being asked to perform (different clients and contracts, integrating diverse
computer skills, working increasingly in their second or even third languages,
sometimes stretching their expertise to the fuzzier domain of "information and
consulting services") have alerted translators to the relativity of the demands
placed on them, thereby causing some degree of cognitive dissonance in their
historically imposed submissiveness, making them perhaps also more receptive
to Translation Studies? Could it be, circumstances permitting, that the mythical
belief in pure, untainted service will eventually prove more and more difficult
This sort of deductive observation, clearly, arises out of induction: the translation
scholar is also a translator, and pays close attention to the complexity of the real
linguistic actions s/he performs in the course of his or her professional work. Rather
than simply imposing an abstract deductive ideal on translation from "somewhere"
(actually, from idealized conceptions of what clients want), the linguistically oriented
translation scholar moves toward deduction the hard way, slogging through masses
of inductive detail to build up a sense of what is "really" going on that can be taught
to others. As a result, his or her linguistic deductions about translation are more
useful for the translation student as well.
And as the deductive linguist pays ever closer and more complex attention to the
inductive field of professional translation, even the purely verbal aspect of that field
becomes increasingly interesting and exciting. For example, Pym (1993) notes that
the traditional linguistic conception of translation makes it impossible for a translator
ever, as a translator, in the act of translating, to utter a performative utterance.
A performative, you may recall, is an utterance that performs an action: "I now
pronounce you man and wife," "I bet you five dollars," "I call the meeting to order,"
etc. (Austin 1962). The chairperson of the meeting says "I call the meeting to order,"
and performs the action of opening the meeting; the simultaneous interpreter hired
by the organizers renders that utterance into a specific foreign language, and in
so doing — according to traditional linguistic conceptions of translation — does
not perform the action of opening the meeting. The interpreter's rendition simply
repeats or reports on the actual performative utterance for those who didn't
understand it in the original.
However, as Pym notes, even repeating or reporting on a performative utterance
performs an action: it performs the action of reporting. Even if we see the
interpreter as by definition incapable of opening the meeting with his or her words,
we must nevertheless recognize that s/he is doing something.
Furthermore, "reporting on" the opening of the meeting is not what the
interpreter does explicitly. Explicitly, the interpreter is opening the meeting!
"I call the meeting to order," s/he says, in whatever target language s/he is inter-
preting into. Therefore, if we want to deny the interpreter the power to perform
the action of opening the meeting, we have to assume that s/he is "really" (on a
deep or implicit level) performing the act of reporting on the opening of the meeting
and merely pretending to perform the act of opening the meeting on a superficial
or explicit level — a considerably more complex action than static structural equiva-
lence theories would admit! Can translators really perform two (or more) actions
with the same words, on different levels? Other human beings can; why not
It is also open to question whether the interpreter truly is incapable of opening
the meeting. That would be the case, it seems to me, only if the act of "opening the
meeting" were taken in the abstract, as a one-time event that can only be performed
by a single person, the chairperson. But if we take the opening of the meeting to be
a complex human drama, perceived in many different ways by the many different
participants in it, then it is at least conceivable that some members of the audience
— monolinguals in the interpreter's language, for example, who understand not a
word of the chairperson's language — might in fact take the interpreter to be opening
the meeting. Harris (1981: 198) notes that foreign monolinguals sworn in as
witnesses in a court case sometimes mistake the origin of the questions being asked
by counsel and only interpreted by the court interpreter: "Why are you asking me
these pointless questions?" For such witnesses, the interpreter is performing the
action of "asking pointless questions."
And once we begin to question the assumption that translation
full stop, it should quickly become obvious that translators are human beings, social
animals, caught up in the human drama like anyone else - and that it is impossible
for them to stop performing actions when they translate, impossible for them to stop
"doing things with words." Often very complex things, in fact: pretending to be
doing one thing while at the same time doing another, or doing two significantly
different things at once. Venuti (1995, 1998), for example, argues that translators
should become political dissidents, using their translations to oppose global capi-
talism — that they should at once strive (a) to render the original text as closely as
possible, (b) to seek to radicalize readers and so increase their resistance to capitalism
as well, and (c) to signal to readers that the "roughness" in the translation is not "bad
translation" or "translationese" but part of the project of (b). That would be three
different "actions" performed by the same translator in the act of translating — and
one of those actions, but only one, is something like the traditional requirement that
the translator strive for equivalence.
And as I say, people do this all the time: we are all perfectly capable of performing
several simultaneous actions with the same words. Why, therefore, not translators
The linguistic study of translators as performers of speech acts is, however,
very much in its infancy. Most linguistically oriented scholars of translation,
still held fast by the requirement of equivalence, have not been interested in
exploring the translator's full range of social action. For even the most progressive
linguistically oriented scholars, such as Hatim and Mason (1990, 1997) or Neubert
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and Shreve (1992), the translator is still a more or less faithful reproducer of other
people's speech acts, not a performer of speech acts in his or her own right. As
a result, the recent movement in translation studies toward exploring translation
as action — with which we shall be concerned in the next two chapters — has
almost completely left the linguists and the specifically verbal aspect of translation
1 How realistic is it to discuss language in the abstract, structurally, systematically
— linguistically? Does language ever exist in a stable form that can be reduced
to unchanging structures? If not, what value do linguistic analyses and descrip-
tions have for the study of translation?
2 "Overgeneralization" is a term that linguists use to describe the mental processes
involved in learning one's first language as a child; it is not generally applied to
the work linguists do in their attempts to reduce the complexity of natural
language to the simplicity of formal systems. Some linguists, in fact, might be
offended to hear their work described as involving overgeneralization. Just how
"insulting" is the insistence that linguists too overgeneralize? What is at stake
in this terminological debate?
1 Read the following extract from Eugene Nida and Charles Taber, The
Theory and Practice of Translation (1969: 12—13):
The best translation does not sound like a translation. Quite
naturally one cannot and should not make the Bible sound as if
it happened in the next town ten years ago, for the historical
context of the Scriptures is important, and one cannot remake the
Pharisees and Sadducees into present-day religious parties, nor does
one want to, for one respects too much the historical setting of
the incarnation. In other words, a good translation of the Bible must
not be a "cultural translation." Rather, it is a "linguistic translation."
Nevertheless, this does not mean that it should exhibit in its
grammatical and stylistic forms any trace of awkwardness or strange-
ness. That is to say, it should studiously avoid "translationese" —
formal fidelity, with resulting unfaithfulness to the content and the
impact of the message.
(a) Work in groups to describe the "one" in this passage who "cannot
and should not make the Bible sound as if it happened in the next
town ten years ago," and who "respects too much the historical
setting of the incarnation" to want to attempt such a thing. How old
is this person? Male or female? Race, social class? What level of
education? Just how devout a Christian (and what kind of Christian)
does s/he have to be? Or could s/he be an atheist?
Now imagine another kind of "one," who does want to modernize
the Bible in radical ways and knows that it can be done. What kind
of person is this? (Age, sex, race, class, education level, religious
affiliation, etc.) Does s/he know and believe that "one" "should not"
do this? If so, does s/he feel guilty about trying it? If so, why is
s/he doing it anyway? If not, or if s/he doesn't even know that this
is "bad translation," what motivates her or him to undertake such a
Finally, describe the "Nida" and/or "Taber" who wrote this para-
graph, exploring motivations for portraying the translator as "one"
who has these specific features. Imagine "Nida" or "Taber" imagining
this "one," and consider the felt differences and overlaps between
saying that one cannot translate this way (is it really impossible?
should it be?), one shouldn't translate this way (what are they guarding
against? what is the worst-case scenario here? what would happen
if translators began doing what they shouldn't do?), and one doesn't
want to translate this way (is this like telling a child "you don't want
more ice cream"? or what?).
(b) Based on the above description, discuss the difference between a
"cultural translation" and a "linguistic translation" and their relation-
ship to "sounding like a translation." Does "cultural" here mean "loose"
or "free" or "adaptative" and "linguistic" mean "strict" or "faithful"?
Or are there "free" and "strict" cultural translations and "free" and
"strict" linguistic translations? And do "free" translations always
sound less (or more?) like translations than "strict" ones?
Draw a diagram of Nida and Taber's argument in this paragraph:
a tree diagram, a flowchart, a three-dimensional image, or however
2 Study the following composite passage from Mona Baker, In Other Words
(1992: 144-5, 149, 151):
The distinction between theme and rheme is speaker-oriented. It is
based on what the speaker wants to announce as his/her starting
point and what s/he goes on to say about it. A further distinction
can be drawn between what is given and what is new in a message.
This is a hearer-oriented distinction, based on what part of the
message is known to the hearer and what part is new. Here again, a
message is divided into two segments: one segment conveys infor-
mation which the speaker regards as already known to the hearer.
The other segment conveys the new information that the speaker
wishes to convey to the hearer. Given information represents the
common ground between speaker and hearer and gives the latter a
reference point to which s/he can relate new information.
Like thematic structure, information structure is a feature of the
context rather than of the language system as such. One can only
decide what part of a message is new and what part is given within
a linguistic or situational context. For example, the same message
may be segmented differently in response to different questions:
What's happening tomorrow?
We're climbing Ben Nevis
What are we doing tomorrow?
We're climbing Ben Nevis.
What are we climbing tomorrow? We're climbing Ben Nevis.
The organization of the message into information units of given
and new reflects the speaker's sensitivity to the hearer's state of
knowledge in the process of communication. At any point of the
communication process, there will have already been established a
certain linguistic and non-linguistic environment. This the speaker
can draw on in order to relate new information that s/he wants to
convey to elements that are already established in the context. The
normal, unmarked order is for the speaker to place the given element
before the new one. This order has been found to contribute to ease
of comprehension and recall and some composition specialists
therefore explicitly recommend it to writers. . . .
Failure to appreciate the functions of specific syntactic structures
in signalling given and new information can result in unnecessary
shifts in translation. . . .
The above discussion suggests that, when needed, clear signals of
information status can be employed in written language. Different
languages use different devices for signalling information structure
and translators must develop a sensitivity to the various signalling
systems available in the languages they work with. This is, of course,
easier said than done because, unfortunately, not much has been
achieved so far in the way of identifying signals of information status
in various languages.
(i) Work alone or in small groups to analyze and discuss the "actors" or
"agents" in this passage. Who does what to whom? Theme/rheme
is a "speaker-oriented" distinction, suggesting that the speaker herself
or himself makes it; given/new information is a "hearer-oriented
distinction, based on what part of the message is known to the
hearer and what part is new," suggesting that the hearer makes it.
But a few lines down Baker calls new information the segment that
"the speaker wishes to convey to the hearer." When she says that "a
message is divided into two segments," who does the dividing? The
speaker? The hearer? The translator? The scholar? All four? How do
their perspectives differ? Should the translator be a scholar, or strive
to inhabit the scholar's perspective from "above" the dialogue
between speaker and hearer? Who is the "one" in "One can only
decide what part of a message is new and what part is given within
a linguistic or situational context"? Who is the "segmenter" in the
passive construction "For example, the same message may be
segmented differently in response to different questions"?
(ii) These early paragraphs make it sound as if every decision about
information status must be made by real people, speakers and
hearers (and possibly translators and scholars), in real-life contexts,
based on speakers' knowledge of what hearers know, or on hearers'
surmises as to what they think speakers think hearers know, or
on translators' or scholars' surmises about speaker-knowledge in
relation to hearer-knowledge. Put this way, the task of judging the
information status of any given sentence, and thus of building an
effective target-language word order, seems hopelessly complicated.
In later paragraphs, however, Baker seems to suggest that the
"dividing" and "segmenting" is done less by speakers and/or hearers
as autonomous subjects than by the "signalling system" of the
language itself; and that translators (and presumably linguists also)
must simply develop an appreciation for or "sensitivity to the various
signalling systems available in the languages they work with." This
assumption allows the translator or linguist to analyze words rather
than having to guess at real people's unspoken intentions or
surmises. But how does this work? What does the signalling system
include? Does it actually control real speakers' and hearers' deci-
sions? Or does it control them only insofar as they too "appreciate"
or are "sensitive to" the signalling system their language provides for
(iii) In the sentence, "The above discussion suggests that, when needed,
clear signals of information status can be employed in written
language," what are some cases in which these clear signals are
needed? When aren't such signals needed? Does the speaker/writer
decide when such signals are needed, and then employ them? If such
signals are not present, does that mean that the speaker/writer has
decided that they aren't needed, and has not employed them? Or does
it mean that the speaker/writer is simply unaware that they are
needed? In other words, is Baker encouraging us to imagine ourselves
as the speaker/writer and to make cogent decisions about when to
employ clear signals regarding information status? If so, does the
same encouragement apply to the translator as well? Should the
translator, faced for example with a text in which clear information
status signals have not been employed, employ such signals herself
or himself in the target text? Or is Baker really talking about some-
thing other than the contextual "need" for such signals? Could the
sentence be construed to mean something like "The above discussion
suggests that, when faced with the infinite variability of actual real-
life contextualized language use, the linguist can detect clear signals
of information status in written language"? Is this sentence Baker's
way of constructing an argumentative transition from real-life
contextual variability, which tends to make linguistic analysis difficult
or impossible, to the kind of controlled linguistic environment
where rational analytical decisions can and must be made?
(iv) When Baker writes, "This is, of course, easier said than done
because, unfortunately, not much has been achieved so far in the way
of identifying signals of information status in various languages," who
are the "actors" or "agents" behind the passive verbs "said," "done,"
and "achieved"? Are they the same person? Are they the same type
of person? Does she expect the translator, for example, to inhabit
all three positions, "saying" that translators should read information-
status signalling systems competently, "doing" it, and "achieving"
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