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The Limitations of The Notion of Equivalence in Relation to Translation Practice

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The Limitations of The Notion of Equivalence in Relation to Translation Practice essay
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“The comparison of texts in different languages inevitably involves a theory of equivalence.” (Leonardi, 2005, p.1). The idea of equivalence in translation studies has been debated since its conception in the late 1950s and is still debated today. Many innovative theorists from Vinay and Darbelnet to Nida to Baker have each discussed their own views on this idea. “Equivalence was meant to indicate that source text … and target text … share some kind of ‘sameness’.” (Panou, 2013, p.3)

All types of equivalence and ideas about it seem to be dissimilar translation techniques that are used to achieve varying levels of likeness. This essay will look at some of the prominent theorists in translation studies and discuss their opinions on the matter. The idea of what exactly equivalence is and how it is beneficial or not is viewed differently by many in this field and can often cause heated debate. Due to the fact that many theorists have differing opinions on what equivalence is, it can be very interesting to research their opinions. I will outline some of the ideas put forward by these theorists and discuss how they differ from the ideas of others to make clear what the notion of equivalence is and what its proposed limitations are.

Perhaps one of the more famous ideas about equivalence comes from Nida and Taber (1982) where they discuss their ideas of formal correspondence, or formal equivalence, and dynamic equivalence. They differentiate between these two ideas, saying that formal correspondence will typically distort grammatical and stylistic patterns in the target language (TL). They suggest that there are not always direct equivalents but that the translator should make an effort to always choose the closest equivalent if they are aiming for formal equivalence. They say that with formal equivalence, the source text (ST) and target text (TT) will always resemble each other in from and aesthetic.

On the other side of their theory is dynamic equivalence. They say that dynamic equivalence is “far more than mere correct communication of information” (p.25) and that the main idea behind this type of translation is to elicit the same feeling or reaction in the TL readership as the original text did in the source language (SL). It would seem that aiming for dynamic equivalence is a good technique for a translator to adopt when there are great differences between source culture (SC) and target culture (TC). Taking this idea in to account then, it would be much better for a translator to strive for dynamic rather than formal equivalence when translating a text that is heavily loaded with culture-specific items (CSIs). (Newmark, 1988, p.89)

I would be in favour of their idea of dynamic equivalence if it were always possible to generate the same reaction in one person as it is in another. I feel that the idea is limited as it is not always plausible with every type of ST. This opinion is seemingly shared by some translation scholars such as Broeck (1978) when he says that the response from reading a text will vary from culture to culture and besides, it is impossible to detect and record these responses (p.40).

Jakobson is a theorist who is known for his ideas on three different kinds of translation. Intralingual translation (so, translation or rewording in the same language), interlingual translation (translation between languages) and intersemiotic translation (translation between sign systems). He claims that in interlingual translation there can be no full equivalence between a number of words (2000, p.114). A good example of interlingual translation is how greetings are used in English and Italian. ‘Hello’ in English is used in person or on the phone to greet somebody, whereas in Italian ‘ciao’ is used to greet somebody face-to-face but on the phone ‘pronto’, literally meaning ‘ready’, is used. They both have the same function if they were to be translated in to English, it just depends on the situation.

The situation of the SL is very important when translating, as this can often change what could be deemed as being equivalent or not. At least this is the case according to Vinay and Darbelnet (1995). They state that the need for creating equivalence between texts arises directly from the situation in the ST and that the translator needs to take this in to account when choosing words for the TT. They propose that equivalence in translation is when a situation in the TT “replicates the same situation as in the original, whilst using completely different wording.” (p.32). This is the ideal method to use when dealing with a lot of tricky translation items such as idioms, adjectival phrases or the onomatopoeia of animal sounds. They argue that even if a semantic equivalent of a word or phrase is found in a dictionary, that is not always relevant to a situation and that it does not always guarantee a successful translation. If we take a look at their idea of applying this to idioms, we can see how it works. The Spanish idiom ‘empezar la casa por el tejado’ which literally means ‘to start the house by the roof’ makes no sense when the equivalent words are put together in English. The translator would have to try to understand the meaning and situation of why this phrase was being used in order to work out what a successful translation would be. In this case it would be ‘to put the cart before the horse’. I believe this to be a solid argument in the debate on what equivalence is and what its limitations are, in that, if the translator does not focus on direct equivalents for every word, then they will produce a much more natural translation.

The importance of the situation is an idea seemingly shared by House (1997) as she argues that the ST and the TT should match in function and that if texts differ on situational features then they can’t be fully equivalent. She says that a translation can only be deemed adequate if it matches the ‘textual’ profile and function of the original text. Something apparently important to House is the way in which a text interacts with the receiving audience. With this in mind, she defines equivalence in two ways, stating that translations can either be overt or covert. It is stated that a text that doesn’t directly address the target audience can be translated overtly as there is no danger of miscommunication due to the fact that the audience are not directly engaged. She says that in this case there is no need for the translator to attempt to recreate the original and that it must “overtly be a translation” (p.189). An example of this would be a political speech given in London about Brexit that needed to be translated in to Spanish. There is no need to engage the Spanish readership directly with this speech as it is a speech aimed at the British public, encouraging them to feel about or act upon something. The text can be translated as more of a reported speech article to supply the Spanish people with information about what is happening within the British culture. A covert translation on the other hand needs to appear as though it is the original text, there is no need to point out that the TT is in fact a translation. A good example here would be a text that doesn’t directly address an audience, an academic paper or an instruction manual. The tone of the text is still the same no matter the language and the function remains. Because these types of texts aren’t specifically addressed to a target culture audience (House, 1997, p.194) they tend not to include any features that are specific to a target culture. House’s theory is an interesting one to me, however the fact that it is limited to the interaction with the target culture makes me think that it is also limited in scope. There are many texts where the text-type (Reiss, 2004) is hard to determine and many that are a hybrid of different types and therefore include many different traits. One of the most interesting things that I have read about this debate among theorists is that there is no such thing as “perfect” equivalence between languages and that equivalence is always “assumed” (Pym, 2010, p.37). He describes equivalence as being something that shows equal value across languages. His main argument here is that equivalence can be brought down to natural equivalence and directional equivalence. What he means by natural equivalence is something that already naturally exists between languages, some similarity that is not determined by the translator, but that it is already there and that it is discovered by them. He also suggests that it isn’t affected by what he calls the “directionality” of a translation (p.7). A great simple example of this is the word ‘Sunday’ translates from English to Spanish as ‘domingo’ and translates back as ‘Sunday’, there is no variation in the translation of these two words between English and Spanish.

Directionality comes up again when he describes his theory of directional equivalence. What he means here is that a word may translate as a particular word in one direction, but will not back translate the same. He says that “translation goes from one side to the other, but not back again.” (Pym, 2007, p.277). For example, if I decided to translate ‘trasnochar’ from Spanish to English as ‘to stay up late’ I could not guarantee that somebody else would translate ‘to stay up late’ back to Spanish as ‘trasnochar’ as it is not a natural equivalent between this language pair. The equivalence is created by the translator and the meaning is assumed, even though it is in fact a correct translation. Pym’s ideas about equivalence seem to be the ones that have the least amount of limitation attached to them. I say this because as he claims that equivalence is assumed and is never full, then the translator at least has some freedom when translating a text and is not confined by a strict set of limitations. The final theorist that I will discuss is Mona Baker. In her 1992 book In Other Words, there is perhaps the most detailed theory about equivalence that I have come across. She describes here varying types of equivalence at different levels such as word, grammar, text and pragmatic levels. I will explain what she means by the different levels. At word level, she states the importance of the single word to the translator as that is what they initially look at when thinking about translating in order to begin to understand the text. She also defines the term ‘word’ stating that it is very complex and can often have different meanings in different languages. She says that when translating a word that things such as number and gender should be considered (p.11). Grammatical equivalence to Baker draws attention the number of grammatical categories that are contained across different languages. She states that differences in grammatical structures can greatly affect a translation. Things to consider here are voice, tense, aspect etc. For example, in Spanish there are eight tenses in four different aspects, therefore that is 32 different ways of expressing a verb. When you compare that to the English language that contains 12, it is obviously going to be hard for a translator to find the exact grammatical equivalent for the TT. Next, she talks about textual equivalence, which refers to cohesion and transfer of information from ST to TT. She says that there are three important factors when dealing with textual equivalence and deciding if you want to keep the text cohesive across languages; target audience, text type and the purpose of the translation. Finally, pragmatic equivalence is described as transferring information that is implied and not necessarily directly said. She says that the translator’s role here is to work out what the implicatures mean and translate them for their TL equivalents as well as possible. This idea of pragmatic equivalence could potentially link back to Vinay and Darbelnet’s idea of transferring situation and meaning while using completely different wording, if needed.

A lot of these theories are proposed with opposing ways of translating. As if each of these theorists sees both ways as correct and it just depends on the translator and what their overall aim is. I feel as though all of these theories are slightly limited, some more than others, in that there always seems to be a contrary idea, and nobody can agree upon a set one. As there is some difference of opinion between the aforementioned theorists about a clear explanation of equivalence, there are also some who are completely against the whole idea. Snell-Hornby (1988) says that equivalence is too vague to be a useful term and that it “presents an illusion of symmetry between languages which hardly exists beyond the level of vague approximations and which distorts the basic problems of translation” (p.22). The problem I can see with her issue with equivalence, is that there are so many different ideas as to what it could mean that there is plenty to think about. Some of the ideas put forward by the theorists mentioned above, and others, are very useful to a translator thinking about equivalence. However, as she points out the term is so vague that it can be a problem for translators trying to put this in to practice. This vagueness only supports the idea that the notion itself is limited. One good thing that all these theories do, however, is highlight the problems that translators face when working professionally. The problem of conveying meaning over effect, for example. This is what Newmark (1981) discusses with his terms semantic translation and communicative translation. He focuses on the meaning of the original ST and carrying that on to the TT with semantic translation, whereas the main aim of communicative translation is to keep the desired effect on the target audience. The difference in Newmark’s theory is that he says both of these techniques can be used interchangeably in the same text, it just depends which one best fits the particular sentence or chapter that is being translated. He also says that literal translation is the best method when looking at both of these ideas (p.39) and uses a great example to get his point across. The sign bissiger Hund and chien mechant, which should be translated communicatively as beware the dog! instead of semantically as dog that bites! and bad dog! so that the message is communicated effectively (p. 39).

To conclude, the notion of equivalence seems to have caused much debate. There is a great amount of theories about equivalence in translation and there doesn’t appear to be a definitive definition. This makes it hard for translators when aiming to conform to a theory about equivalence as I believe it will always leave some doubt in their mind whether they have chosen the correct one or not, because there are so many opposing arguments. The translator is described by Hervey and Higgins (1992) to be the person who bridges the cultural gap between monolingual speakers of different languages. If, then, a translator is aiming to be this person and follow their chosen theory of equivalence, how do they know which is the correct one to follow. All of these theories assume that any one certain text has a stable or definitive meaning when this is not the case. It is often difficult for a translator to fully categorise a text which again brings up an element of confusion. Due to this reason of non-clarity between the prominent scholars in this discipline about equivalence, I view the notion of it to be very limited in its usefulness and effectiveness.

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