You are on page 1of 7

Memes of T ranslation Translation by Andrew Chesterman

(Amsterdam and New York: John Benjamins, 1997)

What is a meme of translation? As Andrew Chesterman points out on p.151 of Memes of Translation, a meme is a conceptual tool, a way of examining translation and also finding solutions to translation problems. Chesterman uses Richard Dawkins concept of the meme in The Selfish Gene:
Examples of memes are tunes, ideas, catch-phrases, clothes fashions [...] memes propagate themselves by leaping from brain to brain via a process which, in the broad sense can be called imitation. If a scientist hears, or reads about, a good idea, he passes it on to his colleagues and students. He mentions it in his articles and lectures. If the idea catches on, it can be said to propagate itself, spreading from brain to brain.

Adapting to the world of human sciences, Chesterman sees a meme is a unit of cultural transmission which competes, as do genes in their Darwinian contest, with other memes for dominance. In Chapter 1, Survival machines for memes, Chesterman introduces the dominant supermemes in translation studies nowadays, which are: The Source-Target meme, the concept of the carrying of information across from one language to another. Chesterman

MILTON, John. Review.

suggests a revision of this dominant metaphor as translations do not merely carry across but rather spread and replicate. The Equivalence meme, usually stressing the desire for 100% faithfulness. However, Chesterman suggests, with the advent of postmodern theory and the awareness that this 100% equivalence will never be achieved, that this meme is on the decline. The Untranslatability meme, a legacy of the concept that the divine word should not be tampered with, and the Romantic idea that the greatest literature can never be replicated in a foreign language. The Free v Literal meme, centred around how free or literal a translator should be when translating, has been another dominant meme in discourse on translation. The All-Writing-Is-Translation meme breaks down the distinctions between translating from one language to another and the translation of meanings into words in the same language. Deconstruction theory sees all texts as translations of other texts: there is never an original, a logos; we are translating all the time. Chapter 2, The Evolution of Translation Memes, describes the historical development of translation studies which can also be seen through its dominant memes which have changed through time. Firstly, early theory on translation emphasized literalness, the importance of the Word. By meddling with the word we would be meddling with the Word of God and disrespecting authority. Jerome argued that non-religious texts should be translated more freely, sense for sense, thus stressing the Rhetoric meme. This


Crop , 6, 2001
was developed by 16th and 17th metaphors of translation, which emphasize that the translator should not be slavish towards the original text and should consider the audience reception. Here we move towards the belles infidles and Popes Homer in powdered wigs. Schleiermacher, Goethe and the German pre-Romantics emphasized the important of the formal effect. Translation could feed and extend the target language and help to shape the recently created German nation. Language was the Logos, the creative force of expression and enlightenment. The critique of the logos meme is central to the deconstructive theories of Jacques Derrida and Rosemary Arrojo. There is no original unique source. The source text will be a translation of another text. And no logical objective meaning will be transferred. Translations will continually be feeding off each other and giving life to each other. True, essential meaning can never be tied down. The importance of Linguistic Science, influenced particularly by Chomsky, was important to translation in the sixties and seventies. Dominated by the possibilities of making a mathematical transfer from one language to another, the importance given to this meme resulted in large machine translation projects, which in hindsight, have had limited influence. The concept of translation as the Communication of a message gained considerable importance in the same period. Eugene Nida emphasized the dynamic function of the translation: the message must be communicated, though this may mean changing the form. The skopos theories of Reiss and Vermeer, emphasizing that the efficacy of the translation is in the extent to which the translation fulfilled its skopos, its intention, further reinforce this meme.


MILTON, John. Review.

Descriptive Translation Studies (DTS) have concentrated on Target language production. Rather than prescribing what the translation should be like, DTS describes the manifestations of the original works in the target language. This meme is rather different to previous norms. It is realistic and pragmatic, introducing the idea of translation as an important part of the literary system, which may have considerable manipulatory power. This cultural importance of translation has been the focus of many recent works in the area. A growing number of contemporary studies focus on the Cognition element of translation, attempting to provide answers to such questions as what goes on inside the head of the translator or interpreter, what translators experience when they are translating and how their decision making functions. Many such experiments are carried out with protocol studies. When memes gain a certain prestige within a community, they become norms, particular practices within a given community which regulate behaviour to make it easier for the majority to live. This is the subject of Chapter 3, From Memes to Norms. Translators will follow the norms of their society, or their community of translators. Chesterman mentions Tourys preliminary and operational norms and introduces his own expectancy nor ms, which will contain the following elements: accountability to the commissioner of the translation; an obligation to optimize communication ; and a requirement to develop an appropriate relationship between the source and target texts. There are other general tendencies in translation: translators are influenced by the language of the source text, often a source of grammatical errors and stylistic problems; the translation is often


Crop , 6, 2001
more explicit than the original; and there will often be a flattening of style. English has its own expectancy norms such as end weight, end focus, iconicity, cohesion. Chesterman also mentions quantitative norms like sentence size, and specific qualities of academic English Chapter 4, Translation Strategies, generally borrows from Vinay & Darbelnet, and lists strategies such as literal translation, loans, calques, transpositions, unit shifts, phrase, clause and sentence structure change; cohesion change, level and scheme shift. In Chapter 5, Translation as Theory, Chesterman proposes the adoption of Karl Poppers schema P1 > TT > EE > P2 through which Popper describes the process of the acquisition of scientific methodology and the acquisition of all rational knowledge, for the solution of translation problems. The initial problem, P1 is that of how to translate a certain text or item. Then a tentative solution, TT, will be found. This tentative solution will then undergo a process of error elimination, resulting in the appearance of a new problem, and then the cycle will begin all over again. Chesterman recommends the use of such experimental procedures both in actual translation practice, gradually refining translation choices, and in research experiments, where he encourages experimental analyses such as the use of data corpora to


MILTON, John. Review.

analyze the use of the English article in translated and untranslated texts. He also mentions Anthony Pyms recommendation for students to work with a series of translations, choosing the most appropriate according to the circumstances. Chapter 5, Translation as Theory, relates various forms of assessment to Chestermans expectancy norms. Retrospective assessment will look at the relation between one text and another and often reflect equivalence research. Prospective assessment will examine the purpose of the text, the skopos, the communicative element. Lateral assessment will compare the translation to other texts already existing in the foreign language, reflecting the expectancy we have of texts in the target language. Introspective assessment will attempt to look into the translators mind and examine how the translator will be accountable for his or her decisions. Pedagogical assessment will examine errors, using all of the norms and returning us to the Popperian idea of gradual refinement. Chapter 6, Translational Competence, uses as its basis the view of skill acquisition of Dreyfus and Dreyfus (1986), which progresses from the beginners stage of the recognition of predefined features and rules, through the intermediate recognition of non-defined but relevant features, then the more advanced hierarchical and goal-oriented decision making, followed by intuitive understanding plus deliberative action, to the experts fluid performance plus deliberative rationality, in other words acquiring awareness of and understanding the meme pool, the conceptual tools and strategies of the translator (pp. 147-149). The expert professional translator will be aware of the historical memes which have influenced the translators role in society, the


Crop , 6, 2001
regulative ideas which guide translation behaviour, and the dayto-day strategies will be automated in routine work. Chesterman believes that such awareness is highly important for the professional translator : if one is aware that translators tend to explicate, or to succumb to interference or stylistic flattening... one can guard against this (p.152). Chapter 7 is On Translation Ethics, which, for Chesterman are clarity, truth, trust and understanding. These, in turn, regulate the four main kinds of translation norms: our expectancy is that a translation will show clarity; the relation between translation and original should be of truth ; there must exist a relationship of accountability or trust between translator and employer; and communication can only achieved through mutual understanding. I found Memes of Translation a very impressive book. Chesterman dominates a very wide range of theory on translation, and his adaptation of meme theory to translation studies gives us a fresh view of the discipline, with memes and norms cleverly linking translation history, theory, apprenticeship and ethics, providing us with a valuable tool to understand the various schools and theories in the area. Chesterman also shows us a way forward: translation studies must, as he does with the concept of memes and the Popperian schema, introduce concepts from outside the discipline in order to remain healthy and grow.

John Milton