M1: Unit 2: Chapter 3 – Theoretical and Descriptive Branches

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Chapter 1: Introduction Chapter 6: Systemic Position Chapter 11: Self-reflection
Chapter 2: The Scientific Model Chapter 7: Norms Theory Chapter 12: Computerization
Chapter 3: Theoretical and Descriptive Branches Chapter 8: Norms Critique Chapter 13: Laws
Chapter 4: Applied Branch Chapter 9: Other Sources of Explanation Chapter 14: Conclusion
Chapter 5: Target Orientation Chapter 10: Objectivity Chapter 15: Bibliography

Chapter 3: Theoretical and Descriptive Branches

1. Toury’s starting point in setting up the discipline is James Holmes’ vision of the nature of Translation Studies. Toury writes that Holmes’ ideas, which were first expressed in a paper in 1972, were neglected for many years, and that “the map still represents more of a desideratum than a reality” (Toury 1995, 8). Holmes “envisioned a full-scale scientific discipline” and the divisions of the discipline are in keeping with Holmes’ “conviction that Translation Studies should emerge as an empirical science” (Toury 1995, 7,9). Toury adopts and develops Holmes’ “map” of the discipline. The two main divisions of the discipline are the pure and applied branches. The pure branch is sub-divided into theoretical and descriptive branches. The objectives of the descriptive branch (objective 1) and theoretical branch (objective 2) follow Hempel’s objectives for an empirical science:

1) to describe the phenomena of translating and translation(s) as they manifest themselves in the world of our experience, and 2) to establish general principles by means of which these phenomena can be explained and predicted. (Holmes 1988, 71)

2. Thus the main goals are description, explanation, and prediction. Toury’s stance is firmly empirical in that he considers that no progress can be made in research on translation unless actual translations are the object of study. He pits his approach against certain kinds of writing on translation, namely writing based on introspection and speculation:

what constitutes the subject matter of a proper discipline of Translation Studies is (observable or reconstructable) facts of real life rather than merely speculative entities resulting from preconceived hypotheses and theoretical models. It is therefore empirical by its very nature and should be worked out accordingly. (Toury 1995, 1)

The emphasis on studying a particular corpus of translations leads to the avoidance of broad generalizations characteristic of some writing on translation:

the retrospective establishment of norms is always relative to the section under study, and no upward projection is possible. Any attempt to move in that direction and draw generalizations would require further study, which should be targeted towards that particular end. (Toury 1995, 69)

3. The theoretical branch is further subdivided into general and partial theories, the latter being categorized according to various kinds of “restrictions” or focus: medium (machine translation, interpreting, written translation), area (language and culture restrictions), rank (linguistic rank or level), text-type (eg. Bible translation), time (contemporary or older texts), and problem (eg. the nature of translation equivalence, the translation of metaphor). The descriptive branch is further divided into product-oriented, process-oriented, and function-oriented studies (Holmes 1988).

4. Toury’s development of Holmes’ “map” consists in exploring the existing and desired relations between the various divisions and subdivisions. Toury explains that the theoretical and descriptive branches are in a helical relation, since the results of descriptive studies will serve to build up and refine theory (confirming, refuting or modifying hypotheses), and the refined theory will then make possible more elaborate studies, and so on. The process of refinement will consist of the transition from an elementary kind of theory equipped to deal with what translation can involve, through what it does involve under varying circumstances (descriptive level) to what it is likely to involve under various sets of conditions (conditional laws, an elaborate form of general theory) (Toury 1995, 265).

5. Descriptive studies play a pivotal role in what Toury considers to be the ultimate goal of the theoretical branch, namely the establishment of laws of translational behaviour. The quest for laws is generally held to be the aim of sciences; laws provide a source of explanation and of prediction of phenomena. Following Toury, it is the accumulation of input from a large number of descriptive studies in which regularities are established which will eventually allow the formulation of such laws. Toury explains that the laws will express the likelihood that given types of behaviour will occur under given sets of specifiable conditions: the laws thus incorporate the restrictions of partial theories, and a general theory of translation will be constituted. As mentioned in chapter 2 para 1, the necessary accumulation of knowledge for formulating laws requires that studies be intersubjectively testable, replicable, and comparable. In order for this to occur, it is essential that descriptive studies be undertaken in the same theoretical framework using the same clearly-defined method. An important task of the descriptive branch is therefore to provide methodological and research procedures (Toury 1995, 3,16, 265). We shall return later to the issue of laws and prerequisites of studies undertaken in view of formulating laws; the goal of laws is indeed a feature of Toury’s ideas which has been criticized, and has not been adopted by most descriptivists (See chapter 13). Let us continue for the moment with the discussion of relations between the divisions in Holmes’ map.

6. In his article Holmes does not discuss relations among function, product, and process-oriented approaches within the descriptive branch (Holmes 1988). Toury considers that all three elements need to be explored in a descriptive study, which should reveal the nature of the relations among the elements. Toury posits a hierarchical order whereby the (prospective) systemic position and function of a translation in the Target Culture (TC) determines the appropriate textual make-up of the product, which in turn governs the process, the strategies whereby a target text is derived from its original (Toury 1995, 12-13). Daniel Simeoni considers that this new pyramidal structure constitutes a major rewriting of Holmes’ map. It presents translation studies as a “function-based sociosemiotic discipline” (Simeoni 1997, 5), where the task of the translation researcher is to bring to light cultural constraints. The rearrangement thus means that the descriptive branch involves both description and explanation, and that laws are not the only source of explanation.

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