Anthony Pym 2000
First version published in TTR 8/1 (1995), 153-176.
Abstract: Debates about equivalence
have marked the development of European translation studies
since the 1970s, forming a significant testing ground for
hypotheses concerning the institutional legitimation of
the discipline. A brief survey of these debates, carried
out in terms of Bourdieu’s defence of sociology as an “upsetting”
science, distinguishes between the precarious legitimation
of linguistic-based equivalence in the 1970s and several
target-side critiques directed at the concept in the 1980s.
It is argued that the kind of institutional legitimation
associated with the critiques of equivalence has been conceptually
disintegrative and intellectually mediocre. It is concluded
that translation studies could now become properly upsetting
by returning to equivalence and considering it as an operative
illusion necessary for the definition and social function
of any translation.
I take the term “translation studies” as an accepted and
acceptable name for the general ruck of writings, debates,
and research on aspects of translation. “European” here
means whatever is talked about in a disintegrated Europe,
which might as well extend to Israel, Sudan, the Philippines,
or Texas. The expression une science qui dérange
- roughly “a science that upsets” - is one of the ways Pierre
Bourdieu describes his sociology in an interview published
in 1980. To trace this latter reference is obviously to
pose chestnuts like whether translation studies can legitimately
be described as a “science.” Less naively, however, the
collocation proposes a specific conceptual frame, in fact
a straight comparison. It asks if translation studies is
or could be a science like Bourdieu’s sociology. Is it in
a position to upset anyone? If so, whom? If not, why not?
Debates over equivalence enter the scene as a major testing
ground for these questions. They basically concern beliefs
that some aspect of a source-text unit can equal some aspect
of a target-text unit, although the points of contention
are the nature, location, importance, and veracity of such
beliefs. As such, the debates configure only one of several
issues involving the status of translation studies. We could
also look at relations with literary studies, or a certain
latent capacity to upset closed visions of cultures. The
issue of equivalence is by no means the only area in which
translation studies has been caught between legitimation
and provocation, between a desire to look like other disciplines
and a potential to upset other disciplines. The debates
over equivalence have nevertheless accrued singular historical
depth and particularly polarized positions. Some think the
idea of equivalence legitimates translation studies; others
seem upset by this. I propose to recount a brief history
of the dialectics involved, not without taking up a particular
First, however, let me borrow a conceptual frame able to
make the story interesting.
Whom Might Bourdieu Upset?
Much of what Bourdieu says about sociology should sound
strangely familiar to scholars of translation:
Sociology has the sad privilege of being
constantly confronted with the question of its status as
a science. People are a thousand times less demanding with
respect to history or ethnography, not to mention geography,
philology, or archeology. Constantly questioned, sociologists
constantly ask questions of both themselves and others.
All this makes sociology look like an imperialistic science.
How can a science that is scarcely beginning to stand on
its feet be so presumptuous as to put other sciences under
its microscope? Of course I believe sociology is a science.
In fact, the questions it asks of other sciences are those
that are particularly problematic for sociology itself.
Sociology is a critical science because it is itself in
a critical position. (1980: 19-20, my translation, italics
in the text)
The question of scientific status - often expressed as
scholarliness - has been similarly problematic for translation
studies, and perhaps for reasons similarly associated with
its position as a relative newcomer. Although we don’t actually
take other sciences as entire objects of study, the potential
is built into the fact we draw on and question the approaches
of the more established disciplines. Yet Bourdieu gives
further good reasons why a science might upset people:
Because it reveals things that are hidden
and sometimes suppressed, like the fact that success at
school correlates not with ‘intelligence’ but with social
background and more exactly with the cultural capital inherited
from one’s family. These are truths that technocrats and
epistemocrats - that is, a good number of those who read
and finance sociology - do not like to hear. (20, italics
in the text)
Is translation studies involved in the revelation of such
truths, suppressed as in psychoanalysis (Bourdieu’s term
is refoulées) because socially disturbing? Are we
in a position to upset those who read and finance our activities?
Or do we lack the empirical paraphernalia, the questionnaires,
the statistics and schemata that enable sociology to claim
quantitative truths that are apparently neutral and objective?
But for Bourdieu, who opposes his sociology to that of “social
engineers” who would control individuals, the value of such
scientific procedures is itself quite relative. Sociological
findings are by no means discovered from a position of simple
objectivity or neutrality:
The possibilities of helping to produce truth
depend on two main factors: the interest one has in having
the truth known (or inversely, in hiding it from others
and from oneself) and the capacity one has to produce it.
As Bachelard put it, there can only be a science of that
which is hidden. Sociologists are best armed to dis-cover
what is hidden when they have the best scientific weapons,
when they best use the concepts, methods, and techniques
developed by their predecessors […]. And they are most “critical”
when their conscious or unconscious intention is most subversive,
when they are most interested in revealing that which is
censored or suppressed in the social world. (22-23, italics
in the text)
Sociologists should use all the scientific weapons available
to them, since they are involved in a conflictual situation
from the outset. Yet the use of such arms does not exclude
subjective investment on the part of the sociologist, who
has an interest not only in revealing hidden things but
also in appearing to be objectively disinterested about
this process. Further, although subjective investment by
no means invalidates the knowledge produced, recognition
of this subjectivity requires that sociology undertake the
sociology of sociologists, periodically turning its questions
in on itself, objectifying rather than hiding the truth
of its frail human dimension. Sociologists become one of
the objects of their own scientific research.
This is not the place to explain all of Bourdieu. I cite
these now classical passages merely to indicate a few of
the points where comparison might help us relativize our
own problems with equivalence, particularly the problems
that concern ideals of objectivity and neutrality. The citations
should nevertheless illustrate a few of Bourdieu’s more
general formulas like the need to “subjectify the objective”
(apparently disinterested scientific truths are in the interest
of a certain subjectivity) and, inversely, the need to “objectify
the subjective” (the very material of such truths is the
subjectivity of people involved in social practices, of
which sociology itself is one).
How might these statements apply to translation studies?
In and Out of Equivalence
In 1979 Werner Koller identified a “legitimation crisis”
in European translation studies:
This science [Wissenschaft] has perhaps been
more or less established as an independent discipline in
some universities. But the relations and understandings
between it and other fields of scientific inquiry is in
no way unequivocal, settled, or unproblematic. We have not
(yet) overcome the legitimation crisis concerning the relation
between translation science and translation practice, nor
that between translation science and other scientific disciplines
such as contrastive linguistics and stylistics, comparative
literature, and computational linguistics. (1979: 10; my
This seems to imply that translation studies was already
doing the right things. It just had to be formally legitimated,
especially with respect to is neighboring disciplines. But
did anyone imagine this could be done without conflict?
Given the limitations on university budgets, on student
enrollments, and on publication possibilities, the emergence
of a new discipline surely implied some degree of submergence
for others. Particularly where translation was traditionally
taught in departments of language and literature, the association
of an independent translation studies with the independent
training of translators was bound to create tension and
confrontation. Opposition on this institutional level could
not help but question the scientific legitimacy of translation
studies. Subjective interests motivated arguments for and
against scientific status, and did so in a way that was
rather more demanding than might have been the case for
many of the more established disciplines.
Koller’s response to this problem, elaborated in his Einführung
of 1979, was to bring together and systematize much of the
work that had already been done. In practice, he assumed
the essential solution had already been found. It just had
to be cleaned up, put on show, and developed. A major part
of his solution was the notion of translational equivalence.
Yet this term was not just pulled out of a hat. It had its
reasons, and it even had a mildly revolutionary import.
Koller presented translational equivalence as an argument
against theories of general untranslatability (this opposition
is further stressed in the revised fourth edition of 1992),
cutting across what were at that time all-embracing debates
about linguistic relativity or language universals. Since
translational equivalence was seen as existing on the level
of translation as language use (parole), it was not reducible
to formal correspondences or differences between language
systems. This was something that could potentially upset
theories that were so lost in language systems that they
failed to see the actual pragmatics of translation. Georges
Mounin had actually deployed much the same strategy more
than a decade earlier, following the rediscovery of Saussure
and the rise of relativist structuralism: “If the current
theses on lexical, morphological, and syntactic structures
are accepted, one must conclude that translation is impossible.
And yet translators exist, they produce, and their products
are found to be useful” (1963: 5). Since translators and
translations exist, translation must be possible and equivalence
must therefore exist as well. Such was the general argument
in favor of translational equivalence as a concept able
to challenge a certain closed linguistics. The study of
language systems had suppressed translation; theories of
equivalence could dis-cover translation. Of course, there
was a troublesome gap between the social existence of translations
and the linguistic analysis of substantial equivalence.
But this gap seems not to have bothered the translation
theorists of the 1970s. Their argument was strategic, contestational,
and reasonably successful as a bid for legitimation.
Bear in mind that Koller was writing at a time when a few
tons of linguistics, from Hjelmslev to Catford and Searle,
could be cited in support of translatability and thus as
a basis for equivalence. Koller’s theorizing was and remains
an affair of language; there was no need to oppose the whole
of linguistics. This was very useful in 1979. It could effectively
pass on some of the authority of what was still the most
prestigious of the human sciences. Theorists of equivalence
could moreover be presented as technical engineers interested
in the better control of translation as a social practice.
Their aim was the regulation and improvement of standards
(as explicitly stated in texts like Reiss 1971). Equivalence
thus became a piece of scientific capital, stretching out
into a general paradigm with a few ounces of institutional
power. It provided the foundation for research programmes
supposedly useful for both machine-translation and translator
training. These fields in turn responded to the rising social
and political demand for controllable transcultural communication,
particularly in what was then the European Community. Translation
studies was made to look like a science worthy of financial
support. It was also made to look like applied linguistics.
As such, the equivalence paradigm enjoyed a degree of success
in advancing the cause of moderately independent research
programmes and translator-training institutes. The concept
was institutionalized. And no one had much time for the
paradigm that had supposedly been upset, the belief in untranslatability.
Yet the 1980s had other concepts up its sleeve. The decade
would see linguistic concepts of translational equivalence
challenged in at least two ways.
For the historico-descriptivism of Toury (1980), equivalence
was something automatically produced by all ostensible translations
no matter what their linguistic or aesthetic quality. Thus
defined, the concept was rendered effectively useless for
linguists, technocrats, and anyone else interested in Koller-like
legitimation. If equivalence was already everywhere, or
almost, it could not be used prescriptively. Would-be social
engineers could make no use of it to improve social communication.
Worse, it could not easily support concrete institutionalization
in the fields of machine translation or translator training.
For Toury, the confidence of linguistic experts should logically
give way to detailed descriptive work on actual translations
in their historical contexts. If equivalence had upset no
more than the occasional belief in untranslatability, Toury’s
extension of it at least had the potential to upset prescriptive
linguists and pedagogs.
For the target-side functionalism of Vermeer, on the other
hand, equivalence was only one of many goals that a translator
could set out to attain, since translations could serve
a range of communicative purposes (cf. 1989: 120 & passim).
The determinant on translation was not the source text,
as had been assumed by linguistic approaches to equivalence,
but the intended function or Skopos of the translation
as a text in its own right and in its own situation. This
so-called Skopostheorie was also potentially upsetting,
at least for linguists and teachers of translation who had
never looked beyond source-text criteria.
As revolutionary as these two approaches could have been,
neither of them denied that a translator could set out to
produce one kind of equivalence or another. Nor did they
deny scientific objectivity as an essential goal for translation
studies. They simply refused to base their scientific status
on equivalence. They chose other weapons. Toury and friends
have invoked systems, hypotheses, empirical testing, and
the search for probabilistic laws. Vermeer and company have
developed a rich assortment of technical-sounding names
for various aspects of translation, combining discursive
precision with metalinguistic elitism. One of the curious
outcomes is that whereas Toury helped develop a mode of
corpus-based research where “a translation is any target-language
utterance which is presented or regarded as such” (1985:
20), Vermeer’s influence fits in with the fact that prospective
students at Heidelberg are told that the institute’s German
term Translation (not Übersetzen) does
not correspond to “the translating and interpreting that
unthinkingly duplicates linguistic forms and structures”
(“das unreflektiert Sprachformen und -strukturen nachvollziehende
‘Übersetzen’ und ‘Dolmetschen’.”) (1992: 2). For historico-descriptivists,
translation is anything people commonly think it is (social
practice can’t be wrong). For the Heidelberg text, translation
is precisely not what people commonly think it is, especially
if they imagine it is a matter of producing equivalents
for source texts (social practice can be correctively engineered).
In the first case, science is empirical investigation; it
goes out into the world and can advance on the basis of
the material it analyzes. In the second, science is a matter
of knowing what others have to find out; students come to
you and advance on the basis of your theoretical expertise
(and if social agents don’t always know what a translation
really is, they too can become your students). Clearly,
neither of these approaches needed a strong concept of equivalence,
which soon seemed unable to objectify anything of interest
about translation. Having become either too large (for Toury
et al.) or too small (for Vermeer et al.), the concept gradually
lost its status as scientific capital. It became a dirty
What really happened here? The dates could be misleading.
Koller published in 1979, but his text survived through
four editions to 1992 and is still worth reading. Toury
was published in book form in Israel in 1980, but his work
has taken years to filter through to some kind of general
recognition. The writings of Vermeer and friends, published
mostly in German and often in small university editions,
have been so slow to catch on that the group still feels
revolutionary more than ten years after the Grundlegung
einer allgemeinen Translationstheorie of 1984. The space
of European translation studies is spread so thin and remains
so fragmented that these various paradigms have mostly managed
to co-exist in tacit ignorance of each other. There is no
evidence of any catastrophic debate being resolved one way
or the other. Critique and change have been more the stuff
of a general drift directed by minor pushes and pulls in
many isolated parts of the world. The details are no doubt
best told by the scholars involved. Yet there can be little
doubt that the general trend was away from equivalence and
toward target-side criteria. Of course, this was more or
less in keeping with the movement of linguistics toward
discourse analysis, the development of reception aesthetics,
the sociological interest in action theory, and the general
critique of structuralist abstraction. European translation
studies was no hotbed of intellectual originality. Nor is
it a dialectician’s paradise today.
The approaches on the rise in the 1980s nevertheless dis-covered
a previously suppressed (or insufficiently recognized) truth,
namely the social and historical relativity of translational
equivalence. Many of the linguistic categories that had
previously been considered objective could now have been
seen as largely subjective constructs. Beyond the restricted
field of specialized terminology, theorists could no longer
be sure that a given source-text unit was necessarily equivalent
to a specific target-text unit. Such a relation could only
be norm-bound or probabilistic (for Toury) or subordinate
to wider target-side considerations (for Vermeer). There
would always be at least residual doubt about general claims
This doubt should probably have undone the entire equivalence
paradigm. It should have revealed the subjective interest
that the theorists of equivalence - and their institutional
supporters - had had when they tried to found a science
of translation. We might say, with Bourdieu, that the objective
could have been subjectified. The 1980s approaches could
have done this. They could have become radically upsetting.
But they didn’t. Why not?
The Critique of Equivalence
Almost ten years after Koller’s Einführung,
Mary Snell-Hornby’s “integrated approach” of 1988 sought
to bring together and systematize the work that had been
done to that date. As in Koller, the underlying assumption
was that a certain compatibility was there; it just needed
to be “integrated.” The package was once again made to look
faintly scientific, this time privileging American panaceas
like prototypes and scenes-and-frames, along with a potpourri
of common sense, gratuitous critique, and a disarming propensity
to self-contradiction (notably with respect to the status
of linguistic approaches). One of the most remarkable aspects
of this “integrative” exercise was the list of effectively
excluded approaches. Snell-Hornby’s peremptory style dismissed
two thousand years of translation theory as an inconclusive
“heated discussion” opposing word to sense (9) (one finds
the same inconclusiveness in theories of God, or love, and
yet we keep talking). She dispatched historico-descriptivism
because it had avoided evaluation (26) (but hadn’t it discovered
anything?). Not surprisingly, she also forcefully discarded
equivalence as being “unsuitable as a basic concept in translation
theory” (22). None of these excluded approaches, said Snell-Hornby,
“have provided any substantial help in furthering translation
studies” (26). The interesting thing about these exclusions
is that, unlike Toury or Vermeer, Snell-Hornby tried to
indicate precisely where the equivalence paradigm had gone
wrong. This is where translation studies could have become
Some of the things Snell-Hornby says about equivalence are
perceptive and stimulating (I use a precarious present tense
because the text is due to be published in a revised edition).
For example, she finds that in the course of the 1970s the
English term “equivalence” became “increasingly approximative
and vague to the point of complete insignificance,” and
its German counterpart (but what criterion did she have
for putting the two terms together?) was “increasingly static
and one-dimensional” (21). This difference curiously maps
onto the strategies of Toury and Vermeer as outlined above,
suggesting that there was in fact no radical rupture between
those who talked about equivalence and those who preferred
not to (Toury accepted the English-language trend; Vermeer
fell in with the German-language usage of the term). Summing
up a very meandering argument, Snell-Hornby concludes that
“the term equivalence, apart from being imprecise and ill-defined
(even after a heated debate of over twenty years) presents
an illusion of symmetry between languages which hardly exists
beyond the level of vague approximations and which distorts
the basic problems of translation” (22). Some kind of equivalence
could be integrated into its appropriate corner (technical
terminology), but the equivalence paradigm should otherwise
get out of the way. All potentially upsetting stuff.
Snell-Hornby did not care that notions of equivalence had
been strategically useful against theories of untranslatability,
nor that they had effectively achieved a degree of institutional
legitimation for translation studies. Hers was a different
historical moment, with different strategies and goals.
But even given the new context, at least one sleight of
hand should be pointed out. If the term “equivalence” were
really so polysemous - Snell-Hornby elsewhere claims to
have located fifty-eight different types in German uses
of the term (1986: 15) -, how could she be so sure it “presents
an illusion of symmetry between languages”? The term apparently
means nothing except this illusion. And yet none of the
numerous linguists cited in Koller ever presupposed any
“symmetry between languages.” Since Snell-Hornby gives no
citation supporting her reduction of the term, this description
of equivalence looks like hers. Of little import that the
idealized symmetry between languages belonged more to the
word/sense debate that Snell-Hornby strangely thinks the
notion of equivalence had been born to overcome (15). Indeed,
had she looked a little further, Snell-Hornby might have
found that concepts like Nida’s “dynamic equivalence” presuppose
substantial linguistic asymmetry. More important, Koller’s
actual proposal was based on studying equivalence on the
level of parole, leaving to contrastive linguistics the
entire question of symmetries or dissymmetries between language
systems (1979: 183-4). Where did Snell-Hornby get the idea
that equivalence means “symmetry between languages”? She
seems to have presented a limited range of variant usages,
picked or projected the illusion that suits her, then assumed
that everyone else suffered from the same hallucination.
This was indeed moderately upsetting. Albrecht Neubert has
observed the strategy clearly enough: “The narrow and hence
mistaken interpretation of translational equivalence in
terms of linguistic correspondence is in our opinion one
of the main reasons that the very concept of equivalence
has fallen into disrepute among many translation scholars.”
(1994: 414). That’s more or less what happened. But why
did it happen?
One can only suppose there was more than logic at stake
in Snell-Hornby’s critique of equivalence. An element of
power, perhaps? Snell-Hornby’s Integrated Approach has indeed
had influence, and may yet find more. It was the right title
at the right time, lying in wait for the massive growth
of translator-training institutions that took off at the
end of the decade. As director of the Vienna institute of
translation and interpreting, Snell-Hornby was also well
placed to influence the development of new and reformed
institutions in eastern Europe. Further, she is now the
foundation president of the European Society for Translation
Studies. All this could be achieved without any notion of
Yet this is not the story of just one person. There is more
at stake in the movement away from equivalence. Strangely,
while European translation studies has generally been expanding,
a center of strong equivalence-based research at Leipzig,
closely associated with Professor Neubert, has been all
but dismantled by west-German academic experts. Further,
the one west-European translation institute that has been
threatened with reduction - Saarbrücken - is precisely
the one that, through Wilss, is most clearly aligned with
linguistics and the equivalence paradigm. This is not to
mention the numerous east-Europeans who still - heaven forbid!
- talk about linguistics and equivalence, awaiting enlightenment
from the more advanced western theorists. The institutional
critique of equivalence surreptitiously dovetails into facile
presumptions of progress, and sometimes into assumptions
of west-European superiority. Perhaps we should take a good
look at the bandwagon before we hop on.
Although the 1980s critiques of equivalence-based prescriptivism
opened up new terrain, they mostly failed to understand
the logic of the previous paradigm. Little attempt was made
to objectify the subjective importance of equivalence as
a concept. It is one thing is to argue that substantial
equivalence is an illusion, but quite another to understand
why anyone should be prepared to believe in it. A pertinent
lesson might be gleaned from Bourdieu:
There is an objective truth of the subjective,
even when it contradicts the objective truth that one constructs
against it. Illusions are not in themselves illusory. One
would betray objectivity if one acted as if social subjects
had no representation, no experience of the realities that
are constructed by science […]. Sociology should not forget
that in order for social practices to work, social actors
must believe they are the ones who make their actions work.
Some systems work entirely on belief, and no system - not
even economics - can do without the belief that it can work.
Illusions are not illusory. Yet when Snell-Hornby talks
about “the illusion of equivalence” (1988: 13), she does
so precisely to suggest that it is illusory and should be
dispensed with. The main alternative to this strategy is
to understand and explain the illusion.
This second strategy has been adopted by several isolated
authors. Ernst-August Gutt, whose application of relevance
theory to translation deserves more attention than it has
so far received, defines a “direct translation” as an utterance
that “creates a presumption of complete interpretative resemblance”
(1991: 186). True, Gutt does not name equivalence as such
- it is a taboo word -, but he certainly describes what
equivalence would seem to be doing when a translation is
read as a translation. More important, this “presumption
of resemblance” does not describe anything that would enable
a linguist’s tweezers to pick up two pieces of language
and declare them of equal weight. Comparable considerations
enter Albrecht Neubert’s recent comments on equivalence.
A translation, says Neubert, “has to stand in some kind
of equivalence relation to the original,” which means that
“equivalence in translation is not an isolated, quasi-objective
quality, it is a functional concept that can be attributed
to a particular translational situation” (1994: 413-414,
italics in the text). From the semiotic perspective, Ubaldo
Stecconi expresses a similar mode of thought: “Equivalence
is crucial to translation because it is the unique intertextual
relation that only translations, among all conceivable text
types, are expected to show” (1994: 8). Such “expectation”
is certainly an affair of social convention rather than
empirical certainty, but it has consequences for the actual
work of the translator. In Stecconi’s terms, “B had never
been equivalent to A before it appeared in a translation:
using inferences of the abductive kind, the translator makes
the two elements equivalent” (1994: 9, italics in the text).
A fourth researcher could be cited here: Pym (1992) spends
a whole chapter arguing that “equivalence defines translation,”
and in a further text (1993) talks about non-relativist
and non-linguistic “equivalence beliefs” as part of the
way translations are received as translations.
These authors form no kind of group; they are more like
lone voices in disparate wildernesses. But they are not
naïve theorists who blissfully ignore the critiques
of equivalence. Despite apparent regression to the 1970s
paradigm, these recent positions are in fact exploiting
the gap between translation as a social practice (equivalence
as a necessary and functional illusion) and translation
as actualization of prior correspondences (equivalence as
something that linguists might hope to analyze on the basis
of language alone). This is precisely the gap that Mounin
and Koller, among others, had previously swept under the
carpet in the interests of legitimation. The minority return
to equivalence is thus dis-covering a problem that previous
usages of the term had played down. It could even be drawing
out the critical potential of something like Toury’s initial
acceptance of equivalence. Rather than force any translator
to become an “equivalence-seeker” (Mossop 1983: 246), rather
than assume any “rational recovery of original meaning”
(Benjamin 1989: 86), the above writers emphasize that the
translator is an equivalence producer, a professional communicator
working for people who pay to believe that, on whatever
level is pertinent, B is equivalent to A. In so doing, the
recent references to equivalence are objectifying the subjective,
recognizing but not necessarily condoning a socially operative
belief that enables translations - and translators - to
work. This position is commonly misunderstood.
The linguistics-derived concept of equivalence was an expression
of what translation ideally represented for certain people,
notably translators’ organizations in search of higher social
status, readers in search of translated information, European
politicians in search of reliable transcultural communication,
and academics in search of authoritative science. It expressed
certain ideals of translation as a contemporary social practice.
Theories that now project little substantial equivalence
- whether or not they use the term - should nevertheless
be able to recognize and objectify the subjective interests
that make translation work as a social practice. Translation
studies cannot just put texts under linguistic microscopes.
It must also objectify the beliefs - the current but uncritical
term is “norms” - that condition the way translations are
received and thus the way translators tend to work. Such
subjective beliefs obviously include the illusions that
remain operative on the level of theory.
Solutions without Equivalence
Gutt, Neubert, Stecconi, and Pym (there could be more names)
have something else in common. Their arguments recuperate
the very important idea that translation and non-translation
are conventionally distinguished, since the making of this
distinction is one of the functions of equivalence itself.
They thus have a certain interest in defining translation
in a restrictive way; they are not afraid to distinguish
translation from non-translation.
If we now look at the critiques of equivalence, one feature
seems surprisingly common to the various groups concerned.
In contradistinction to the four authors just cited, none
of the theorists that oppose equivalence appears to have
advanced a restrictive definition of translation. There
are certainly many descriptions; they all say what a translation
should look like and should do. Try, for example, Snell-Hornby’s
description beginning “Translation is a complex act of communication
in which...” (1988: 81). Nowhere in the page or so of text
that follows is there anything about what translation is
not. There are no definitions of non-translation. Everything
can be fitted in; everything is potentially translative;
so translation studies might as well encompass cultural
studies, literary studies, the entire humanities, and more,
if it would make anyone happier or more powerful. The rejection
of equivalence quickly leads to a peculiarly uncentered
conceptual expansion, the nature of which is still far from
Equivalence, on the other hand, no matter what definition
it figured in during the bad old days, always implied the
possibility of non-equivalence, of non-translation or a
text that was in some way not fully translational. This
in turn configured translation studies as a quite specific
neck of the academic woods. The 1980s thus saw a shift from
restrictive to non-restrictive definitions, from translation
studies as a focused and unified discipline to translation
studies as an area potentially open to all comers.
The shift was not without friction. Not everyone agrees
that a translation can be a bibliographic reference (as
in Gouadec 1989) or any text explaining foreign information
(as in Holz-Mänttäri 1984) or indeed any text
at all (as in theories of radical intertextuality). The
change has nevertheless been institutionally successful.
It has inspired several good propositions for new disciplinary
frames, including “transfer studies” (after Even-Zohar 1990),
action theory (Holz-Mänttäri 1984; Vermeer 1986,
1989), and “rewriting” (Lefevere 1985, 1992). Strangely
enough, most of the authors producing restrictive definitions
of translation, the ones who place equivalence (or its surrogates)
in the space of production and reception, also work within
wider conceptual frames, be it relevance theory (Gutt),
semiotics (Stecconi), or negotiation theory (Pym). This
is a general trend; the conceptual expansion now exists
whether or not one refers to equivalence. In training institutes,
the new perspectives have supported numerous degree and
diploma programmes combining translation with cultural studies,
literary studies, documentation, terminology, international
relations, commerce, computer science, and so on (again,
see Caminade in this volume). Everyone seems to agree on
the need for a wider frame. To produce equivalence is nowadays
not the end of the story, neither for the theorist nor for
the pedagog. There is thus little subjective interest in
restrictive definitions of translation. They exist, they
stubbornly refer to equivalence, but they are not about
to upset anyone. Once again, why not?
If we now go back to Koller’s “legitimation crisis” of
1979, we find that a kind of legitimation for translation
studies has in fact been found. Koller thought the answer
was to define translation studies as a science and to regulate
its relations with neighboring disciplines. But on the ground,
the historical solution has been to deregulate relations,
allowing translation to be studied in any number of disciplinary
locations, in terms of any number of non-restrictive definitions.
Instead of a wholly independent translation studies, we
now have a fairly unruly grouping of approaches and interests
that cover far more than any equivalence-bound definition
of translation. Gideon Toury’s description of translation
studies as an “interdiscipline” is currently as accurate
as it is widely accepted (a very large congress held in
Vienna in 1992 was actually called “Translation Studies,
An Interdiscipline”). There is also a level of civil organization
- the European Society for Translation Studies is only one
of several associations - that should prove greater than
any formal theory. As Althusser was wont to say, the solution
to theoretical problems already exists on the level of practice,
if you know where to look. Non-restrictive deregulation
has been the practical solution, although not necessarily
the best one.
Whereas Snell-Hornby sought to enact a centered integration
in the 1980s, an upsetting sociology could now show a that
successfully uncentered disintegration was going on at the
same time. This second reality, the historical solution
to a legitimation crisis, is still worth dis-covering.
Since debates over equivalence are not always easy to follow,
here is a brief summary of the way I have called the shots:
- Structuralist linguistics of language systems (Saussure
et al.) overlooked the social existence of translation.
- The concept of translational equivalence (Koller et al.)
affirmed the social existence of translation and sought
to make it a part of applied linguistics.
- Historico-descriptive studies (Toury et al.) rejected
the prescriptive import of such linguistics and affirmed
that equivalence was a fact of all translations, no matter
what their quality.
- Theories of target-side functionalism (Vermeer et al.)
similarly rejected such prescriptivism, limiting equivalence
to cases where the translation purpose was narrowly bound
by source-text elements.
- Thanks to these two movements, the notion of equivalence
lost its status as a scientific concept (most radically
in the work of Snell-Hornby).
- Translation studies has thus expanded well beyond the
academic space once centered on equivalence.
- A few isolated voices, including the present author, have
nevertheless recuperated the notion of equivalence as an
affirmation of the social existence of translation, without
associating the term with any prescriptive linguistics.
They thus reveal the inability of expansive translation
studies to offer a restrictive definition of translation.
In 1992 Susan Bassnett and André Lefevere declared
that “The growth of translation studies as a separate discipline
is a success story of the 1980s” (1992: xi). Success for
whom? And at what price? It is worth recalling that Lefevere,
in an article published just one year before, argued against
an independent translation studies, which he regarded as
“most unlikely to make the distinction between literary
and non-literary, or technical translation” (1991: 131).
Success, for Lefevere, was obviously a question of keeping
translation studies attached to literary studies, just as
others wanted to keep it attached to linguistics, and still
others could see nothing but translator training. Squabbles
about equivalence marked the borders between these various
visions of academic paradise. Success for me, of course,
would be a translation studies inspired by Bourdieu’s sociology.
We all have our private backgrounds and agendas.
It must nevertheless be admitted that translation studies
has expanded in more than one direction. The reasons are
perhaps not always obvious. Youth unemployment means students
enrol in something that sounds marketable; European integration
means some national politicians are willing to fund practical-sounding
translation research; and some literature departments, at
various stages of conceptual bankruptcy, have managed to
hitch a ride into unknown territory. Few would claim that
translation studies has really succeeded as an academic
discipline with something of its own to say to other disciplines.
In significant contradistinction to developments on the
other side of the Atlantic, European translation scholars
have been strangely reluctant or unable to engage in wider
social or academic debates. Although translation inevitably
concerns extremely problematic phenomena like traditional
canons, cultural specificity, political identity, and nationalist
combinations of all three, most theorists have stayed clear
of such turbulent waters. There has been virtually no deconstruction,
little feminism, scant critique of European east-west relations,
no more than lip-service to the translation costs that risk
crippling the European Union, and minimal revision of a
thing called “culture” that remains so vague it couldn’t
upset anyone’s idea of a culture. Translation studies remained
intellectually mediocre throughout the 1980s and is struggling
to find orientation in the 1990s. Many of its theoretical
efforts have been directed toward gaining academic power
rather than identifying and solving significant social problems.
Now enjoying what some see as success, with or without equivalence,
European translation studies upsets virtually no one. Such
has been the price of its disintegrative expansion.
Universitat Rovira i Virgili
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- Last update
20 July 2000