Chapter 6: Systemic Position
1. For Toury an important step in his method of studying translations is ‘contextualization’ or ‘positioning’. This involves positing a TC sub-system to which a translation belongs, and establishing whether it is representative of that sub-system. Establishing the degree of representativeness is achieved through studying the translation in terms of its acceptability in the TC sub-system. The translation can also be studied in terms of acceptability in the wider system of native texts. Importantly, positioning also embodies the notion of the role the translation plays, its significance in TC, and its relations to prevailing and past models and norms in TC and SC. The initial contextualization is tentative, and is revised near the end of the study by weighing the original positioning of a text against the findings of the descriptive study, and also by taking into account what has been further discovered about the translational tradition within which it came into being (Toury 1995, 29-30, 71). In practice precise ‘contextualization’ does not seem to be an easy undertaking, because it necessitates a large amount of knowledge which may be difficult to obtain.
2. The issue of positioning brings us back to the pyramidal structure of the descriptive branch of Translation Studies (see chapter 3 para 6): systemic position and function determine the appropriate make-up of the product which governs the translating process. This structure indicates what Toury considers to be important sources of explanation for translational phenomena: TC systemic position/function and TC norms governing translational behaviour. Toury takes the word ‘function’ in a semiotic sense: “as the ‘value’ assigned to an item belonging in a certain system by virtue of the network of relations it enters into” (Toury 1995, 12). Toury’s semiotic approach draws on Itamar Even-Zohar’s polysystem theory which in turn is based on work by later Russian formalists. Toury’s notion of ‘norm’ comes from sociology (see chapter 7).
3. Toury explains that the reason why the prospective position and function are determining factors is that translation is undertaken within a particular target cultural environment, and designed to meet needs or occupy certain ‘slots’ in the target culture:
features are retained, and reconstructed in target-language material, not because they are ‘important’ in any inherent sense, but because they are assigned importance, from the recipient vantage point. (Toury 1995, 12)
Toury, like Even-Zohar, considers that texts and models are imported to fill in gaps in TC. In the course of fulfilling needs of the target system, required or preferred translation relationships may be established, and thus translational norms (Toury 1995, 12,27). The notion of TC position, or more specifically, TC needs as ‘final cause’ has been criticized by Pym. He considers that a TC cannot perceive its gaps without referring to an external culture; it is contact with another culture that gives rise to needs. There are cases too where translations are ‘forced’ on TC by the source side (Pym 1998a, 152-153).
4. Even-Zohar’s polysystem theory, which is adopted by Toury, provided a major impetus in the development of translation research from the mid-seventies (Lambert 1995, 119, 151). For Even-Zohar a culture is a polysystem – a dynamic heterogeneous open structure consisting of numerous systems (language, the economy, politics, ideology etc.) (Even-Zohar 1979). Seen from the polysystem perspective, translations constitute a system or a number of sub-systems in TC. Even-Zohar proposes that the system of translated literature may play an innovative or a conservative role in a culture. The particular role determines whether translation is source-text oriented (innovative) or target-language oriented (conservative) (Even-Zohar 1990): this is an illustration of how systemic position conditions translational norms.