POLYSYSTEM THEORY 1970s, Itamar Even

1970s, Itamar Even-Zohar
• Arising from Russian literary theorists
• Offering a general model for understanding,
analyzing and describing the functioning and
evolution of literary systems, its specific
application to the study of translated
Defined by Shuttleworth and Cowie
• The polysystem is conceived as a
heterogeneous, hierarchized conglomerate (or
system) of systems which interact to bring
about an ongoing, dynamic process of
evolution within the polysystem as a whole.
Translated Literature Operates as a
• Whem (1) in the way the TL selects works for
• (2) in the way translation norms, behaviour
and policies are influenced by other cosystems
• Literature is thus part of the social, cultural,
literary and historical framework and the key
concept is that of the system, in which there
is an ongoing dynamic of ‘mutation’ and
struggle for the primary position in the literary
The Primary Position
• Three Major Cases When Translated Literature Occupies
• (1) when a ‘young’ literature is being established and looks
initially to ‘older’ literatures for ready-made models;
• (2) when a literature is ‘peripheral’ or ‘weak’ and imports
those literary types which it is lacking. This can happen
when a smaller nation is dominated by the culture of a
larger one.
• (3) when there is a critical turning point in literary history at
which established models are no longer considered
sufficient, or when there is a vacuum in the literature of the
country. Where no type holds sway, it is easier for foreign
models to assume primacy.
Secondary Position
• It represents a peripheral system within the
polysystem. It has no major influence over the
central system and even becomes a
conservative element, preserving
conventional forms and conforming to the
literary norms of the target system.
• Even-Zohar points out (p. 203) that this
secondary position is the ‘normal’ one for
translated literatures. However, translated
literature itself is stratified. Some translated
literature may be secondary while others,
translated from major source literatures, are
Under which Conditions the position occupied by
translated literature in the polysystem conditions the
translation strategy?
• If it is primary, translators do not feel constrained
to follow target literature models and are more
prepared to break conventions. They thus often
produce a TT that is a close match in terms of
adequacy, reproducing the textual relations of
the ST. This in itself may then lead to new SL
models. On the other hand,
• if translated literature is secondary, translators
tend to use existing target-culture models for the
TT and produce more ‘non-adequate’
How Polysystem theory represents
an important advance for translation studies
• (1) Literature itself is studied alongside the
social, historical and cultural forces, i.e. the
study of translation within the cultural and
literary systems in which it functions.
• (2) The non-prescriptive definition of
equivalence and adequacy allows for variation
according to the historical and cultural
situation of the text.
• Toury (1995: 13), translations first and
foremost occupy a position in the social and
literary systems of the target culture, and this
position determines the translation strategies
that are employed.
Toury's model in action
Gentzler (1993) lists four aspects of Toury’s theory that have
had an important impact on translation studies:
• (1) the abandonment of one-to-one notions of
correspondence as well as the possibility of literary
/linguistic equivalence (unless by accident);
• (2) the involvement of literary tendencies within the target
cultural system in the production of any translated text;
• (3) the destabilization of the notion of an original message
with a fixed identity;
• (4) the integration of both the original text and the
translated text in the semiotic web of intersecting cultural
• Toury (1995: 36–9 and 102) proposes the following
three-phase methodology for systematic DTS,
incorporating a description of the product and the
wider role of the sociocultural system:
• (1) Situate the text within the target culture system,
looking at its significance or acceptability.
• (2) Compare the ST and the TT for shifts, identifying
relationships between ‘coupled pairs’ of ST and TT
• (3) Attempt generalizations, reconstructing the process
of translation for this ST–TT pair.
• An important additional step is the possibility
of repeating these phases for other pairs of
similar texts in order to widen the corpus and
to build up a descriptive profile of translations
according to genre, period, author, etc. In this
way, the norms pertaining to each kind of
translation can be identified with the ultimate
aim (as more descriptive studies are
performed) of stating laws of behaviour for
translation in general.
The Concept of Norms of Translation
• The aim of Toury’s case studies is to
distinguish trends of translation behaviour, to
make generalizations regarding the decisionmaking processes of the translator and then
to ‘reconstruct’ the norms that have been in
operation in the translation and make
hypotheses that can be tested by future
descriptive studies.
Definition of Norms Used by Toury
• the translation of general values or ideas
shared by a community – as to what is right or
wrong, adequate or inadequate – into
performance instructions appropriate for and
applicable to particular situations. These
norms are sociocultural constraints specific to
a culture, society and time.
• In terms of their ‘potency’ Toury places norms
between rules and idiosyncrasies. He
considers translation to be an activity
governed by norms, and these norms
‘determine the (type and extent of)
equivalence manifested in actual translations
• norms are ‘options that translators in a given
socio-historical context select on a regular
basis’; Baker 1998: 164),
norms that have prevailed in the translation of a
particular text can be reconstructed from two types of
• (1) from the examination of texts, the products of
norm-governed activity. This will show up ‘regularities
of behaviour’(i.e. trends of relationships and
correspondences between ST and TT segments). It will
point to the processes adopted by the translator and,
hence, the norms that have been in operation;
• (2) from the explicit statements made about norms by
translators, publishers, reviewers and other
participants in the translation act. However, Toury
warns that such explicit statements may be incomplete
or biased in favour of the role played by the informants
in the sociocultural system and
Different Kinds of Norms
Initial Norm
• The basic initial norm refers to a general choice
made by translators. Thus, translators can
subject themselves to the norms realized in the
ST or to the norms of the target culture or
language. If it is towards the ST, then the TT will
be adequate; if the target culture norms prevail,
then the TT will be acceptable. The poles of
adequacy and acceptability are on a continuum
since no translation is ever totally adequate or
totally acceptable. Shifts – obligatory and nonobligatory – are inevitable, norm-governed and ‘a
true universal of translation’.
Different Kinds of Norms
• Other, lower order, norms described by Toury are
preliminary norms and operational norms.
Translation policy refers to factors determining
the selection of texts for translation in a specific
language, culture or time. Toury does not pursue
this area in his case studies. Directness of
translation relates to whether translation occurs
through an intermediate language. Questions for
investigation include the tolerance of the TT
culture to this practice, which languages are
involved and whether the practice is camouflaged
or not.
Different Kinds of Norms
Operational Norms
• Operational norms describe the presentation
and linguistic matter of the TT. Matricial
norms relate to the completeness of the TT.
Phenomena include omission or relocation of
passages, textual segmentation, and the
addition of passages or footnotes. Textual–
linguistic norms govern the selection of TT
linguistic material: lexical items, phrases and
stylistic features.
DTS Aims
• to reconstruct the norms that have been in
operation during the translation process.
However, Toury stresses that norms are a ‘graded
notion’ since ‘a translator’s behaviour cannot be
expected to be fully systematic’. In addition, these
norms are of different intensity, ranging from
behaviour that is mandatory (maximum intensity)
to tendencies that are common but not
mandatory and to behaviour that is tolerated
(minimum intensity).
'Laws' of Translation
• The law of growing standardization
• The law of interference
The Law of Growing Standardization
• ‘in translation, textual relations obtaining in the
original are often modified, sometimes to the point of
being totally ignored, in favour of [more] habitual
options offered by a target repertoire’. This refers to
the disruption of the ST patterns in translation and the
selection of linguistic options that are more common in
the TL. Thus, for example, there will a tendency
towards a general standardization and loss of variation
in style in the TT, or at least an accommodation to
target culture models. This is especially the case if, as
commonly occurs, translation assumes a weak and
peripheral position in the target system.
The Law of Interference
• as ‘a kind of default’ Interference refers to ST linguistic
features (mainly lexical and syntactical patterning)
being copied in the TT, either ‘negatively’ (because
they create non-normal TT patterns) or ‘positively’ (the
existence of features in the ST that will not be nonnormal in the TT makes them more likely to be used by
the translator). Toury considers tolerance of
interference to depend on sociocultural factors and the
prestige of the different literary systems: there is
greater tolerance when translating from a prestigious
language or culture, especially if the target language or
culture is ‘minor’.
CritIcisms of Polysystem Theory
• (1) overgeneralization to ‘universal laws’ of
translation based on relatively little evidence;
• (2) an over-reliance on a historically based 1920s’
Formalist model which, following Even-Zohar’s
own model of evolving trends, might be
inappropriate for translated texts in the 1970s;
• (3) the tendency to focus on the abstract model
rather than the ‘real-life’ constraints placed on
texts and translators;
• (4) the question as to how far the supposed
scientific model is really objective.
• Toury answers some of these criticisms by stressing
that these laws are probabilistic explanations at
different levels of language. He defends the term ‘law’
rather than ‘universals’ because ‘this notion has the
possibility of exception built into it [and] because it
should always be possible to explain away (seeming)
exceptions to a law with the help of another law,
operating on another level’. As Toury argues, so-called
‘universals’ of translation such as explicitation (i.e. the
target text explicates some features that are implicit in
the source) cannot be understood to cover every act of
translation; no features of translation are ever

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