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35 - Translation criticism: Toury, Mounin

«One is its representation as a present situation with the omission of perhaps; the other is the translation of the thought into visual images and speech»1.

Now that we are nearly at the end of this course, the role that translation plays remains to be examined once that, as a finished work, it becomes part of the semiosphere, and is received by the culture that the translator has considered the "receiving" one. We are in the field of the critique of translation.

This sector is not widely developed, above all because there is not a wide knowledge of the existence of a system consisting of translated literature. Many times literary criticism devoted to translated works is not differentiated from general literary criticism, because the act of translation is not recognized as the central element in the translated work, that is reviewed without accounting for what to most is a negligible detail: the work is not in original and has undergone a radical transformation in language, content and form.

Snell-Hornby (1988), in agreement with traditional comparatistics, tends to extend the concept of generic criticism to translation as well, hypothesizing that translation criticism is simply literary criticism applied to translation.

On the other hand Gideon Toury (1980) has a radically different position: he is the first to elaborate a view of translation criticism in line with the direction of the new translation studies discipline. Translation criticism, in his view, consists in studying the metatexts that have been produced in a given receiving culture. Such analysis would have the purpose of finding constants in the general translation behavior, and, on the other hand, of finding regularities (constants, norms) that can contribute to configuring a culture-specific translation behavior: what are the parameters that make a given metatext fit for a given culture?

Such an approach deeply resounds of the culturologic view of translation science, and is still considered valid by many researchers. In the end you are no longer able to speak of translation criticism criteria in absolute terms, because any evaluation considers - or should consider - the culture-specificity of the canons implied in any critical act. In other words, what in a country is considered a "good" translation can be considered not "good" at all in another one.

A culture facing the problem of translation criticism without taking interest in the prototext, i.e. a metatext-oriented criticism, risks of favoring, according to Toury, the obliteration of literary production. When analyzing the English translations of some haiku, and realizing that in them the seventeen syllables of the prototexts - characterizing elements in the haikus - were not maintained, Toury observes that such lack of preservation is in line with an orientation of criticism devoted solely to the metatext. Based on the receiving culture canon, the missing fundamental distinguishing trait of haiku poetry is not necessarily a defect, provided that such texts are capable of fruition. The risk of literary homogenization implied in such a critical trend is self evident.

In his 1995 work, Toury exposes the theory of translation norms in criticism. They are not, of course, norms intended as norms for the job of a critic or a translator. They are constants, regularities that can be detected. Translation criticism, taking on the task of seeking such constants, is useful to translation science in a general sense, because it searches for constants of translation behavior, making an important contribution to its definition (and not regulation).

One of the protagonists of contemporary translation science is undoubtedly the work of the Slovak researcher Anton Popovič, and particularly his already classic book Teória umeleckého prekladu (1975), i.e. Theory of literary translation. Even in the field of criticism his contribution is essential.

In relation to the problem of historical distance between prototext and metatext, Popovič places metatexts on the historization-modernization continuum (Popovič 1980: 122-127). I add that the historizing approach usually coincides with the needs of philology, and attention to the prototext, while the modernizing fits the needs of readability and salability.

Also the so called "ageing" of translations is an empirical datum inducing Popovič to reflect on the way in which a culture receives a translated text (129). The fact that, for example, the translation of a classical work done a century ago can be considered no longer readable and therefore the use of a new more "modern" translation indicates that the reception canon of a culture is a determining factor, that the canon could be different (and is so in different countries), and changes with time. A contrastive diachronic approach (the comparison of the ageing of translations of different times, to see which age better and, if possible, why) is a way to overcome the obstacle that the critic finds owing to the cultural implicit (the phenomenon that could make you affirm that a text is "beautiful because it is beautiful, because it is obviously beautiful").

In Popovič's opinion, the cultural interaction of which translations are an example produces the so-called "creolization", in which the metatext is produced by a synthesis of prototext structure and receiving culture structure. In the framework of such interaction, Popovič lists three possibilities:

  • the prototext culture is stronger than the metatext's culture; in this case the prototext structure has a dominating result in the metatext;
  • the metatext culture is stronger than the prototext's culture; in this case the receiving culture structure has a dominating result in the metatext; that, therefore, doesn't respond to philological needs, tending to be extremely "readable";
  • the two cultures have the same strength, therefore the metatext is a synthesis of the influences of both cultures.

The own/other dialectics exposed by Lotman, already mentioned in other parts of the course, as you see, are adopted by Popovič too. But in the Slovak researcher's opinion, own and other elements must be analyzed not in terms of denotation, but connotation. Textual elements, their greater or lesser likeness to the prototext's elements, must be analyzed on the basis of the peculiar meaning of a word or expression within the co-text and context, i.e. of its systems valence (133).

Toury criticizes the notion of "creolization". In the Israeli researcher's opinion,

What is totally unthinkable is that a translation may hover in between cultures, so to speak: As long as a (hypothetical) interculture has not crystallized into an autonomous (target!), systemic entity, e.g., in processes analogous to pidgination and creloization, it is necessarily part of an existing (target!) system2.

But in my view it is more a terminological debate than a substantial theoretical difference.

Since most texts are not translated into any given receiving culture, "filtering" is a form of (non) translation, and is a significant expression of the canon prevailing in a given culture, and of the ability of such culture to receive the other cultures. In this systemic view is placed Mounin's statement (even if he doesn't consider himself in that situation) , that "philology is translation", because it is a sort of caring for a text after its creation and at the same time preparing its future edition in the form of metatext (Mounin 1963: 242-243).


Bibliographical references

FREUD SIGMUND, L'interpretazione dei sogni, in Opere, vol. 3, Torino, Boringhieri, a cura di C. L. Musatti, 1966.

FREUD SIGMUND, The Interpretation Of Dreams, translated by A. A. Brill, London, G. Allen & Company, 1913.

CHAMPOLLION YVES Wordfast, available in the world wide web at the address www.wordfast.org, consulted 23 May 2004.

1 Freud 1900: 465.
2 Toury 1995: 28.