‘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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