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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