Basic translation theories


Here we shall discuss the most common theoretical approaches to human translation paying special attention to their limitations and ability to explain the translation process.

Roughly, the human translation theories may be divided into three main groups which quite conventionally may be called transformational approach, denotative approach, and communicational approach.


2.1. transformational approach

The transformational theories consist of many varieties which may have different names but they all have one common feature: the process of translation is regarded as transformation.

According to the transformationalapproach translation is viewed as the transformation of objects and structures of the source language into those of the target.

Within the group of theories which we include in the transformationalapproach a dividing line is sometimes drawn between transformations and equivalences.

According to this interpretation a transformation starts at the syntactic level when there is a change, i.e. when we alter, say, the word order during translation. Substitutions at other levels are regarded as equivalences, for instance, when we substitute words of the target language for those of the source, this is considered as equivalence.

In the transformationalapproach we shall distinguish three levels of substitutions: morphologicalequivalences, lexicalequivalences, and syntacticequivalences and/or transformations.

In the process of translation:

at the morphological level morphemes (both word-building and word-changing) of the source language are substituted for those of the target;

at lexical level words and word combinations of the source language are substituted for those of the target;

at the syntactic level syntactic structures of the source language are substituted for those of the target.

For example, in the process of translation, the English word room is transformed into Ukrainian words or .

The syntactic transformations in translation comprise a broad range of structural changes in the target text, starting from the reversal of the word order in a sentence and finishing with division of the source sentence into two and more target ones.

The most common example of structural equivalences at the syntactic level is that of some Verb Tense patterns. Real translation transformations are complex and often at different levels of languages. This kind of transformation is especially frequent when translation involves an analytical and a synthetic language, e.g. English and Ukrainian.

Thus, according to thetransformational approachtranslation is a set of multi-level replacements of a text in one language by a text in another, governed by specific transformation rules.


2.2. denotative approach

The transformational approach is insufficient when the original text corresponds to one invisible concept which is rendered by the translator as a text in another language also corresponding to the relevant invisible concept.

For instance, the translation of almost any piece of poetry cannot be explained by simple substitution of source language words and word combinations for those of target language.

This type of translation is characteristic of any text, written or spoken, rather than only for poetry or high-style prose and the denotative approach is an attempt to explain such translation cases.

Though denotative approach to translation is based on the idea of denotatum (see above the relationship of signs, concepts and denotata), it has more relevance to that of a concept.

According todenotative approachthe process of translation is not just mere substitution but consists of the following mental operations:

translator reads (hears) a message in the source language;

translator finds a denotatum and concept that correspond to this message;

translator formulates a message in the target language relevant to the above denotatum and concept.

According tothis approach during translation we deal with similar word forms of the matching languages and concepts deduced from these forms, however, as opposed to the transformational approach, the relationship between the source and target word forms is occasional rather than regular.

To illustrate this difference let us consider the following two examples:

(1) The sea is warm tonight .

(2) Staff only .

In the first instance the equivalences are regular and the concept, pertaining to the whole sentence may be divided into those relating to its individual components (words and word combinations): sea , tonight is warm .

In the second instance, however, equivalence between the original sentence and its translation is occasional (i.e. worth only for this case) and the concept, pertaining to the whole sentence cannot be divided into individual components.


2.3. communicational approach

The communicational theory of translation was suggested by O.Kade and is based on the notions of communication and thesaurus. So, it is worthwhile to define the principal terms first.

Communication may be defined as an act of sending and receiving some information, which is called a message.

It should go without saying that this definition is oversimplified and not all communication terms used here are standard terms of communication and information theories. Our purpose, however, is to describe the act of communication in the simplest possible terms and to show translation as part of this act.

Information, which is sent and receives (communicated) may be of any kind (e.g. gestures, say, thumbs up), but we shall limit ourselves to verbal communication only, i.e. when we send and receive information in the form of a written or spoken text.

Naturally enough when communicating we inform others about something we know. That is in order to formulate a message, we use our system of interrelated data, which is called a thesaurus.

We shall distinguish between two kinds of thesauruses in verbal communication: language thesaurus and subject thesaurus.

Language thesaurus is a system of our knowledge about the language which we use to formulate a message, whereas subject thesaurus is a system of our knowledge about the content of the message.

Thus, in order to communicate, the message sender formulates the mental content of his or her message using subject thesaurus, encodes it using the verbal forms of language thesaurus, and conveys it to the message recipient, who decodes the message also using language thesaurus and interprets the message using subject thesaurus as well. This is a simple description of monolingual communication.

It is very important to understand that the thesauruses of message sender and recipient may be different to a greater or lesser degree, and that is why we sometimes do not understand each other even when we think we are speaking one and the same language.

So, in regular communication there are two actors, sender and recipient, and each of them uses two thesauruses.

In special bilingual communication (i.e. translation), we have three actors: sender, recipient, and intermediary (translator). The translator has two language thesauruses (source and target one) and perform two functions: decodes the source message and encodes the target one to be received by the recipient.

O.Kades communicational theory of translation describes the process of translation as an act of special bilingual communication in which the translator acts as a special communication intermediary, making it possible to understand a message sent in a different language.

One may note that the communicational approach pays special attention to the aspects of translation relating to the act of communication, whereas the translation process as such remains unspecified, and one may only presume that it proceeds, either by a transformational or denotative path.

However, it is difficult to overestimate the importance of the communicational aspect in the success of translation.

To understand this better let us consider an example of message formulation (encoding), message translation (encoding/decoding), and message receipt (decoding).

Let the original message expressed by a native speaker of English (encoded using the English language as a code to convey the mental content of the message) be:

Several new schools appeared in the area.

Let us assume then that the message sender, being a fisherman and using relevant subject thesaurus, by schools meant large number of fish swimming together rather than institutions for educating children, and the correct translation then had to be:

whereas the translator who presumably did not have relevant information in his subject thesaurus translated schools as institutions for educating children:


which naturally lead to misunderstanding (miscommunication).

The above example shows a case of miscommunication based on the insufficiency of extralinguistic information. However, there are also cases of miscommunication caused by the insufficiency of linguistic information. The example clearly illustrates a dividing line between linguistic and extralinguistic information in translation as visualized by the communicational approach to translation.

Thus, the communicational approach to translation, though saying little about translation as such, highlights a very important aspect of translation.

According to communicational approach translation is a message sent by a translator to a particular user and the adequacy of translation depends on similarity of their background information rather than only on linguistic correctness.



  1. Antonymic translation
  2. B) Partial Translation Equivalents
  4. Basic Concept of Security and Defense
  6. Basic Military Training
  9. Basic qualities of the perfect forms
  10. By Descriptive or Interpreting Translation
  11. Derivational analysis and basic units of derivational system.

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