Chapter 4: Text Linguistics and Pragmatics
4.1 The changes which the traditional view of translation has undergone since the late 1970s are due partly to developments within linguistics and partly to the growing awareness of the complex character of translation on the part of those teaching it. I shall be brief about these changes because I want to give more space to approaches to translation developed outside the domain of linguistics and translator training.
4.2 The growing awareness of the complexity of translation on the part of the translator trainers is evident when we look at some of the basic distinctions introduced early on by Eugene Nida and Peter Newmark. Nida famously distinguished between‘formal’ and ‘dynamic’ equivalence (the latter subsequently renamed ‘functional’ equivalence) in a discussion of how cultural differences complicate the issue of the purely structural differences between languages (what do you do when you want to translate the biblical reference to Christ as the ‘lamb of God’ for a society like the Inuit where sheep are not part of the landscape?). Newmark made a similar distinction between ‘semantic’ and ‘communicative’ equivalence, the latter accommodating the requirements of a particular situation. More recently Christiane Nord has spoken of translations that could be either ‘documentary’ (as when I want to know how Italian laws are phrased and ask for a translation that will show me how Italian laws are formulated) or ‘instrumental’ (as when I may have to translate an EU document written in French for legal application in Poland, in which case the translation needs to conform to Polish legal terminology).
4.3 Among the shifts of focus in linguistics which had a direct impact on the study of translation are (a) text linguistics, or discourse analysis, and (b) pragmatics. Both emerged as reactions against the so-called ‘generative-transformational’ linguistics that dominated the 1960s and ’70s. At that time, Noam Chomsky’s transformational-generative grammar was interested in the grammaticality of utterances rather than in their meaning or use, and he restricted his investigations to individual sentences (rather than dealing with strings of sentences that form texts, or with the way in which people actually deploy language for certain ends).
4.4 Text linguistics led to the realization that translation is not so much a matter of matching abstract language systems or isolated sentences occurring in a vacuum, but of working on texts. Now, different cultures have different ways of organizing and structuring texts. As a result of dealing with such texts on a regular basis, they have different conventions and hence different `textual competences’, i.e. different expectations regarding the well-formedness of texts. Albrecht Neubert, for example, stressed the need to go beyond the sentence and to consider macrostructural patterns in texts and what he calls more generally the `communicative matrix’ of language communities (Neubert 1984: 146). In this model translation does not transfer meanings but communicative values, i.e. those composites which result from the occurrence of meanings in a given, culturally embedded, discourse (Neubert and Shreve 1992: 24). Consequently, Neubert follows Nida in recommending the pursuit of `functional equivalence’. Like Nida, too, he stresses the practical purpose of his investigations, which seek to provide insight and at the same time serve a practical end.
4.5 The second trend in linguistics that was new at the time, pragmatics, which in turn grew out of the speech act theory of J.L. Austin and John Searle, also moved away from viewing translation as a static, purely linguistic operation and instead conceived of it as a communicative process which always takes place at a certain moment in a specific socio-cultural context (Hatim & Mason 1990: 3). Here too it was recognized that translation operates on utterances, on actual language use rather than on the abstract language system; and utterances are produced and exchanged by individuals in particular environments and for certain purposes.
4.6 The combined impact of text linguistics and pragmatics resulted not only in a more dynamic view of translation but also in an increased awareness of the relevance of changing contexts. It was realized, for example, that while a source text may have been produced with a certain intended function in its original environment, its translation need not have the same function in the receptor culture at all. An impassioned speech by Fidel Castro calling on the Cubans to tighten their belts in the face of imperialist aggression does not have quite the same function when it is translated in, say,The Guardian; the Spanish text will be largely persuasive, the English is likely to be read by an audience that does not feel itself directly addressed. An important consequence of this line of thought is that the original text can hardly continue to be the only and absolute yardstick to hold up to a translation. On the contrary, the intended function of the translation in its new environment is what determines the shape of the target text. That function may be decided by the translator, or it may be dictated by whoever commissions the translation – for in translation as elsewhere, he who pays the piper calls the tune.
4.7 Among the first to steer the study of translation in this direction was Katharina Reiss, who in the 1970s (and following Karl Bühler’s work in the 1930s) introduced the notion of ‘text types’, distinguishing between primarily informative, expressive and operative (or persuasive) texts. Reiss argued that each type calls for an appropriate mode of translation, and that functional shifts may occur in the transition from one context to another. That such a view entails an erosion of any strict concept of equivalence, will be obvious (Reiss 2000 [original 1971]).
4.8 Text types hardly ever manifest themselves in their pure form. Most utterances are a mixture of two or all three of the main types. A lyrical poem may be primarily ‘expressive’ and an advert mainly persuasive, but both also convey information. An encyclopedia entry is perhaps principally informative but it also possesses a persuasive aspect. Mary Snell-Hornby’s so-called ‘integrated approach’ provided a neat solution to this difficulty in terms of prototype theory, which invites us to think of concepts as having a hard core but fuzzy edges where different concepts can mingle and overlap. Snell-Hornby presented the different text-types and functions of language and translation in the form of a ‘prototypology’, a sliding scale of categories avoiding rigid divisions and partitions (Snell-Hornby 1986: 16ff.; 1988: 31ff).
4.9 Close links between the theory and practice of translation are still very much part of this programme. The relation is meant to be reciprocal. To the extent that the practice of translation is expected to benefit from the theory, it is in consciously adopting the latter’s insights as guidelines. Among the aims of translation theory is, for Snell-Hornby, the provision of ‘a framework which ultimately leads to the production of better translations’ (1986: 12).
4.10 The most radical exponent of the pragmatic re-orientation in translation studies is probably Hans Vermeer, who sees translation in terms of social action carried out by professionals and determined by a particular goal (called ‘skopos’), which is normally made explicit in the client’s commission, i.e. the employer’s statement of what they actually want with the translation. The centrality of ‘skopos’ and commission, both of which are normally formulated or at least envisaged in the context of the target culture, explains why for Vermeer a given source text can give rise to more than one ‘good’ or ‘correct’ or ‘adequate’ translation. In this view, then, the concept of equivalence is further hollowed out to a functional category determined by target-cultural factors. (For an account of ‘skopos theory’ see Nord 1997).
4.11 One currently influential school of thought in linguistics combines pragmatics with cognitive science (cognitive science is concerned with the way in which the mind processes language). Relevance theory was first developed in the 1980s by the anthropologist Dan Sperber and the linguist Deirdre Wilson. Relevance theory distinguishes, among other things, between the ‘descriptive’ and the ‘interpretive’ use of language. In the former case we make statements about the world, in the latter about other statements. The main proponent of the application of Relevance Theory to issues of translation is Ernst-August Gutt (Translation and Relevance, 1992, revised edition 2000). According to Gutt, we can explain translation perfectly adequately in terms of what Relevance Theory has to say about the interpretive use of language.
4.12 It is not hard to discern a common element in the various approaches outlined above. In all of them, translation is contextualized. It is no longer considered to be a more or less mechanical decoding and recoding operation, but a complex communicative act involving utterances and speakers who fit into sociocultural as well as linguistic systems. The sociocultural and the linguistic systems involved in the translational transaction are always a-symmetrical. Translation is therefore an irreversible, one-way process. It follows that shifts of form and function are not some accidental and deplorable side-effect, but that they are in the very nature of translation. And just as the decision to translate (rather than import or transfer a text in some other way) is usually taken in the receptor culture, so linguistic and pragmatic shifts in translation, too, normally occur to suit the requirements of the receiving culture. This pushes the focus of attention away from the source text and towards the target pole, the receiving end. Vermeer dramatized the shift of emphasis by speaking of the ‘dethronement’ of the source text. In addition, there is in all this a clear invitation to re-think the concept of equivalence.
4.13 Nonetheless, just about all the approaches mentioned so far remain essentially prospective and prescriptive. They interact with the practice of translation in that they are geared to influencing and improving that practice, whether in the form of translation criticism and evaluation, or of translator training. This is not surprising if we look at the institutional position of the people who developed these approaches. They have for the most part been affiliated to translator training institutes. The theory is designed to identify the factors involved in the production of translations and in the actual process of translating, to explore the range of problems and solutions that present themselves, and to suggest the optimum solution in this or that specific context. The optimum solution is thought to consist in bringing about the most appropriate kind and level of equivalence, however slippery that notion may now have become. Consequently the theory also designs methods for assessing the relative merits of individual solutions, i.e. for evaluating translations.
Further reading (see Chapter 11): Gutt 2000; Hatim & Mason 1990; Neubert & Shreve 1992; Nord 1997; Snell-Hornby 1988.