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This review appeared in Volume 8 (1) of the Semiotic Review of Books.

Trading Sense

by Daniel Simeoni

Descriptive Translation Studies & Beyond. By Gideon Toury. Benjamins Translation Library, vol. 4. John Benjamins Publishing Company. Amsterdam/Philadelphia 1995. ISBN 90-272- 2145 6 (Eur.) /1-55619-495-1 (U.S.A.). viii - 312 pp.

Theories are ways of organizing the apparent jumble of facts that we receive from experience. Whatever their domain of application -- physical phenomena, psychological impulses, language structures, economic behaviour, etc. -- theories are means of projecting order onto the world, of making sense of 'being'. They construct and structure the previously undetermined. Modern science concurs here with ancient philosophies and cosmogonies. Pretheoretical being may behave quite sensibly for practical purposes; so long as it remains unenlightened by theory it might as well be chaos or emptiness, tóhu vavóhu: a non-object, unheard and unsignifying. The theoretician uses his or her imagination to resolve this primordial insignificance.

Theories of translation are worth considering in this respect for they lend themselves to the reproach of relativism more than other domains. Translation scholars do not have the luxury of a single horizon of observation (e.g. system, code, universal grammar) since their object is essentially a composite artefact. Translation resists reduction. Critically, the same prejudicial argument that other language-oriented theories (including those linguistic) encounter, also faces the translation scholar. As one facetious yet lucid linguist observed recently regarding the 'scientificity' of the linguistic programme compared with that of physics or geology: "yeah, let the hard sciences try being the observer and the object of observation at the same time, then we'll see." In translation theory, putting aside this uneasy juncture of the observer and the observed is even more problematic. The perceptive reader cannot ignore that theoretical constructions of translation are themselves elaborations of a cultural mind. When it comes to framing and assessing the specificity of the translation domain, one is constantly reminded of the neurotic character of the theoretical enterprise. Most theoreticians would rather not consider this aspect of their work of course, lest they should stop writing altogether. But when two or more cultures and their modes of transfer are the issue, what is normally safely laid aside constantly surfaces in the process of meaning construction. Something of this kind has been happening for the last two decades in anthropology.

Ways of referring to the theorizing imagination are illuminating. Such conventional denominations as translation studies; traductologie; Übersetzungswissenschaft; torat hatirgum; etc., are not random creations. The terms stand firm today as stenographs for the various ways of constructing the domain and objects of translation theory, but the morphologies and flexions bear the marks of the cultural histories out of which they originated. The terms betray a balancing between plurality and singularity, analysis and interpretation, various degrees and modes of scientificity, modernity and tradition. The complexities and variability of theories are laid bare, not only across time but across languages and cultures of understanding. Some, emphasizing the newness of the 'scientific approach' in matters translational, may view this as a sign of immaturity. Others will recognize this uncertainty as a hard fact which is here to stay. The field is hardly new, they will say. Attempting to make sense of translation was probably coevalwith translating itself. If anything, the increasing number of players is likely to bring more, not less, diversity.

In a recent book mapping out the domain of translation studies, Neubert & Shreve (1992: 16-32) review seven conventional approaches to translation to which they give status of conceptual construct, each one the product of a particular viewpoint: (i) the "critical model", concerned with assessing the final 'result' on the basis of various predetermined criteria; (ii) the "practical model" or inductive 'how-to' approach, dealing with the practical knowledge of translation performance; (iii) the "linguistic model", projecting the mechanisms of transfer from one lexicogrammatical system to another; (iv) the "text-linguistic model", redefining the transfer of structures from source to target at supra-sentential levels; (v) the "sociocultural model", anxious to preserve the strangeness of the source entity to the point of advocating at times its interlinear transcription; (vi) the "computational model", branching out into the ideal of machine translation and the more practical aids of computer-assisted translation (CAT); (vii) the "psycholinguistic model", focussing on the mental operations involved in the transfer of textual segments (so far mostly in experimental settings). Those models are deemed by the authors distinct from theories. Rather, they redefine them as sets of hypothetical constructs in search of validation. Yet the models clearly derive their rationale from the projections they make of a theoretical horizon of expectations. Neubert and Shreve's classification is a theoretical construct by itself: their own text-based approach aggregates the seven models just cited in an integrated programme.

But what exactly constitutes the subject-matter of translation scholars, the undetermined matter to which they long to give intelligible form? Obviously, translation is not as undetermined as a heap of stones out of which the builder hopes to make a house or, pieces of wood before they are carved by the carpenter giving them functional shape. Others have already made sense of an earlier original material following their own sophisticated logic of practice: the author of the text and its translator, plus other hands involved in shaping an object that is, of necessity, pluri- and over-determined. If translation can be called "guided creation of meaning" (Halliday 1992), then translation scholars must be seen at the very least as third-level toilers dealing with third-order constructs, creators of meaning 'guided' several times. Their task, by giving a new interpretive turn to a plural object already interpreted, is to add yet another meaningful layer inclusive of previous interpretations. The translation scholar's interpretation cannot conflict with the translator's any more than with the author's prior interpreting. It will differ from theirs for it applies at its own level, but it must accommodate the previous interpretants' turns. Which is why the object of translation studies is taken to be today the network of forces undergirding its realization, i.e. an invisible or 'virtual' entity in the making. The domain thus defined is of major interest for it encapsulates many of the problems faced by the human sciences around a core issue: How to build a system of explanation that can be recognized by subjects as true to their own experience (Simeoni 1996).

Against this background, today's configuration of translation studies can be viewed as a three-branch structure of cumulative knowledge and interpretation, each deployment giving birth periodically to a renewed foliage rich in metalanguages. As of today, the programme branches out in three clusters of interests: (i) the traditional hermeneutic approach; (ii) the culturalist vision; (iii) a mentalistic paradigm. Among thoserepresentative of the first cluster are scholars like W. Barnstone; A. Berman; H. Meschonnic; A. Nouss; G. Steiner; all of them following into the footsteps of W. Benjamin's innovative "Task of the Translator". Their work continues the tradition of exegesis implicit in the modern Hebrew formulation of torat hatirgum. Translation theory is viewed as an ongoing commentary on texts which are themselves commentaries, thereby reaching back to the suggestive comingling of senses prompted by the semitic pair tirgum/targum. The practice is basically one of active reflexivity intent on tracking the circumstances and origins of that virtual entity, translation, trying at the same time not to freeze the dynamics of meaning construction.

The second branch follows a tradition too, albeit more recent. Interestingly, it might as well be viewed as a modernized outgrowth of the concerns of the previous group, a profane version less shy of naming the invisible. Translation products are traced back to the sociohistorical conditions of their emergence in the (mainly literary) "systems", "états de société", "fields" or "spaces" making up the host environments. The observer postulates regularities in a process and a production otherwise chaotic and haphazard, based on the idea that the "sociocultural inscription" of translation can be described and accounted for. The sources are accessed in most diverse ways. Not only the social dimensions as such but the gendered and bodily inscriptions of culture are examined. The question of the status of the observer straddling the borderlines of cultures, is also considered.

Some of those involved in this loose group recognize a forerunner in the person of J.S. Holmes, American translator of poetry and active conceptualizer in Holland until shortly before his death in 1986. Holmes coined, and justified his choice for the now well-established denomination of "translation studies." Two centres of research developed out of a foundational event in Leuven in 1976, giving rise to what was to be looked upon retrospectively as the Schools of Leuven and Tel-Aviv. Among other prominent figures, A. Lefevere continued a career in the USA until his death in 1996. Other scholars have been working independently in a related vein for a decade or so now in North America, such as A. Brisset from within the distinct framework of sociocriticism, D. Robinson, S. Simon, and L. Venuti. Recent feminist developments fit in also within this aggregate, together with other interculturally conscious attempts such as A. Pym's. The historical perspective looms large in this area of research where the main focus is on the cultural mind. If philosophy is the primary reference in the first circle, an original mix of American cognitive anthropology and European sociology subsumes the collective attempts of the second group.

The third, even more recent, aggregate of concerns is no more sui generis than the other two. It draws its inspiration and models from work accomplished in experimental psychology. Its proponents focus on the mind of the translator, this time through what seems to be a neurological horizon of expectations. To quote one of the earlier proponents of the programme, the methodologies developed in that group aim to elucidate "what goes on in the translator's head" (Krings 1986). The black box in the mind of the translator is the ultimate object that must be identified, explored, perhaps eventually explained in theory. Representative figures are in Germany: H-P. Krings, W. Lörscher; in Canada: J. Dancette, C. Séguinot. Related research is developing in Great Britain, the birthplace of statistics, experimental psychology and IQ studies. Currently, the main challenge faced by those active in this area of research is to remodel the basic principles of experimental psychology in ways fitting the actual experience and behaviour of translators in real practice, and to articulate the mentalism implicit in the design of experiments to the cultural implementations realized in the routines of the profession. It may be also that a heavier apparatus will be required for future research to break ground. The relation of written to oral translation (interpreting) is another moot topic.

Not surprisingly, national preferences can be observed. The coherence of the programme could not be taken for granted but for the fortunate fact that the branches are tangled. Work in Finland, a prominent country in the field, suggests that bridgeheads can indeed be constructed between core sections of the culturalist and experimentalist views by comparing the argumentative rhetoric in source texts with their translations (Tirkonnen-Condit). Similarly in Canada, B. Folkart has been exploring the linguistic construct of (re)énonciation at the intersection of hermeneutic and culturalist approaches. Such peripheral or interlinking attempts compound the real complexity of translational phenomena to ensure that a common ground exists for an accommodating discipline of translation studies. Any future work aspiring to theoretical status must situate itself in relation to these three subfields, for substantive and sociological reasons.

In this configuration, the culturalist model occupies a strategic position. One cannot help thinking of it as the cement that may or may not permit the conservation of the programme of translation studies. Without the cultural interface, nothing would prevent the hermeneutically inclined and the experimentally prone from going their separate ways and join the ranks of philosophy on the one hand, of the health and information sciences on the other.

Written by a foundational member of the so-called "Amsterdam-Antwerp-Leuven-Nitra-Tel Aviv" culturalist group (Van den Broeck 1988), Descriptive Translation Studies and beyond (henceforth DTS and beyond) is a welcome addition to the corpus of translation theory. The sum of twenty-odd years of research -- G. Toury wrote his Ph.D. thesis, "Norms of Literary Translation into Hebrew (1930-1945)", under the supervision of I. Even Zohar in Tel-Aviv in 1976 -- the book is a useful reference work for those already well versed in the disciplinary disputes of translation studies as well as for newcomers curious of the theoretical and methodological tenets of the culturalist approach to translational behaviour and practice. Its structure is such that it can serve as an excellent basis for a graduate course in translation studies. Earlier versions of some of the chapters of DTS and beyond were published as independent articles, some of them notoriously difficult to locate.

The book replaces (and considerably elaborates on) the author's much-praised In Search of a Theory of Translation (1980), long out of print. Several references and a full section (ch. 12) on recent mentalistically-oriented attempts at breaking the black box of cognition in translation have been included. Only the hermeneutic branch of the discipline is somewhat neglected in DTS and beyond. Indeed, the traditional approach seems at times to be used by the author as a foil, to contrast what he calls "speculative" research with the kind of empirically grounded investigation he favours. The strategy is not surprising given the norms and practice of scientific inquiry, but in a way it is regrettable, for it is quite possible and it would be a profitable exercise in itself and for the discipline as a whole, to articulate the culturalist findings of translationstudies to hermeneutic insights. On the whole, the book stands as an impressive effort, arguably the most consistent set of propositions to have emerged on the subject and one that maps out the terrain clearly for future research.

Mainstays of Toury's brand of culturalism are (i) that translation products are best approached as "facts of the target culture" (since they are selected, written, published and read for and by members of that culture) and (ii), that norms must be viewed as higher-order constraining factors in the genesis of translations. Considering the explicitly hypothetical status of these propositions, the resistance put up by a number of scholars (still ongoing) is quite intriguing. It is true that this programme of research contravenes a taboo of sorts, the invisible cord linking up translations to their obvious material origin, the 'source'. With hindsight, pulling off this cord in the 1970s was the single most important act of emancipation for the discipline of translation studies. Such events are never easy to cope with.

A short introduction lays out what the author views as the proper epistemological framework for an empirical translation studies to provide current and future theoretical models with testable hypotheses. Part 1 situates the model advocated in relation to J.S. Holmes's visionary map of a global project of translation studies (1972). Parts 2 & 3 make up the main body of the text, dividing it into methodological directions and an assortment of case studies. Part 4, shorter, is a prospectus for future theoretical attempts aiming for the establishment of statistical "laws of translation".

The methodological section of DTS and beyond consists of five chapters and an Excursus. The first two chapters review in much clarified form the tenets of the culturalist version, i.e. the twined assumptions that translation products ought to be viewed as facts of the target culture, and of the role and nature of multi-level norms in the genesis of translations. Chapters 3 and 4 detail a working method based on those hypothetical constructs, while chapter 5 illustrates the points made so far abstractly, in a "methodological exercise" focussing on a peculiarity of Hebrew: the higher frequency of certain syntagmatic chains ("conjoint phrases of near-synonyms") observable in texts translated into Hebrew compared to those written directly in that language, signals different norms of acceptability for the two types of texts, and legitimates the study of translations as an autonomous discipline. Excursus A, between the first two chapters, extends the general corpus of translation studies to "pseudotranslations", those texts pretending to be translations although they were written directly in the 'target' language.

The analytical section -- "Translation-in-Context" -- comprises seven chapters and two Excursus. It presents a reasoned selection of case studies performed in the advocated framework. The target cultural sector is that of Hebrew literature over the last 200 years. The cases submitted are remarkably focussed: successive translations of Shakespeare's sonnets; indirect translations as signs of the substitution of new heteronomous models for older ones; the replacement of certain stylistic norms as a solution to possible cultural clashes; the gradual genesis (or "coming into being") of a Shakespearian monologue based on corrections by the hand of the translator; lexical innovations generated through translation. Each single case study gives the corresponding chapter its self-contained character. Together, they build an impressive argument for the model. Chapters 9 and 12 tackle the issue of experimental studies and their status in relation to culturalist approaches. Excursus B deals with the issue of"literary translation" as opposed to the "translation of literary texts". Excursus C reflects on how an expert practice such as professional translating is acquired. In itself, Part 3 provides sufficient ground for in-depth discussion in an advanced course in translation studies.

Ultimately, DTS and beyond presents the reader with a productive imaginative construction. The foundational hypotheses will stand or fall by themselves depending on the critic's own presuppositions. It is not clear to this reader though how those foundational assumptions could be disputed, since nothing in them precludes doing work in any of the current areas of research, culturalist, hermeneutic or mentalistic (p. 14). Besides, most of the propositions can be argued, confirmed or disproved on the basis of the cases presented without jeopardizing the overall scheme.

That scheme is developed in synthetic fashion in one single chapter, pages 7 to 19, so crucial to the project that it receives the same structural importance as sections 2 and 3 taking up three quarters of the book. In it, Toury locates his model in relation to Holmes's map of the discipline, with a view to "enhancing its accuracy". Yet it must be clear to all who read the book that the resulting landscape and Toury's reconstruction are no small conceptual additions. The changes introduced are played down but they amount to an epistemological transformation of sorts.

The "descriptive branch" of Translation Studies, subdivided into three clusters -- product- / process- and function-oriented -- becomes the core of the discipline. Because translators' strategies act as constraints of the higher order upon translations, they occupy a pivotal position. Not only do they assume logical priority in practice over the surface realizations that present themselves as translations, but epistemologically as well, function-oriented scholarship takes precedence over product- and process-oriented research (of the kind performed, for example, by the mentalistic 'school'). The conceptualisation is consistent with the facts as they are recognized by the author.

This decision amounts to a major rewriting of the map. By borrowing from a semiotic framework whose origins are traceable to the particular brand of Russian formalism attached to the names of Tynjanov, Jakobson and Bogatyr‘v, the more traditional views of theoretical versus applied research come second. Both theory and applied research depend on the prior conceptualisation of translation studies as a function-based sociosemiotic discipline. The earlier proposition that translation studies should be first and foremost an empirical science (taken up again in DTS and beyond as a starting point) gives way to a meaning making perpective.

This inflection, or topological 'translation' of the original model instils a third dimension in 'Holmes's' map, so much so that the flat tree diagram capturing the 1972 model (p. 10) may not be the best representation to base the case of the remodelling on. Of course the change is made possible by the locus of the descriptive branch and within it, the function-oriented sub-domain, right in the centre of the model. But promoting this sub-component to the summit of a new pyramidal structure changes the stakes as well as the perspective on the discipline. New meanings hidden from view come to the fore. The theoretical imagination recasts the myriad individual strategies that undergird the textual realizations, as mere implementations.

In the earlier formulation, the translation scholar occupied the higher node. Holmes distributed the roles evenly among theoreticians, descriptivists and the applied professions. He hypothesized a dialectical relationship between the specialities, each"supplying materials for the other two, and making use of the findings which they in turn provide it" (Holmes 1988), but this did not alter the fundamental principle of equality between the three branches. In Toury's remodelled landscape, cultural constraints run the show: "translators may be said to operate first and foremost in the interest of the culture into which they are translating, however they conceive of that interest" (p.12). Accordingly, society is in charge. In the meta-discussion of Part 1, the task of the translation scholar no longer consists in assigning parts analytically; rather, it serves to enlighten the established order of culture. Translation studies becomes a discipline of revelation aimed at disclosing the interplay of norms. It is not simply a case of making advances at one node, leaving others in charge of the other nodes; rather, the project is revisited. It substitutes a socio-semio-logic to the parts-and-components logic of the original map. Holmes had seen the potential that "function-oriented descriptive translation studies" could grow into a full-blown "socio-translation studies" but he may not have anticipated that this renewed stance required reconceptualising the field and changing the status of the observer.

How does the new model fare with regard to the issue of the vantage point of the observer in relation to the virtual object of translation? The particular blend of Jakobsonian structuralism and empiricism which informs the case studies is powerful enough in its dynamics to allow the author to project an almost Lévi-Straussian stance of detachment. At the same time, his subject-matter betrays intense personal involvement. Commitment to the subject-matter combined with formal detachment is the formula of this book. And it is such a recognizable mix that it is possible to speak of a touryan style in the same way that C. Geertz was able to characterise the founders of the discipline of anthropology as "writers".

The question remains though, whether this way of theorizing practice around social norms preserves or downplays the pivotal position of the main agent in the process, i.e. the translator. Toury, the reader should know, is a successful translator of literary texts in his native country, just as Holmes was an award-winning translator of poetry in the Netherlands. In the latter case, it seems that the practicing translator and the theoretician were "rather schizophrenically divided" (the quote is R. van den Broeck's, 1988). In contrast, Toury's attempt may be viewed as an effort to bridge the gap between theory and applied research and beyond that, practice. There may be a sense of irony here, for Toury is sometimes viewed by other translation scholars (particularly in the applied sub-branches of teaching, criticising and helping translators), as an excessively abstract theoretician. In fact the kind of norm-centred conceptualization that he has advocated for years is far more grounded than others focussing e.g., on the single dimension of textuality. Further, I would suggest that his model of translational relations leaves plenty of room for the translator's perceptions as another topological inflection can make clear, this time from the centrality of norms to the primacy of the translator's habitus. It may take a while and quite a bit of energy to perform such a conceptual turn, but the theoretical foundations of DTS and beyond point to the feasibility of the project.

What can account for the astonishing diversity of theoretical imaginations in translation studies as in other sciences of meaning making practices? It is tempting to attribute Toury's prioritizing of norms over e.g. their habitual incorporation, to his own cultural training and history. The same sort of homology can be drawn of course for alltheoretical constructions whatever the specifics of the programme, including this reviewer's particular reading of the field of translation studies. Norms, Toury wrote as early as 1976, "are the key concept and focal point in any scientific approach to the study and description of social phenomena, especially behavioural activities, because their existence, and the wide range of situations they apply to (with the conformity to them implied) are the main factors ensuring the establishment and retention of social order" (my emphasis). The touchstone of the theory is its conformity to what the theoretician views as the predominant functions of the phenomena in practice. Phenomena make sense only in response to the observer's conceptualisation. A concern with order and systemic integrity translates into an interest in norms. A concern with freedom or agency, resistance or perhaps, contention, may result in a different corpus of hypotheses. Different concerns project different points of view, instantiating different models.

By taking into account such marked theoretical preferences, which only seem personal because of the personal investment they reveal while they are the result of sociohistorical determinations internalized by a cultural mind, it becomes possible to effectively counter the centrifugal forces that threaten the integrity of anthropology and translation studies. The national preferences for this or another existing branch of translation studies are probably no more random than the apparently idiosyncratic choices of translators in the real world of practice. A good test for a theory of practice is to try and see whether it can be accounted for with the same conceptual tools, using the same conceptual framework it applies to its objects. In anthropology and translation studies, this conjoined treatment seems the only way to defeat relativism. Reading DTS and beyond in this perspective may be a useful antidote against the doubts that have been assailing the scientific project lately.


Barnstone, W. (1993) The Poetics of Translation. History, Theory, Practice. Yale University Press: New Haven and London.

Benjamin, W. (1968 [1923]) "The task of the translator" (translated by H. Zohn). In Illuminations. Essays and Reflections, pp. 69-82. Schocken Books: New York.

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Neubert, A. and G.M. Shreve (1992) Translation as Text. The Kent State University Press: Kent, Ohio, and London, England.

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Pym, A. (1992) Translation and Text Transfer: An Essay on the Principles of Intercultural Communication. Peter Lang: Frankfurt am Main.

Robinson, D. (1991) The Translator's Turn. Baltimore and London: Johns Hopkins University Press.

Séguinot, C. ed. (1990) The Translation Process. Toronto, H.G. Publications: York University.

Simeoni, D. (1995) "Translating and Studying Translation: The View from the Agent." In A. Nouss ed., pp. 445-460.

Simon, S. (1996) Gender in Translation. Cultural Identity and the Politics of Transmission. Routledge: London and New York.

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Tirkonnen-Condit, S. (1985) "Argumentative Text Structure and Translation." Studia Philologica Jyväskyläensia: University of Jyväskylä.

Toury, G. (1976) "Norms of Literary Translation into Hebrew". English abstract (pp. a-h; i-xxxix). Ph.D. Thesis: Tel-Aviv University.

Toury, G. (1980) In Search of a Theory of Translation. The Porter Institute for Poetics and Semiotics: Tel-Aviv University.

Venuti, L. (1995) The Translator's Invisibility. A History of Translation. Routledge: London and New York.

Daniel Simeoni is a linguist and a translation scholar, born, raised, trained and educated in France. His publications are in functional linguistics, translation theory, cross-cultural research and the sociology of life history. He currently free-lances in Toronto and teaches translation studies in the Master's program at York university (Glendon College).

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