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Exploring Translation Theories

Anthony Pym


London: Routledge, 2014

Paperback reissue (1st ed., 2010). xiv+178 p. ISBN 978-0415837910. £26.99


Reviewed by Susan Pickford

Université Paris-Sorbonne


The second edition of Exploring Translation Theories clearly states its aims in the first lines of the preface: it aims to be “a course on the main paradigms of Western translation theories since the 1960s”, unpacking the various meanings of “equivalence” in translation – the belief that source and target language content can have the same value in terms of form, function, reference, and so on – and asking “how can we think about translation beyond equivalence?” [xiii]. As such, it offers a useful starting point for teachers, students and practitioners of translation interested in recent developments in the field, particularly those who cut their teeth in French universities, where Vinay & Darbelnet's Stylistique comparée du français et de l'anglais (1958) still heads many translation reading lists – which to this reviewer's mind is rather as if Northrop Frye's Anatomy of Criticism (1957) were still considered indispensable reading for literature classes.

Translation Studies is a growing area of academic endeavour, as reflected by the increasing number of new Masters courses, lectureships, and scholarly societies in the field. As such, it has seen the publication of a number of introductory primers in recent years, a sure sign of academic institutionalisation. One of the most appealing aspects of Pym's book is his generosity in acknowledging the work of other experts in the field: he thanks the reviewers whose comments he drew on in revising the second edition and invites readers to consult his work alongside other introductory works such as Jeremy Munday's Introducing Translation Studies (3rd ed., 2012) and Franz Pöchhacker's Introducing Interpreting Studies (2004). Pym, who is Professor of Translation Studies and Intercultural Studies at Rovira I Virgili University in Spain, is likewise to be commended for his extensive interaction with his readership. The work even has its own Facebook page which invites critical feedback and features numerous videos of the author presenting his research; similarly, Pym's personal website includes a tip sheet for would-be translators of the work hoping to interest a publisher in the project .

Pym's work is indeed a useful and thought-provoking addition to the standard introductory primers in the field, thanks particularly to the way the chapters are arranged. Rather than simply adopting a chronological approach to list developments from the linguistic to cultural and sociological “turns”, as has often been the case, he has chosen to group together familiar theories and schools of thought in clusters according to the overarching paradigms that inform them. While the order of paradigms remains roughly chronological, the structure makes for interesting dialogues between the chapters: as the author points out [5], if it were the case that one theory simply superseded previous ones, readers would only need to turn to the last chapter. He does in fact simplify the task for any readers wishing to skim-read, offering a list of “main points covered” at the beginning of each chapter, helpful text boxes and tables with illustrative examples, chapter summaries, tips on further reading, “frequently had arguments” outlining the major academic debates sparked by each paradigm, and suggested projects and activities for each chapter, for individual or classroom study. Each chapter thus rehearses the arguments of a series of translation theories grouped together under broad labels, so that while the theories themselves may by and large be familiar to translation specialists, their juxtaposition under these broad headings offers illuminating new connections between them.

Following a brief introductory chapter outlining what the author means by a translation theory and setting out his justifications on why and how such theories should be studied, the book opens with an exploration of what equivalence means, in two chapters devoted respectively to “natural” and “directional” equivalence. The former refers to the idea that “things of equal value are presumed to exist prior to anyone translating” [6, emphasis in the original] and are unaffected by the directionality of translation, so that the relationship between language A and language B is fully reversible. Vinay & Darbelnet's 1958 study proved highly influential in establishing this paradigm by attempting to categorise solutions for maintaining equivalence: Pym includes in this chapter seven of their eight translation strategies. As Pym points out, the natural equivalence paradigm is currently rather unfashionable in academic circles, having been marginalised to a large extent by more recent research rejecting the illusion of symmetry between languages; he speaks out in defence of the concept by drawing out the difference between natural and directional equivalence, in which the relationship between A and B is not reversible (such as Eton > eine der englischen Eliteschulen) and in which translators must actively participate in creating equivalence rather than slotting in a “ready-made” solution. This is where he categorises Vinay & Darbelnet's eighth solution, compensation. The distinction between natural and directional equivalence has proved somewhat controversial, with reviewers of the first edition (1) critiquing the author's decision to devote separate chapters to notions that, as he admits, “seem to fall within the one paradigm” [28], thereby heightening the differences, rather than continuities, between translation practices that Vinay & Darbelnet present as points along a continuum. Pym clearly sees the distinction as an important one, choosing to retain it in the second edition of the work and using the concept of directionality as a rallying point for theorists offering binary approaches to equivalence (literal vs. free, functional vs. dynamic, resistant vs. fluent) from Cicero to Eugene Nida, Peter Newmark and Lawrence Venuti. He also includes Gutt's relevance theory in the same cluster.

Chapter four takes a step away from equivalence-based theories to focus on a set of theories grouped under the label “purposes”, broadly covering skopos-based approaches and bringing in Holz-Mänttäri on translatorial action, Hönig and Kussmaul on the pleasingly named “good enough” theory, Nord on loyalty, and Gouadec on project analysis. Chapter five then turns to “descriptions”, covering not only the well-established cluster of descriptive theories of Toury and Even-Zohar, but also less obvious names such as Catford on translation shifts and think-aloud protocol.

Chapter 6, devoted to uncertainty theories, again sparked debate among reviewers of the first edition on two grounds: difficulty and relevance. Pym does acknowledge the first of the two problems, opening the chapter by admitting that the theories it explores “can be difficult to understand”. It covers uncertainty in terms of the instability of source texts and epistemological scepticism [87] and explores a number of intellectual approaches used to counter and even embrace the difficulties they raise, from hermeneutics and game theory to deconstruction. The chapter does indeed take the reader onto less familiar ground than previous ones and requires close reading. Its relevance might be questioned insofar as the theories it covers are far from specific to Translation Studies; that said, it is undoubtedly one of the most intellectually stimulating and innovative sections of the book for readers with a good grounding in the field and points up potential new lines of enquiry, particularly in the brief list of approaches using non-linear logic on pp. 102-104: fuzzy logic and eco-translatology sound intriguing indeed.

Chapter 7 offers an easier read after the intellectual rigours of uncertainty, presenting a study of localisation as a new theoretical paradigm on the grounds that internationalisation requires material to be prepared so that it can be translated simultaneously into many languages [117]. While localisation is undoubtedly a major new field of research, I am somewhat sceptical of its status as an umbrella for a cluster of theories, akin to the broad labels presented in previous groupings, though the chapter undoubtedly remains a valuable overview of the key issues raised by localisation.

The final chapter, on cultural translation, draws some of the same criticisms as the chapter on uncertainty in that the theories it covers are by no means unique to Translation Studies, but rather call on translation as a broad-based metaphor for the “general activity of communication between cultural groups” [138], the key theorists here being Bhabha and Spivak. While these literary and cultural theories may nominally be described as “translation theories” in that they make metaphorical use of translation, their relevance to those who have been reading the work as an introductory primer to Translation Studies, in line with the invitation in the preface, is less apparent – a critique acknowledged by the author, who writes that the purpose of the chapter is to “survey [such approaches] to see if they might indeed be parts of a paradigm” [139].

The book concludes with a disarmingly modest postscript in which the author attempts to position himself in relation to the paradigms he has just explored, concluding that equivalence is an “efficient social illusion”, that the uncertainty paradigm “has good and bad in it”, and that “much of the work done on cultural translation would be better branded as 'intercultural studies'” [159] – thus begging the question of why devote a chapter to it in a book on translation theories. Pym's point, of course, is that the paradigms are complementary rather than exclusionary. The book concludes with a refreshingly un-pompous invitation to the reader to “identify a problem […] then go in search of ideas […] And be prepared to change everything. There is no need to start in any one paradigm, and certainly no need to belong to one” [160].

Exploring Translation Theories is a valuable addition to the recent publishing boom in Translation Studies: it offers a clear exposition of the principal theories for newcomers to the field while placing them in enough new light to provide food for thought for more established Translation Studies scholars, and suggests a number of tantalising new directions for research. While Vinay & Darbelnet will no doubt continue to feature on reading lists for undergraduate thème and version classes for years to come, it is to be hoped that works such as Pym's will encourage teachers of translation, particularly at postgraduate level, to explore more innovative approaches to translation pedagogy. Students and academics with an interest in the field would certainly do well to read this book and perhaps even take Prof. Pym up on his Facebook offer to help would-be translators find publishers for the book in languages other than English.


(1) See Arzu Eker Rodikakis's review and Brian Mossop's (accessed 24 July 2014).


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