Wednesday, November 20, 2013

Intro to Translation Studies: Equivalence

When we first introduced Translation Studies (TS), we discussed the emergence of the linguistic turn, whereby TS drew most of its fledgling knowledge from its sister discipline, linguistics. When first considering a translation, there is a question that every translator asks themselves. Does the target text (TT) accurately reflect what is written in the source text (ST)?

Obviously, for every good translator the answer to this question should be "yes". However, it surely can't be that simple, can it? Unfortunately, the answer seems to be "no".

As we covered in our introduction to the series, prior to the 1950s there was not a significant call for TS as a discipline. However, by the 1950s there were studies being conducted and even classes being taught in comparative linguistics, whereby established academics and students alike were formalising the field of TS.

The concept that we will be discussing today, equivalence, put simply is finding an equal value (hence equi and valence) between the ST and the TT. However, you will soon see, as with many things in TS, that it's not that simple.

The idea of natural equivalence proposed that languages have pre-existing equivalents before translation takes place. To oversimplify, if, prior to contact with each other, the French and the English had made bread, surely there would be a word for "bread" in both English and French that shares a natural equivalence. Any time the word bread is used in English, it could surely be translated as pain in French, and vice-versa.

A Korean road sign. Would anyone care to
tell us how it translates literally?
Of course, as anyone with any practical experience in translation knows, this is rather idealistic. Unsurprisingly, natural equivalence is fairly prescriptive and of little use to practising translators.

The other, and perhaps more useful, side of the coin is directional equivalence, whereby the translation does not pre-exist the act of translation. The French TS scholars Vinay and Darbelnet humourously discussed this in an anecdote concerning road signs on Canada's highways, particularly in Quebec, where the signs are in both English and French.

On one particular road sign, the word slow in English is represented as lentement in French, a translation of the English. This is seen to be peculiar as in France the word ralentir is used, as chosen by the French to convey the message, rather than being a translation from English. The relationship between slow and ralentir in road signs is seen as natural equivalence, whereas the relationship between slow and lentement is seen as directional equivalence.

In the 1950s, American Eugene Nida looked at TS through a linguistic lens. His earliest works were based on structural linguistics, a field of linguistics stemming from Ferdinand de Saussure's seminal work. While Nida's work in linguistics may be of interest to the linguistic field, it was his work in TS in the 1960s that we will be paying closer attention to today.

Nida's most important work on equivalence could be argued to have helped bridge the linguistic turn to the cultural turn that we will soon be covering. Nida's work concerned directional equivalence, which was subdivided into formal and dynamic equivalence.

In formal equivalence, the structure (such as syntax and grammar) is strictly adhered to, which in some cases can create unnatural-sounding and unwieldy expressions in the target language. Dynamic equivalence, however, renders the TT in more idiomatic and natural ways in the target language, while maintaining the meaning of the ST. However, these are not a "one-size-fits-all" solution and have been criticised as oversimplifying issues in translation.

Nida's theories on equivalence, though sometimes criticised, are important to TS as they were some of the first to consider culture as the main focus in the translation action and pioneering for the time.

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