Chapter 5: Descriptivism
5.1 The 1970s and 1980s saw the emergence of a resolutely empirical, historically-oriented kind of translation studies. It took a particular interest in literary translation and used a theoretical framework derived also, in large part at least, from literary studies. Among the leading figures in this approach were Gideon Toury, Itamar Even-Zohar, José Lambert, André Lefevere and Maria Tymoczko.
5.2 A programmatic statement of the descriptive approach is Gideon Toury’s Descriptive Translation Studies and Beyond (Toury 1995, a reworking of a book from 1980). For better or worse, the collective volume The Manipulation of Literature (Hermans 1985), which I edited, has sometimes been seen as the rallying point of this school of thought (hence the term ‘Manipulation School’ which is sometimes used). The ‘descriptive’ or ‘empirical’ paradigm – I use the terms ‘descriptive’ and ‘empirical’ interchangeably – had a significant impact on translation research. You can find a fuller treatment of Descriptivism in Unit 2 of the present Module.
5.3 A distinctive feature of descriptivism is the desire to avoid being prescriptive. Unlike previous approaches, descriptivism does not seek to interfere with the way in which translators go about their task, at least not directly or primarily. While it takes on board the contextualisation of translation outlined in Chapter 4, descriptivism has a different aim, which is to acquire insight into the nature and function of translation as a cultural and historical phenomenon. This kind of translation studies stand to the practice of translation as linguistic theories and descriptive grammars stand to language and language use, or as literary theory or literary history stand to literature. Most of the researchers concerned with descriptivism have some institutional link with literary studies, more often than not in university departments. Indeed much of the early impetus behind it came from Formalist and Structuralist literary theories.
5.4 Descriptivism in translation studies is less interested in evaluating individual translations than in trying to describe, map and explain translations as they present themselves. Translations tend to be seen here as the products of particular actions and decisions taken by translators as they go about their business. These explanations – obviously of a hypothetical nature, as is all our presumed knowledge of the world – are most likely to be found in the culture for which the translation was made and which, more often that not, also initiated the translation process, i.e. the receptor or target culture. The leading questions are who translates what, when, how, for whom, in what context, with what effect – and why are all these things as they are.
5.5 As regards the actual process of translation, the empiricial approach has focussed less on the mental operation of translating, which does not lend itself to direct observation (it happens in the translator’s head), than on the input and output ends of the operation, i.e. on the comparison between originals and translations, with a view to determining the precise nature of the relation between the two. A great deal of effort was spent on attempts to devise comparative and descriptive models that would be systematic, comprehensive and intersubjective. More recently the realization has come that in comparing two texts researchers will devise and select their own criteria of relevance, depending on their own position and the kind of questions they want to find answers to.
5.6 Comparison and description are fine as far as they go, but they are hardly ends in themselves. A more productive question is the one which inquires into the motivation behind the choices made by a translator, or for that matter by a whole school or a generation of translators, or by translators of certain types of text. This means inquiring into the priorities and strategies which have determined the preference for certain options over others which were also available. One means of exploring this question is provided by the concept of a translation norm. If we know what in a certain situation constitutes the generally accepted norm of translation, then we can assess to what extent the individual translator’s behaviour accords with or deviates from it. When we know that, we can speculate about his or her reasons for compliance or non-compliance. More likely than not, these reasons will bear some meaningful relation to the translator’s position in a social environment, as an agent in a network of material and symbolic power relations.
5.7 Norms are both psychological and social. They can be understood as sets of mutually recognized expectations: members of a community expect of one another that they will behave in certain ways in certain circumstances, in accordance with particular notions of what this community regards as proper or correct behaviour. In matters of translation these notions amount to a translation poetics. They constitute the background onto which we can project the individual translator’s choices and decisions in particular instances.
5.8 At the same time norms also determine what will be deemed acceptable as translation in a given culture. Ways of processing and transforming texts which fall outside the set of norms regarded as pertinent to translation, may be given other names (paraphrase, imitation, gloss, etc.) but they will not be called translation. In that sense norms effectively define what translation is to a particular cultural community, and they police the boundaries of what that community regards as ‘legitimate’ translation.
Further reading (see Chapter 11): Even-Zohar 1990; Hermans 1999; Lefevere 1992; Toury 1995.