The Equivalence Debates
Translation Studies in Theory and
Term I – week 2
© Cristina Marinetti, 2009
The rise of equivalence
• From 1960s the question of equivalence
becomes central and equivalence becomes:
– The aim of translation activity
– The object of translation research
– The parameter for assessing quality
• The discourse of translation is entirely
predicated on ideas of ‘sameness’,
‘correspondence’, ‘substitution of like with
Linguistic Theories of Translation &
• Catford, A Linguistic Theory of Translation (1964)
• Jacobson, ‘On linguistic aspects of translation’
• Nida, Towards a Science of Translating (1964),
The Theory and Practice of Translation (1969)
• Vinay & Darbelnet, Stylistique comparée du
francais et de l'anglais (1958)
• Koller, Einführung in die Übersetzungwissenshaft
Catford (1964)
• ‘Translation is an operation performed on
language: a process of substituting a text in
one language for a text in another. Clearly,
then, any theory of translation must draw
upon a theory of language – a general
linguistic theory.’ (1)
– Textual equivalence
– Formal correspondence
Saussure, Course in General
Linguistics (1915)
• Textual equivalence and formal correspondence are
based on Ferdinand de Saussure’s linguistic theory.
• Saussure establishes a coherent object for linguistics
in the distinction between langue and parole.
• La langue denotes the abstract systematic principles
of a language, without which no meaningful utterance
(parole) would be possible.
• Parole designates individual acts, statements and
utterances that are created each time a speaker
produces language in a particular situation.
• Textual equivalence – looks for correspondence at
the level of individual utterances
• Formal correspondence – looks for correspondence
at the level of linguistic principles (grammar,
phonetics, lexis, syntax etc.)
Catford’s Textual Equivalent &
Formal Correspondent
• A textual equivalent is ‘any target language
text or portion of text which is observed on a
particular occasion to be equivalent of a given
SL text or portion of text’ (27)
• A formal correspondent is ‘any TL category
(unit, class, structure) which can be said to
occupy as nearly as possible the same place
in the economy of the TL as the SL given
category occupied in the SL’ (27)
Catford’s methodology
Set a language unit for translation (My son is six)
Ask bilingual informant or competent translator for textual equivalent
(Mio figlio ha sei anni)
Note differences or shifts (is=ha; six=sei anni)
Apply a series of commutations to the sample sentence (My favourite
number is six) and ask for the new textual equivalent
Then count the occurrences of a particular TL equivalent for a particular
SL item (six=sei anni 20/40)
Then calculate the degree of probablity of the textual equivalent for that
particular SL item. (six=sei anni 50%)
 Despite being completely superseded, Catford work highlights the
problems of equivalence between languages even at the level of the
word and the vital importance of context in the determination of
linguistic meaning
Problems of equivalence
Comment on any differences in meaning
between the following sets:
Car, automobile, motor, limousine, limo, banger, lemon
Comfortable, homely, comfy, cosy, snug,
Dad, daddy, pa, papa, pop, father, pater, old man
Now list all the words and expressions you can think of
in your target language for car, comfortable, father.
Comment on any difference in meaning between the
English sets and those in your target language.
Can we talk about degrees of equivalence?
 Eng. school (n)
Attempt to translate the word school into your
own/second language. Can you do it easily? How
many options do you have? What do the options
depend on?
‘the school was built in 1932’
‘what will you do when you finish school?’
‘the Venetian school of painting’
‘a school of small glittering fish swam by’
‘the school keeps parents informed’
‘he never missed a single day of school’
 CONTEXT as Co-text
 Fr. ‘Je vais à l’ école’
This sentence can be translated into English as:
- I go to school
- I am going to school
- I’m going to the school
- I’m driving to school
- I’m going to college
Which is the ‘right’ translation? Why? What
are the implications of each version?
From Malinowski (1923: 305)
Native language from papa new guinea:
Tawoulo ovanu – lit. we paddle in place
‘whenever the natives arrive near the shore of an
overseas village they have to close the sail and use
the paddle’  so paddle here is not describing what
the crew was doing but indicating the arrival at the
overseas village:
Tawoulo ovanu means ‘we arrived at the overseas
‘This sentence can only be translated by explaining it
through the exact Ethnographic account of the
sociology, culture and tradition of that native
Jacobson (1959)
• Linguistic meaning is made up of:
Linguistic sign
Whisper/ [hwĭspƏr]
 Root of issues of untranslatability (next week)
Nida (1969)
• Reframing the question of equivalence:
– How to find the ‘correct’ equivalent?
 ‘correct’ for whom?
• Notion of ‘equivalence’ is not universal – but
dependent on nature of target audience. Goal:
audience understanding.
• Theory based on practical advice for translators NOT
just description of language practice
• Move from translation as a subfield of applied
linguistics (Catford, Jacobson) to translation studies,
a discipline in its own right.
Message over Form,
Equivalence, Naturalness,
• ‘Translating must aim primarily at
reproducing the message’
• ‘If all languages differ in form then form
must be altered to preserve content’
• ‘The best translation does not sound
like a translation’
Dynamic equivalence
• A dynamic equivalent translation is a
translation that seeks to communicate
to its target audience on three levels:
– provide information that people can
understand (Informative function),
– in a way that people can feel its relevance
(Expressive function)
– And can then respond to it in action
(Imperative function)
Formal Correspondence and
Dynamic Equivalence
So if there is any
encouragement in Christ,
any incentive of love, any
participation in the Spirit, any
affection and sympathy,
complete my joy by being of
the same mind, having the
same love, being in full
accord and of one mind
(Revised Standard Version
RSV- Philippians 2:1-2)
• Does your life in Christ make
you strong? Does his love
comfort you? Do you have
fellowship with the spirit? Do
you feel kindness and
compassion for one
another? I urge you then,
make me completely happy
by having the same
thoughts, sharing the same
love, and being one in soul
and mind. (Today’s English
Version TEV - Philippians
Problematization of equivalence theories in
contemporary translation thought and
Equivalence assumes:
• That equal value is possible between languages and cultures. (A lot of
translation is asymmetrical between languages that pertain to cultures
that are more or less powerful - economically, culturally, politically)
• That the source text is a stable entity. (a lot of source texts nowadays
are not stable, they are evolving all the time – online content)
• That there is one message that can be interpreted unequivocally
(Derrida, there is no univocal message)
• That the work of the translator occurs only at the level of language and
text. (translation is not a neutral act but one that positions the translator
in the arena of exchange of cultural capital)
 A notion useful for our times should see translation as evolving rather
than equivalent to the value of a fixed entity.
• Catford, A Linguistic Theory of Translation (1964)
• Jacobson, ‘On linguistic aspects of translation’ (1959)
• Koller, Einführung in die Übersetzungwissenshaft
• Malinowski ‘The Problem of Meaning in Primitive
Languages.’ In C. K. Ogden and I. A. Richards. The
Meaning of Meaning: A Study of Influence of
Language Upon Thought and of the Science of
• Nida, Towards a Science of Translating (1964), The
Theory and Practice of Translation (1969)
• Saussure, Course in General Linguistics (1915)
• Vinay & Darbelnet, Stylistique comparée du francais
et de l'anglais (1958)
Thank you.
If you have any questions come to see
S. 0.37
or email me at:

Title slide - University of Warwick