Susan Bassnett: Translation Studies

[Readings] (10.15.08, 9:33 pm)


This book gives an overview of translation studies. According to Bassnett, it is a relatively new field which has received very little formal recognition (nor respect either) until fairly recently. The book attempts to introduce the reader very quickly into the scope of depth, nuance, and complexity caused by the dilemmas of translation. Bassnet is concerned primarily with developing a postcolonial understanding of translation, freed from notions of dependencies and hierarchy. Also discussed is the role of translation in history and varying theories of what is important in a translation, and whether translatability is possible at all. Little attention is paid to adaptation, but the theories of translation discussed are fairly applicable.


Translation studies serves to assemble a fragmentary world. It enables a nomadic navigation of sources, the translator connects language and ways of life. (p. 1) There is a joint portrayal (in the 1990s) of the translator as a force for good vs. a suspect. The image of the latter seeks to impose power relations through textual production and access. Postcolonial translation study encourages an equal relationship between the author and translator, greatly elevating the translator as a respected contributor to a text. (p. 4) Translation may be seen as a transaction between texts and cultures. This is between space; carrying the burden of meaning of a culture. Cited from Homi Bhabha. A set of studies called “polysystems theory” developed by Itamar Even-Zohar and Gideon Toury shifted to a process/system oriented understanding of texts and culture. Translation is not only a communication, but a continuation of a text through time. (p. 6) Sherry Simon claims that language does not merely mirror reality, but shapes it; and translation aids in that shaping. Translation studies must challenge ideas of what happens when a text is moved between languages. (p. 10)

Translation studies begins to differ in its interpretations as a product vs a process. The classic feudal metaphor (of the SL) is consistent with colonialism. “There are two positions, one establishing a hierarchical relationship in which the SL author acts as a feudal overloard exacting fealty from the translator, the other establishing a hierarchical relationship in which the translator is absolved of all responsibility of the SL text are both quite consistent with the growth of colonial imperialism in the nineteenth century.” (p. 13)

Bassnett discusses J.C. Catford’s 1965 study on untranslatability. He distinguishes translation and transference. Translation consists of substitution of SL meanings for TL meanings, where in transference, SL meanings are implanted into the TL text. This is a distinctly semiotic take on the situation. We can look at Jakobson and J. Levy for references on this?

Categories of translation studies: 1) History of Translation; 2) Translation in TL culture; 3) Translation and Linguistics; 4) Translation and Poetics. Translation has the burden of evaluation carried with it. Value judgments are implicit in the desire to translate. “For if a translator perceives his or her role as partly that of ‘improving’ either the SL text or existing translations, and that is indeed often the reason why we undertake translations, an implicit value judgment underlies this position.” (p. 18)

Bassnett overviews some theorists. Sapir: Languages are different realities. Lotman: Language is a modeling system. Whorf: Language and culture are interdependent. Jakobson on translation: *rewording, *translation proper, *transmutation. To Jakobson, all poetic art is technically untranslatable. Nida describes a process diagram of decoding and recoding: 1) Source language text; 2) Analysis [parse, decoding]; 3) Transfer [meaning that lies inbetween, nonverbal]; 4) Restructuring [encoding, choice happens here]; 5) Receptor language translation. (p. 23)

Ludskanov: Semiotic translation is a matter of process and operations. Sassure: there are syntagmatic and associative relationships (horizontal and vertical): The signified value that represents a cultural object may be equivalent across cultures, but the role and significance of the object may not. Terms may denote the same physical objects, but the relevance and connotation of said objects may vary over cultures. (p. 26) In this vein, there are types of equivalence of meanings. Popovic has 4 types. 1) Linguistic equivalence; 2) Paradigmatic equivalence; 3) Stylistic equivalence; 4) Textual/Syntagmatic equivalence. Nida defines two types of equivalence, formal and dynamic. Dynamic equivalence aims for an equivalence of effect (***). Popovic understands there as being an invariant core between translations and a source text. This aspect is especially relevant for adaptation. (p. 33)

Translatability is deeply connected to human experience. Mounin claims that 1) Unique personal experience is untranslatable; 2) The base units of two languages are not always comparable; 3) Communication is possible when account is taken of the respective situations of the speaker and hearer / author and translator. So, communication is possible, but what is that? J. Levy: The translation process to attain the most effect (most equivalence of meaning) with the minimum of effort (or distortion or awkwardness) implies a minmax strategy. (p. 42)

Historically, translation begins to pick up prominence with the Romans, who were interested in incorporating culture from Greece and other conquered areas. Greek was the cultured language, and educated Romans knew the language. Thus, translations of Greek texts were expected to be read in context of the original sources. Translation became a matter of style as opposed to enabling comprehension. This is very similar to matters of adaptation, since adapted works are often viewed in context of each other. It also enables an extra subversive dimension to translation, to highlight or emphasize certain aspects of the original text. (p. 50)

With medieval translation, aspects of value began to emerge. Translations were horizontal if both the SL and TL had a similar value, these moved texts within “equivalent” cultural systems. Other translations could ve considered vertical: ones which brought elevated material (such as Latin texts) into a vulgar or common audience. These approaches brought to translation the dilemmas of loss and accessibility as studied by Bacon and Dante. (p. 57)

In the 1800s, translation and texts became an issue of property and ownership. The original was considered to have significantly more worth than the translation. The value of the translation was in the ability for the original to be marketed to a larger audience. This mirrors very closely the use of intellectual property in modern times. The approaches to translation developed here (at extremes are Longfellow, who is interested in content rather than style, versus Edward Fitzgerald, who is interested in liveliness) can be seen in adaptations of game IP. Both of these views carry elitism, one in which the source is infinitely superior to the translation, and the other in which the translations are haute exotic specimens of original texts. Some bullet points on colonial translation: 1) The SL text is de facto pre-eminent over any TL version; 2) Translation is a means of encouraging readers to return to the SL original; 3) Translation is a means of helping the reader become a better reader of the original; 4) Translation is a means for the translator to offer his own pragmatic choices to TL readers; 5) Translation is a means for upgrading SL texts because it is at a lower cultural level. (p. 74)

In approaching translation as a process, one must examine how texts are read. Reading a text necessitates taking a position on it, and the translator is necessarily a reader, so some position taking is necessary. There are several means of doing such: 1) The reader focuses on the content as matter, picking out the prose argument or the poetic paraphrase; 2) The reader grasps the complexity of the work and the way that the levels interact; 3) The reader deliberately extrapolates one level of a work for a specific purpose; 4) The reader discovers elements not basic to the genesis of the text and uses the text for his own purposes. (p. 80)

On period translation. Necessarily, human experience may extrapolate, but…. “The greatest problem when translating a text from a period remote in time is not only that the poet and his contemporaries are dead, but the significance of the poem in its context is dead too. Sometimes, as with the pastoral, for example, the genre is dead and no amount of fidelity to the original form, shape or tone will help the rebirth of a new line of communication, to use Maria Corti’s terms, unless the TL system is taken into account equally. With the classics, this first means overcoming the problem of translating along a vertical axis, where the SL text is seen as being of a higher status than the TL text.” (p. 85-86)

Translation may be used as a device to scaffold new moral/value/cultural systems onto an existing source text. This may be especially interesting when a source text is known and the product is viewed in this context. Such translations may be fairly subversive or revelatory about the nature of such texts. (p. 110) In translating prose, Bassnett emphasizes an importance on looking at prose as being part of a larger system of text, whereas naiive translators may attempt to plod along linearly. To combat this, Bassnett urges us to think of portions of prose as units. This sounds very reminiscent of unit operations. These originate from Hillaire Belloc, who describes units as means of blocking out translations. (p. 117)

Bassnett concludes with leaving a great deal of material uncovered, since the field is so great. One of the closing discussions concerns dramatic translations, which are especially interesting due to their cultural, physical, and spectacular nature. Bassnett suggests that it is assumable that there exists a structure of performability that is physical and independent of language. (p. 123)

Reading Info:
Author/EditorBassnett, Susan
TitleTranslation Studies
Tagsspecials, translation
LookupGoogle Scholar, Google Books, Amazon


  1. There have been a few different books written on Translation Studies, and (from the description, at least) this book doesn’t seem to offer anything new to the field. I’d have to read it to be able to give an in-depth opinion, but too often, translation studies tend to ignore the translator’s own experience brought to the translation when I believe this is one of the most important aspects of understanding the process of translation.

    Comment by Clint — October 17, 2008 @ 12:12 am

  2. Hi Clint, thanks for your comment!
    This was actually one of the reading posts that I made earlier, but it slipped through when I was converting them in bulk earlier this Summer. Bassnett is useful as a contemporary review of Translation Studies, especially how approaches to translation have changed historically. She discusses translation as a creative process, but does not extensively analyze the experience of the translator with respect to his or her approach to the text.

    Comment by ashmore — October 17, 2008 @ 2:13 pm

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