Theorisation is part of translational competence
WHEN seen from the outside, as an activity carried out by a person other than the observer, translating can be described as exercise of the following two-fold competence (Pym 1990b):
- The ability to generate a TT series of more than one viable term (X, TT1, TT2...TTn) for a transferred text (Y).
- The ability to select one TT from this series, quickly and with justified (ethical) confidence, and to propose this TT to a particular reader as an equivalent for Y.
Together, these two skills form a specifically translational competence to the extent that their union concerns translation and nothing but translation. That is, although there can be no doubt that translators need to know a good deal about grammar, rhetoric, terminology, world knowledge, common sense and strategies for getting paid correctly, the specifically translational part of their practice is strictly neither linguistic, common nor commercial. It is a process of generating and selecting between alternative texts.
This definition of translational competence is restrictive but not necessarily reductive. Its relative virtues include applicability to intralingual translation, recognition that there is more than one way to translate, and refusal of any notion of exclusive correctness, since the criteria of speed and confidence - written into the above description - by no means rule out disagreement between translators or future improvements by the one translator.
More importantly, the definition recognises that there is a mode of implicit theorisation within translational practice, since the generation of alternative TTs depends on a series of at least intuitively applied hypotheses. Even though this theorisation usually never becomes explicit, the ability to develop and manipulate hypothetical TTs is an essential part of translational competence. Unsung theory - a set of premises resulting from theorisation - may thus be seen as the constant shadow of what translators do every day; it is what improves as student translators advance in their specific craft; it is the mostly unappreciated form of the confidence slowly accrued through the making of countless practical decisions; it is what most competent translators know without knowing that they know it.
The fact that translating translators have no I-here-now thus does not mean that they are somehow unable to engage in theoretical or imaginative thought. They might be condemned to subjective silence, but that does not stop them from using often quite sophisticated hypotheses to generate and select between alternatives.
This view of the relation between theorisation and practice
has significant consequences for the assessment of explicit translation
theories. If translators already know what they are doing, why should there
be explicit theories to make sure that they know? Who has the right to
theorise out loud? For whom do explicit theories exist? And how should
one judge the value of one theory or another?
Theorisation is the basis of translation criticism
According to the above model of translational competence, the practical role of theorisation is firstly generative and then negative. Silent hypotheses should thus come in two varieties: those able to project possible TTs, and those able to eliminate non-optimal TTs. The order of these two processes means that constraints of speed and confidence operate more on the generative side than the negative side, since negation can only follow and must match the alternatives proposed. The less alternatives, the less negation, the less time lost and the less doubt accrued in pondering undistinguished or indistinguishable subtleties. Practical theorisation cannot afford the luxury of elaborate or complicated generative hypotheses bearing on all textual details; it must massively tend towards automatic or subconscious self-negation, leaving only a few islets for major conscious decision-making.
The situation is not very different when theorisation becomes explicit on the level of translation criticism. When a TT has already been proposed and selected, the translation critic - more often than not a teacher or editor - must also generate and negate alternative TTs according to criteria of speed and justified confidence. Although there are alternative TTs for numerous textual items, the critic usually only has to generate these possibilities in cases where the proposed TT is manifestly unacceptable. In the economy of conceptual labour, the work of the critic thus differs only slightly from that of the translating translator. The main difference lies not in the production of a new TT as such but in the need explicitly to justify the preference for one TT over another. Although theorisation on the level of translating is condemned to silence, critical theorisation should find a voice and an argument with which to express applied principles.
Criticism follows translational competence in that it basically involves pitting one TT against another. Both practices are based on textual comparison. But the kind of intuitive preference operative on the level of translating becomes mostly inadequate on the level of criticism. If a TT is to be rejected, the critic must be able to indicate why.
This can be demonstrated on the basis of cases like the de Gaulle example. Here again are the texts:
Y: Car la France n'est pas seule! Elle n'est pas seule! Elle n'est pas seule!
TT1: For remember this, France does not stand alone, she is not isolated.
TT2: For France is not alone! She is not alone! She is not alone!
Why should this TT1 not be acceptable? The critic's instinctive response is often to refer not to the relation with a TT2 but to presumed non-correspondence with the "original", thus assuming that some kind of absolute authoritative determinant is available for those sufficiently enlightened to see it. Such claims are not easy to avoid. As inviting as it might seem humbly to renounce privileged access to the meaning of ST - to renounce what Derrida described as the transcendental signified, to know how de Gaulle really wanted his words to be felt - , the question immediately repeats itself with respect to Y and TT1, which should also require authoritative enlightenment, especially if the critic wants to ascertain the value of de Gaulle's speech in the Y situation (Britain in the mid-1960s). Arguments on this level inevitably turn on the "real meaning" of a text, be it ST, Y or TT1. The problem, however, is that the value of ST, Y or TT1 is only knowable through comparison with further TTs, further ways of translating whatever it is that has supposedly been mistranslated. Assumed access to original or authentic meanings of the past is inevitably fought out and justified through comparison in the present. Thus, although they believe they are arguing about something fixed as a historical referent, critics - in this case Newmark - cannot avoid pitting one translated text against another. The conflict is never between a bad TT and an unalterably good ST, but between an alterably bad TT1 and an arguably better TT2. This means that, as we have noted with respect to the historiography of translation theory, many apparently diachronic arguments in fact have synchronic motivations.
Recognition of this comparative orientation is an important initial step towards good critical theory. It enables one to ask not only why a Y text was rendered as TT1, but also why it was not translated as TT2, TT3,... TTn. For example, in order to assess Spears' TT, even the crudest of analyses, including Newmark's, would be able to generate the literalist TT2 "For France is not alone! She is not alone! She is not alone!" and then find at least one reason why this version might be preferred to Spears' non-literalist rendering. Newmark does exactly this, stating bluntly that "the translation of citations is normally semantic" (1977, 169). Such would be the limits of endemic normative theory.
But critical theorisation worthy of the name should also
be able to explain why Spears went against every law of least effort and
did not translate in the shortest or most evident way. It is one thing
to say that a rule has been broken, but quite another to say why
it might have been broken, and thus why it should not have been
Translation errors are not necessarily mistakes
Criticism has to be very careful when invoking apparently immutable rules. There are many ways of translating, many things that can be said through translation, and bad explicit theorisation is apt to do more harm than is mere poverty on the level of practice. If translators are allowed to have ideas, critics should be prepared not to reject out of hand the signs of consciously applied strategies like the one probably used by Spears. This is one of the reasons why a careful distinction should be made between errors and mistakes (cf. Pym 1991a).
The notion of translational error is triadic - the actual translation TT1, the arguably ideal equivalent TT2, and their difference - , as opposed to the binary structure of the simple mistake - TT2 as right, TT1 as wrong.
For example, when Robert Lowell translates Baudelaire's
the misreading of French syntax ("il est" here means "il y a") produces nothing but a grammatically describable blockage of good sense: a few lines further on in the translation, Lowell's ever-running Time unfortunately seems able to pause at least long enough to trample on what should be the real runners:
The fault has its own linguistic logic as a mistake and has nothing of consequence to say as a translational error.
Mistake only becomes error when the difference between
equivalence and mistranslation assumes a non-trivial meaning of its own.
When, similarly in Imitations - which I read as a narratively ordered
collection of poetic translations - , Lowell renders "lice" (French for
"disputes") as "lice" (English plural of "louse") in the first Baudelaire
version, the false friends would appear to signal a mere mistake until,
further on, we come to the final Rimbaud translation "The Lice Hunters".
The mistranslation functions as coherent narrative parallelism, bracketing
off this Baudelaire-Rimbaud section of the book. It can certainly
be criticised as going against general semantic norms for the French term
"lice", but it cannot be called a mistake. Critical theorisation must be
able to describe and explain not only what has been done, but also
why it might have been done. Only then can it properly say what
should have been done and why it should have been done.
Critical theorisation is a negation of transfer and translation
Translation is usually represented as a horizontal process going from left to right, as if it were merely conventional Western writing. However, except in cases of contradictory equivalence, translational writing is not accumulative in the way that writing is. This is because the end product of the translation process - the TT - usually replaces the previous moments of transfer and translating. If one were to remain on this same horizontal level, looking only at what was actually done and manifested, there would be no way of peering over the translated text to glimpse and question the actual processes. Theorisation by anyone but the translator would be almost impossible.
Critical theorisation, however, does not remain on this one level. Its hypotheses, be they unspoken or explicit, present alternatives to what has happened. They falsely assume access to a world where the text has not yet been transferred, where it has not yet been translated, as if one could go back in time and change the course of history. Theorisation thus retrospectively doubles translation, creating its negative image or shadow:
This model is peculiar in that it works on two levels. Above the dotted line, the left-to-right movement purports to represent the actual practice of translation, with the translator implicitly positioned as the necessary receiver of the uncovered text Y. Below the line, manifest practice is shadowed by a right-to-left movement representing theorisation. The model thus relates practice to theory (although inquisitive minds are of course also invited to read it an as epistemology for the distance formula presented at the end of chapter one above).
In its most extensive form, theorisation potentially involves three kinds of activity. First, as we have seen, it is necessarily involved in the generation and negation of alternative translated texts. Second, the categories by which these texts are generated enable critical description and analysis of the TTs considered optimal in terms of endemic norms. And third, theoretical work is potentially able to project the hypothesis of non-transfer (X), sometimes in order to idealise the meaning of ST in its native place, but also potentially to ask why transfer originally set up a situation requiring translation.
Since this third level of theorisation negates actual transfer - it asks what the world would be like if an act of transfer had not taken place - , it can question not only whether transfer purposes have been achieved but also the value of those purposes themselves. As such, this level should be crucial for the relation between translation theory and the study of intercultural relations. Unfortunately, it is also on this level that theorisation often assumes doctrinal proportions, becoming a set of abstract propositions assuming the desirability of all translation and thus a certain infallibility on the level of transfer. Despite its critical potential in this respect, bad explicit theorisation leads to the repetition of norms as falsely comforting lullabies.
Who needs such theories, and why should they be developed?
Theory first expresses doubt
The term "theory" is not used here to replace the disciplinary label "translation studies", which quite adequately covers the wide variety of possible writings on translation that can be undertaken from the perspective of numerous disciplines in the social sciences. Yet theory should not then pretend to stand automatically above the ruck thanks to facile equations with terms like "translatology"/ "traductologie", as in Ottawa (Goffin 1971; Harris 1977; Delisle 1984) or the Spanish "traductología" (Vázquez-Ayora 1977). As useful as such unpretty scientism could be for justifying research budgets, it has very little plausible relation to the generally unrigorous nature of the texts they are supposed to describe. It moreover suggests potentially unhealthy implications for the interdisciplinarity needed if a theory of translation is to speak with any degree of intelligence about its object. In English it is preferable to stay with the general term "translation studies", within which theorisation and its explicit textual result as translation theory should be understood as having an intimate relationship with the actual practice of translation.
If one accepts Holmes's description of a theory as "a series of statements, each of which is derived logically from a previous statement or from an axiom and which together have a strong power of explanation and prediction regarding a certain phenomenon", it must surely be concluded that, as Holmes himself states of translation studies, "most of the theoretical presentations that we have had until now, although they have called themselves theories, are not really theories in the strict sense" (1978, 56-57). Indeed, the only endeavour approaching this "strict sense" could well turn out to be Quine's theory of indeterminacy in translation, widely thought to be a theory not of translation but of untranslatability. Quine's much cited point of departure is in fact highly indicative of the difficulties facing any attempt to formulate a theory of translation with strong explanatory and predictive powers:
"...manuals for translating one language into another can be set up in divergent ways, all compatible with the totality of speech dispositions, yet incompatible with one another. In countless places they will diverge in giving, as their respective translations of a sentence of the one language, sentences of the other language which stand to each other in no plausible sort of equivalence relation however loose." (1960, 27)
This thesis surely depends not on any lack of translation, but on a plurality of TTs between which, in theory, natural data and native informants allow no definitive choice to be made. Quine is not saying that translators cannot translate; he is simply saying that they can legitimately disagree about their respective translations. And this is precisely what happens. Debates about translation are essentially between translators or, more exactly, between translators as theorists. They concern the way one translator reads another's work; they are based on differences and distinctions that are mostly of little consequence for other readers, who for the most part remain none the wiser.
But there remains a slight logical problem here. As Katz argues in a punctilious critique of Quine, if an ST is so indeterminate that no justified choice can be made between a TT1 and a TT2, no one but a translator would want to make such a choice anyway: "It is not easy to see how two hypotheses can make inconsistent predictions when there is nothing for them to differ about" (1978, 234).
I suspect that the correct reply to Katz should insist on the necessary distinction between translator-theorists (who argue the toss) and intended receivers (who are shielded from such arguments by the non-contradictory modes of equivalence). If it can be accepted that the positive role of theory is to generate alternative hypotheses, theorisation can be seen as responding not to verifiable differences in the external world, but to doubt or uncertainty about distant and imperfectly known objects. When doubt gives rise to theorisation and theorisation leads to a solution (the selection of TT1 instead of TT2), the fact that this process may well hide its bases from the intended reader of TT1 does not mean that doubt disappears for the translator-theorist. As we have noted with respect to quantities, translators usually remain painfully aware of their points of departure. This is one important reason why they can continue to disagree even when, from outside the profession, there appears to be nothing for them to differ about.
It is not then surprising that very few substantial disagreements have ever been resolved between translator-theorists. Savory appreciated the consequences for scientism: "The truth is that there are no universally accepted principles of translation, because the only people who are qualified to formulate them have never agreed amongst themselves, but have so often and for so long contradicted each other that they have bequeathed to us a volume of confused thought which must be hard to parallel in other fields of literature" (1968, 50). The history of translation theories is very much a history of expressed preferences, not because none of the theories are right, but because there are few generally recognised criteria by which any particular translation theory might be proved to be wrong. This alone should be enough to dispense with projects for strict scientific analysis.
There is no reason to suppose that the kind of closed logic once applied in the exact sciences should immediately be valid or even desirable in the social sciences. Pseudo-mathematical formulations and little abbreviations all over the place might be useful as energy-saving shorthand; criteria of internal coherence and elegance should retain at least aesthetic validity; but the social sciences allow no position where the theorising subject can be radically external with respect to the data to be dealt with. This is as true of sociology - the sociologist is a member of society - as it is of linguistics - in which language is made to analyse language. Translation criticism is certainly no different in this regard, since, as we have seen, it involves the use of one kind of translation to analyse another. The consequences of this lack of exteriority are far-reaching: explicit theorisation must be seen as a practice in itself; it must be subject to the same criteria it imposes on its object; it must be considered just as historical as the practices forming that object. It is not then particularly worrying to find that centuries of conflicting translation theories have revealed very little resembling a universal law for translation. In the social sciences, such things are very rare, always subject to historical testing, and perhaps thus only attainable as laws of tendency. It is perhaps enough to ask pertinent and meaningful questions, or to fight for sufficiently ethical professional causes tending in the right directions.
When the questions are truly pertinent, when debate is
really about the role translation can and should play in concrete intercultural
relations, internal squabbles between translators often spill over into
the public arena, allowing theorisation to enter a wholly explicit phase.
Explicit theorisation responds to conflict in practice
The need for explicit theorisation only arises when there is a problem to be resolved between conflicting practices. In the specific case of translation theory, certain problems might be anterior to the production of a particular TT - excessive quantities of ST would be the practical problem giving rise to machine translation theory - , but the real problems are more usually the result of social tension in the reception of a particular kind of TT. Jerome and Luther turned to explicit theory because they had to justify their representations of the Bible as being of a far closer culture than was generally believed; Dryden theorised as a reader of Cowley and against Cowley in the name of proper respect for classical culture; and it is certainly not fortuitous that the translator whom Cary (1955) regarded as the first proper theorist of translation - Etienne Dolet - was tortured, strangled and burnt at the stake, along with his translations, for theorising against religious theory. When translators are put on trial - juridically, politically or financially, through the marketing of their products - , when disagreement or discord is not merely a silent doubt efficiently dispelled by intuitive concession or adequate sales figures, then practice turns to explicit theorisation. It is at this moment that a division of labour enables one to talk about translation theory as such and of theorists as more or less adequate advocates disposed to defend or prosecute the accused.
All translators theorise, but certain translator-theorists
become specialist theorists. The quality of their products can then be
assessed according to specialist criteria.
Linguistics is of limited use
According to Jacques Perret, "each discourse on translation implies a theory of language, since it is only at this level that practical problems become consistent and intelligible; it is only at this level that doctrines concerning the art of translating can be compared and appreciated" (cited in Delisle 1984, 46). This appears to mean that, although it is all very well for translators to defend themselves, to discuss and attempt to solve their immediate practical problems, such pastimes can only become substantially theoretical by becoming a mode or branch of linguistics. For Perret, as for many academics, the aim of theorisation seems to be not to address practice but to produce doctrines that can be "compared and appreciated", as if the world lacked books. The same idealised sheltering from extra-linguistic problems is no doubt behind the fact that, in Spain, where I do my best to teach, my colleagues have unthinkingly fought to have "translating and interpreting" institutionally classified under "applied linguistics". As if linguists were the only people really qualified to theorise about translation.
However, the proposition that "each discourse on translation implies a theory of language" is perhaps not necessarily a simple evocation of linguistic theory as a kind of saviour sent from on high. It could be interpreted as saying that "discourses on translation" are one of the necessary but ignored bases of linguistics. After all, "mouton" had to be translated as "sheep" before Saussure could declare the principle of their difference, and what Benveniste (1966, 23) sees as the first descriptive linguistics - the phonetic alphabet - could also be described as a code of translation. This suggests a far more interesting interdisciplinarity in which there is no necessary hierarchy between theories of translation and theories of language. Indeed, there should be great potential for dialogue between the two, and quite massive potential for mutual blindness in the absence of such dialogue.
The inadequacy of a purely linguistic approach to translation was realised by Georges Mounin some time ago, when structuralism was afraid to go beyond sentence level:
"If the current theses on lexical, morphological and syntactic structures are to be accepted, one must conclude that translation is impossible. And yet translators exist, they produce, and their products are found useful." (1963, 5)
The problem signaled by Mounin's decidedly economic register is one of confusion between language as the material used by translators, and translating as a productive transformation of that material. As Marianne Lederer puts it, "although knowledge of the tongue is necessary for translation, it cannot be equated with translating" (in Seleskovitch and Lederer 1984, 24). Linguistics, as the study of the tongue, thus has no reason to be equated with the theorisation of translation. No one doubts that carpenters work with wood, but how pertinent is the study of forestry to the practice of carpentry?
Linguistics has of course changed considerably since the days of sentence-bound structures. We now have countless versions of discourse analysis, text linguistics, sociolinguistics, computational linguistics, prototype semantics, and other assorted wonders. At the same time, translation theorists have been able to claim a degree of independence from "old" linguistics by surreptitiously incorporating various forms of "new" linguistics, which in fact means that they have done little more than follow the footsteps of the linguists themselves. I find it difficult to believe that any major insight has been gained in this way. For example, no discourse analysis, text linguistics or prototype semantics that I know of - which might be an important limitation - can substantially incorporate the directionality of translation; no scenes-and-frames analysis can tell me why Pavlov's dogs could not translate; no linguist can really tell me if ST and TT are two different discourses or the same discourse repeated; the formulation or study of an artificial interlanguage cannot substantiate an ethical position with respect to intercultural relations.
However, if I should insist that theorisation should respond
to the immediate practical problems of translators, it is not in order
to discount the validity of linguists' observations and endeavours. It
is partly to ensure that the theorisation of translation can have something
to say to linguists, something that has not already been acquired through
Generality should begin from translation
The past few decades have seen a rapid multiplication of the fields of inquiry that have been brought to bear on translation theory. Very broadly, this process can be dated from when Nida and Mounin, each in their own way, pointed out the inadequacy of traditional linguistics in order to embrace quite far-reaching forms of interdisciplinarity. But has this process threatened the specificity of translation theory?
Since Mounin saw the linguistics of his time as formal algebra, he was necessarily led to believe that "the semantic content of a tongue is the ethnography of the community speaking that tongue" (1963, 234). Similarly, for Nida, "...only a sociolinguistic approach to translation is ultimately valid" and the theoretical activity concerned should belong to the broader discipline of "anthropological semiotics" (1976, 77). This could amount to saying that an expert in translation should also be an expert in the totality of social life. Such is indeed the logical conclusion to be reached from a theory of "dynamic equivalence" designed to enable God to speak in all human households: the competence of translator-theorists must be located somewhere near the higher reaches of a modern Tower of Babel. Early semiotic ambitions might have promised sufficient scientific bricks and mortar to keep them there, but few theorists are nowadays so keen on writing catalogues of a changing world. It has become more important to have something to say.
Given that the eclectic interdisciplinarity of the 1970s led to a relative lack of theoretical activity in the 1980s - at least in the English language - , I believe it is nowadays necessary to rebuild our frames of reference. We should initially limit the fields of inquiry that can be considered pertinent to translation and focus them on a specific field, as I have attempted to do in the above definition of translational competence. When this is not done, research quickly loses its way. It is no good analysing utterances, discourses, texts, situations, sociolects and the rest until one knows what translation actually does with these things and thus what kind of external information is needed for the particular theoretical practice concerned. The categories of translation are to be found by looking at translation. Only then, in terms of these categories, might one determine how and why the totality of social life should be tackled.
This criterion of disciplinary centralisation particularly concerns the elimination of various assumptions often invoked as normalising operations in definitions of the domain of translation theory. I have mentioned most of these assumptions in the course of the previous chapters, but it should not hurt to bring them together here.
There is no overwhelming reason why, for instance, a theory of translation should unthinkingly exclude orality from its domain. Interpreting is materially conditioned in ways similar to any other form of translating; interpreters make use of written texts when possible; and spoken language has degrees of fixedness which by no means radically oppose it to the material fixedness of writing. The fact that the mode of production is spoken rather than written does not fundamentally alter translation as a general process pertinent to both kinds of support.
Similarly, as I have noted with respect to the status of intercultural space, the common distinction between intralingual and interlingual translation introduces a presupposed frontier that need not concern the generality of translation as a process. From a sociolinguistic perspective, it is simply dangerous to assume absolute frontiers between tongues or to ascribe only one tongue to a given community: as mentioned in chapter one above, there are many cases of multilingual communities in which interlingual translation has the same social function as intralingual translation in a monolingual community. It might of course be objected that criteria of difficulty impose an immediate distinction between intralingual and interlingual translation. But then there is no reason why this frontier should be more pertinent - or more difficult to cross - than the borders defining class speech or, at the other end of the scale, families of tongues. Translating from Catalan into Castilian, for instance, is by no means of the same order of difficulty as translating from a Bantu into an Indoeuropean tongue. More importantly, many preconceptions about the nature and indeed possibility of interlingual equivalence result from failure to consider the nature of intralingual equivalence.
In the same vein, there is no reason why the categories of translation as a process should pay undue attention to certain preconceptions about text genre. The presupposed sacred or documental status of religious or literary texts, for example, is often without consequence for the actual process of translating, whereas discursively based genres such as those elaborated by Reiss (1971) only affect translation to the extent that they first affect certain transfer situations. It is possible to imagine the training of translators being well served by a global genre system based on transfer analysis. But in the meantime, the tendency to exclude special text genres from the domain of translation theory leads to the assumption that one must first deal only with something called "common everyday language" or, in the Tartu version, "primary modeling systems", or again, in many university curricula, "general texts". From the perspective of a generality organised in terms of translation, there are no such beasts. One might as well go to a zoo and look for a cage marked "animal".
Translation theory must be general, but this does not
mean that its general categories have to correspond to those of other disciplines.
Translation theory should be pertinent to translation
The intrusion of external assumptions is largely responsible for the current state of English-language translation theory as a series of partial and partisan cross-purposes, with each theorist setting out to categorise and justify a given set of data, discounting alternative data and drawing arguments from external ideological sources concerning things like the nature of God's Word, the supposed equality of different cultures or the ethical duty to convey information. Certain movements towards comprehensive generality have no doubt been initiated through broad dichotomies such as those between "dynamic" and "formal" equivalence (Nida), "communicative" and "semantic" translation (Newmark) and so forth, but in most cases - and certainly in these two cases - the normative preferences are clearly marked, the boundaries are drawn to suit specific strategic purposes, and theoretical justification is highly predetermined by assumptions drawn from external beliefs.
Critique of excessive partisanship leads to a simple criterion for the initial evaluation of theories, based on pertinence to the data to be justified: If the categories of a theory cannot generate an alternative TT1 for a TT included in its data, then that theory is not pertinent to the TT concerned.
This enables us to say, for example, that the semantic/communicative division proposed by Newmark is pertinent to the de Gaulle example because it is able to generate the TT1 "For France is not alone! She is not alone! She is not alone!". However, these categories are not pertinent to examples where one-to-one correspondence is obligatory. For instance, the only TT that Newmark's theory can generate for the Y text "faire un discours" is TT "make a speech" (1985, 11-12), in which case the theory concerns comparative linguistics, not translation. As a general principle, if there is only one possible TT for a given Y text and the possibility of non-translation (X) is excluded, the limited translational process concerned should be considered uninteresting. The criterion of pertinence thus privileges those theories able to open space for both possible and apparently impossible TT forms, prior to all attempts to define the generation of those TT forms judged to be acceptable.
If, as Newmark claims, "the central concern of translation
theory is to determine an appropriate method of translation" (1981, 141),
nothing of pertinence can be determined until at least one apparently inappropriate
method of translation has been formulated and discarded, for good reasons.
Translation theory should not lecture translators
One readily observable feature of translation theories since 1960 is the way the use of external beliefs and the search for good reasons has allowed authority to be transferred from one discipline to another through citation or invocation of outside competence. Greimas (1976) has offered a semiotic explanation of this circular displacement, which he considers general to the social sciences. In the case of translation theory, there is commonly a reference to previous theories, which themselves invoke an external discipline like linguistics, linguistic philosophy, anthropology and perhaps ethics. This circular process knows no absolute repose. The buck simply does not stop.
The interdisciplinary displacement of authority has significant consequences on two levels of translation theory.
First, there may be a certain indifference as to whether or not an authoritative theory is really applicable to translation. As we have noted, theorisation begins when there is a practical problem to be solved, usually in a context of social tension. One of the functions of theory is thus to bestow authority on one mode of translating or another. That is, the authority that a theory is able to assume from the more prestigious disciplines and beliefs of the day may be transferred to the practice of translators themselves. This process can be observed in the institutional involvement of theory in the teaching and professionalisation of translators over the past twenty years. When structuralist linguistics was the dominant social science, part of its authority was adopted to promote new interest in translation theory, despite the fact that it was and remains completely unable to explain translation. Now that the central role of structure has passed to discourse analysis, translation is suddenly seen as a discursive process, even though most theories of discourse in fact fare no better than structuralist linguistics. Happily, general translational practice itself has quite probably changed far less than the theory. What has altered is rather the distribution of authority within the social sciences.
Such changes are of little practical consequence if one is sufficiently aware of why they occur. And when there is awareness, it is not wholly perverse to claim that the existence of authoritative but inappropriate theories is a socially meritorious fact. This is because, regardless of whatever the theories might actually say, the institutionalisation of this field within the social sciences is a supportive correlative of the professionalisation of translators. Indeed, the very reasons why translators tend to dislike academic theory - Komissarov (1985) lists arcane terminology, diversity of approaches and inapplicable general findings - are perhaps precisely the reasons why the existence of such theory, with all its hermetic markers of intellectual authority, has proved socially beneficial for these same translators. The practical function of public theory is not necessarily to tell translators what they should be doing, but partly to open authoritative academic and social space in which they can work as recognised professionals.
The second problem of theory as a bestowal of authority is that, as basic self-defence on the part of translator-theorists, theorisation tends to assume that the practice it is based on is authoritative in its own right. This means that the relation between theory and translational practice risks becoming entirely tautological. Thus, when Catford admits that "the discovery of textual equivalents is based on the authority of a competent bilingual informant or translator" (1965, 27) he initiates a further circular displacement of power, this time on the level of practice. The authority of the translator could be gained from an anterior informant - dictionaries, previous translations, and even, for Newmark at least, the authority of the ST itself - , but there is ultimately little way of grounding such authority in practice except through reference to norms and conventions, to what is "normally done", or to what authoritative theory chooses to accept as authoritative competence, which in turn becomes the ostensible basis of authoritative theory.
What is at stake here is not the pernicious nature of the circularity itself, but the highly conservative import of established practice or recognised competence as the projected bases of translation theorists' authority.
It should not be forgotten that explicit theorisation begins from a problem within established practice. Its fundamental point of departure is movement and thus change, as indeed is the point of departure for translation itself. If everything were already in its rightful place, there would be little reason for transfer and thus no reason at all to talk about translation. The nature of translation requires that, wherever possible, explicit argument be preferred to surreptitious invocation; explanation of change be preferred to repetition of norms; and implicitly unidirectional relationships between theory and practice be regarded as immediately suspect.
When Jiri Levy asked some time ago if translation theory
would be of any use to translators, he answered the question in the following
way: "In my opinion, writing on the problems of translation has any sense
at all only if it contributes to our knowledge of the agents which influence
the translator's work and its quality" (1965, 77). The response was acutely
intelligent in that it did not pretend to lay down any law for all translators.
Levy's respect for practice was such that his concern was first with those
factors which facilitate an understanding of how and why translators work.
That is, useful theory should be based on knowledge derived from a practice
generally able to find solutions to its own problems. Which is why theory
should not lecture translators.
Translation theory should address the social sciences
If theorists should look closely at the how and why of translational practice, at the practical problems they are called upon to resolve - only to find that most problems have already been solved on the level of practice - , this does not mean that translation theory should adopt a perpetually involuted stance with respect to its peculiar object. These practical problems are by no means limited to translation alone. Surprising commutations and occasional commiserations are to be found in the most unsuspected corners. If, for instance, I have looked at at the history of economics for a suggestive if slightly perverse model of equivalence, an economic historian like Alexander Gerschenkron might equally look at translation in order to model an apparently hard-headed problem like comparing American and Soviet machine output statistics. Economic historians, indeed comparatists at all levels, are called upon to carry out translational operations. There is no reason why translation theory should exclude them from its vision of possible applications.
It is one thing to organise a centralised generality incorporating a range of determining factors, but the resulting theory should then be able to use its specific insights to address problems in related disciplines, notably sociolinguistics, comparative cultural studies and the history and theory of international relations.
This essay has been an attempt to indicate ways in which theoretical awareness of transfer can be used as a basic link between translation theory and wider social sciences. Recognising transfer as the major influence on the translator's work, I have argued that the materiality of things that move should be integrated into the study of translation itself. Broader social sciences - all the sciences that can address the social reasons behind the movements of things - can thus be reached through inspection of translational practice rather than by blindly adopting and applying their independent categories. Awareness of transfer should moreover prompt theorists to reconsider basic issues like the materiality of texts, the role of equivalence in exchange, the significance of quantity, the dynamic forces setting up the translation situation, and the ethical implications of the translator's profession. For too long theorists of translation have merely subordinated themselves to the interests and categories of better established or more frightening disciplines, believing, erroneously, that the statistics of economists or the schemata of sociologists offer more objective bases for international understanding. Translation theorists would do better to take position with respect to the categories of transfer and translation, to seek the principles of their own objectivity, and then address the social sciences from there.
Such interdisciplinarity can be seen not only as good
imperialist propaganda on behalf of translators. It might also become a
way of alerting wider disciplines to models and phenomena that traditionally
and often perniciously limit our vision of the world.