As Antony Pym has pointed in his Exploring Translation Theories, there has been an excess of proposals explaining how sets of translations differ from one another. As the translation process seems doomed to suggest a dual division (which Pym credits to the inevitability of there having to exist a source language and a target language), most of these attempts have engendered dichotomies.

Pym lists nine such coupled concepts:

  1. Christiane Nord’s documentary x instrumental translations;
  2. Cicero’s translation ut interpres x translation ut orator;
  3. Eugene Nida’s formal x dynamic equivalences;
  4. Friedrich Schleiermacher’s foreignizing x domesticating translations;
  5. Gideon Toury’s adequate x acceptable translations;
  6. Jiří Levý’s non-illusory x illusory translations, and
  7. Juliane House’s overt x covert translations;
  8. Lawrence Venuti’s resistant x fluent
  9. Peter Newmark’s semantic x communicative translations;

The first name in each pair seems to recast the prototypical “literal” translation—roughly, a translation centered on the source text’s content and structure, perhaps to the extent of sacrificing readability and fluency—; the second name would cross the translational bridge and center itself on the archetypal “free” translation—a translation taking fluency and the target reader’s familiarity into account, perhaps to the extent of toying with semantic and formal accuracy.

Such an excess of terminology is cumbersome at best, downright useless at its very worst. It may either reflect good will on the part of theorists to propose explanations to a given phenomenon, or an absolute lack of will to inspect and recast previous contributions rather than take on the spotlight with a (seemingly) novel, original proposal (I shall say nothing of the fact that it may also reflect sheer ignorance of previous proposals, as such a claim would demand far too extensive documental research to validate its impoliteness).

Nevertheless, as I do not believe these categories are truly dichotomous—that is to say, as I believe they fail to completely separate translations into two incommunicable and mutually excluding sets—, I cannot also believe they are competing to occupy the same theoretical and terminological slot in the field of Translation Studies. I shall advocate in this exercise—this text is, in a way, schoolwork for me, as it originates from notes I took when reading Pym—that these pairs expose different traits translations may possess; each pair is made up of two opposing poles, displaying the (highly hypothetical) extreme cases in a continuum of a given translational feature. None of these has any claim to being a more accurate description, as they are not mutually excluding, and therefore do not accommodate the whole picture of what translation is and how it can be categorized.

The heart of my analytical attempt to understand all these categories was the composition of the table below, which shall now be presented and discussed:

A list of translation dichotomies based on PYM (2010) pp.30-3.

On the above recast of Pym’s list, field (1) represents polar categories centered around the source text, and, by extension, its author and culture; field (2) represents the target text; field (3) represents polar categories centered around the target-text readers and, by extension, their culture; the intercession (1 + 2) indicates that the nomenclature emphasizes the relation between source and target texts; the intercession (2 + 3) shows that the nomenclature emphasizes the relation between target text and its target reader and culture. Somehow, the source text seemed to bundle nicely with its author and culture, but the target text, being the translation itself, and the mediator par excellence between the two cultures, had to be separated from its author (the translator), its readership and culture. Also, the translator is absent from the picture, as she is the one making the decisions; she is seeing all this from the outside (as much as possible, at any rate). Finally, I have grouped the names not chronologically, but according to how I interpret their dichotomies to fare in relation to the three upper fields.

Schleiermacher’s seems to me to be the only theory that sort of skips a step: his nearly proverbial idea of moving either the reader or the author close to the other emphasizes those two ends, but does not seem to mention the target text. This is why his dichotomy is the only one in which field 1 and 3 do not intersect with mediating field 2.

Cicero, Nida, Newmark and Toury form a second group. This group seems to correspond to the literal x free archetypal dichotomy more closely, as they seem to apply a “divided” nomenclature: their terms for translations on the “literal” side (ut interpres, formal, semantic, adequate) are concerned primarily with the relation between source text and culture, on the one hand, and target text, on the other: the form the target text assumes depends on the source-text form/content. Their terms for translations on the “free” side (ut orator, dynamic, communicative, acceptable) are concerned with the relation between the target text, on the one hand, and its reader and culture, on the other: the form the target-text assumes depends on the function it is supposed to fulfill towards its audience.

House, Nord, Levý and Venuti seem to form a third group. This group seems to apply a “unified” nomenclature: their terms dwell on the same side of the translation chain of communication. House’s terms stand alone in that they seem to be concerned with the whole chain: “overt” and “covert” indicate both how the text is presented (is there something shown/hidden?, which question is only assessable if we compare source and target texts) and to whom it is presented (to whom is this something being shown/hidden?). Nord, Levý and Venuti, in their turn, are concerned strictly with the relation between the target text and its audience; more specifically, with how the (monolingual) reader of a translation will perceive it, and, by extension, the source culture: will it be perceived as a document representing a previous communication in a foreign culture (documental), or as a communication with foreigners with the help of a text (instrumental)? Will it display its translationhood (non-illusory) or search to conceal or undermine it (illusory)? Will it flaunt its foreignness, at times to the extent of hindering the reading process (resistant), or will it present itself as an inconspicuous text (again, illusory) to which the reader’s habits and ideas perfectly accommodate (fluent)? Even though Venuti’s is the only one with an overtly political agenda, all three pairs may lay more or less emphasis on the political stance of the target-text as representation of a foreign source culture.

The first thing such a recast should make evident is that, as Pym suspects, these pairs are not exactly parallel to one another. A documentary translation, just like one displaying formal equivalence, would initially be seen as “literal”; however, documentary translations are target-oriented—the idea of their being a document registering previous interaction only makes sense from the viewpoint of the target reader—, whereas formal equivalence can only be ascertained from a (necessarily bilingual and) contrastive viewpoint akin to a translator’s.

One consequence thereof is that a collective understanding of these theoretical proposals would require, as a following step, the elimination of some of these names as redundant. That may not be so easy. Is dynamic equivalence always communicative? Is formal equivalence never so? Being communicative amounts to always being acceptable as a translation? Are there any circumstances under which, for example, an overt translation is also illusory? Are covert/non-illusory translations necessarily resistant? These questions—which mimic similar questions made by Pym—need to be investigated, if a formal description of translations and a formal taxonomy of their types is to prove more than just theoretical solecism polluting our terminology with unnecessary and barely distinguishable jargon.

One final thing that could be said against this recast is that, as translations are mostly the concern of (monolingual) target audiences, everything about them is perceived from the target point of view. Consequently, it is the target reader who perceives and thereby validates the texts’ “formal” or “semantic” equivalence, and who deems it “adequate” to the source-culture. The translator is one such reader, in most cases; her mediating role is not neutral. Therefore, perhaps the above tripartite division could be abandoned, and all these faux-dichotomies could be deemed, like those in my third group, exclusively target-oriented. They employ strategies to convey a specific image of themselves as primarily concerned with either source culture or target readership, and they do so in order to convince the target reader of their value. If the above analysis be thus satisfactorily falsified, we would also need to investigate how negatively this simplification would bear on these now canonical concoctions.