Chapter 3: Traditional Approaches
3.1 If I had to summarize the more traditional view of translation which prevailed – and to some extent still prevails – among linguists working at institutes for translator training, I would say that they saw translation primarily in linguistic terms, and the study of translation as an ancillary discipline serving the eminently practical purpose of producing better translations and better translators. Translation studies was a subdivision of contrastive and/or applied linguistics, and a discipline of translation was needed to remedy what Peter Newmark called the ‘appalling badness’ of most translations.
3.2 One of the earliest publications that attempted to grasp the nature of translation in linguistic terms was J.C. Catford’s A Linguistic Theory of Translation (1965). Catford began his chapter on ‘Definition and General Types’ with the statement that “[t]he theory of translation is concerned with a certain type of relation between languages and is consequently a branch of Comparative Linguistics” (Catford 1965: 20). Translating, for Catford, is a linguistic operation consisting of the substitution of source-language grammatical and lexical elements with equivalent target-language grammatical and lexical elements, together with the simultaneous exchange of source-language phonological and/or graphological elements for target-language phonological and/or graphological elements (Catford 1965: 20-24).
3.3 Although from the start someone like the American Bible translator Eugene Nida was keenly interested in cultural as well as linguistic differences (see the next chapter), he too located the study of translation firmly in the domain of linguistics. In an address to the Linguistic Society of America in December 1968 he described the study of translation as “a branch of comparative linguistics, with a dynamic dimension and a focus upon semantics” (Nida 1969: 96).
3.4 The ancillary status of the study of translation as handmaiden to the practice of translation was evident, for example in Peter Newmark’s essay ‘What Translation Theory is About’ of 1980 – and it is good to remember that, together with Nida, Newmark has been by far the most influential presence in translator training in the last fifty years:
Translation theory’s main concern is to determine appropriate translation methods for the widest possible range of texts or text-categories. Further, it provides a framework of principles, restricted rules and hints for translating texts and criticizing translations, a background for problem-solving. (…) Lastly, translation theory attempts to give some insight into the relation between thought, meaning and language; the universal, cultural and individual aspects of language and behaviour, the understanding of cultures; the interpretation of texts that may be clarified and even supplemented by way of translation.
Thus translation theory covers a wide range of pursuits, attempts always to be useful, to assist the individual translator both by stimulating him to write better and to suggest points of agreement on common translation problems. (Newmark 1986: 19)
The direct link with the practice of translation is the main rationale underpinning this approach. Even today such a link is often regarded as the only justification for studying translation and translations.
3.5 When the study of translation has this aim in mind it can be characterised as being at once prospective and prescriptive. It is prospective, i.e. forward-looking, in that it is geared to future (and better) translations and to devising solutions for translation problems. It is prescriptive in the sense of being intent on drafting guidelines, rules and routines with a view to steering the practice of translation in what is taken to be a positive direction.
3.6 An important concept in this approach is that of equivalence, which figures in this approach both as the aim of translation and its condition. A translation, it is assumed, strives to attain the largest possible degree of equivalence with its source text, or the largest possible degree of the most adequate kind of equivalence; at the same time, under the approach one will only recognize as a translation that version which exhibits the required kind and degree of equivalence with the original. A ‘good’ translation is then one that displays an adequate level and type of equivalence. In this way equivalence both defines and delimits translation. We will return to the point in the following chapters.