Translation Theory

Contemporary Theories on Translation: Nida and Steiner

CContemporary Theories on Translation: Nida and Steiner

The translation process is defined as the operation of obtaining the closest natural equivalent primarily in terms of meaning as well as the style (attempt to convey the same meaning and the same style as the original).

Nida denotes two types of equivalency: formal equivalency, in which the formal characteristics of the source text are reproduced mechanically in the translated text, with the resulting distortion of grammatical and stylistic patterns that complicate comprehension in the reader (based around the transformation of the meaning); and dynamic equivalence, where the message is conserved and the answer for the reader of the translation is essentially the same as that of the reader of the original work (we look to acheive the same effect in the reader of the translation as in the reader of the original text).

Steiner proposes a hermeneutic process (using cultural baggage) that consists of four stages: initial trust (in the original text and as a translator), the impulse of generosity on the part of the translator based on the supposition that there is something worthy of understanding (there is a text that is worth the effort for another culture to learn about it): aggression (with the changes), handling the comprehension that implies invasion and extraction; incorporation, importing a meaning (message) and form (attempting to maintain it), which is an act that often modifies the original; and the necessary final stage of restoring balance (revision).

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Translation Theory by Peter Newmark

Translation Theory by Peter Newmark

Peter Newmark Peter Newmark’s dual theory of semantic and communicative methods of translation. Newmark defines the act of translationg as transferring the meaning of a text, from one language to another, taking care mainly of the functional relevant meaning. He works with three propositions: •”the more important the language of a text, the more closely it should be translated”; •”the less important the language of a text… the less closely it needs to be translated”; •”The better written a text, the more closely it should be translated, whatever its degree of importance…” In spite of the problem that poses the ambigüity of “important” and “better written”, his proposal intends to narrow the gap between targeteers (ciblistes) and sourceres (sourciers). The translator has to establish priorities in selecting which varieties of meaning to transfer in the first place. For that he has to use his creativity, particularly when he is forced to distort the target language introducing new elements of another culture. In that sense he will be breaking Toury’s translational norms. That is the case when translating cultural metaphors, transcultural words, concept words. Newmark criticises the present-day controversies stuck to the conflict between free and literal translation. For him if the theory of translation insists on discussing the topic of equivalence it would be text to text equivalence and not simply word to word. He distinguishes types of texts and types of words in the texts. He classifies texts in three categories: •scientific-technological •institutional-cultural •literary texts But he stresses that technical or institutional translation can be as challenging as rewarding as literary translation Because every word has its own identity, its resonnance, its value, and words are affected by their contexts, he distinguishes different types of words: •functional words •technical words •common words •institutional words •lexical words •concept words He considers two types of translation: semantic and communicative, although he states that the majority of texts require communicative rather than semantic translation. Communicative translation is strictly functional and usually the work of a team. Semantic translation is linguistic and encyclopaedic and is generally the work of one translator. Among the translation problems Newmark discusses he gives special attention to the metaphor. He proposes seven procedures for its translation: •reproducing the same image of the SL in the TL •replacing the image in the SL with a standard TL image •translating the metaphor by a simil •translating metaphor or simil by simil plus sense •conversion of metaphor to sense •deletion •same metaphor combined with sense Newmark stays very close to the linguistic approach when he defines translation theory as an interdisciplinary study derivated from comparative linguistics. For Newmark, the main concern of translation theory is to determine appropriate translation methods for the widest possible range of texts or text-categories and to provide a framework of principles for translating texts and criticizing translation. (Newmark goes over the criticism aspect very superficially. We find a deep study on process and product of translation criticism in Antoine Berman). Translation theory also attempts to give some insight into the relation between thought, meaning and language and can show the student all that is or may be involved in the translation process. For Newmark then translation is a craft. The translator acquires a technique in which the process to be followed takes into account the acts of comprehension, interpretation, formulation and recreation.

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‘Linguistic’ Theories of Translation

‘Linguistic’ Theories of Translation

‘Linguistic’ Theories of Translation




  • Language Universals v. Linguistic Relativism
  • Science of translation
  • Equivalence
  • Semantic and communicative translation
  • Korrespondenz and Äquivalenz          
  • Translation ‘shifts’
  • Discourse and register analysis




  • Roman Jakobson (1959/2000) > “Equivalence in difference is the cardinal problem of language and the pivotal concern of linguistics’


  • Discusses equivalence at level of obligatory grammar and lexicon, for example:

–        gender

–        aspect

–        semantic fields



Equivalence at word level

Baker (1992) – Chapter 2

  • Morphology – lexical and syntactic
  • Lexical Meaning
    • Propositional v. Expressive meaning
    • Presupposed meaning
    • Evoked meaning

–        dialect – geographical, temporal, social

–        Register – field/tenor/mode of discourse

  • Semantic fields and lexical sets



Equivalence above word level

Baker (1992) – Chapter 3

  • Collocation

–        Collocational range and markedness

–        Collocation and register

–        Collocational meaning

  • Idioms and Fixed Expressions


Grammatical equivalence

Baker (1992) – Chapter 4

  • Grammatical vs. Lexical categories
  • The Diversity of Grammatical Categories:

–        Number

–        Gender

–        Person

–        Tense and Aspect

–        Voice

–        Word Order





Newmark (1981)

  • Semantic / communicative translation at level of:

–        Transmitter/addressee focus

–        Culture

–        Time and origin

–        Relation to ST

–        Use of form of SL

–        Form of TL

–        Appropriateness

–        Criterion for evaluation



Koller (1976/89)

Korrespondenz and Äquivalenz

  • Denotative equivalence
  • Connotative equivalence
  • Text-normative equivalence
  • Pragmatic equivalence
  • Formal equivalence



Vinay & Darbelnet (1977/2000)

Translation ‘shifts’

–        Direct translation:

  • Borrowing
  • Calque
  • Literal translation

–        Oblique translation

  • Transposition
  • Modulation 
  • Equivalence
  • Adaptation

–        Function at the level of the lexicon, syntax and message



Linguistic theories and translation

  • Most of these theories are considered ‘linguistic’ and are useful for teaching translation
  • Most translation occurs at the linguistic level at some stage of the process
  • However, too much stress on linguistic levels can have negative effect at the text level




Functional-Systemic linguistics



Textual equivalence

Baker (1992) Chapter 5

  • Thematic and Information Structures

–        Theme and Rheme

–        Sentence analysis – S Od Oi Cs Co Cp Adj Conj Disj

  • Information Structure: Given and New
  • Word Order and Communicative Function




Textual equivalence

Baker (1992) Chapter 6

  • Cohesion

–        Reference

–        Substitution and Ellipsis

–        Conjunction

–        Lexical Cohesion


Focus on the function of the text


  • Baker (1992) Chapter 7 – Pragmatic equivalence
  • Reiss (1970s) – Functional approach
  • Holz-Mäntarri (1984) – Translational action
  • Vermeer (1970s) and Reiss & Vermeer (1984) – ‘Skopos’ theory
  • Nord (1988/91) – Text Analysis in Translation



Pragmatic equivalence

Baker (1992) Chapter 7 

  • Coherence
  • Presupposition
  • Implicature

–        Grice’s maxims of 

  • Quantity
  • Quality
  • Relevance
  • Manner

–        Politeness



Reiss (1970s)

Functional approach

  • Classification of texts as:

–        ‘informative‘

–        ‘expressive‘

–        ‘operative‘

–        ‘audiomedial’



Reiss (1971)

Text types




Reiss > Chesterman (1989)

Text types and varieties




Holz-Mäntarri (1984)

Translational action


  • A communicative process involving:

–        The initiator

–        The commissioner

–        The ST producer

–        The TT producer

–        The TT user

–        The TT receiver


Reiss & Vermeer (1984)

‘Skopos’ theory

  • Focuses on purpose or skopos of translation
  • Rules
  1. 1.       A TT is determined by its skopos
  2. A TT is an offer of information in a TC and TL concerning an offer of information in a SC and SL
  3. A TT is not clearly reversible
  4. A TT must be internally coherent
  5. A TT must be coherent with the ST
  6. The five rules above stand in hierarchical order, with the skopos rule predominating.


Comments on the ‘rules’

  1. Skopos theory focuses above all on the purpose of the translation. The purpose of the TT determines the translation methods and strategies in order to produce a functionally adequate or appropriate result.

What do we need to know in order to produce a ‘functionally appropriate’ translation?

  • Why is an ST to be translated?
  • What will the TT function be?
  1. “Rule 2 is important in that it relates the ST and TT to their function in their respective linguistic and cultural contexts”. Knowing the function of the TT in its TC is as important as knowing the function of the ST in the SC.
  2. What do we mean by irreversibility? The function of the TT does not always match with the function of the ST.
  3. Rule 4 refers to internal textual coherence: «the TT ‘must be interpretable as coherent with the TT receiver’s situation’. In other words, the TT must be translated in such a way that it is coherent for the TT receivers, given their circumstances and knowledge.» (Munday 79)
  4. Rule 5 refers to intertextual coherence or fidelity rule: this means that there must be coherence between the TT and the ST or, more specifically, between:
  • the ST information received by the translator;
  • the interpretation the translator makes of this information;
  • the information that is encoded for the TT receivers.


In accordance with rule 6, i.e. the rule of ‘hierarchical order’, rule 4, i.e. ‘intratextual coherence’, is more important than rule 5, i.e. ‘intertextual coherence’.



Skopos theory allows the possibility of the same text being translated in different ways according to the purpose of the TT and the commission which is given to the translator.

Vermeer, who extends the validity of his Skopos theory explicitly to legal translation, provides as an example the translation of a ‘will’ written in French. This may be translated in at least two ways depending on the function it is required to perform in the TC.

If it were addressed to a foreign lawyer dealing with the case, it would need to be translated literally, with a footnote or comment.

If it appeared in a novel, the translator might prefer to find a slightly different “equivalent” that works in the TL without the need of a formal footnote, so as not to interrupt the reading process (cited in Munday: 80).

Following Vermeer’s example, the Italian jurist Sacco provides the example of a translation of a an English thriller book to Italian; in this case, the English words attorney and executor, for instance, can legitimately be translated into Italian respectively with pubblico ministero and esecutore testamentario, although these translations would sound inappropriate in a highly or medium specialized context. (the example is reported in Garzone)



The main objection to Skopos theory, especially as far as its applicability to LSP texts is concerned, is that, at its extreme, this theory aims to the ‘dethronement’ of the ST, which is an inadmissible idea in the perspective of legal translation where the ST is “sacred writ” (Garzone).

In fact, this objection also applies to literary texts (Munday).

In sum, in either case Skopos theory would not pay sufficient attention to the linguistic nature of the ST nor to the reproduction of microlevel features in the TT.

These criticisms are tackled by another functionalist, Christiane Nord, with her model of translation-oriented text analysis.



Nord (1988/91)

Translation-oriented Text Analysis

Nord’s functional approach is more detailed than Vermeer and Reiss’s in that it incorporates elements of text analysis, which examines text organization at or above sentence level.

  1. The importance of the translation commission (or ‘translation brief’, as Nord terms it);
  2. The role of ST analysis;
  3. The functional hierarchy of translation problems.





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Linguistic Approach to Translation Theory Joseph F. Graham

Posted on April 12, 2012 by Sebening Embun

Linguistic Approach to Translation Theory Joseph F. Graham

Joseph F. Graham in his article Theory for

Translation (p.24) asks the question if the

time-honoured act of translation really is a

subject that begs to be theorized. It seems to

me that this is indeed the case if the wealth of

literature on the subject available today is any

indication. Early attempts at theory can be

traced back over 2000 years to Cicero and

Horace, with the key question being whether a

translator should be faithful to the original text

by adopting a “literal” (word-for-word)

approach or whether a “free” (sense-for-sense) approach should be

taken. This discussion continued right through to the second half of the

20th century when more systematic analyses were undertaken by

Western European theoreticians. These systematic analyses, which

elevated translation studies from its role of being primarily a languagelearning

activity, centred on theories of translation in new linguistic,

literary, cultural and philosophical contexts (Munday p.162). It is the

linguistic approach that is the subject during the course of this


The linguistic approach to translation theory focusing on the key issues

of meaning, equivalence and shift began to emerge around 50 years

ago. This branch of linguistics, known as structural linguistics, features

the work of Roman Jakobson, Eugene Nida, Newmark, Koller, Vinay,

Darbelnet, Catford and van Leuven-Zwart. It wasn’t long however,

before some theorists began to realize that language wasn’t just about

structure – it was also about the way language is used in a given social

context. This side of the linguistic approach is termed functional

linguistics (Berghout lecture 7/9/05), with the work of Katharina Reiss,

Justa Holz-Mänttäri, Vermeer, Nord, Halliday, Julianne House, Mona

Baker, Hatim and Mason figuring prominently.

Of course other theorists have contributed to the development of a

linguistic approach to translation, but the abovementioned have been

singled out for discussion primarily because of their influence, and also

because they are perhaps the most representative of the trends of the


Douglas Robinson writes that for some translators “the entire purpose

of translation is achieving equivalence. The target text must match the

source text as fully as possible” (p.73). Linguistic meaning and

equivalence are the key issues for the Russian structuralist Roman

Jakobson who, in his 1959 work On Linguistic Works of Translation,

states that there are 3 types of translation:

1) intralingual – rewording or paraphrasing, summarizing,

expanding or commenting within a language

2) interlingual – the traditional concept of translation from ST to TT

or the “shifting of meaning from one language to

another” (Stockinger p.4)

3) intersemiotic – the changing of a written text into a different

form, such as art or dance (Berghout lecture 27/7/05;

Stockinger p.4).

For Jakobson, meaning and equivalence are linked to the interlingual

form of translation, which “involves two equivalent messages in two

different codes” (1959/2000: p.114). He considers Saussure’s ideas of

the arbitrariness of the signifier (name) for the signified (object or

concept) and how this equivalence can be transferred between different

languages, for example the concept of a fence may be completely

different to someone living in the suburbs or a prison inmate. He

expands on Saussure’s work in that he considers that concepts may be

transferred by rewording, without, however, attaining full

equivalence. His theory is linked to grammatical and lexical differences

between languages, as well as to the field of semantics.

Equivalence is also a preoccupation of the American Bible translator

Eugene Nida who rejects the “free” versus “literal” debate in favour of

the concept of formal and dynamic equivalence – a concept that shifts

the emphasis to the target audience. This was done in order to make

reading and understanding the Bible easier for people with no

knowledge of it ( Formal equivalence centres on

the form and content of the message of the ST while dynamic

equivalence, later termed functional equivalence (Venuti p.148), “aims

at complete naturalness of expression” (Munday p.42) in the TT. His

1964 Toward a Science of Translating and his co-authorship with Taber

in 1969 of Theory and Practice of Translation aim at creating a scientific

approach incorporating linguistic trends for translators to use in their

work (Munday p.38). He views Chomsky’s theory of Universal Grammar

as a way of analyzing the underlying structures of the ST in order to

reconstruct them in the TT, so that a similar response between the

target audience and TT and source audience and ST can be achieved.

His linguistic theory moves towards the fields of semantics and

pragmatics, which leads him to develop systems for the analysis of

meaning. These include:

1) Hierarchical structures (superordinates and hyponyms), such as

the hyponyms “brother” or “sister” and the superordinate


 “sibling” (Libert lecture 24/3/05). In a cultural context it may not be

possible to translate “sister”, so “sibling” may need to be used.

2) Componential analysis, which identifies characteristics of words

that are somehow connected, such as “brother” in Afro-

American talk does not necessarily refer to a male relation born

of the same parents.

3) Semantic structural differences where the connotative and

denotative meanings of homonyms are identified, for example

“bat” the animal and the piece of sporting equipment (Berghout

lecture 14/9/05).

The British translation theorist Peter Newmark, influenced by the work

of Nida, feels that the difference between the source language and the

target language would always be a major problem, thus making total

equivalence virtually impossible (Munday p.44). He replaces the terms

“formal equivalence” and “dynamic equivalence” with “semantic

translation” and “communicative translation”, and alters the focus of

the translation back to the ST with his support for a literal approach.

Nida’s attempt at a scientific approach was important in Germany and

influenced the work of Werner Koller for whom equivalence “may be

‘denotative’, depending on similarities of register, dialect and style;

‘text-normative’, based on ‘usage norms’ for particular text types; and

‘pragmatic’ ensuring comprehensibility in the receiving culture” (Koller

in Venuti p.147). He also works in the area of correspondence, a

linguistic field dedicated to examining similarities and differences

between two language systems. One example of this would be looking

at the area of “false friends”, such as the French verb rester, which

does not mean “to rest” but “to remain”.

Although discussion on equivalence has subsided, it still remains a topic

that manages to attract a certain amount of attention from some of

translation theory’s leading figures. Mona Baker and Bassnett both

acknowledge its importance while, at the same time, placing it in the

context of cultural and other factors.

The emphasis of the structural approach to translation changes towards

the end of the 1950s and early 1960s with the work of Vinay, Darbelnet

and Catford, and the concept of translation shift, which examines the

linguistic changes that take place in the translation between the ST and

TT (Munday p.55). According to Venuti “Translation theories that

privilege equivalence must inevitably come to terms with the existence

of ‘shifts’ between the foreign and translated texts” (p.148).

Vinay and Darbelnet in their book Stylistique comparée du français et

de l’anglais (1958) compare the differences between English and

French and identify two translation techniques that somewhat resemble

the literal and free methods (Vinay and Darbelnet in Venuti p.128).

Direct (literal) translation discusses three possible strategies:

1) Literal translation or word-for-word

2) Calque, where the SL expression is literally transferred to the TL,

such as the English character ‘Snow White’ in French becomes

‘Blanche Neige’, because the normal word configuration in

English of ‘white snow’ would be transferred as ‘neige blanche’

3) Borrowing – the SL word is transferred directly into the TL, like


Oblique (free) translation covers four strategies:

1) Transposition – interchange of parts of speech that don’t effect

the meaning, a noun phrase (après son départ) for a verb

phrase (after he left)

Linguistic Approach to Translation Theory Page 4 of 11 01/03/2012

2) Modulation – reversal of point of view (it isn’t expensive / it’s


3) Equivalence – same meaning conveyed by a different expression,

which is most useful for proverbs and idioms (‘vous avez une

araignée au plafond’ is recognizable in English as ‘you have bats

in the belfry’)

4) Adaptation – cultural references may need to be altered to

become relevant (‘ce n’est pas juste’ for ‘it’s not cricket’) (Vinay

and Darbelnet in Venuti pp129-135).

Two other important features arise from the work of Vinay and

Darbelnet. The first of these is the idea of “servitude”, which refers to

the compulsory changes from ST to TT; and “option”, which refers to

the personal choices the translator makes, such as the modulation

example above. Option is an important element in translation because

it allows for possible subjective interpretation of the text, especially

literary texts (Munday pp. 59-60).

In 1965 the term “shift” was first applied to the theory of translation by

Catford in his work A Linguistic Theory of Translation. Here he discusses

two types of shift:

1) Shift of level, where a grammatical concept may be conveyed by

a lexeme (the French future tense endings are represented in

English by the auxiliary verb ‘will’).

2) Category shifts, of which there are four types – structural shifts

(in French the definite article is almost always used in

conjunction with the noun); class shifts (a shift from one part of

speech to another); unit or rank (longer sentences are broken

into smaller sentences for ease of translation); selection of noncorresponding

terms (such as count nouns).

His systematic linguistic approach to translation considers the

relationship between textual equivalence and formal

correspondence. Textual equivalence is where the TT is equivalent to

the ST, while formal correspondence is where the TT is as close as

possible to the ST (Munday p.60). Catford also considers the law of

probability in translation, a feature that may be linked to the scientific

interest in machine translation at the time.

Some thirty years after Vinay and Darbelnet proposed the direct and

oblique strategies for translation, Kitty van Leuven-Zwart developed a

more complex theory, using different terminology, based on their

work. Her idea is that the final translation is the end result of numerous

shifts away from the ST, and that the cumulative effect of minor

changes will alter the end product ( She suggested two

models for translation shifts:

1) Comparative – where a comparison of the shifts within a sense

unit or transeme (phrase, clause, sentence) between ST and TT

is made. She then conducts a very detailed analysis of the

“architranseme” or the core meaning of the word, and how this

meaning can be transferred to the TL. She proposes a model of

shift based on micro-level semantic transfer.

2) Descriptive – situated in the linguistic fields of stylistics and

pragmatics deals with what the author is trying to say, and why

and how this can be transferred to the TT. It deals with

differences between the source and target cultures and serves

as a model on a macro level for literary works (Berghout lecture

31/8/05; Munday pp 63-66).

The 1970s and 1980s sees a move away from the structural side of the

linguistic approach as functional or communicative consideration is

Linguistic Approach to Translation Theory Page 5 of 11 01/03/2012

given to the text. Katharina Reiss continues to work on equivalence,

but on the textual level rather than on the word or sentence level. She

proposes a translation strategy for different text types, and says that

there are four main textual functions:

1) Informative – designed for the relaying of fact. The TT of this

type should be totally representative of the ST, avoiding

omissions and providing explanations if required.

2) Expressive – a “higher” level of literary text such as poetry in

which the TT should aim at recreating the effect that the author

of the ST was striving to achieve. In this case Reiss says “the

poetic function determines the whole text” (Reiss in Venuti


3) Operative – designed to induce a certain behavioral response in

the reader, such as an advertisement that influences the reader

to purchase a particular product or service. The TT should

therefore produce the same impact on its reader as the reader

of the ST.

4) Audomedial – films, television advertisements, etc supplemented

with images and music of the target culture in the TT (de Pedros


Criticism has sometimes been levelled at Reiss because the chosen

method for translation may not depend only on the text type, which

may also have a multifunctional purpose (Berghout lecture 7/9/05;

Munday pp73-76).

Within the realm of functional linguistics is Justa Holz-Mänttäri’s theory

of translational action that takes into account practical issues while, at

the same time, placing the emphasis firmly on the reader of the TT.

This means, for example, that things like the source text type may be

altered if it is deemed to be inappropriate for the target culture. She

sees translation as an action that involves a series of players, each of

whom performs a specific role in the process. The language used to

label the players very much resembles that of Western economic jargon

– initiator, commissioner, ST producer, TT producer, TT user, TT

receiver, that is adding another dimension to the theory of translation

as yet rarely mentioned (Munday pp77-78).

The Greek expression “skopos” that means “aim” or “purpose” was

introduced to translation theory by Hans Vermeer in the 1970s. Skopos

theory, which is linked to Holz-Mänttäri’s translational action theory

(Vermeer p.227), centres on the purpose of the translation and the

function that the TT will fulfil in the target culture, which may not

necessarily be the same as the purpose of the ST in the source culture.

The emphasis once again stays with the reader of the TT, as the

translator decides on what strategies to employ to “reach a ‘set of

addressees’ in the target culture” (Venuti p223). Cultural issues in a

sociolinguistic context therefore need to be considered. Skopos is

important because it means that the same ST can be translated in

different ways depending on the purpose and the guidelines provided

by the commissioner of the translation.

In 1984 Vermeer and Reiss co-authored Grundlegung einer allgemeine

Translationstheorie (Groundwork for a General Theory of Translation)

based primarily on skopos, which tries to create a general theory of

translation for all texts. As a result, criticism has been levelled at

skopos on the ground that it applies only to non-literary work (Munday

p.81); it downplays the importance of the ST; and does not pay enough

attention to linguistic detail. I tend to disagree with this last point

because I look at skopos as a means of reflecting the ability of the

translator. If he/she is able to produce a TT that meets the

requirements stated at the outset of the assignment, which may lie

somewhere between the two extremes of a detailed report or the


summary of a sight translation, whilst working with possible time and

financial constraints, then the linguistic level is not an area that merits


Christiane Nord in Text Analysis in Translation (1989/91) states that

there are two types of translation:

1) Documentary – where the reader knows that the text has been


2) Instrumental – where the reader believes that the translated text

is an original.

She places emphasis on the ST as she proposes a ST analysis that can

help the translator decide on which methods to employ. Some of the

features for review are subject matter, content, presupposition,

composition, illustrations, italics, and sentence structure (Munday

p.83). In Translation as a Purposeful Activity (1997) her theory is

developed as she acknowledges the importance of skopos. The

information provided by the commissioner allows the translator to rank

issues of concern in order before deciding on inclusions, omissions,

elaborations, and whether the translation should have ST or TT

priority. By also giving consideration to Holz-Mänttäri’s role of players,

she manages to provide a viewpoint that accommodates three

important concepts in the functional approach to translation.

Linked to Nord’s theory of ST analysis is discourse and register analysis

which examines how language conveys meaning in a social

context. One of the proponents of this approach was the Head of the

Linguistics Department of Sydney University, Michael Halliday, who

bases his work on Systemic Functional Grammar – the relationship

between the language used by the author of a text and the social and

cultural setting. Halliday says that the text type influences the register

of the language – the word choice and syntax. He also says that the

register can be divided into three variables:

1) Field – the subject of the text

2) Tenor – the author of the text and the intended reader

3) Mode – the form of the text

all of which are important on the semantic level. Some criticism has

been directed at Halliday’s complex terminology and his approach,

mainly because it is English-language based (Munday pp89-91;

Berghout lecture 7/9/05).

Juliane House’s Translation Quality Assessment: A Model Revisited

(1997) also examines ST and TT register, and expands on Halliday’s

ideas of field, tenor and mode. She creates a model for translation,

which compares variables between ST and TT before deciding on

whether to employ an overt or covert translation (Stockinger p.18). An

overt translation is one that clearly centres on the ST, in no way trying

to adapt the socio-cultural function to suit the target audience (like

Nord’s documentary translation). This means that the target audience

is well aware that what they are reading is a translation that is perhaps

fixed in a foreign time and context. Such is the case with Émile Zola’s

Germinal, first published in French in 1885 and translated into English

by Leonard Tancock in 1954. Readers of the English know that they

are reading a translation of a description of coal mining conditions in

northern France in the 1800s, which retains all proper nouns of the

original French text (Ma Brûlé, Philomène, Bonnemort, Mouque –

p.282). This is just one of the techniques used to reveal the overt

nature of the text. A covert translation (like Nord’s instrumental

translation) is one in which the TT is perceived to be an original ST in

the target culture. Such is the case with the guide leaflets distributed

to visitors at Chenonceau Castle in the Loire Valley, which seem to have

Linguistic Approach to Translation Theory Page 7 of 11 01/03/2012

been created individually for an English audience and a French audience

(and possibly German, Spanish, Italian and Japanese audiences), so

much so that it is almost impossible to tell which is the ST and which is

the TT.

In Other Words: A Coursebook on Translation (1992) by Mona Baker,

taking advantage of Halliday’s work, raises a number of important

issues. She examines textual structure and function and how word

forms may vary between languages, such as the substitution of the

imperative for the infinitive in instruction manuals between English and

French. Gender issues are raised as she discusses ways in which

ambiguous gender situations can be overcome, such as adjectival

agreement in French. She also discusses three pragmatic concepts

where pragmatics is “the way utterances are used in communicative

situations” (Baker in Munday p.95):

1) Coherence relates to the audience’s understanding of the world,

which may be different for ST and TT readers.

2) Presupposition is where the receiver of the message is assumed

to have some prior knowledge. “It’s a shame about Uncle John!”

assumes the reader knows that something bad has happened to

that person called Uncle John. This raises problems in translation

because TT readers may not have the same knowledge as ST

readers. Possible solutions are rewording or footnotes.

3) Implicature is where the meaning is implied rather than

stated. “John wanted Mary to leave” may imply that “John is

now happy that Mary left” (Libert lecture 24/3/05), which can

lead to a mistranslation of the intention of the message.

Basil Hatim and Ian Mason co-authored two works: Discourse and the

Translator (1990) and The Translator as Communicator (1997), in

which some sociolinguistic factors are applied to translation. They look

at the ways that non-verbal meaning can be transferred, such as the

change from active to passive voice which can shift or downplay the

focus of the action. They also examine the way lexical choices are

conveyed to the target culture, for example “Australia was discovered

in 1770 by Captain Cook” to an Aboriginal audience (Berghout lecture

12/10/05). However, I believe that they tend to revert to the literal

versus free discussion with their identification of “dynamic” and “stable

elements within a text, which serve as indicators for a translation

strategy (Munday p.101). Mason, in his essay Text Parameters in

Translation: Transitivity and Institutional Cultures (2003) thinks that

Halliday’s Systemic Grammar should be viewed in the context of

translational institutions, such as the European Union where it “might

make a more significant contribution to translation studies” (Venuti

p.333). Interestingly, the outcome of this paper reveals a tendency for

EU translators to “stay fairly close to their source texts” (Mason In

Venuti p.481).

Like all other theories, discourse and register analysis has received its

share of criticism. It has been labelled complicated and unable to deal

with literary interpretation. The possibility of the author’s real intention

being determined, along with its fixation in the English language are

also subject to some scrutiny.

The linguistic approach to translation theory incorporates the following

concepts: meaning, equivalence, shift, text purpose and analysis, and

discourse register; which can be examined in the contexts of structural

and functional linguistics, semantics, pragmatics, correspondence,

sociolinguistics and stylistics. Meanwhile, as translation strives to define

its theory through the linguistic approach, Eugene Nida’s scientific

approach has evolved into a quest for a more systematic classification

of all translation theories, which he says should be based on linguistics,

philology and semiotics (Nida p.108).




Primary Material

Berghout, Anita. Lectures at Newcastle University 27/7/05; 31/8/05;

7/9/05; 14/9/05; 12/10/05

de Pedros, Raquel. “Beyond the Words: The Translation of Television

Adverts.” Babel Revue Internationale de la Traduction. Vol. 42 1996. pp

27-43 John Benjamins Publishing Company

Graham, Joseph F. “Theory for Translation.” Translation

Spectrum. Essays in Theory and Practice. Gaddis Rose (ed.) pp 23-

30. Albany: State University of New York Press, 1981.

Halliday, M.A.K. An Introduction to Functional Grammar. Edward

Arnold: London, 1994.

Jakobson, Roman. “On Linguistic Aspects of Translation.” 1959. pp

113-119. Translation Studies Reader. (2nd Edition). L. Venuti. New

York: Routledge, 2000.

Libert, Alan. Lectures at Newcastle University 24/3/05; May 2005

Mason, Ian. “Text Parameters in Translation: Transitivity and

Institutional Cultures.” pp 477-481 Translation Studies Reader. (2nd

Edition). L. Venuti. New York: Routledge, 2000.

Munday, Jeremy. Introducing Translation Studies. Theories and

Applications. London: Routledge, 2001.

Nida, E.A. Contexts in Translating. Amsterdam/Philadelphia: John

Benjamins, 2001. pp 107-114.

Nord, Christiane. Translation as a Purposeful Activity. Manchester: St

Jerome, 1997.

Reiss, Katharina. “Type, Kind and Individuality of Text: Decision Making

in Translation.” 1971. Translation Studies Reader. (2nd Edition). L.

Venuti. New York: Routledge, 2000. Pp. 168-179.

Robinson, Douglas. Becoming a Translator. An Introduction to the

Theory and Practice of Translation. (2nd Edition). London: Routledge,


Snyder, William. “Linguistics in Translation.” Translation

Spectrum. Essays in Theory and Practice. Gaddis Rose (ed.) pp 127-


Steiner, George. After Babel: Aspects of Language and Translation.

London: Oxford University Press, 1975.

Stockinger, Peter. Semiotics of Cultures. Culture, Language and

Translation. Paris: ESCoM, 2003.

Venuti, Lawrence. The Translation Studies Reader. (2nd Edition). New

York: Routledge, 2000.

Vermeer, Hans J. “Skopos and Commission in Translational Action.” pp

227-237. Translation Studies Reader. (2nd Edition). L. Venuti. New

York: Routledge, 2000.

Vinay, Jean-Paul and Darbelnet, Jean. “A Methodology for Translation.”


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Translation Theory

Translation Theory

Communication is the transfer of an intended message, and this is the purpose of language itself. Obviously, this process can be divided into two broad stages: transmission (speaking, writing) and reception (listening, reading).

But there are another two stages: before transmission, formulating the message accurately (coherence) and after reception, understanding the message accurately (assimilation). These sound like simple processes, yet in fact they are not: for example, how often do we really have the patience to listen closely to what someone else is telling us?

Consecutive Interpreting:
The interpreter starts to translate only after the speaker has finished his/her utterance. Often used at smaller conferences etc., generally used in courtroom settings, speeches. Just one interpreter is often enough.

A mother tongue formed from the contact of a European language (esp. English, French, or Portuguese) with another (esp. African) language. (OED)

1. A form of speech peculiar to a particular region.

2. A subordinate variety of a language with non-standard vocabulary, pronunciation, or grammar. (OED)

The interpreter is posted beside the client and in real time discretely ‘whispers’ his/her translation of the speech activity.

Modes of speaking and writing which involve participants in adopting a particular attitude towards areas of socio-cultural activity (e.g. racist discourse, officialese, etc.). (DaL)

Discourse Analysis:
In this context, the study of meaning using a large unit of translation, e.g. paragraph or page level, and taking into account the widest possible context.

Discourse Markers:
Words such as ‘good’, ‘but’, uh-huh’, ‘well’ that divide up (and also link) sections of speech.

Optimum achievement of a communicative goal. (DaL)

Achievement of a communicative goal in the most economic manner possible. Language users normally counterbalance effectiveness and efficiency in order to achieve maximum effect from minimum use of resources. (DaL)

Free Translation:
Translating loosely from the original. Contrasted with word for word or literal translation, this may be the best method depending on the most appropriate unit of translation involved.

Globalization addresses the business issues associated with taking a product global. In the globalization of high-tech products this involves integrating localization throughout a company, after proper internationalization and product design, as well as marketing, sales, and support in the world market. (PGL)

All languages have particular ways of showing politeness (e.g. French tu/vous, Spanish tu/usted, Japanese yomu/yomi-masu). (Aol)

Features of language variation characteristic of an individual speaker: basically, everyone has a unique way of talking.

A change in the form of (a word) to express tense, gender, number, mood, etc. (OED)

Internationalization is the process of generalizing a product so that it can handle multiple languages and cultural conventions without the need for re-design. Internationalization takes place at the level of program design and document development. (PGL)

Interpreting can be defined as the translation of speech orally, as opposed to translation of written texts. (OED)

It requires special skills (note taking, summarizing, language skills), a good memory, sheer mental stamina and, often, arduous training. 

A number of national and international organizations govern the profession, while the United Nations International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights entitles every defendant in a criminal trial to have the assistance of an interpreter, if necessary.

There are several types of interpreting: simultaneous, consecutive, liaison

Simultaneous interpreting:

The interpreter starts to translate before the speaker has finished his/her utterance. Most often used at large events such as conferences and carried out by panels of at least two interpreters using special equipment. As this type of work is particularly tiring and stressful, the rule of thumb is that an interpreter should be able to take a break after 45 minutes of continuous work.

Liaison interpreting:

A generic name for business interpreting; also just interpreting for trade conventions and other general business situations. Usually refers to the activities of a single interpreter who accompanies an individual or delegation around.

Consecutive interpreting:

The interpreter starts to translate only after the speaker has finished his/her utterance. Often used at smaller conferences etc., generally used in courtroom settings, speeches. Just one interpreter is often enough.

1. The method of human communication, either spoken or written, consisting of the use of words in an agreed way. (OED)

2. The distinctive form of speech of a particular community, most or all of which is unintelligible to outsiders.

Language Family:
A set of languages that can be shown to derive from a common root. (AoL) (e.g. Indo-European, Austronesian)

Language Type:
According to their word structure (morphology), languages can be divided into four basic types:

1. Isolating: each element is an independent word without inflections (Chinese and Vietnamese)

2. Agglutinating: elements combine without changing their form to express compound ideas (Japanese, German)

3. Inflectional: the boundaries between morphemes are fuzzy, and morphemes can express more than one grammatical meaning at a time (Latin, Russian) (AoL)

4. Polysynthetic: several morphemes are put together to form complex words which can function as a whole sentence (Chukchi) (AoL)

Legal Translation:
Legal translation is a distinct specialty.

What skills does it need? 

Done well, it requires a variety of advanced skills to be present in the translator: first, complete mastery of both source and target languages; second, a good knowledge of the two legal systems involved; third, knowledge of the relevant sub-areas of law; fourth, an awareness of any other relevant disciplines and subject matter, ( e.g. steel making, if the documents of a case concern a steelworks); fifth, training in the art of translation itself.  It’s clear that it’s not easy to find such a combination of skills, especially as they are not acquired quickly — either on their own or collectively.

All this reflects the unique nature of legal language. 

As the noted language authority, David Crystal puts it:

“Legal language shares with science a concern for coherence and precision; and it shares with religion a respect for ritual and historical tradition”

“Legal language has always been pulled in different directions. Its statements have to be so phrased that we can see the general applicability, yet be specific enough to apply to individual circumstances. They have to be stable enough to stand the test of time, so that cases will be treated consistently and fairly, yet flexible enough to adapt to new social situations. Above all, they have to be expressed in such a way that people can be certain about the intention of the law respecting their rights and duties. No other variety of language has to carry such a responsibility.’

When referring to legal English, he states:

“Legal English has several subvarieties, reflecting its different roles. For example, there is the language of legal documents, such as contracts, deeds, insurance policies, wills and many kinds of regulation. There is the language of works of legal reference, with the complex apparatus of footnotes and indexing. There is the language of case law, made out of the spoken or written decisions which judges make about individual cases. There is the spoken language of the courtroom, with the ritual courtesies of judges, counsel and court officials and constraints governing what counts as evidence and what may or may not be said. Legal language is unique in the way utterances are subject to sanctions, such as a fine or imprisonment for linguistic contempt of court.

A fundamental distinction separates the language of the Legislatureχwhich institutes a legal text and the language of the judiciary which interprets and applies that text. A pivotal role is played by set of constitutional statements statutes (Acts), and other documents which come from the Legislature. In these cases, the words, literally are law.” (CoL)

We do legal translation well!


1. Words, vocabulary.

2. The total stock of words in a language. (OED)

Liaison Interpreting:
A generic name for business interpreting; also just interpreting for trade conventions and other general business situations. Usually refers to the activities of a single interpreter who accompanies an individual or delegation around.

Localization involves taking a product and making it linguistically and culturally appropriate to the target locale (country/region and language) where it will be used and sold.
Translation is only one of the activities in localization; in addition to translation, a localization project includes many other tasks such as project management, software engineering, testing, and desktop publishing. (PGL)

Bottom of Form

Machine Translation:
Machine translation (MT) is automatic translation, in which a computer takes over all the work of translating. Obviously, a computer will work much faster (and is cheaper) than a human being. It can be a useful method if the purpose of the translation is a limited one; for example, to gain a rough idea of what a text contains (‘gisting’) and/or to process large numbers of documents very rapidly.

MT works best on highly repetitive texts, involving a restricted range of vocabulary. Typically, these are highly intricate scientific or technical texts. It does less well on more general or varied texts, and those involving a high degree of abstraction, and with these often yields useless results. The problem here is that it fails to cope with speech acts.

Even on repetitive texts, the finished output often needs to be checked to by a human translator, and varying degrees of post-editing might be necessary.

Another factor is the source language – target language pair. MT works best also where languages are of a similar type (isolating: English – Spanish) or related (German – English) or closely related (Norwegian – Danish). At the time of writing, the obvious advantage of using MT to translate from one dialect to another in the same language (e.g. US English – British English) seems to have been overlooked but, using the same logic, it should work well on this.

It has been suggested that, sooner or later, computers will make all human translators redundant. We believe that this will never happen. The complexity of language mirrors the infinite subtlety of the human mind. To put it differently, human translators will be replaced only once computers are developed that can write good poetry.

However, MT technology is improving all the time. Many well-funded R&D programs are going on around the world right now and it constitutes an exciting area of translation research, especially when combined with other technologies, such as speech recognition and natural language processing. It is likely that, over time, this research will gradually extend the boundaries within which MT can operate.

To use MT software to process large batches of documents, several problems need to be overcome. First, you need to get the original text into a form the computer can read. Unless you are lucky enough to have it all in the form of word processor files already, it will have to be scanned and then put through an optical character recognition (OCR) process. This will convert the documents into word processor files, typically in Microsoft Word format. It would be a big mistake, though, to underestimate the amount of time, effort and expense this process involves; so much so, that it is often cheaper and quicker to just to get the work done manually.

Machine-Aided Translation:
If you can’t replace the human mind when translating, the next best thing is to speed it up. In recent years, general technological advances have revolutionized the translation industry. Starting with the humble fax machine, and moving through the introduction of email and word processing right through to reliable dictation software, the computer is now the translator’s the main working tool.

In recognition of this, a range of specialized software tools have been developed to enhance the skills of human linguists. The most obvious one is computerized dictionaries, encyclopedias and term banks, which can be consulted either off a CD ROM or over the Internet. The fruits of many years work by panels of outstanding academic minds are now available in a split second. This innovation has both accelerated and improved the translator’s achievement of semantic accuracy.

Not to be forgotten are translation memory programs. These use complex algorithms to perform the apparently simple task of remembering words and phrases that may have been translated from a particular language before. By giving the translator the option to accept or reject suggested translations, the tedium and potential inaccuracy involved in translating repetitive texts can often be largely eliminated. Speed is of course also enhanced. However, these programs have the disadvantages that they require some significant amount of routine maintenance, and also, the source text must first be available in the form of a word processor file.

The extent to which text producers and receivers feed their own beliefs into their processing of a given text. (DaT)

A meaningful morphological unit of a language that cannot be further divided (e.g. in, come, -ing, forming incoming). (OED)

The system of forms in a language.

Natural Language Processing:
NLP systems interpret written rather than spoken language. In fact, NLP modules can be found in speech processing systems that start by converting spoken input into text. Using lexicons and grammar rules. NLP parses sentences, determines underlying meanings, and retrieves or constructs responses. This technology’s main use is to enable databases to answer queries entered in the form of a question. And newer application is handling high-volume e-mail. NLP performance can be improved by incorporating a commonsense knowledge base — that is, the encyclopedia of real-world rules. (Wired Magazine)

A simplified language containing vocabulary from two or more languages, used for communication between people not having a common language.(OED)


The tendency to pattern language behavior in relatinon to a particular type of activity, level of formality, etc. (e.g. colloquial, legal, scientific, religious) (DaT)

The branch of linguistics concerned with meaning. (OED)

Simultaneous Interpreting:
The interpreter starts to translate before the speaker has finished his/her utterance. Most often used at large events such as conferences and carried out by panels of at least two interpreters using special equipment. As this type of work is particularly tiring and stressful, the rule of thumb is that an interpreter should be able to take a break after 45 minutes of continuous work.

Source Text:
The language into which translation or interpreting is carried out.

Speech Act:
The action which is intended in the utterance of a sentence. Speech acts may be direct (e.g. Get out!) or indirect (e.g. it’s hot in here = Open a window).(DaL) How often do we say exactly what we really mean? This is one of the things that most often fools computers performing machine translation.

Speech Community:
The group of people sharing a language or dialect.

A list of characters representing syllables and (in some languages or stages of writing) serving the purpose of an alphabet. (OED) (e.g. in Japanese – hiragana and katakana)

Target Text:
The language into which translation or interpreting is carried out.

Telephone Interpreting:
Interpreting carried out over the phone, using a three-way calling phone patch. Also with video-conferencing.

The relationship between addresser and addressee, as reflected in use of language (e.g. level of formality, relative distance). (DaL)


Text Act:
The dominant speech act in a text. (DaL)

Tone Languages:
Languages that use pitch to distinguish words, either by meaning or grammatical function (e.g. Chinese, Thai) (AoL)

The transfer of meaning from one language to another. Translation takes place in writing and interpreting is its oral counterpart. The two terms are often confused. At its best, a successful translation should read as if it were originally written in the new language.

We believe translating is an art, not a science. You might get the impression that it’s a mechanical process involving a box with a handle. All you need to do is turn the handle on the side of the box, and out comes the translation.

This is wrong.

Recent academic research has shown that translating from one language to another is one of the most complex higher order activities of the human brain. In fact, your wrong impression may be evidence of a good translation: great skill will often make an exceptional achievement look easy.

The translation method is dictated by the purpose of the translation. While the best translations will always be performed primarily by a human being, in some (limited) situations, machine translation can be a useful technique, and this is likely to increase in importance over time as this technology evolves.

Translation Memory:
A translation memory is database where a translator may record (usually semi-automatically) old translations for future reuse and easy searches. Although these programs are best classified under computer-aided/assisted translation, one must not confuse them with machine translation programs – translation memory software does not translate anything by itself, whereas a machine translation system actively produces language and translations based on linguistic data, such as grammatical rules and glossaries.

Unit Of Translation:
The smallest entity in a text that carries a discrete meaning. It varies all the time, ranging from individual words through phrases and sentences right up to entire paragraphs.

Whistled Speech:
A system of communication using set whistles and tones.

Word Order:
Arrangement of words in a sentence. There are some distinct, recognized patterns:

SVO – ‘cows eat grass’ – English, Finnish, Chinese, Swahili

SOV – ‘ cows grass eat’ – Hindi/Urdu, Turkish, Japanese, Korean

VSO – ‘eat cows grass’ – Classical Arabic, Welsh, Samoan. (AoL)

The similarity of word order patterns between source and target languages is a factor in the relative ease of translation – or otherwise – between them.

Word-For-Word Translation:
Transferring the meaning of each individual word in a text to another, equivalent word in the target language. Sometimes called ‘Literal Translation’. While this is clearly appropriate for dictionaries, it can produce very for complex passages of text. See ‘Unit of translation’.

World Knowledge:
Whatever extra-linguistic or real-world factors are brought into the translation process in the mind of the translator. We are starting to see this introduced into the newest machine translation technology research projects. Also called ‘shared assumptions’ or ‘real-world knowledge’.










Discourse and the Translator

Basil Hatim and Ian Mason



Oxford English Dictionary (on CD-ROM)

E. S. Weiner (ed)

Oxford University Press


The Cambridge Encyclopedia of Language

David Crystal

Cambridge University Press


The Atlas of Languages

Comrie, Mathews and Polinsky

Facts on File Inc.


A Practical Guide to Localization

Bert Esselink

John Benjamins


Greek & English Bibliography


Translation & Interpretation

More books


Translation & Interpretation

by Amazon


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Translation Theory ( By T. David Gordon, 1985.)

Posted on April 12, 2012 by Sebening Embun

Translation Theory ( By T. David Gordon, 1985.)

While not everyone who drives an automobile needs to understand the theory behind the internal combustion engine, someone does need to know this theory. I may be able to drive my Pontiac without any knowledge of internal combustion engines, until the Pontiac breaks down. Then, I must find someone (presumably a mechanic) who does in fact know enough theory to get the Pontiac running again.

The same is true of translation theory. It is not necessary for everyone to know translation theory, nor is it even necessary for pastors and teachers to know everything about translation theory. It is necessary for pastors and teachers in the American church at the end of the twentieth century to know something about translation theory, for two reasons. First, it will affect the way we interpret the Bible for our people. If we are completely unaware of translation theory, we may unwittingly mislead our brothers and sisters in our interpretation. Second, there are so many English translations available, that no contemporary pastor will be able to escape the inevitable questions about which translations are superior.

It is not my intention to provide anything like an exhaustive approach to either translation theory or semantic theory (relax, I’ll define this word later). Rather, I intend to discuss briefly the more important observations, which may be useful to the pastoral ministry.

1. Communication has three parties.

Translation theory shares a number of concerns with what is commonly called communication theory. Perhaps the most important observation which the communication theorists have produced for translators is the recognition that every act of communication has three dimensions: Speaker (or author), Message, and Audience. The more we can know about the original author, the actual message produced by that author, and the original audience, the better acquainted we will be with that particular act of communication. An awareness of this tri-partite character of communication can be very useful for interpreters. Assuming that an act of communication is right now taking place, as you read what I wrote, there are three dimensions to this particular act of communication: myself, and what I am intending to communicate; the actual words which are on this page; and what you understand me to be saying. When the three dimensions converge, the communication has been efficient.

If we know, perhaps from another source, what an individual author’s circumstances are, this may help us understand the actual message produced. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s “Letters from Prison” are better understood by someone who knows the circumstances under which they were written rather than by someone who is oblivious to mid-20th century American history. If we know information about the author’s audience, this may also help us to understand the message itself. John Kennedy’s famous, “Ich bin ein Berliner” speech is better understood if one understands the apprehensions which many West German citizens had about American foreign policy during the early 1960s (and, knowing the audience was German may help explain why he did not speak this sentence in English!).

Recognizing that in addition to the message itself, there are the two other components of author and audience, the interpreter attempts to uncover as much information as possible about the author and audience. This is why biblical scholars spend so much time attempting to locate the circumstances of a given epistle; they are trying to discover information about author and audience, which will help complete the understanding of the particular act of communication represented by the message.

At this point, an important warning needs to be expressed. For students of literature whose original audience and author are not present (i.e., dead), we only have direct access to one of the three parties in the communicative process: the message itself. Whereas we would be profited by having direct access to author and audience (“Paul, what in the world did you mean about baptizing for the dead?”; or, “How did it hit you Galatians when Paul said he wished his troublers would castrate themselves?”), it would be incorrect to suggest that we must have such access for any understanding to take place. Frequently one encounters the extravagant statement to the effect that “one cannot understand a biblical book unless one understands the author’s (or audience’s) circumstances.” The problem with such statements is that they imply that we can have no understanding without access to information which simply does not always exist. We haven’t any idea who wrote the epistle to the Hebrews, or why, other than what may be indicated in the letter itself. Does this mean that we can’t understand it in any sense? I think not. We just have to recognize that information, which would assist the act of interpretation, is, in this case, missing.

Related to this warning is a second. For Protestants, scripture itself is authoritative. Our reconstructions, often highly conjectural of the historical circumstances under which a given biblical work was written and read, are not authoritative, by my understanding of Protestant theology. Those reconstructions may assist our understanding of the biblical text, but they are not, in and of themselves, of any religious authority.

Finally, we might add that the essential error of many exegetical theories is their exclusion of one or more of these three parties from consideration. While many important debates are continuing to influence interpretive theory, our evaluation of these debates would do well to retain a role for each of the three above-mentioned dimensions.

2. Formal and Dynamic Equivalence

One of the ongoing debates about translations revolves around the question of whether, and in what degree, the translation should reflect the syntax, or form, of the original language. All translators agree that the translation should reflect faithfully the message of the original, but all are not agreed on whether the translation should adhere closely to the grammatical forms of the original language.

Translations can be located on a spectrum, which would have, at one extreme, rigid adherence to the form of the original language (formal equivalence), and at the other extreme, complete disregard for the form (not the message) of the original language (dynamic equivalence). An interlinear would come the closest to the first extreme, followed by the NASB. At the other extreme would be the NEB and TEV. In between would be the RSV and NIV, with the RSV leaning more toward a formal equivalence, and the NIV leaning more toward a dynamic equivalence.

It is probably fair to say that most contemporary linguists favor the dynamic equivalence approach in theory, though they might be disappointed in the various attempts at producing one. The reason for preferring to reproduce the thought of the original without attempting to conform to its form is that all languages have their own syntax. While the syntax of one language may be similar to the syntax of other languages, it is also dissimilar as well. Thus, if we attempt to adhere to the formal syntax of another language, we reproduce forms which are abnormal or confusing, if not downright distracting in the target language.

For example, Greek tends to have very long sentences, whose various clauses are arranged in a logically hierarchical fashion. That is, there will be a number of dependent clauses connected to an independent clause. This type of sentence structure, perfectly normal in Greek, is called hypotactic (clauses are arranged logically under one another). English, by contrast, is not so comfortable with long sentences, and does not provide any easy way of indicating which clauses are dependent upon others. Our sentence structure is called paratactic (clauses are arranged logically alongside of one another). If we attempt to reproduce, in English, sentences of the same length as the Greek original, our audience will not be able to follow our translation. Ephesians 1:3-14, for instance, is one sentence in Greek, with well-defined subordinate clauses. If we attempt to reproduce a sentence of this length in English, the result will be so awkward that few, if any, English readers would be able to follow it. Consequently, translators must break the longer Greek sentences into shorter English sentences.

For the pastor and teacher, it is important to be able to recognize the hypotactic structure of the original language, because it is frequently of theological and ethical significance. For instance, there is only one imperative (independent clause) in the Great Commission — “make disciples.” All the other verbs are dependent. The other clauses help to describe what the commandment means. Most English translations, however, obscure this matter by translating the Great Commission as though it were a string of equivalent imperatives. What’s worse, they tend to treat one of the dependent clauses as though it were the major (independent) clause (“Go”). So the teacher or pastor needs to be able to understand what is going on in the structure of the original language, without necessarily trying to reproduce it in an English translation.

There are other differences between the two languages. Greek typically uses passive verbs; English prefers active verbs. Greek typically makes nouns out of verbs (making “redemption” as common as “redeem”). Speakers of English are not as comfortable with these abstractions; we are happier with verbs. A dynamic equivalence translation will commonly reproduce the meaning of the Greek in a more natural manner in English. In 2 Thess 2:13, for instance, pistei aletheias, is translated “belief in the truth” (formal equivalence) by the RSV, but “the truth that you believe” (dynamic equivalence) by the NEB. The latter, while not any more accurate than the former, is a little more natural, and thus more easily understood.

A classic example of the difference between English and Greek syntax is evidenced by the difference in their respective employment of the participle. First, the Greek participle is much more common than the English. But the Greek participle is also used differently than the English participle. Greek commonly employs the participle in an attributive fashion, as a verbal adjective. This is very rare in English. James Taylor does sing about the “The Walking Man,” but this is rare outside of artistic expression. We would normally produce a relative clause, “the man who walks.” Because of the differences in the way the two languages use their respective participles, we simply cannot translate a Greek participle with an English participle in many cases, without being obscure or ambiguous. Dikaiothentes in Romans 5:1 should not be translated, “having been justified” (NASB: formal equivalence), but, “since we are justified” (RSV: dynamic equivalence).

There are problems, however, with dynamic equivalence translations. Since the translator is “freer” from the grammatical forms of the original language he is more likely to exceed the bounds of an accurate translation, in an effort to speak naturally in the native language. That is, the dynamic equivalence translations are capable of being more natural and more precise than are formal equivalence translations, but they are also more capable of being precisely wrong. For instance, in Romans 8:3, Paul uses the phrase: dia tes sarkos. A formal equivalent translation, the RSV, renders this “by the flesh,” which is faithful to the original but somewhat ambiguous in English. The NIV renders this much more precisely, by the phrase, “by the sinful nature.” Unfortunately, the NIV is precisely wrong here, because Paul is not talking about a lower nature, or a sinful nature at all. In fact, he is not speaking anthropologically, but redemptive-historically. In this particular case, I believe we would be better off with the ambiguous “flesh,” and have to ask what, ‘flesh’ means for Paul, than to have the more precise but utterly un-Pauline “sinful nature.”

Another problem associated with dynamic equivalence translations is related to their use as study Bibles. Since a given word may have a number of meanings, it is frequently impossible, and more frequently confusing, to attempt to translate a given Greek word with the same English word in every case. Consequently, the dynamic equivalence translation can give a more specific rendering in English, being unbound by an attempt to reproduce the same Greek word in the same English manner. This produces better understanding, frequently, of individual sentences or clauses. However, it does not permit the English reader to know when the same Greek word lay behind two different English words. Since the only way to know what a word means is by first examining its full range of uses, there is no way for the English reader to know what words are behind the English words found.

For instance, when Paul says he could not address the Corinthians as pneumatikoi, but rather as sarkinoi (1 Cor 3), he employs the adjectival forms of what we normally translate “Spirit” and “flesh.” And, in Romans 8 (as well as elsewhere), it is clear that life in the Spirit is redeemed life; whereas life in the flesh is unredeemed life. If the adjectives in 1 Cor are translated “spiritual,” and “fleshly,” the reader can see the correspondence to other Pauline passages, and understand that Paul is saying, in effect, “I could not address you as redeemed people, but as unredeemed people.” But the NIV construes sarx as “sinful nature” in Rom 8, and sarkinos as “worldly” in 1 Cor 3, with the result that the reader of this translation is not aware that in the original the same root form was employed. The conclusion of this is that the dynamic equivalence translation, when done well, renders in more precise and more vivid English particular expressions. However, it makes it more difficult to compare individual passages with parallel passages elsewhere.

In any given congregation, a variety of translations will be present. The teachers in the church must have the competence to discern which one represents the original most accurately in English in any circumstance. In my judgment, none of the contemporary translations is manifestly superior to the others. Each is a blend of strengths and weaknesses, due to the difficulty of the task.

From the pulpit, of course, some versions can be excluded rather easily. Paraphrases, while useful to illustrate a point, should never be used as the basic sermon text, because they reflect so thoroughly the opinions of the paraphraser. Also, children’s Bibles, such as the Good News, and, to a lesser degree, the NIV should not be used as the basis of a sermon directed toward the entire congregation. The NASB should not be used, simply because its English is atrocious. Its rigid adherence to the formal equivalence principle, while making it highly useful in the study, renders it completely inappropriate in a setting where communication is important.

The NIV should not be used from the pulpit, in my judgment, because it is a sectarian translation. It is a self-confessedly “evangelical” translation, which excluded non-evangelicals from the translation process. It is therefore ecclesiastically unacceptable (it excludes from the outset people who don’t call themselves “evangelical,” just as the Kingdom Translation excludes people who don’t call themselves Jehovah’s Witnesses). In fact, even for study purposes, one will have to be cautious about the evangelical bias reflected in this translation, whereby the weaknesses, as well as the strengths, of evangelicalism have not been offset by a more “inclusive” committee.

Specifically, the NIV shows many signs of being individualistic, experientialist, and revivalistic (I am speaking about the NIV New Testament; I haven’t evaluated the NIV Old Testament thoroughly yet). At the same time, the NIV ought to be in the minister’s study because it is a good illustration of the demands of a dynamic equivalence translation, and it is also very successful at many points. The RSV, reflecting the breadth of the church, a high style of English, and a reasonably accurate representation of the original text, is perhaps the preferred text for pulpit use.

3. Translation is a theological task

It has become increasingly clear that translation cannot really be performed in a theological vacuum. When a variety of linguistic options present themselves, theological factors can influence the decision to choose one option over the other. In fact, such factors should influence the translation. The resolution of the translation question about how to translate telos in Romans 10:4 is resolved in large part by resolving larger questions about Paul’s theology; how he understands the relation between the older testament and the Christ event, etc. Since theology is to be determined by the Bible, and since translating the Bible is determined, at least in part, by theological considerations, it is easy to see that there is something of a circle here. Fortunately, it is not a vicious cycle, because if one is willing to entertain sympathetically a variety of options, one can grow in the confidence with which one evaluates a given translation. One must never pretend, however, that translation is a step of “pre-exegesis” or “pre-interpretation.” The first step of interpretation is translation. This step will influence all other steps, so it must be approached with the entire arsenal of theological tools.

Semantic Theory

It is appropriate now to move to some consideration of dealing with the meaning of individual words (commonly called lexical semantics). A lexicon in the hands of an over-imaginative preacher may be the deadliest of all human instruments. In terms of sheer percentages, more pulpit nonsense may be attributable to a misunderstanding of how words communicate meaning than any other interpretive error. Since the technical study of linguistics began in the early nineteenth century, a number of very valuable insights have been discovered by the linguists. What follows is an attempt at providing some of their most useful insights for those who want to teach and preach faithfully.

1. Semantic Field and Context

Most words can mean a number of things. Take the English word, “run.” It can appear in the following (and many more) contexts:

The athlete is running.
Her nose is running.
We scored a run in the sixth inning.
I have a run in my stocking.
Does your car run?
My computer runs on Windows.
For how long is the movie running?
You want to run that by me again?
His sermons seem to run on forever.
She’s running the flag up the pole.
Jackson is running for President.
Who left the water running?

Enough, already. It is obvious that most words can mean a number of different things. How do we know what a word means in a given circumstance? Well, we don’t just choose the one we prefer. In fact there are two components to meaning: semantic field and semantic context.

By semantic field, we mean the full range of ways the word has and can be used (an example is the above, partial semantic field for “run”). By examining the “field” of possible meanings, we begin to narrow the options. Normally, there are still too many options, so we have to take another step. The second step is to determine the semantic context. If “run,” for instance, can refer to rapid, bipedal locomotion in some contexts, we can eliminate that option in contexts where there are no legs or feet. If “run” can mean “flow,” or “drip,” it is a possible way of understanding it where noses and faucets appear, but not where liquids do not appear. In everyday speech, we do this kind of comparison to semantic context so rapidly and unreflectively that we are not normally aware of doing it. But we do it nevertheless, and normally with great accuracy. It is imperative that we do this with biblical literature as well. No word brings its full semantic field with it into any given context. Yet many fanciful pulpit statements are due to the attempt to do this very thing.

2. “Root” Meanings

Many people speak of “root meanings.” Many people speak of ghosts. Neither exists. Apparently, when people speak of “root” meanings of words, they are attempting to find the distilled essence, or the common semantic range of the word in each of its contexts. This may, by dumb luck, work in some circumstances, but it won’t work in most. What common “root” meaning is there in the word “run” which can account for the variety of uses listed above? Is it motion? Perhaps, for the athlete, the flag, even the nose (which doesn’t move itself, but its contents do). But is there any “motion” involved in the statement that a person is running for an office? Is any motion taking place when a movie “runs” for six weeks? Is a “run” in a stocking a movement of some sort? I fail to see how there is, without redefining the word “motion” to include virtually everything. And if we do this, then we aren’t learning anything specific about the term in question (This is the practical deficiency of the Componential Analysis approach to Semantics; if one finds an element common enough to be related to all the various uses, it isn’t specific enough to be any real help in any given context). In actual fact, we don’t really know why people use terms in such a broad range of ways as they do. But the answer certainly doesn’t lie in the fact of some alleged “root” meaning, common to all uses. Thus, for interpretation’s sake, it is better not to speak of “root” meanings at all. Just look at the entire semantic field, and then limit that field by the contextual considerations.

This doesn’t mean that there are no similarities in the variety of a term’s uses. If we return to “run,” we can determine several “sub”-fields. We can see “run” used of liquids, to indicate they are flowing. We can see “run” used with machines to indicate that they are operating as they should. We can see it used in reference to putting one foot ahead of another repeatedly, in rapid succession, which would embrace the athlete, and, by extension, the “runs” in a baseball game (which are a short-hand reference to someone “running” around the bases). But these fields do not appear to be related to each other, and worse, these fields do not account for the stocking or the flag. Perhaps we ought to just bring “root” meanings out once a year, on October 31st, and then put them back for the rest of the year.

3. Etymologies and Semantic Change

Etymology is a perfectly valid field of study. Etymology is the study of the history of a word’s usage. It has the historical benefit of demonstrating to us what a word might have meant in a given period. One thing etymologists have discovered, of course, is that words change over time. That is, people apparently use terms in an increasing variety of ways, extending known usages, and coining new usages. Thus, the history of a word’s usage is not necessarily any help in determining its meaning in a particular context. And certainly it is not the case that the “earliest” known meaning is the “true,” “real,” or, need I say it, “root” meaning. “Gay,” for instance, might well have meant “happy” or “carefree” in certain places in certain times. It most emphatically does not mean that today in San Francisco. Do not be misled; a “happy” hour at a “gay” bar may be a very miserable experience for a heterosexual teetotaler.

The biblical interpreter is not particularly interested in what a term may have meant several centuries prior to the time in question. Rather, the biblical interpreter wants to know what range of meaning a term had in the period in question. Etymology is not particularly helpful as a guide to the meaning of a term in any given context. Semantic context is the more reliable guide.

4. Polyvalency

You may run across (oops, another use of “run”) this term from time to time, so you may as well know what it means. “Polyvalency” refers to the ability of a given term to have a number of meanings in any given historical period. “Run” is polyvalent. It is important for the interpreter to be aware of the full range of possible meanings of a given word, before determining what it means in its given context.

5. Words and Concepts

For the sake of clarity, it is helpful to distinguish between a word and a concept. Most words can be employed to denote a number of concepts, and most concepts can be addressed by using a range of terms. Thus, charis is a word; grace is a concept which can be labeled in a variety of ways. So, if you want to study, “The Grace of God in the New Testament,” you would certainly include not only a word study of charis, but also passages which refer to God’s gracious activity without employing that particular term. For instance, the parable of the laborers in the vineyard reflects God’s gracious character, as those who come along late in the day receive equal recompense with those who have labored all day. God graciously gives the kingdom not only to the Jews, but also to the Gentiles, who come on the scene a bit late, redemptive-historically speaking.

6. Semantic “Minimalism”

One of the best axioms to apply when attempting to discover the meaning of any given word was first coined by Ferdinand de Saussure and his followers. The best meaning of a given term is the meaning which contributes the least to the overall meaning of the sentence. In most communication acts, we do not “load up” a given word with a lot of meaning. Rather, we speak in paragraphs and sentences — the individual words have little meaning in and of themselves, but much meaning when tied to one another. Many seminarians and preachers seem to be unaware of this, for they frequently interpret the Bible as though its individual words were almost magical, possessing great truths and mysteries in six or seven letters. There are very few technical terms in any language, which are more heavily “loaded” than most words.

Concluding Observations

If one were to state briefly the results of linguistic study in the last few generations, one would certainly have to refer to the importance of context. Linguistics has made us repeatedly aware of the fact that the fundamental communicative unit is the sentence, not the word. Individual words, removed from the context of a sentence, rarely communicate effectively. Words strung together, mutually supporting and interpreting one another, can communicate very effectively. For biblical students, this means that we must look at the larger unites of communication (the sentence and paragraph) at least as seriously as we look at individual words. We must be aware of the fact that a given word can signify a number of different things in a number of different contexts.

Personally, I would like to see more sermons on whole chapters of scripture, and even on entire books, and fewer sermons on a verse here or there. If a person can produce a single 20-minute distillation of Romans 1-11, he can certainly handle Romans 6:3 when it shows up. If the contextual emphasis of contemporary linguistics can help us see the “forest” of a biblical book, as opposed to merely the “trees” of individual words, it will have done us and God’s kingdom a great service.


~ oleh adlanpribadi pada April 13, 2012.

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