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Domesticating the Theorists: A Plea for Plain Language
Posted on Wednesday, October 17 @ 05:54:41 EDT
Topic: Theory

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Throughout the history of translation, those who we now call theorists expressed their views in respect to the translation process and the desired results to be achieved by translation. They formulated their views by advocating translation ad verbum or translation ad sensum and, more recently, by defending or opposing the theory that a translation must read like an original text. Nevertheless, whatever their views, whatever the controversy they provoked, they all had one thing in common — their definitions and their explanations were written in straightforward language. One unfortunate consequence of the present popularity of Translation Theory and Translation Studies has been the trend to eschew plain language and to use, instead, a pseudo-scientific style that often leaves the average reader in a state of mind ranging from incredulity to dizziness. The interest linguists began to show in translation about four decades ago has resulted in both benefits and losses. The benefits concern the theoretical content, the deeper insights into how language works, while the losses consist in the way in which all this is expressed. At present, teachers and students of translation are bewildered at the growing incomprehensibility of the books and articles that flood the market. The plea made in this article is for a return to plain English in Translation Studies.

The title of this article — as no doubt most people interested in Translation Studies will have recognized — is an allusion to the process of translating as described by one of our leading contemporary theorists. We shall come back to this reference later on. Let me begin by clarifying that my intention here is to draw attention to the increasing uneasiness felt by some, many, or perhaps most of those whose job it is to train future translators when faced with the almost unintelligible definitions and convoluted language that have become the fashion in Translation Theory. It looks as if, in their endeavors to find a metalanguage that will cover all its facets and all its implications of translation, the big names in the subject were trying to compete for a first prize in obscurity.
It looks as if the big names in the subject were trying to compete for a first prize in obscurity.

Without attempting to provide a full anthology of definitions, it will be useful to begin by briefly examining what some of the great names in the history of translation have had to say about their job. (Notice, incidentally, that I am not joining the debate whether translation theorists should be translators themselves or not, since this does not affect the question of defining what is meant by translation.)

We can begin with Leonardo Bruni, the great Italian scholar who wrote De interpretatione recta in about 1420. According to Bruni, translating consists in ‘quod in altera lingua scriptum sit, in alteram recte traducatur’ (Lafarga, 1996: 80). Another of the humanists who wrote in Latin, the Spaniard Juan Luis Vives, in his De arte dicendi, 1532, described what he called versio as ‘a lingua in linguam verborum traductio sensu servato’ (Lafarga, 1996: 134). It should be noted that these and other theorists usually gave a succinct definition of translation but qualified it afterwards with a number of remarks and explanations to show the complexities involved. Thus, Bruni adds that a thorough knowledge of both languages — what we would now call the source language and the target language — is indispensable and that there are other complications, for example the fact that some people are good at comprehension, but not at expression. Vives notes that sometimes only the meaning is required, while there are other times when both meaning and style are translated, even while he points out the impossibility of the latter approach because languages differ so much and because there are no two languages which are exactly the same in all respects — a point, incidentally, already mentioned by the earliest classics in the history of translation.

The extent to which these differences exist, and consequently the basic impossibility of translation, never escaped the attention of the great translators; if anything, it was stressed more and more as time went by. At the end of the eighteenth century, Alexander Tytler, in his well-known Essay on the Principles of Translation, 1791, began by stating that

If it were possible accurately to define, or, perhaps more properly, to describe what is meant by a good translation, it is evident that a considerable progress would be made towards establishing the rules of the art; for these rules would flow naturally from that definition or description.

He then went into the question of differences between languages and the impossibility of keeping both form and content, finally describing a good translation as

That in which the merit of the original work is so completely transfused into another language as to be as distinctly apprehended, and as strongly felt, by a native of the country to which that language belongs as it is by those who speak the language of the original work.

This definition somehow contradicted Tytler's previous assertion that, since the dichotomy form/content could not be solved to everybody’s satisfaction, the point of perfection might be found between both; however, he also complemented his definition with three ‘laws of translation’ which stated that the translation should contain all the original ideas, that the style should be the same as that found in the original, and that the translation should read like an original text (Robinson, 1997: 209).

The period that extends, roughly, between Schleiermacher, in Germany, and Ortega y Gasset, in Spain — that is to say, between Über die verschiedenen Methoden des Übersetzens, 1813, and Miseria y esplendor de la traducción, 1937 — was the period in which a translation, according to some of the best-known theorists, had to read like a translation and not like an original text, a view reinforced by statements such as Victor Hugo’s, in 1865, ‘Une traduction est presque toujours regardée tout d’abord par le peuple à qui on la donne comme une violence qu’on lui fait. [...] Une langue dans laquelle on transvase de la sorte un autre idiome fait ce qu’elle peut pour refuser’ (Lafarga, 1996: 400). But, one should add, whatever their views on the right way to translate and what translating implied, they still wrote in a transparent style, be it Schleiermacher’s reference to the possibility of taking the author to the reader or the reader to the author, or Ortega’s references to the intrinsic shortcomings of human language, expressed in his admirable prose.

In more recent times, from the inception of the interest Linguistics has devoted to translation as one aspect of human language, definitions and the terminology used in Translation Studies have progressively become more complex. At present, I believe, they are simply defeating their own purpose. At first, and apart from the introduction of some vocabulary items which gave definitions a more precise meaning or a more scientific look, the actual information supplied was not difficult to grasp. Thus Catford, in 1965, still defined translation as ‘the replacement of textual material in one language (SL) by equivalent textual material in another language (TL)’ (Catford, 1965: 20). Nida and Taber, some ten years later, were still intelligible to the reader: what was involved in the process of translating was ‘reproducing in the receptor language the closest natural equivalent of the source-language message, first in terms of meaning and secondly in terms of style’ (Nida and Taber, 1974: 12). More recently, a specialist, still clear in his use of language, defines translation as ‘the attempt to replace a written message and/or statement in one language by the same message and/or statement in another language’, although he adds that this ‘provokes a continuous tension, a dialectic, an argument based on the claims of each language. The basic loss is a continuum between overtranslation (increased detail) and undertranslation (increased generalization)’ (Newmark, 1995: 7).

At the same time, definitions which attempted to give a scientific description of translation both as a process and as a result, began to appear. A starting point could be the lecture delivered by Alexander Ludskanov, of the Bulgarian Academy of Sciences, in 1974, in an attempt to bring translation into the sphere of semiotics. The central act in translation became that of ‘semiotic transfer’ defined as ‘replacement of the signs encoding a message by signs of another code, preserving (so far as this is possible in the face of entropy) invariant information with respect to a given system of reference’ (Kelly, 1979: 38). In my view, this is still intelligible once one has read it and re-read it carefully, although it seems to me that it does not help a lot when we try to teach translation, even if we call it ‘the theory of translation.’ But worse was to come. To finish this brief review, it will suffice to quote one of the recent masterpieces of obscure language:

When presenting an offer of information the source-text author takes account of the presumed interests, expectations, knowledge and situational constraints of the source-culture addressees. [...] In the case of a translation, the translator is a real receiver of the source text who then proceeds to inform another audience, located in a situation under target-culture conditions, about the offer of information made by the source text (Nord, 1997: 34-35).

Believe it or not, all that this means is ‘an author writes a text in one language and a translator translates it into another.’

Now, nobody would deny the contribution made by some branches of Linguistics — Sociolinguistics or Pragmatics, for example — to translation theory, or the usefulness of the extensive bibliography on the precise meaning of something like equivalence — ‘a concept that has probably cost the lives of more trees than any other in translation studies,’ according to Peter Fawcett (1997: 53) — but are such convoluted definitions really necessary? Do they actually help anyone, teacher or student? The problem is that through specialization we have lost all sense of proportion. So much — and, strictly speaking, so well — has Linguistics insisted on the fact that translation is ultimately impossible that we tend to forget that translation has always existed and that civilization could not exist without it. The title of this paper was an allusion to Lawrence Venuti and his description of fluency in a translation as ‘the ethnocentric violence of domestication,’ a violence that conceals itself ‘by producing the effect of transparency, the illusion that this is not a translation, but the foreign text’ (Venuti, 1995: 61). All this is clear enough, but is ‘the ethnocentric violence of domestication’ much more than a fanciful way of referring to the inevitable process of having to adapt the foreign text to our own linguistic and cultural background when we translate? Of course we ‘domesticate’ the foreign text — how else? As to ‘ethnocentric,’ it merely duplicates ‘domestication’: if ‘domestication’ was not ‘ethnocentric’, presumably the target text would not have been ‘domesticated’ — rather, in agreement with Schleiermacher’s precepts, it would take the reader to the author and the ‘effect of transparency’ would not exist. Finally, in respect to the ‘violence,’ we simply must accept that, since ultimately translation is impossible, the target text has to do some form of violence to the source text. It is startling, however, to reflect that the educated reading public will have no doubts about what a ‘good’ translation is, and that any translation with a faulty transparency effect will be seen as having done violence to the original.

My comments and my reflections on this subject arise from a very simple fact: it is not just me who finds all this gobbledegook horrendous as well as counterproductive — the problem is that our students increasingly complain about the abstruse language they come across when they have to deal with translation theory. And these are well-qualified postgraduate students with a serious interest in translation and by no means unintelligent. Of course, Translation Studies is not the only discipline in desperate need of learning how to speak and write properly — the sort of language nowadays used by politicians, economists and lawyers, to mention the most notorious examples, tells us quite clearly why the need has arisen for a Plain English campaign. But the sad thing is that anybody dealing with translation, be it as a translator, as a theorist, or both things at the same time, is, by definition, a linguist, somebody whose job and whose interest is Language — with a capital L — and somebody in that position presumably may well be interested in all forms of teratological manifestations of Language, but will also have, as a matter of self-esteem, the primary aim of expressing himself or herself in plain, simple, intelligible language. My plea, in short, is for translation theorists to go back to the style that simply says something like ‘to translate is to write what was previously written in one language in another language.’ Let them, after having said this, qualify the statement as much and as precisely as they like — but in plain language, please.

By María Teresa Sánchez,
University of Salford, UK

Bibliographical references
Bruni, Leonardo (c. 1420) De interpretatione recta, see Francisco Lafarga, ed.
Catford, J.C. (1965) A Linguistic Theory of Translation, Oxford, O.U.P.
Fawcett, Peter (1997) Translation and Language, Manchester, St. Jerome Publishing
Hugo, Victor (1865) Prologue to the translation of Shakespeare’s Works, see Francisco Lafarga, ed.
Kelly, Louis G. (1979) The True Interpreter. A History of Translation Theory and Practice in the West, Oxford, Basil Blackwell
Lafarga, Francisco, ed. (1996) El discurso sobre la traducción en la historia, Barcelona, EUB
Ludskanov, Alexander (1974) see Louis G. Kelly
Newmark, Peter (1995) Approaches to Translation, Hemel Hempstead: Phoenix ELT
Nida, Eugene A., and Charles R. Taber (1974) The Theory and Practice of Translation, Leiden, E.J. Brill
Nord, Christiane (1997) Translation as a Purposeful Activity, Manchester, St. Jerome Publishing
Ortega y Gasset, José (1937) ‘Miseria y esplendor de la traducción’, in Obras completas, Madrid, 1983
Robinson, Douglas (1997) Western Translation Theory, Manchester, St. Jerome Publishing
Schleiermacher, Friedrich (1813) Über die verschiedenen Methoden des Übersetzens, in Sämtliche Werke, Berlin, 1838
Tytler, Alexander Fraser (1791) Essay on the Principles of Translation, see Douglas Robinson
Venuti, Lawrence (1995) The Translator’s Invisibility, London, Routledge
Vives, Juan Luis (1532), De arte dicendi, see Francisco Lafarga, ed.

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