Logos Multilingual Portal

29 - Shifts in translation and in translation criticism

«[...] nos impidió aprehender su tramo final de vida y ser sus atentos testigos, antes de la metamorfosis»1.

"[...] preventing us from seizing the final stretch of his life and being its attentive witnesses, before the metamorphosis"2.

I have devoted much attention, in this third part, to categories aimed at describing the ways in which a prototext becomes a metatext. We have read about adaptation, fidelity, literality, equivalence, freedom. I have said that these categories are non-productive for describing the shift relationships between prototext and metatext, i.e. translation strategies. Having covered that, the next problem must be faced: since, in any case, translation studies aspires to become the science that describes the possible transformations of a prototext into a metatext. What categories can be used in order for these descriptions to be more than free non-systematic individual judgments and to allow for useful application of such descriptions?

In asking this question, general translation science digresses - one could argue - into translation criticism, into that peculiar discipline that deals with descriptive analysis of metatexts after they were produced, not while they are still being produced.

It is true that the two branches share common traits:

  • general translation studies analyze a prototext's potential transformation modes, its possible and contingent actualizations and their expediency in the different receiving cultural contexts;
  • translation criticism analyzes the concrete transformations (metatexts) fruit of the translation process of a prototext; to this aim, necessarily, it also analyzes the prototext, and inserts the recorded shifts into a systematic framework of potential transformations.

What's the difference between the two kinds of analysis?

The first one is an a priori analysis or, if you please, an analysis of feasibility, in which the prototext is mentally projected onto the receiving culture. From this projection many possible strategies result, one of which is concretely pursued, and forms the production of the metatext.

The second is an a posteriori analysis which starts from the result of a transformation process and retrospectively reconstructs the translation strategy that produced it. It is a really obvious occurrence of Peirce's "retroduction".

But then, if they are two different stages, does it make any sense to create a systematizing grid of the prototext-metatext shifts valid both for general translation studies and for translation criticism?

I'd say it does. Let us recall what Torop wrote about translation metalanguage. His is an admonition to unify the metalanguage, fruit of historical stratifications, ideological differences, different disciplinary points of view, insufficient intercultural communication. First of all, we face the problem of the evaluative approach, that prevailed for many decades and has still not been completely abandoned:

When describing the concrete types of translation within translation studies, many evaluative terms coexist. For example, a good translation is defined as "adequate" (in a functional or dynamic sense), "equivalent", "valid", "exact", "realistic" and so on (Torop 2000: 78).

Once this obstacle is overcome, and the evaluative approach abandoned, there are many more obstacles to be surmounted. In the huge variety of sometimes-incompatible metalanguages, even within the same discipline (just think, for example, of words like "meaning", that can be used as translation of Saussure's signifié, as a synonym of Peirce's interpretant, but also as a synonym of Morris's significance, of "referent", or even "object" according to other variegated terminologies), we could go on and on. One consists in creating another metalanguage (!) unifying all preexisting disciplinary languages:

The extreme metalinguistic chaos is an obstacle not only for the development, but also for the transformation of the metalanguage into a refined language that makes perception more precise (Torop 2000: 22).

Another, perhaps more feasible, way consists in clarifying the main concepts, drawing from this term (or discipline) or that according to the different instances and opportunities making the readers accustomed to the possibility of referring to the same concept or process in varied ways:

[...] it is possible to juxtapose different metalanguages within an interdisciplinary methodology by falling back on a methodological translation or to translation using a single methodology. This implies that a pretty precise thought is hidden beneath an imprecise language, consisting of fragment of many metalanguages (Torop 2000: 23).

This is a transgression from the principle according to which common words are distinguished from terms. While in the case of non-technical words we notice the well-known phenomenon of polysemy (one word referring to many objects/concepts/processes), and polysemy, being a source of potential confusion, has however a definite function in many kinds of communication, terms - words that are part of a sectional terminology - have monosemy as a distinctive trait, or at least as a tendency.

If terms were absolutely monosemic, for this word category one could speak of "linguistic equivalence". Effectively, the glossaries that have the greatest degree of reliability are addressed for a specific application, especially when regularly updated or belonging to technical areas where there is a low rate of technological or scientific innovation. Moreover, if sentences in "techno-ese" were not composed, more than of terms, of connective, structural elements, adverbs and other "disturbing" elements, it would be possible to postulate their automatic translation.

Just due to the presence of these disturbing elements, one can semi-automatically translate these texts, or pre-translate them, as happens with software for translation-memory-assisted translation, like for example WordFast.

Such infraction to the basic principle of translation studies is, in my opinion, forgivable if one considers the advantages it encompasses:

  • possibility of using the contribution of all researchers, also in direct quotation;
  • habitual mental elasticity (the necessary exercise for translating one terminology into the other) that can then be very precious in the form of researchers' creativity and mental openness;
  • need to reinforce the basic concepts and processes of the discipline, involving a continuous effort of auto-redefinition very useful for modeling and reinforcing the sense of identity of the science of translation.

If this need to unify the technical metalanguage of translation science holds for the relationships between the works of different researchers, or at least of different schools or different disciplines, I think it is absolutely proper that here in the Logos translation course the terminology regarding general translation studies and translation criticism be consistent.

I therefore aim at outlining some categories of possible translation shifts that hold true both in a preventive evaluation of the process (translation-oriented analysis; translations strategy) and in an evaluation following the result of the process (translation criticism). In the next unit we will see how it is possible to find the clearest possible way out of the obscure woods of the manifold possibilities of classification.

Bibliographical references

MARÍAS J. Negra espalda del tiempo, Punto de lectura, 2000 (original edition 1998), ISBN 84-663-0007-7.

MARÍAS J. Dark Back of Time, New York, New Directions, 2001 (translated by Esther Allen), ISBN 0-8112-1466-4.

TOROP P. La traduzione totale, edited by Bruno Osimo, Modena, Guaraldi Logos, 2000, ISBN 88-8049-195-4.

1 Marías 2000, p. 214.
2 Marías 2001, p. 172.