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36 - Translation criticism: Even Zohar, Nord

«There are dreams which consist solely of thoughts, but we cannot on that account deny that they are substantially dreams»1.

In the field of translation criticism Itamar Even-Zohar's theories are very interesting. He published a very innovative essay in 1974 in which he put forward the theory of the literary polysystem. Even-Zohar's contribution is most interesting in his treatment of reciprocal influences between national systems, and the relationship between translated literature and literature in general.

The Israeli researcher considers the whole system of literature, consisting in many subsystems, in a way that is not totally different from Lotman's "semiosphere". He calls such macrosystem the "literary polysystem".

Within it, translated literature forms a subsystem of its own, which is characterized by two elements:

1. prototexts are chosen by the receiving literature; i.e., it is the receiving culture that decides which texts may be introduced, through translation, in the published texts in the receiving culture;

2. metatexts adopt specific behaviors. i.e., once a translation is published, its life in the receiving culture system is completely autonomous from the prototext, exerts an influence as a text of its own.

Such influences, having repercussions on the receiving culture, can be of a conservative type (when the translated literature system in a given culture is peripheral) or innovative (when the translated literature system is central in a given culture) The fact that, in a given culture, translated literature has a conservative or innovative function depends on various factors:

1. if it is a still not completely formed system, a young literature, open to outer stimuli deriving from foreign translated works, translated literature is innovative;

2. it is a national literature peripheral compared to those dominant in the world (for example in this moment Western literatures), or if it contains not very significant texts, translated literature is innovative;

3. if a given original literature is going through a change, a crisis, literary void, translated literature is innovative.

All this reasoning has definite consequences on the translation strategies more markedly followed in each of the two extreme types of system. Translations made for culturally strong systems, with very well consolidated norms and in a thriving period, tend to be dominated by a strategy of adaptation to the norms of the metaculture. Using Toury's typology, one can say that translation behavior is aimed at acceptability, to the disadvantage of philological adequacy: to be accepted by the metaculture, the prototext must undergo a transformation tending to homologate it to the canons of the receiving culture. In Lotman's own-other's dynamics, in this case you have appropriation of the other.

Vice versa, In peripheral cultural systems in which the "translated literature system" has a central role and an innovative function, the translation strategies are more independent of the canons of the metaculture, on one hand because such canons are weaker, on the other hand because such a culture is more open to innovation, to outer stimulation, to enrichment coming from different cultures. Translations more easily tend to the adequacy pole, of philological translation, of the explicating note:

Since translational activity participates, when it assumes a central position, in the process of creating new, primary models, the translator's main concern here is not just to look for ready-made models in his home repertoire into which the source texts would be transferable. Instead, he is prepared in such cases to violate the home conventions. Under such conditions


the chances that the translation will be close to the original in terms of adequacy (in other words, a reproduction of the dominant textual relations of the original) are greater than otherwise2.

Such a view is in open contradiction with critical theories that foresee a total negligence of the historical contextualization of a work. It is not possible to answer a priori the question "what is a translated work in terms of an a-historical out-of-context idealized state: it must be determined on the grounds of the operations governing the polysystem"3.

The researcher Christiane Nord, with the scopos theory, seems to deviate from the semiotic and culturological approach characterizing Even-Zohar's work, but that is only on a superficial level. Even if Nord doesn't explicate it, the moment she faces the question of conventions (literary, translational) used in a given culture she deals with this subject.

Nord makes the distinction between the protoculture's conventions, the metaculture's conventions, and metaconventions, i.e. translational conventions. Within the latter, regulative conventions concern the accepted forms to deal with some problems (translation of proper names, realia, quotations etc.,4), while constitutive conventions determine the view of "translation" within a given culture. The latter concern factors as the preservation/suppression of alien elements (both in terms of cultural otherness, and in terms of markedness of given passages of the prototext). I cannot share such a distinction between regulative and constitutional conventions, because I think that even the former are part of the latter: it is very difficult to decide, for example, how realia are to be translated without including considerations of a cultural character in the reasoning.

One of the key problems faced by Nord concerns the distinction between translational choices dictated by conventions and those dictated by the style and personal taste of the translator. Nord bases herself on statistical significance:

we would need a rather high number of texts in order to discard other variables determining the form and quality of a translation5

She therefore prefers comparative analysis of existing metatexts. Nord states that the best strategy for the study of conventions is "comparing various SL versions of one original"» in order to "observe the different ways to deal with a specific translation problem"6. On the basis of the solutions adopted for the different problems, we inductively induce author's conventions (concerning a single translator) and the ones more generally referred to a culture.


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: 466.
2 Even-Zohar 1990: 50.
3 Even-Zohar 1990: 51.
4 Nord 1991: 100.
5 Nord 1991: 103.
6 Nord 1991: 105.