a: 152—3), Anthony Pym

comments on the historical invisibility of translators as monolingual rulers' servants

— "controlled nobodies" — and raises the very political question of loyalty or fidelity,

especially the knotty problem of proving one's loyalty to a ruler who cannot do what

the translator does:

It is not particularly scandalous that few translators have been kings, princes or

priests. There is even a certain pride to be taken in the fact that political and

moral authorities have had to trust the knowledge conveyed by their translating

servants. But how might the prince know that a particular translator is worthy

of trust? It would be foolish to suggest that all translators are equally competent,

that their fidelity corresponds automatically to what they are paid, or that their

loyalty is beyond doubt. Some kind of extra-textual support is ultimately

necessary. Perhaps the prince's confidence is based on a diploma from a

specialised translation institute, references from previous employers, comparisons

with other translators, or even on what the individual translator is able to

say about the practice of translating, since theorisation is itself a mode of

professional self-defence.

This conception of translation theory as a necessary part of the translator's

defensive armor against attacks from the uncomprehending is at once age-old —

it was, after all, Jerome's fundamental motivation for theorizing translation in his

letter to Pammachius in 395, and Martin Luther's likewise in his circular letter on

translation in 1530 — and also relatively new. The official and dominant reason for

theorizing translation for over two thousand years, after all, has almost invariably

been to control the translators' actions, not (as for Jerome, Luther, and Pym) to help

them justify those actions after the fact: to make translators absolutely subject to

the ruler's command (be faithful, not free!), not to give them defenses against the

ruler's incomprehension.

This is once again the distinction between internal and external knowledge, raised

in Chapter 1: from the "ruler's" or user's external point of view, the only possible

reason for translation theory to exist is to develop and enforce normative standards

for accurate and faithful translation — to make sure that translators are translating

in conformity with collectively imposed standards and not, say, becoming the

"traitors" they are always halfway suspected of becoming (traduttore traditore). From

the translator's internal point of view, however, translation theory exists largely in

order to help them to solve problems that arise and to defend their solutions

when criticized, and thus to grow professionally in skills, knowledge, disposition,

demeanor, and credibility.

Note, however, that both of these conceptions of the reasons for theorizing

translation are explicitly social: they derive justifications for translation theory not

from "pure knowledge" or "value-free science," but from the necessity of living and

working in the social world, of getting along with other people (in this case the

people who pay us to do the work). And while it is by no means new to theorize

translation for these social reasons, it is only since the late 1970s — beginning with

the functional /action- oriented /translation- oriented /skopos/Handlung school in

Germany (Katharina ReiB, Hans J. Vermeer, Justa Holz-Manttari, Christiane Nord,

others) and the poly systems/ translation studies/manipulation school in the Benelux

countries and Israel (Itamar Even-Zohar, Gideon Toury, Andre Lefevere, James S.

Holmes, Theo Hermans, others) — that translation theorists have been explicitly

theorizing the theorizing of translation in these social terms. Translation, all of these

theorists have been insisting, is controlled by social networks, social interactions,

people saying to one another "do this," "I'll give you X amount of money if you do

this," "could you help me with this," etc. — and translation theory is an inescapable

part of that. In fact, if theory isn't a part of such social interactions, these theorists

believe, it is useless — a mere academic game, a way to get published, to build a

reputation, to be promoted, and so forth.

Since what is variously known as the polysystems or "descriptive translation

studies" (DTS) or "manipulation" school is typically more interested in large cultural

systems than in local social networks, we will be returning to the work of that group

of theorists in Chapter 10; here our concern will be with the German school

variously called functional translation theory, action/Handlung-oriented translation

theory, translation-oriented text analysis, or skopos theory.

This group has worked to stress the importance of the social functions and

interactions of translation for primarily realistic purposes. It is more realistic, they

believe, to study translation in terms of what really happens when people translate,

what social forces really control translation, than in the traditional abstract universal

terms of text-based equivalence (translate sense-for-sense, not word-for-word).

Since their claim is that translation has always been social but is just now being

perceived in terms of its true social nature, this approach is fundamentally corrective:

it seeks to undermine traditional approaches that lay down general laws without

regard for the vast situational variety that is translation practice.

In this sense the functional/action-orientedAJbpos theorists develop their correctives

to traditional text-oriented theories by moving a few steps closer to what Peirce

calls induction: they explore their own inductive experiences of translating in the

social /professional world, observe what they and their colleagues actually do, what

actually happens in and around the act of translating, and build new theories or

"deductions" from those observations. This dedication to the "practical" experiences

of real translators in real professional contexts has made this approach extremely

attractive to many practitioners and students of translation. Like all theorists,

functional translation theorists do simplify the social field of translation in order to

theorize it; they move from the mind-numbing complexity of the real world to the

relative stability of reductive idealizations and abstractions, of diagrams that pretend

to be all-inclusive, and sometimes of jargon that seems to come from Mars. But

because they are themselves professional translators whose theories arise out of their

own practical/inductive experiences, they also retain a loyalty to the complexity

of practice, so that even while formulating grand schemas that will explain just

how the social networks surrounding translators function, they keep reminding

their readers that things are never quite this simple — that this or that theoretical

component is sometimes different.

A good illustration of the theoretical method behind this approach might be

gleaned from Christiane Nord's book Text Analysis in Translation (1991), her own

English translation of her earlier German book Textanaljse und Ubersetzen (1988).

Nord usefully and accessibly summarizes the main points of the functional or actionoriented

approach in her first chapter, in analyses and diagrams and examples as

well as in pithy summary statements printed in a larger bold font and enclosed in

boxes; let us use those statements to introduce a functional approach here:

Being culture-bound linguistic signs, both the source text and the target text are

determined by the communicative situation in which they serve to convey a message.


Implication: all texts, not just translations, are determined by the communicative

situation, not abstract universal rules governing writing or speaking. It is impossible,

therefore, to say that text-based "equivalence" is or should be the defining criterion

of a good translation, or that a single type of equivalence is the only acceptable one

for all translation. These things are determined by and in the communicative

situation — by people, acting and interacting in a social context.

The initiator starts the process of intercultural communication because he wants

a particular communicative instrument: the target text.


This group of theorists was the first to begin speaking and writing of "initiators"

or "commissioners" who need a target text and ask someone to create one. That

such people exist, and that their impact on the process and nature of translation

is enormous, should have been obvious. But no one paid it significant theoretical

attention. The only significant "persons" in traditional theories were the sourcetext

author, the translator, and the target-text reader; the source-text author and

Social networks 173

target-text reader were imagined to exert some sort of magical influence over the

translator without the mediation of the actual real-world people who in fact channel

that influence through phone calls, faxes, e-mail messages, and payments.

The function of the target text is not arrived at automatically from an analysis of

the source text, but is pragmatically defined by the purpose of the intercultural



Implications: (1) that translations are intended to serve some social function or

functions; (2) that these functions are not textual abstractions like "the rhetorical

function" or "the informative function," but extratextual actions designed to shape

how people behave in a social context; (3) that these functions cannot be determined

in stable or permanent ways but must be renegotiated "pragmatically" in every new

communicative context; and (4) that the guiding factor in these negotiations is the

purpose (skopos) of the intercultural communication, what the various people hope

to achieve in and through it.

The translator's reception (i.e. the way he receives the text) is determined by the

communicative needs of the initiator or the TT [target-text] recipient.


Implication: the translator reads the text, the interpreter hears the text, neither

in absolute submission to some transcendental "spirit" of the text nor in pure

anarchistic idiosyncrasy, but as guided by the wishes of the people who need the

translation and ask for it.

The translator is not the sender of the ST [source-text] message but a text producer

in the target culture who adopts somebody else's intention in order to produce a

communicative instrument for the target culture, or a target-culture document of

a source-culture communication.

(1991: 11)

Implications: (1) that the translator is the instrument not of the original author, as

is often assumed in older theories, but of the target culture; (2) that there are social

forces — namely, people working together — in the target culture who organize that culture's communicative needs and present the translator with a specific task in the

satisfaction of those needs; and thus (3) that the source-text message always comes

to the translator mediated and shaped, to some extent "pre-interpreted," by complex

target-cultural arrangements.

A text is a communicative action which can be realized by a combination of verbal

and non-verbal means.


A text is not, that is, a static object that can be studied in "laboratory conditions"

and described in reliable objective ways. It is a social action, and partakes of

the situational variety of all such actions. It takes on its actional force not only

through its words but through tone of voice (as spoken or read aloud), gestures and

expressions, "illustrations, layout, a company logo, etc." (1991: 14). By the same

token, a source text found by the translator in a book or a dentist's office will be

significantly different from one faxed or e-mailed to the translator by a client or

agency — even if the words are identical. The nonverbal action of sending a text to

be translated by electronic means actually changes the communicative action.

The reception of a text depends on the individual expectations of the recipient,

which are determined by the situation in which he receives the text as well as by

his social background, his world knowledge, and/or his communicative needs.

(1991: 16)

Or as Nord (1991: 16) glosses this, "The sender's intention and the recipient's

expectation may be identical, but they need not necessarily coincide nor even be

compatible." More: not all translation users (initiators, commissioners, recipients)

even expect them to coincide or be compatible. Some do; but this is far from the

absolute ideal requirement for all translation that more traditional theories have

made it out to be.

By means of a comprehensive model of text analysis which takes into account

intratextual as well as extratextual factors the translator can establish the "functionin-

culture" of a source text. He then compares this with the (prospective) functionin-

culture of the target text required by the initiator, identifying and isolating those

ST elements which have to be preserved or adapted in translation.


The translator mediates, in other words, between two textual actions, the source

text as an action functioning in the source culture and the (desired) target text

which the initiator wants to function in a certain way in the target culture. In the

end, the initiator's requirements will determine the nature of the target text, but

those requirements must be filtered through what the translator has determined as

the "function 4n-culture" of the source text. Ethical considerations come into play

when the translator (or some other person) feels that there is too great a discrepancy

between the two textual actions.

Functional equivalence between source and target text is not the //normal,/ skopos

[purpose] of a translation, but an exceptional case in which the factor "change

of functions" is assigned zero.


Since the target text will serve different cultural and social functions in the target

culture from those served by the source text in the source culture, it is exceedingly

rare for a translation to be "functionally equivalent" to its original. Functional change

is the normal skopos; the usual question is "How will the skopos or purpose of this

textual action change in the target culture?" Hence Nord's functional definition of


Translation is the production of a functional target text maintaining a relationship

with a given source text that is specified according to the intended or demanded

function of the target text (translation skopos). Translation allows a communicative

act to take place which because of existing linguistic and cultural barriers would

not have been possible without it.


A relationship: not a single stable relationship, to be determined in advance for all

times and all places; just a relationship, which will vary with the social interactions

that determine it.

This conception of translation as governed by social function in real social

interactions has obvious implications for the theorizing and teaching of translation

as well.

First, it is clear that translation theorists and teachers, far from standing above

or beyond or outside these social networks, are very much caught up in them as

well. Theorists attempt to make sense of the social networks controlling translation

not for "pure science" reasons but to teach others (especially translators) to understand

the social processes better, so as to play a responsible and ethical role in them.

Being "responsible" means responding, making active and informed and ethical

decisions about how to react to the pressures placed on one to act in a certain way

in a certain situation; the function of translation theory and translation instruction

must be to enhance translators' ability to make such decisions.

And second, just as translators generate theory in their attempts to understand

their work better — for example, to respond more complexly to criticism, to distinguish

true problem areas from areas where the critic is simply misinformed, to

improve the former and defend the latter, and to renegotiate borderline cases — so

too must translation theorists and teachers build their theoretical and pedagogical

models at the cusp where deductive principles begin to arise out of inductive

experience, and always remember the practical complexity out of which those

principles arose. That complexity is not only an explosively fertile source of

new ideas, new insights, new understanding; it is the only place in which theories,

rules, and precepts can be grasped and applied in action. Students learning, teachers

teaching, and theorists theorizing, like translators translating, are social animals

engaged in a highly social activity controlled by the interactive communicative needs

of real people in real social contexts.