The general linguistic enterprise describing how granular or ‘phonemic’ attributes of language may be parsed into phonological types, and further, be fully describable in the intersection between phonological and lexicogrammatical matters, is usefully discussed by Jakobson (1961), and the appeal of such scientific and mathematico-semiotic reductions of language continues in the biologistic, Universal Grammar prescriptions of Chomsky. If such philosophical abstractions generally do not impinge on the work of the professional translator, these abstractions represent descriptions of equivalence between mathematical information and language, as well as biology and language. Concerns with introducing objectivity to descriptions of language, and the innate difficulties of doing so, have affected most theories of language, including the theoretical implications of translation work.
In the contemporary setting, machine translation (MT) insists on the possibility of a logical progression and effectively objective sequencing of translation. In an informational and globalised economy where the demand for translation services has vastly expanded, professional MT offers service users a ‘gisting’ function commensurate with the demands of such an economy (Cronin 2003: 22). However, the evident complexity of language always means there are many options of translation, without resort to any final, ‘logical choice.
At a formal level, and analysing formal systems of language such as theories of physics to consider their transmissibility in translation, Quine’s thesis of the ‘indeterminacy of translation’ is that
the question of which analysis of the [source language] is the correct one has no
answer, for there is no fact of the matter that determines which is correct. We are
free to choose the one we prefer on pragmatic grounds. (Thompson 1982: 559)
The task given by the freedom to choose a certain limited set words and expressions in the TL is the precipitate responsibility of the translator, but Quine’s thesis, summarised by Bar-on, goes so far as to suggest that
there are too many perfect translation schemes between any two languages… most of the ‘implicit canons’ ordinary translators use in selecting and assessing translations lack objective status. (Bar-on 1993: 781)
However, Bar-on argues, considering the “normative judgements” made by professional translators in practice, such judgements do reveal a “pretheoretic commitment to the objectivity of linguistic facts” (Bar-on 1993: 781). This is to say there is often, at least in the practice of translation, a commitment by the translator to the existence of an objective ‘equivalent’ in the TL that will adequately and objectively render the meaning comported in the SL. However, this ‘pretheoretic commitment’ to objectivity on the part of the translator need not necessitate an objective translation, but only that the translator himself will advocate the objectivity and fitness of his own translation. Bar-on describes just this logical double bind:
accepting indeterminacy leads to eliminativism about ordinary translation discourse, but accepting this eliminativism undermines the very reasoning that purportedly supports indeterminacy” (Bar-on 1993: 782)
The opening quote from Spivak – “translation is a necessary impossibility”- also addresses itself to the double bind of translation work, of how in practice the theoretical openness and unlimited quality for the possibilities of translation, if it is accepted, becomes itself impossible, since the very necessity to translate undermines the rational support for such radical openness.
Moving from the theoretical and indeed philosophical to the practice of translation, Bar-on describes how translation becomes
the replacement of textual / discourse material of a source-language (SL) with the equivalent material of a target-language (TL), with the consequent replacement of the SL graphology / phonology by (typically non-equivalent) TL graphology / phonology. (Bar-on 1993: 782)
This is to say, that though the TL text typically does not look and sound like the SL text, an equivalent meaning is rendered. The concept of equivalence may be taken to ground the ‘necessary impossibility’ of translation in less difficult theoretical and philosophical exigencies – equivalence is an easier theoretical beginning than any linguistic and phonological, or mathematical and semiotic, theory of translation.
Baker finds the concept of equivalence convenient precisely because “most translators are used to it rather than because it has any theoretical status” (Baker 1982: 5-6). Thus, even as a mildly spurious theoretical grounding, equivalence does certainly play a useful role in professional translation.
Many discussions of the pragmatics of translation do focus on the notion of equivalence, equivalence being a key concept given how translation generically may be linked to the process of providing “equivalents, in a new language, for what was written in another language” (Will 1993: 8). If the etymology of translation, via Latin, is to ‘carry over’, the working assumption in translation is how translation carries some ‘equivalent’ meaning over, from the SL to the TL.
In the following section, variations on theories of equivalence proposed by different theorists are considered to gauge their actual utility and relevance to the practice of professional translation. In this section the wider historical and political liabilities of translation are discussed, followed by a conclusion assessing the implications for professional translation.
Equivalence may offer some simplification over the theoretical difficulties concerning translation work, but equivalence is itself a concept attracting dispute and controversy. Kenny notes, though equivalence is a central concept in translation, “it is also a controversial one” (Kenny 1998: 77). Frederic Will writes how,
Sometimes the belief in equivalents joins with the belief that translations can deal very freely with their originals, and sometimes with the opposite belief, that translations must be very literal. (Will 1993: 8)
A positive freedom to translate, the former option, is generally associated with the principle of ‘dynamic equivalence’. Two majors associations with dynamic equivalence are the subjective inferences made for the translation by the particular translator (as part of the translator’s own reading itself), and an awareness of the cultural and linguistic gaps existing between languages (language is profoundly connected to culture), due to differences in culture in each of the SL and TL languages. Thus, a modicum of imagination must be invoked by the translator for the translation to work, and convey the same meaning in the TL as the SL. The latter option, aiming at the most literal translation, depends crucially on a quality of ‘formal correspondence’ existing between the SL and TL.
According to Nida, formal correspondence “focuses attention on the message itself, in both form and content”, while dynamic equivalence rests upon “the principle of equivalent effect” (Nida 1964:159). Dynamic equivalence directly addresses itself to the reader, and invokes reader-response theories of language to justify any particular translation, whereby “the message of the original text has been so transported into the receptor language that the response of the receptor is essentially like that of the original receptors” (Nida and Taber 1969: 202). With formal correspondence or formal equivalence, “the features of the form of the source text have been mechanically reproduced in the receptor language.” (Nida and Taber 1969: 203). There are two immediate problems. First, the use of theoretical terms such as ‘message’ and ‘form’, and metaphors such as ‘transported’, all beg further explication and indeed simplification. Any theory of translation may itself always be ambiguous with the self-referential quality of language – there is no metalanguage available to translation studies by which to make unassailable statements or categorisation (Derrida’s ‘play of the signifier’ from “Structure, Sign and Play in the Discourse of the Human Sciences” (1966) could have some relevance here, since all signification betrays interminable ambiguities). Also, Nida and Taber immediately concede that formal correspondence typically distorts the grammar and style of the TL, and so the translation, causing the reader “to misunderstand or to labour unduly hard” (Nida and Taber 1969: 203). Already it is clear that the formal correspondence theory of translation is a weak or at least limited basis for any professional translator – some manner of selectivity and rearrangement must be used so as to maintain basic clarity for any translation.
The idealism of formal correspondence has profound limitations and is of little use to the professional translator. Nida and Taber also admit the general priority of dynamic over formal equivalence (1969: 22). For Nida and Taber’s theory of equivalence, the concern with formal correspondence is clearly in part related to their own concerns with the specific and unique qualities of the text they most consider, the Bible. Since the Bible is the ‘Word of God’, the fidelity of translation carries with it an onerous spiritual burden. Also, the textual subtleties lost in an approach dictated by formal correspondence, at once tends to simplify the translation, and maintain the cultural and even spiritual apotheosis of the translator. Formal correspondence serves a political transference of power, maintaining a hierarchy with the visiting missionary-translator at the top of an hierarchy of linguistic and cultural knowledge, and thus power. By implicitly diminishing the subtleties and resources of the TL (in order to maintain fidelity to the SL), formal correspondence also supplements a pedagogical enterprise on behalf of the translator-missionary, who is given the role of continuously re-explicating the SL in the TL of the ‘native’, a process serving to mystify and maintain the superior authority of the translator-missionary.
As Nida and Taber state, formal correspondence readily causes the reader “to misunderstand or to labour unduly hard” (Nida and Taber 1969: 203). Other theorists have drawn attention to the same limitations. Fawcett notes how the distortions formal equivalence makes on the grammatical and stylistic patterns of the receptor language go on to distort the message, so as to cause the reader to misunderstand the message (Fawcett 1997: 201). This misunderstanding or excess labour is exactly the basis for establishing an hierarchy of knowledge with the translator and SL advantaged in comparison to the TL reader and TL itself.
Thus, some theories of equivalence (justified by theological and colonial cultural concerns) have indeed served a dramatically useful and world-historical importance for spiritual and colonially-imposed translations of the Bible and other colonial SL texts. These translations would have had a professional and well instituted providence in the culture of the SL – only highly-trained professionals, be they priests or bureaucrats, would have fulfilled the role of translator. Indeed, as Mona Baker writes, “translation itself was once carefully policed as a genre” (Baker 2006: 95). Historical, political and ethical considerations such as these should inform the work of the professional translator today, and Baker gives a precise example of how formal equivalence is today being used to translate-to-disadvantage one culture in contained conflict with another. Modern scholarship is more attuned to the potential violence of a translation process, with the violence both being made manifest in misunderstandings and undue labour required of the reader, while at the same time being disguised.
This leaves dynamic equivalence as a necessary function and component of most professional translation, faced with the vagaries of particularities not common between the SL and TL texts. Some stylisations of dynamic equivalence are now discussed.
Vinay and Darbelnet note that “the need for creating equivalences arises from the situation, and it is in the situation of the SL text that translators have to look for a solution” (1995:255). Vinay and Darbelnet’s equivalence-oriented translation is a procedure which “replicates the same situation as in the original, whilst using completely different wording” (Vinay and Darbelnet 1995: 342), and as such finds justification in particular for “proverbs, idioms, clichés, nominal or adjectival phrases and the onomatopoeia of animal sounds” (Leonardi 2000). Such distinctions and exceptionally marked words or phrases in the SL wqould obviously invoke the common sense need for dynamic equivalences, and yet, as much as dynamic equivalence is called for, there is little positive content among theorists, and again, because of the concrete particularities of the SL text with respect to the TL, invention, improvisation and imagination are without fail required at some stage for a translation to be even possible, and not only suggestive. A further development of equivalence came from Roman Jakobson, introducing the notion of ‘equivalence in difference’, but now difference is construed everywhere, not only between languages, but within any language – ‘equivalence in difference’ thus becomes the basic problem “of every language” (Jakobson 1959: 262; italics in original). This expanded construction of linguistic difference and equivalence fully acknowledges that languages are themselves dynamic (Jakobson 1959: 264), in turn meaning translatability itself becomes a dynamic category, and that “instead of asking what is translatable, one might also ask what kind of translation satisfies criteria of translatability” (Pym and Turk 1998: 275). Jakobson then suggested three kinds of translation:
- Intralingual – within one language, i.e. rewording or paraphrase;
- Interlingual – between two languages;
- Intersemiotic – between sign systems.(1959:232)
For interlingual translation such as the professional translator generally encounters, the onus now on the translator is not on first looking for some formal equivalence to the SL, and only then after acknowledging difference, looking for a dynamic version of equivalence, but all the time being sensitive to the possibilities of dynamic equivalence in the changing field of language in both the SL and TL. Jakobson puts this awareness, “languages differ essentially in what they must convey and not in what they can convey” (Jakobson 1959: 264). Difference in the SL and TL, and with it any potential equivalence, is not solely derived by linguistic conditions in the SL and TL as if the SL and TL were static accumulations of language. Now dynamic equivalence is not a default fallback, but a condition of the possibility of language itself, in any one language as well as between languages. Time, culture and history are effectively acknowledged as having a role in language development – in effect, we are all translating our mother tongues all the time, in a manner dependent on our culture and history – and the professional translator cannot, and must not, ignore or delegate away such an awareness of linguistic dynamism. Such positive freedoms authorise a far greater degree of theoretical freedom for translation than other concepts of dynamic equivalence, and Jakobson provides examples from the English and Russian languages, explaining how in such cases where there is no literal equivalent for a particular SL word or sentence, the translator must be free, and not simply can be free, to choose a suitable way to render the text in the TL. However, this freedom is more general than even Jakobson situates interpretation as a constant feature of language use (see footnote 1), and translation then becomes a subspecies of this universal activity – not only do ‘equivalents’ serve as a useful, if rudimentary theory for translation, but for all language usage and the generation of linguistic meaning.
Between ‘equivalence’ analyses of translation concentrated on the word or phrase level, split between formal and dynamic, and Jakobson’s more diffuse description of difference and equivalence permeating all language use, Catford developed translation studies to consider the different extent and ‘ranks’ of translation that any translation might aspire to create. A ‘rank-bound’ translation is one where the professional translator deliberately chooses to select equivalents in the TL at the same rank in an hierarchy of grammatical units (morpheme, word, group, clause or sentence; Catford 1965: 24). An unbounded translation would then include equivalences which permit the translator to manoeuvre between different ranks, if in practice the translator would usually move up to higher ranks to find an equivalent in the TL. Catford’s considerations are mostly restricted to taking the sentence as the uppermost rank. However, Catford’s description of ‘textual equivalence’ and ‘formal correspondence’ (Catford 1965: 27) is oriented on the same axes of formalism as the ‘dynamic’ and ‘formal’ variations of equivalence already discussed. So, for instance, Catford’s ‘textual equivalence’ occurs when any TL text or portion of text is “observed on a particular occasion … to be the equivalent of a given SL text or portion of text” (p.27). Catford states that the central task of translation theory is defining the nature and conditions of ‘translation equivalence’ (Catford 1965:21). Catford checks this equivalence by a process of commutation, in which “a competent bilingual informant or translator” is consulted on the translation of various sentences whose ST items are changed in order to observe “what changes if any occur in the TL text as a consequence” (Catford 1965:28). Catford’s ‘translation shifts’ are defined as “departures from formal correspondence in the process of going from the SL to the TL” (Catford 1965:73). Snell-Hornby (1988) correctly criticizes Catford’s definition of textual equivalence as “circular”, and how his example sentences are “isolated and even absurdly simplistic” (1988: 19-20).
For House a translation should determine the ‘situational dimensions’ of the SL, describing how “a translation text should not only match its source text in function, but employ equivalent situational-dimensional means to achieve that function” (House, 1997: 49). For House’s ‘overt translation’, the TL audience is not directly addressed – there is no attempt to recreate a ‘second original’ since an overt translation “must overtly be a translation” (1997: 189). A prime example would be a dubbed film, where the functional approach to delivering the film’s dialogue is distinctly perceived as a translation. By ‘covert’ translation is meant the production of a text functionally equivalent to the SL text. Once again, there is basically only a formalism developed with variation on different scales of formal and dynamic equivalence.
Baker (1992) offers a more detailed list of conditions upon which the concept of equivalence can be defined, and uses the concept of equivalence in a salutary manner “for the sake of convenience – because most translators are used to it rather than because it has any theoretical status” (Baker 1992:5-6). The conditions where non-equivalence transpires occur widely, in culture-specific concepts, concept not lexicalised in the TL, semantic complexity in the SL, different qualitative distinctions of meaning in the SL and TL, and the use of loan words in the SL text, among others. These conditions are many and varied, and Baker notes the many strategies used by professional translators to deal with such examples of non-equivalence (Baker 1992: 21-42). Baker’s discussion of non-equivalence also includes the grammatical and textual, the latter including thematic structure and cohesion. The discussion, if it is not arduous, is long and ranging, and finishes with a discussion of ‘pragmatic equivalence’ (Baker 1992: 217-260). In this final section, Baker adroitly notes how many writers deliberately deviate from normal patternings of language, since writers and translators “often appeal to their readers to modify their expectation if such modifications are required in a given context” (Baker 1992: 251). As such, deviations are well-motivated, and the translator must usually “enlarge the shared context of writer and reader” (Baker 1992: 251, italics mine). Here Baker alludes to translation as a process which now does not merely ‘carry over’ meaning between the SL and TL, but creates shared contexts, and perhaps new equivalences, between two languages which are being shared in the translation. Baker discusses ideas such as implicature and texture, in order to both describe, warn and encourage the expected professional translator to be aware a cohesive and coherent text for the TL audience occurs in a specific cultural context with illimitable differences from the culture of the SL text. Baker’s encouragement is clearly to engage in the most sensitive variety of dynamic equivalence, with cultural considerations unfolded as being hugely important. For the professional translator, this can only come with extended familiarity with both the language and culture of both the SL and TL texts – the last words of her book are almost an encouragement and admonition, asking the professional translator, “do you have to make adjustments to accommodate your target reader’s cultural background?” (Baker 1992: 258) In other words, for Baker, any adherence to finding linguistic equivalency should be tempered with considerations of cultural sensitivity. A more stringent objection to equivalence come from Snell-Hornby, who instead argues the concept of equivalence is always intrinsically problematic, presupposing “a degree of symmetry between languages which makes the postulated equivalence possible” (1988: 16). Snell-Hornby uses the term ‘equivalence’ as an example, and how the German Äquivalenz have, “on closer inspection subtle but crucial differences” (1988: 17). The concept of ‘equivalence’, precisely because it has been used “as a technical term in various exact science to denote a number of scientific phenomena or processes”, as well as in mathematics, where it indicates a “relationship of absolute symmetry and equality involving guaranteed reversibility”, has accrued the quality of signifying a fixed, symmetrical relation between two well-defined variables. However, Jakobson also contested and argued any such static quality in any one language, as well as between languages. Then equivalence for Snell-Hornby then becomes a “treacherous illusion” that should not have such a central place in translation studies (Snell-Hornby 1988: 17). In fact, Snell-Hornby historicises the more exuberant rise of a theory of equivalency with the “euphoria that hailed machine translation in the 1950s”, and identifies the counter-argument and disputation of such a theory with Jakobson’s seminal essay, On Linguistic Aspects of Translation (1959).
If equivalence is in fact useful to the professional translator as a rudimentary theorization of translation, most theories are simply oriented along some ‘formal’ versus ‘dynamic’ divide, with variations upon each, and then most variation on the ‘dynamic’ axis (Nida, Catford and House for instance). Jakobson instead generalizes dynamic equivalence over all language use. Since ‘formal equivalence’ conditions the translator to look for and expect a corresponding linguistic element in the TL for the SL, I have argued this has, and still can, serve a powerful political agenda. The ‘gisting’ function of MT may well serve as a contemporary reinvention of language policies serving older ‘colonial’ forms of inequality. Highly expanded and tempered dynamic theories of equivalence such as offered by Jakobson and Baker offer a more considered, nuanced and ethical approach to the demands of professional translation.