Equivalence in Translation
equal or interchangeable in value, quantity, significance,
having the same or a similar effect or meaning
the state of being equivalent or interchangeable
the binary truth-function that takes the value true when
both component sentences are true or when both are
false, corresponding to English if and only if. Symbol: º or
« , as in --(p Ù q) º --p Ú --q, =biconditional
‘Unity in difference’
‘Sameness in diference’
R. Jakobson 1957
What is equivalence?
Concepts of sameness & similarity
SIMILARITY (logics):
Not necessarily symmetrical
This copy of M. Lisa is incredibly like the original
The M. Lisa is incredibly like this copy of it.
Not reversible
Richard fought like a lion
?The/A lion fought like Richard
Not necessarily transitive
If A is similar to B and B is similar to C, it is not logically implied that A
is similar to C
SIMILARITY – cognitive
Two entities are similar
Two entities are are thought of as similar
Objective vs similartity ‘in the mind’
Models of similarity in cogn. science:
Mental distance model
(concepts located closer to each other in the mindproximity of values)
Feature or contrast model
Degree of overlap of features (shared and distinctive)
Two entities are similar if they share at
least one feature
Two entities are the same if neither has
features that the other lacks
Salience / Relevance (with respect to
some purpose),
Similarity judgements (e.g. in poetry)
Hamlet: Do you see yonder cloud that’s almost in shape of a
Polonius: By the mass, and ‘tis like a camel indeed.
Hamlet: Methinks it’s like a weasel.
Polonius: It is becked like a weasel.
Hamlet: Or like a whale?
Polonius: Very like a whale.
Similarity (Sovran 1992)
divergent & convergent:
 The ‘oneness’ starting point:
A’, A’’, A’’’, ...
The seaparateness staring point:
Chesterman, p. 13-15
The concept of similiarity is Janus-faced
(In art he is depicted with two heads
It simultaneously refers
to a relation-in-the-world and a perception in the mind. The element of
subjective perception is always present.
Two entities are percieved to be similar to the extent that their salient
features match
Two entities count as the same within a given frame of reference if
neither is percieved to have salient features which the other lacks
Assessment as to what counts as a feature and how salient it is are
both context-bound (purpose of assessm.) and assessor-bound
Assessment of similarity are thus constrained by relevance
Degree of similarity correlates inversely with the extension of the set of
items judged to be similar
Two main types of similarity relation: divergent and convergent
facing opposite ways, C16: from Latin, from janus archway).
‘Why is a raven like a writing-desk?’
(Alice in Wonderland)
LINGUIST: they both begin with /r/ sound (FORMAL)
LITERARY SCHOLAR: they can both serve as a source of
inspiration for poetry
CARROLL: ‘Because it can produce a few notes, to they are
very flat’ (HOMONYMIC)
OTHERS: ‘because Poe wrote on both’; because it slopes with
a flap; because they both stand on legs’, etc. (SEMANTIC,
Notion of equivalence - primarily a
translation theory concept
Sameness is understood differently in
TR and CA
Contrastiveness – a CA concept, also
useful in TR
Langue vs parole; competence vs
Equivalence in TR theory
The equative view
The taxonomic view
The relativist view
1. The equative view
classical view, Jerome, Erasmus; the
Holy Script; (Kelly 1979, Renner 1989):
A = A’
A + A’
A = A, A’ , A’’, A’’’
A, A’ , A’’, A’’’
2. The taxonomic view
Jerome: non-sacred texts should be translated more freely that sacred
G. Mounin (1958)
Jakobson (1959): denotative eq. is always possible (denied by other
Nida (1964) – formal equivalence & dynamic equivalence
Catford (1965) formal correspondence between SL & TL categories
when they occupy, as nearly as possible, the ‘same’ place in the
economies of the two languages – maximal closeness, not true identity.
Koller (1979, 1992) Denotative, connotative, text-normative, pragmatic,
formal/aesthetic eq.
Ivir (1981) formal correspondence and translation equivalence
Newmark (1985) semantic vs communicative eq.
Snell-Hornby (1986) TE practically irrelevant issue (cf. 58 types of
Aequivalenz in German studies)
3. The relativist view – campaign
against equivalence
Snell-Hornby (1988): rejects identity assumption; equivalence
is an illusion
Holmes / Toury (1988, 1980): three main lines of arguments:
Reject samenes as a criterion for any relation betwee SLT and TLT
Equivalence is to be replaced by a more relative term: similarity,
matching, family resemblance (a number of resemblances)
Translator’s rationality is descriptive (more than one possible
solution); using norms TLR is to find the most suitable solution
Chesterman (1997): introduction of the relation norm
governing professional translation behaviour
Pym (1992): eq. is fundamentally an economic term
(=exchange value in a particular situation), (Eq. depends only
on what is offered, negotiated and accepted in the exchange
Gutt (1991): eq. depends on the utterance itself and the
cognitive state of the interpreter (e.g. TR of the Bible – for two
time-distant recipents)
Toury (1980, 1995) – comparative literary studies:
TL culture is the starting point, not SL culture:
start with existing translations and study the resemblances existing
betweeen these and their SL texts;
deduce what TR strategies have been used (throughout history);
establish various constraints & norms impinging on the TLR’s
decision-making (Lefevere 1992)
Vermeer / Reiss / Nord (1984, 1993) – skopos theory: do
not seek to achieve the same skopos as the original, but what
the skopos of the translation is (e.g. poetry, purpose, ets)
Relativist views on TR go hand in hand with the relativist view
of language, as opposed to universalist views
Most scholars in TR theory today reject EQ as an
identity assumption in all its forms (formal, semantic,
pragmatic, situational...)
EQ is theoretically untenable
EQ misinterprets what translators actually do
The EQ or relevant similarity between SLT and TLT is
not given in advance; BUT
It takes shape within the mind of the TLR under a
number of constraints (purpose of TLT and the act
of translation (in an act of communication)
Chesterman (1998: 27)
TE - the central issue in
Heated controversy:
(a) definition, (b) relevance, (c) applicability
Key theorists:
Vinay and Darbelnet, Jakobson, Nida
Catford, House, Baker, Newmark, Ivir,
Three main approaches to TR and TE:
linguistic approach to TE – BUT translation in itself is not merely a
matter of linguistics
TE - a transfer of the message from the Source Culture to the
Target Culture:
when a message is transferred from the SL to TL, the translator is also
dealing with two different cultures at the same time
pragmatic/semantic or functionally oriented approach
Some translation scholars stand in the middle (M. Baker):
equivalence is used 'for the sake of convenience — because most
translators are used to it rather than because it has any theoretical
TE – a technical term, for the lack of a better one
Vinay and Darbelnet: equivalence in
equivalence-oriented translation - a
procedure which 'replicates the same
situation as in the original, whilst using
completely different wording' (ibid.:342)
Vinay and Darbelnet:
this procedure (if applied during the translation
process) can maintain the stylistic impact of the SL
text in the TL text
TE: ideal method when dealing with proverbs, idioms,
clichés, nominal or adjectival phrases and the
onomatopoeia of animal sounds
equivalent expressions between language pairs acceptable as long as they are listed in a bilingual
dictionary as 'full equivalents':
However, (glossaries and collections of idiomatic
expressions) 'can never be exhaustive
Vinay and Darbelnet:
Therefore: 'the need for creating
equivalences arises from the situation, and it
is in the situation of the SL text that
translators have to look for a solution'
even if the semantic equivalent of an
expression in the SL text is quoted in a
dictionary or a glossary, it is not enough, and
it does not guarantee a successful translation
Vinay and Darbelnet: examples (to
prove the theory):
Take one (a fixed expression) = (equivalent French translation)
Prenez-en un)
(It. Prendetene uno; Cro. Uzmite!)
and use the expression
But, (Take one as a notice next to a basket of free samples in a
large store!), the translator would have to look for an equivalent
term in a similar situation ... (Probajte!)
Échantillon gratuit:
(Besplatan primjerak/uzorak; Poklon);
Take away (to bear off to another place : carry away)
Take away (to derogate or detract; as from merit or effect)
often to a specified extent : lessen reputation
Take away food/pizza
2. R. Jakobson: 'equivalence in
difference' , 'unity in diversity'
semiotic approach to language ('there is no
signatum without signum' (1959:232) - three kinds of
Intralingual (within one language, i.e. rewording or
Interlingual (between two languages)
Intersemiotic (between sign systems)
interlingual translation (use of synonyms in order to
get the ST message across):
i.e.: in interlingual translations there is no full equivalence
between code units
Jakobson: the notion of 'equivalence
in difference':
'translation involves two equivalent messages in
two different codes'
from a grammatical point of view languages may
differ from one another to a greater or lesser
degree, but this does not mean that a translation
cannot be possible, in other words, that the
translator may face the problem of not finding a
translation equivalent
'whenever there is deficiency, terminology may be
qualified and amplified by: loanwords or loantranslations, neologisms or semantic shifts, and
R. Jakobson:
examples (English and Russian) language
where there is no literal equivalent for a
particular ST word or sentence, then it is up to
the translator to choose the most suitable way
to render it in the TT
syr: curd – cottage cheese - cheese
similarity between Vinay and Darbelnet's
theory of translation procedures and Jakobson's
theory of translation (Translatability!!!)
whenever a linguistic approach is no longer suitable to carry out
a translation, the translator can rely on other procedures such
as loan-translations, neologisms and the like
recognize the limitations of a linguistic theory and argue that a
translation can never be impossible since there are several
methods that the translator can choose.
the role of the translator as the person who decides how to
carry out the translation
conceive the translation as a task which can always be carried,
regardless of the cultural or grammatical differences between
ST and TT
R. Jakobson:
Jakobson's theory - essentially based on
his semiotic approach to translation:
the translator has to recode the ST
message first and then s/he has to
transmit it into an equivalent message for
the TC
3. Nida and Taber: Formal
correspondence and dynamic
Two different types of equivalence:
formal equivalence (Nida 1964) or
formal correspondence (Nida and
Taber (1969/1982)
dynamic equivalence
Nida: Formal Correspondence:
'focuses attention on the message itself,
in both form and content'
Nida: Dynamic Equivalence:
based upon 'the principle of equivalent
effect' (1964:159)
A. Formal correspondence
= a TL item which represents the closest equivalent of a SL word or
there are not always formal equivalents between language pairs
therefore these formal equivalents should be used wherever possible if
the translation aims at achieving formal rather than dynamic
serious implications at times in the TT since the translation will not be
easily understood by the target audience
Nida and Taber assert that:
'Typically, formal correspondence distorts the grammatical and stylistic
patterns of the receptor language, and hence distorts the message, so as to
cause the receptor to misunderstand or to labor unduly hard'.
B. Dynamic equivalence
= a translation principle according to which a translator seeks to translate
the meaning of the original in such a way that the TL wording will
trigger the same impact on the Tl audience as the original wording did
upon the ST audience.
Chomskian influence (TG Grammar):
'Frequently, the form of the original text is changed;
but as long as the change follows the rules
of back transformation in the source language,
of contextual consistency in the transfer, and
of transformation in the receptor language,
the message is preserved and the translation is faithful' (Nida and Taber,
- dynamic equivalence - a more effective translation procedure (cf. esp.
in translating the Bible
the product of the translation process (i.e. the text in the TL)
must have the same impact on the different readers it was
'dynamic equivalence in translation is far more than mere correct
communication of information'
Despite using a linguistic approach to translation, Nida is much
more interested in the message of the text, in its semantic
Therefore: We must 'make sure that this message remains clear
in the target text'
4. Catford: translation shifts
a more linguistic-based approach to
(J.R. Firth and M.A.K. Halliday)
main contribution to translation theory
– concepts of:
types of translation
shifts of translation
Catford: Types of translation (based
on three criteria):
The extent of translation (full translation vs
partial translation);
The grammatical rank at which the
translation equivalence is established (rankbound translation vs unbounded translation);
The levels of language involved in
translation (total translation vs restricted
Catford: A2. Grammatical rank at
which TE is established:
First dimension of correspondence:
In rank-bound translation an equivalent is
sought in the TL
for each word, or
for each morpheme encountered in the ST
In unbounded translation equivalences are
not tied to a particular rank (i.e. equivalences
at sentence, clause and other levels)
Catford's claim:
a formal correspondence could be said to
exist between English and e.g. French if
relations between ranks have approximately
the same configuration in both languages
problems with formal correspondence:
despite being a useful tool to employ in
comparative linguistics,
it seems that it is not really relevant in terms of
assessing translation equivalence between ST and
Catford: A2 – Second dimension of
textual equivalence:
occurs when any TL text or portion of text is
'observed on a particular occasion ... to be the
equivalent of a given SL text or portion of text'
This is implemented by a process of
commutation, whereby:
'a competent bilingual informant or translator' is
consulted on the translation of various sentences
whose ST items are changed in order to observe
'what changes if any occur in the TL text as a
formal correspondence between SL &
TL categories when they occupy, as
nearly as possible, the ‘same’ place in
the economies of the two languages –
maximal closeness, not true identity.
Catford (1965)
Textual and translation equivalence – the
relation between a text-portion in a SLT and
whatever text-portion is observed to be
equivalent to it in a given tTLT.
Textual equivalents are not defined by TR
theory but discovered in practice via the
authority of a competennt TLR or bilingual
The condition for TR EQ is ‘interchangeability in a
given situation
The common ground is found in the situation itself
not in the semantics of the sentence: there is no
equivalence of meaning since meanings are
language-specific (I have arrived – Došla sam)
Translated as Došla sam (Ja prišla) not because they
‘mean the same’ but because there is an overlap
between the sets of situational features which both
utterence select as relevant (the speaker, the arrival,
the arrival is a prior event)
Three potential kinds of EQ
FORMAL EQ: which can only be approximate
SEMANTIC EQ: which is theoretically
SITUATIONAL EQ: which is the basis for
The underlying BELIEF: the situational
equivalence actually exists! (at least in the
sense of ‘the same features of substance’
present in the SL and TL situations
rejects the movement metaphor:
‘nothing is transferred from A to B in
Rather, TR is the process of ‘replacing’
textual material in one langauge with the
textual material in another’ (p. 20)
Translate – carry accross the river
Catford: Translation Shifts
the notion based on the distinction
formal correspondence
textual equivalence
Catford: Translation Shifts (def)
'departures from formal correspondence
in the process of going from the SL to
the TL'
Two main types of
translation shifts:
level shifts, where the SL item at one
linguistic level (e.g. grammar) has a TL
equivalent at a different level (e.g.
lexis), and
category shifts
category shifts, divided into four subtypes
Structure-shifts, which involve a grammatical change
between the structure of the ST and that of the TT;
Class-shifts, when a SL item is translated with a TL item
which belongs to a different grammatical class, i.e. a verb
may be translated with a noun;
Unit-shifts, which involve changes in rank;
Intra-system shifts, which occur when 'SL and TL possess
systems which approximately correspond formally as to their
constitution, but when translation involves selection of a noncorresponding term in the TL system' (ibid.:80). For instance,
when the SL singular becomes a TL plural.
Criticism of the shift aproach:
Snell-Hornby (1988):
Catford's definition of textual equivalence is 'circular'
his theory's reliance on bilingual informants 'hopelessly inadequate', and
his example sentences 'isolated and even absurdly simplistic'
the concept of equivalence in translation is an illusion
the translation process cannot simply be reduced to a linguistic exercise, since
there are also other factors:
textual, cultural and situational aspects,
which should be taken into consideration when translating
linguistics is NOT the only discipline which enables people to carry out a
translation, since
translating involves different cultures and different situations at the same time
they do not always match from one language to another
5. J. House: overt and covert
in favour of semantic and pragmatic equivalence
argues that ST and TT should match one another in
House suggests that it is possible to characterize the
function of a text by determining the situational
dimensions of the ST
In fact, according to her theory, every text is in itself
is placed within a particular situation which has to be
correctly identified and taken into account by the
After the ST analysis we are in a position to
evaluate a translation;
if the ST and the TT differ substantially on
situational features, then they are not functionally
equivalent, and the translation is not of a high
'a translation text should not only match its source
text in function, but employ equivalent situationaldimensional means to achieve that function'
In an overt translation
the TT audience is not directly
addressed and
there is therefore no need at all to
attempt to recreate a 'second original'
an overt translation 'must overtly be a
Covert translation:
the production of a text which is
functionally equivalent to the ST
this type of translation the ST 'is not
specifically addressed to a TC audience'
The types of ST that would yield
translations of the two categories:
An academic article, for instance, is unlikely to exhibit
any features specific to the SC; the article has the
same argumentative or expository force that it would
if it had originated in the TL, and the fact that it is a
translation at all need not be made known to the
readers (covert)
A political speech in the SC, on the other hand, is
addressed to a particular cultural or national group
which the speaker sets out to move to action or
otherwise influence, whereas the TT merely informs
outsiders what the speaker is saying to his or her
constituency (overt)
House's theory of equivalence in
translation seems to be much more
flexible than Catford's:
gives authentic examples, uses complete
texts and
relates linguistic features to the context of
both source and target text
6. M. Baker's approach to translation
Translational equivalence given new
pragmatic equivalence,
conditions upon which the concept of
equivalence can be defined:
Baker (1992) offers
a more detailed list of equivalence
she explores the notion of equivalence at different
levels, in relation to the translation process,
including all different aspects of translation and
putting together the linguistic and the
communicative approach.
Types of equivalence:
at word level and
above word level
Bottom-up approach to translation:
equivalence at word level:
the first element to be taken into consideration by
the translator:
words as single units in order to find a direct
'equivalent' term in the TL
definition of the term word since a single word can
sometimes be assigned different meanings in
different languages and might be regarded as being a
more complex unit or morpheme.
the translator should pay attention to a number of
factors when considering a single word, such as:
number, gender and tense
Grammatical equivalence, when
referring to the diversity of grammatical
categories across languages:
grammatical rules may vary across languages and
this may pose some problems in terms of finding a
direct correspondence in the TL
different grammatical structures in the SL and TL
may cause remarkable changes in the way the
information or message is carried across
These changes may induce the translator either to
add or to omit information in the TT because of the
lack of particular grammatical devices in the TL itself
Amongst these grammatical devices which might
cause problems in translation Baker focuses on
number, tense and aspects, voice, person and gender
Textual equivalence, when referring to the
equivalence between a SL text and a TL text in
terms of information and cohesion:
Texture is a very important feature in translation since it
provides useful guidelines for:
the comprehension and
analysis of the ST
which can help the translator in his or her attempt to produce a
cohesive and coherent text for the TC audience in a specific
It is up to the translator to decide whether or not to maintain
the cohesive ties as well as the coherence of the SL text
His or her decision will be guided by three main factors, that is,
the target audience, the purpose of the translation and the text
Pragmatic equivalence
when referring to implicatures and strategies
of avoidance during the translation process:
Implicature is not about what is explicitly
said but what is implied
therefore, the translator needs to work out
implied meanings in translation in order to
get the ST message acros
the role of the translator is to recreate the
author's intention in another culture in
such a way that enables the TC reader to
understand it clearly
7. Peter Newmark
Nida's 'receptor'-oriented approach is 'illusory':
The gap between SLT and TLT will always
remain a permanent problem in both TR
theory and practice
How can the gap be narrowed?:
... attempts to produce on its readers an effect as close
as possible to that obtained on the readers of the
original. (cf. Nida's dynamic eq.)
... attempts to render, as closely as the semantic and
syntactic structures of the second language allow, the
exact contextual meaning of the original.
 TR of Homer: it is impossible to expect
to produce the same effect on 20th cent.
TT reader as it had on listeners in
ancient Greece
Respects the context, interprets or
explains (e.g. metaphors)
Word-for-word in its extreme
However 1:
 LITERAL: the best initial approach in Sem and Comm.
 - provided that eq. effect is secured (LIT TR – not
only the best but the only valid method of TR)
However 2:
 If there is a conflict between SEM and COMM (if SEM
TR would result in an 'abnormal' TT or would not
secure eq. effect – COMMUNICATIVE TR is the only
way out:
 Bissiger Hund; Chien méchant; Pazi, oštar pas =
Beware of the dog!
 (?dog that bites, bad dog)
 overabundance of terminology (free-lit, formal eq-eq
effect, covert-overt, sem – comm)
 strong prescriptivism – smooth vs qwkwar TR, TR =
art (semantic) = craft (communicative)
 - a good guidance for TR training (abundant
8. Werner Koller: Korrespondenz
vs Äquivalenz
- Űbersetzungswischenschaft (W. Wills,
O. Kade, A. Neubert)
- 'Einfuehrung in die
Uebersetzungswissenschaft' (1979/89)
Correspondence: ('langue', 'competence':
Equivalence: ('parole', 'performance':
within CA of two language systems
formal similarities and differences
false friends, signs of lexical, morphological & syntactic
equivalent items in specific ST-TT pairs and contexts
Competence in the foreign language:
Knowledge of (formal) correspondences
Competence in transaltion:
knowledge / ability in equivalences
However: ? What exactly has to be EQUIVALENT?!!
Koller: Types of Equivalence: - a
possible answer:
related to text types, (cf. K. Reiss)
lexical choices (e.g. in near synonyms),
'stylistic equivalence'
- extralinguistic content, 'content invariance'
'communicative equivalence'
oriented to the receiver of the text message
Nida's 'dynamic equivalence'
related to the form and aesthetics of the text
stylistic features
'expressive equivalence'
Research into different types of
(in TR text analysis) - value for TR theory
and practice:
choice: a hierarchy of values to be
preserved in TR
a hiererchy of equivalence requirements
(for the text)
translationally relevant text analysis
Q's: How to determine the hierarchy?:
Koller - Checklist:
language function
content characteristics
language-stylistic characteristics
formal aesthetic characteristics
pragmatic characteristics
(see Text Linguistics, Types of texts –
Koller, Reiss, Nord)
TE: Koller
Koller presented translational equivalence as an
argument against theories of general untranslatability
(cf. all-embracing debates about linguistic relativity or
language universals).
Since translational equivalence was seen as existing
on the level of translation as language use (parole), it
was not reducible to formal correspondences or
differences between language systems.
The theories that were so lost in language systems
that they failed to see the actual pragmatics of
TE: Mounin
Georges Mounin (following the rediscovery of
Saussure and the rise of relativist structuralism):
“If the current theses on lexical, morphological, and
syntactic structures are accepted, one must conclude that
translation is impossible.
And yet translators exist, they produce, and their products
are found to be useful” (1963: 5).
Since translators and translations exist, translation must be
possible and equivalence must therefore exist as well.
TE: Koller
Koller was writing at a time when a few tons of
linguistics, from Hjelmslev to Catford and Searle,
could be cited in support of translatability and thus as
a basis for equivalence.
Koller’s theorizing was and remains an affair of
language; there was no need to oppose the whole of
Theorists of equivalence could moreover be
presented as technical engineers interested in the
better control of translation as a social practice.
Their aim was the regulation and improvement of
standards (as explicitly stated in texts like Reiss
TE – 1970’s
Equivalence thus became a piece of scientific capital, stretching
out into a general paradigm with a few ounces of institutional
It provided the foundation for research programmes supposedly
useful for both machine-translation and translator training.
These fields in turn responded to the rising social and political
demand for controllable transcultural communication,
particularly in what was then the European Community.
Translation studies was made to look like a science worthy of
financial support. It was also made to look like applied
As such, the equivalence paradigm enjoyed a degree of success
in advancing the cause of moderately independent research
programmes and translator-training institutes.
Yet the 1980s
saw linguistic concepts of translational
equivalence challenged in at least two
equivalence was something
automatically produced by all ostensible
equivalence was only one of many goals
that a translator could set out to attain
For the historico-descriptivism of Toury
For Toury equivalence was something automatically produced by all
ostensible translations no matter what their linguistic or
aesthetic quality.
Thus defined, the concept was rendered effectively useless for
linguists, technocrats, and anyone else interested in Koller-like
If equivalence was already everywhere, or almost, it could not be
used prescriptively.
For Toury, the confidence of linguistic experts should logically give
way to detailed descriptive work on actual translations in their
historical contexts.
If equivalence had upset no more than the occasional belief in
untranslatability, Toury’s extension of it at least had the potential to
upset prescriptive linguists and pedagogs.
The target-side functionalism of Vermeer:
For Vermeer equivalence was only one of many goals
that a translator could set out to attain, since
translations could serve a range of communicative
The determinant on translation was not the source text, as
had been assumed by linguistic approaches to equivalence,
but the intended function or Skopos of the translation as a
text in its own right and in its own situation.
This so-called Skopostheorie was also potentially upsetting,
at least for linguists and teachers of translation who had
never looked beyond source-text criteria.
As revolutionary as these two approaches
could have been, neither of them denied that
a translator could set out to produce one kind
of equivalence or another.
Nor did they deny scientific objectivity as an
essential goal for translation studies.
They simply refused to base their scientific
status on equivalence.
They chose other weapons.
Toury & Vermeer
Toury and his followesr have invoked systems, hypotheses,
empirical testing, and the search for probabilistic laws.
Vermeer has developed a rich assortment of technical-sounding
names for various aspects of translation, combining discursive
precision with metalinguistic elitism.
One of the curious outcomes is that whereas Toury helped develop
a mode of corpus-based research where “a translation is any
target-language utterance which is presented or regarded as such”
(1985: 20),
Vermeer’s influence fits in with the fact that prospective students
at Heidelberg are told that the institute’s German term Translation
(not Übersetzen) does not correspond to “the translating and
interpreting that unthinkingly duplicates linguistic forms and
structures” (“das unreflektiert Sprachformen und -strukturen
nachvollziehende ‘Übersetzen’ und ‘Dolmetschen’.”) (1992: 2).
Toury & Vermeer
For historico-descriptivists, translation is anything people commonly think it is
(social practice can’t be wrong).
For the Heidelberg text, translation is precisely not what people commonly think
it is, especially if they imagine it is a matter of producing equivalents for source
texts (social practice can be correctively engineered).
In the first case, science is empirical investigation; it goes out into the world and can
advance on the basis of the material it analyzes.
In the second, science is a matter of knowing what others have to find out; students
come to you and advance on the basis of your theoretical expertise (and if social
agents don’t always know what a translation really is, they too can become your
Clearly, neither of these approaches needed a strong concept of equivalence,
which soon seemed unable to objectify anything of interest about translation.
Having become either too large (for Toury et al.) or too small (for Vermeer et
al.), the concept gradually lost its status as scientific capital. It became a dirty
What really happened here?
The dates could be misleading.
Koller published in 1979, but his text survived through four editions to 1992 and
is still worth reading.
Toury was published in book form in Israel in 1980, but his work has taken years
to filter through to some kind of general recognition.
The writings of Vermeer and friends, published mostly in German and often in
small university editions, have been so slow to catch on that the group still feels
revolutionary more than ten years after the Grundlegung einer allgemeinen
Translationstheorie of 1984.
The space of European translation studies is spread so thin and remains so
fragmented that these various paradigms have mostly managed to co-exist in
tacit ignorance of each other. There is no evidence of any catastrophic debate
being resolved one way or the other.
the general trend was away from equivalence and toward target-side criteria.
Of course, this was more or less in keeping with the movement of linguistics
toward discourse analysis, the development of reception aesthetics, the
sociological interest in action theory, and the general critique of structuralist
The 1980s: the social and historical
relativity of translational equivalence
Many of the linguistic categories that had previously been
considered objective could now have been seen as largely
subjective constructs.
Beyond the restricted field of specialized terminology, theorists
could no longer be sure that a given source-text unit was
necessarily equivalent to a specific target-text unit.
Such a relation could only be norm-bound or probabilistic (for
Toury) or subordinate to wider target-side considerations (for
There would always be at least residual doubt about general
claims to equivalence.
Critic views of ‘translation
Almost ten years after Koller’s Einführung, Mary Snell-Hornby’s
“integrated approach” of 1988 sought to bring together and
systematize the work that had been done to that date.
the underlying assumption was that a certain compatibility was
there; it just needed to be “integrated.”
The package was once again made to look faintly scientific, this
time privileging American panaceas like prototypes and scenesand-frames, along with a potpourri of common sense, gratuitous
critique, and a disarming propensity to self-contradiction
(notably with respect to the status of linguistic approaches).
One of the most remarkable aspects of this “integrative”
exercise was the list of effectively excluded approaches.
dismissed two thousand years of translation theory as an
inconclusive “heated discussion” opposing word to sense
(one finds the same inconclusiveness in theories of God, or love,
and yet we keep talking).
dispatched historico-descriptivism because it had avoided
evaluation (but hadn’t it discovered anything?).
Not surprisingly, she also forcefully discarded equivalence as
being “unsuitable as a basic concept in translation theory”
None of these excluded approaches “have provided any substantial
help in furthering translation studies”
However, unlike Toury or Vermeer, Snell-Hornby tried to indicate
precisely where the equivalence paradigm had gone wrong.
This is where translation studies could have become truly
finds that in the course of the 1970s the English term “equivalence”
became “increasingly approximative and vague to the point of
complete insignificance,” and its German counterpart was “increasingly
static and one-dimensional”
there was in fact no radical rupture between those who talked about
equivalence and those who preferred not to (Toury accepted the
English-language trend; Vermeer fell in with the German-language
usage of the term).
Snell-Hornby concludes that “the term equivalence, apart from being
imprecise and ill-defined (even after a heated debate of over twenty
years) presents an illusion of symmetry between languages which
hardly exists beyond the level of vague approximations and which
distorts the basic problems of translation”
Some kind of equivalence could be integrated into its appropriate corner
(technical terminology), but the equivalence paradigm should otherwise get
out of the way
But, if the term “equivalence” were really so polysemous - Snell-Hornby
elsewhere claims to have located fifty-eight different types in German
uses of the term (1986: 15) -, how could she be so sure it “presents an
illusion of symmetry between languages”?
The term apparently means nothing except this illusion.
And yet none of the numerous linguists cited in Koller ever
presupposed any “symmetry between languages.”
had she looked a little further, Snell-Hornby might have found that
concepts like Nida’s “dynamic equivalence” presuppose substantial
linguistic asymmetry.
More important, Koller’s actual proposal was based on studying
equivalence on the level of parole, leaving to contrastive linguistics the
entire question of symmetries or dissymmetries between language
“The narrow and hence mistaken interpretation of translational
equivalence in terms of linguistic correspondence is in our
opinion one of the main reasons that the very concept of
equivalence has fallen into disrepute among many translation
scholars.” (1994: 414). (A. Neubert)
One can only suppose there was more than logic at stake in
Snell-Hornby’s critique of equivalence.
An element of power, perhaps?
Snell-Hornby’s Integrated Approach has indeed had influence, and
may yet find more.
It was the right title at the right time, lying in wait for the massive
growth of translator-training institutions that took off at the end of
the decade.
Yet this is not the story of just one person. There is more at stake in the
movement away from equivalence. Strangely, while European translation studies
has generally been expanding, a center of strong equivalence-based research at
Leipzig, closely associated with Professor Neubert, has been all but dismantled
by west-German academic experts.
Further, the one west-European translation institute that has been threatened
with reduction - Saarbrücken - is precisely the one that, through Wilss, is most
clearly aligned with linguistics and the equivalence paradigm.
This is not to mention the numerous east-Europeans who still - heaven forbid! talk about linguistics and equivalence, awaiting enlightenment from the more
advanced western theorists.
The institutional critique of equivalence surreptitiously dovetails into facile
presumptions of progress, and sometimes into assumptions of west-European
superiority. Perhaps we should take a good look at the bandwagon before we
hop on.
Equivalence - A. Pym
Although the 1980s critiques of equivalence-based prescriptivism opened up new terrain,
they mostly failed to understand the logic of the previous paradigm. Little attempt was
made to objectify the subjective importance of equivalence as a concept. It is one thing is
to argue that substantial equivalence is an illusion, but quite another to understand why
anyone should be prepared to believe in it.
Illusions are not illusory. Yet when Snell-Hornby talks about “the illusion of equivalence”
(1988: 13), she does so precisely to suggest that it is illusory and should be dispensed with.
The main alternative to this strategy is to understand and explain the illusion.
Ernst-August Gutt, defines a “direct translation” as an utterance that “creates a presumption of
complete interpretative resemblance” (1991: 186). True, Gutt does not name equivalence as such - it
is a taboo word -, but he certainly describes what equivalence would seem to be doing when a
translation is read as a translation. More important, this “presumption of resemblance” does not
describe anything that would enable a linguist’s tweezers to pick up two pieces of language and
declare them of equal weight.
Comparable considerations enter Albrecht Neubert’s recent comments on equivalence. A translation,
says Neubert, “has to stand in some kind of equivalence relation to the original,” which means that
“equivalence in translation is not an isolated, quasi-objective quality, it is a functional concept that
can be attributed to a particular translational situation” (1994: 413-414, italics in the text).
From the semiotic perspective, Ubaldo Stecconi expresses a similar
mode of thought:
In Stecconi’s terms,
“Equivalence is crucial to translation because it is the unique
intertextual relation that only translations, among all conceivable text
types, are expected to show” (1994: 8).
Such “expectation” is certainly an affair of social convention rather than
empirical certainty, but it has consequences for the actual work of the
“B had never been equivalent to A before it appeared in a translation:
using inferences of the abductive kind, the translator makes the two
elements equivalent” (1994: 9)
Pym (1992) argues that “equivalence defines translation,” and talks
about non-relativist and non-linguistic “equivalence beliefs” as part
of the way translations are received as translations.
Solutions without Equivalence
Gutt, Neubert, Stecconi, and Pym (there could be more names)
have something else in common.
Their arguments recuperate the very important idea that
translation and non-translation are conventionally distinguished,
since the making of this distinction is one of the functions of
equivalence itself.
They thus have a certain interest in defining translation in a
restrictive way; they are not afraid to distinguish translation
from non-translation.
the critiques of equivalence
In contradistinction to the four authors above, none of the theorists
that oppose equivalence appears to have advanced a restrictive
definition of translation.
There are certainly many descriptions; they all say what a translation
should look like and should do.
Try, for example, Snell-Hornby’s description beginning “Translation is a
complex act of communication in which...” (1988: 81).
Nowhere in the page or so of text that follows is there anything about
what translation is not.
There are no definitions of non-translation. Everything can be fitted in;
everything is potentially translative;
so translation studies might as well encompass cultural studies, literary
studies, the entire humanities, and more, if it would make anyone
happier or more powerful.
The rejection of equivalence quickly leads to a peculiarly uncentered
conceptual expansion, the nature of which is still far from clear.
Pym (2005):
Equivalence, on the other hand, no matter what
definition it figured in during the bad old days,
always implied the possibility of nonequivalence, of non-translation or a text that was in
some way not fully translational.
The 1980s thus saw a shift from restrictive to nonrestrictive definitions, from translation studies as a
focused and unified discipline to translation studies
as an area potentially open to all comers.
To produce equivalence is nowadays not
the end of the story, neither for the
theorist nor for the pedagog.
Differs among a number of types and levels of equivalence
understood as different linking stages of translation from SLT to
Goals of communcation: the lowest degree of meaningful link
between the SLT and TLT on the level of communicatzion goals,
Identification of situation: on the level of situation identification
contains the additional part of SLT content – and shows the type of
source messsage,
Method of describing the situation: preservance of general
concepts in the TR process by way of the situation being described,
level of syntactic meanings: invariant nature of syntactic structures
of the SLT and TLT,
Level of literary signs: refers to the cases slučajeve when in the
translation process all the basic parts of the SLT contents are
11. Other theories:
see also Chesterman, Baker, Bassnett,
G. Toury: (DTS) - a move away from prescriptive
definition of equivalence:
Not 'A TT is equivalent to its TT' but
Try to identify the web of relations between the ST
and TT
Still many insoluble practical problems
TE – 'remains central to the pratice of transaltion,
even if TR Studies and TR theory have, at least,
recently, marginalized it9
tertium comparationis – the invariant agains which a
ST and a TT can be measured to gauge variation
The notion of equivalence is undoubtedly one of the most problematic
and controversial areas in the field of translation theory.
The term has caused, and it seems quite probable that it will continue
to cause, heated debates within the field of translation studies.
This term has been analyzed, evaluated and extensively discussed from
different points of view and has been approached from many different
The first discussions of the notion of equivalence in translation initiated
the further elaboration of the term by contemporary theorists.
Even the brief outline of the issue given above indicates its importance
within the framework of the theoretical reflection on translation.
The difficulty in defining equivalence seems to result in the impossibility
of having a universal approach to this notion.
A Summary
Since debates over equivalence are not always easy to follow,
here is a brief summary of the way I have called the shots:
- Structuralist linguistics of language systems (Saussure et al.)
overlooked the social existence of translation.
- The concept of translational equivalence (Koller et al.) affirmed
the social existence of translation and sought to make it a part
of applied linguistics.
- Historico-descriptive studies (Toury et al.) rejected the
prescriptive import of such linguistics and affirmed that
equivalence was a fact of all translations, no matter what their
- Theories of target-side functionalism (Vermeer et al.) similarly
rejected such prescriptivism, limiting equivalence to cases where
the translation purpose was narrowly bound by source-text
- Thanks to the above two movements, the
notion of equivalence lost its status as a
scientific concept (most radically in the work
of Snell-Hornby).
- Translation studies has thus expanded well
beyond the academic space once centered on
- Final concl.: translation studies unable to
offer a restrictive definition of translation and
TE, as a result
References 1
V. Ivir (1981) 'Formal Correspondence vs. Translation
Equivalence Revisited', Poetics Today, 51-59
Ivir (1978) Teorija i tehnika prevođenja. Centar “Karlovačka
Bell, R. (1991) Translation and Translating. Longman
Chesterman, A. (1998) Contrastive Functional Analysis. J.
Fawcett, P. (1997) Translation and Language. J. Benjamins
Munday, J. (2001) Introducing Translation Studies. Routledge
Nida, Eugene A. and C.R.Taber (1969 / 1982) The Theory and Practice
of Translation, Leiden: E. J. Brill.
Catford (1965): A Linguistic Theory of Translation. OUP
References 2
Baker, Mona (1992) In Other Words: a Coursebook on Translation, London: Routledge.
Chesterman, A. (1998) Contrastive Functional Analysis. Amsterdam, Benjamins
Fawcett, Peter (1997) Translation and Language: Linguistic Theories Explained, Manchester:
St Jerome Publishing
House, Juliane (1977) A Model for Translation Quality Assessment, Tübingen: Gunter Narr.
Kenny, Dorothy (1998) 'Equivalence', in the Routledge Encyclopaedia of Translation Studies,
edited by Mona Baker, London and New York: Routledge, 77-80.
Jakobson, Roman (1959) 'On Linguistic Aspects of Translation', in R. A. Brower (ed.) On
Translation, Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, pp. 232-39.
Leonardi, V. (2002) Equivalence in Translation: Between Myth and Reality.
Nida, Eugene A. (1964) Towards a Science of Translating, Leiden: E. J. Brill.
References 3
Pym, A. (1992). Translation and Text Transfer.
Frankfurt/Main: Lang
Pym, A. (2000) ’European Translation Studies, une
science qui dérange, and Why Equivalence Needn’t
Be a Dirty Word’
Vinay, J.P. and J. Darbelnet (1958/1995) Comparative
Stylistics of French and English: a Methodology for
Translation, translated by J. C. Sager and M. J. Hamel,
Amsterdam / Philadelphia: John Benjamins.

Equivalence in Translation