Relationship between translation and text linguistics:Implications for the teaching of English as a foreign language [Archives:2004/711/Education]

February 12 2004

By Prof. Abdulrahman A. Abdrabou
Department of English
Faculty of Arts, Sana'a University

Translation – as an act of mediating between two languages or perhaps between two cultures – is probably as old as language. For decades and until the early forties, the grammar – translation method was uncontested in the foreign language classroom. However, with the consistent reassessments of language teaching methods, translation courses have been the subject of bitter criticism and in most cases have been unduly abandoned. In view of this situation, I would like to propose a different approach to the teaching of translation based on the concepts and principles pertaining to the study of text – Linguistics. The basic argument underlying the discussion is that university translation courses – if adequately prepared and properly executed – can provide foreign language learners with an invaluable opportunity not merely to become competent translators but most importantly to perfect their understanding of and mastery over the two linguistic systems under consideration by investigating interlingual relationship between the two languages with view of the text as a source of empirical data. The following discussion and analysis are based on a contrastive study of material from English and Arabic texts. In each instance, texts will be viewed not as a chain of isolated sentences, but as a complex connected discourse with emphasis on the rules of textual cohesion across languages. The remaining part of the paper will explore the possible contribution, which Text-Linguistics can, to the teaching of translation in particular and to foreign language teaching in general.

Foreign language teaching: the question of translation
Despite the pervasive need for proficient and competent translators in many developing nations, nothing has been seriously done particularly by universities and institutes of higher learning to address this problem. The university of Sana'a, Yemen Arab Republic (Y.A.R.) stands as living testimony of this ineptitude. Translation courses account for less than one percent of the total course requirements for English-majors. This is despite the Department of English's proclaimed policy that English within the context of the Y.A.R. is primarily needed for library and research purposes. The purpose being to prepare competent bilinguals who are expected to access policy – makers and the public reader to literatures in English – particularly in science and technology – via translation and /or interpretation. The failure of the Department of English to realize its perennial objective can be attributed to several factors. Firstly, the Department of English depends heavily on non-native speakers of Arabic who for obvious reasons have shown little interest in translation – teaching. Even those with some bilingual abilities are particularly dubious of the value of the translation class. And since the majority of the Department faculty members are on short-term contracts, they unfortunately lack the necessary time and enthusiasm to design and teach an effective translation course. Still worse, there are quite a few language instructors who strongly denounce translation as a poor method for teaching foreign languages.
It is against this background, which underscores the restrictive diction that the study of translation does not belong to the study of language and linguistics, that my paper is directed. In fact, it is my intention in the first place to show why the study of translation can provide an optimal setting for advanced language and learning.

Relevance of text linguistics to Translation studies
Though translation is as old as the contact of a language with alien speakers, the emergence of text – linguistics in the 1970s marked the beginning of a new interest in translation as a subject worthy of serious academic studies. Hornby (1985:22) argues vehemently that both text – linguistics and translation are “basically concerned with the text, not as a chain of separate sentences but as a complex, structured whole, whereby coherence, cohesion, focus and progression are of primary importance”.
Text – linguistics focuses primarily on text-theory and discourse analysis. Its advocates argue that sentence grammars are incapable of describing all the relevant aspects and mechanisms of language. Beaugrande and Dressler (1981:3) define a text as a “communicative occurrence which meets seven standards of textuality”. These are cohesion, coherence, intentionality, acceptability, informativity, situationality, and inter-textuality (see Beaugrande and Dressler, 1983). In most cases, supporters of text-linguistics maintain that these seven standards are indispensable to efficient and effective textual communication. They further claim that appropriateness of a text is the agreement between its setting and the ways in which the standards of textuality are upheld.
From this brief overview of the premises of text-linguistics, one is apt to see the relevance of this new trend to translation theory and practice. Like text-linguistics, translation addresses all fundamental issues the science of language has to contend with, from the nature of linguistic meaning to the process of communication across languages. And since the measure of adequacy in translation is the degree of equivalence between the meaning of the original message and the meaning of the translated one, translators are thus required and duly expected to pay close attention to all contextual and situational factors underlying the original and the translated texts. Pergnier (1978:203) argues that the translator “is not a mediator between languages as such; he is also and perhaps in the first place, a mediator between two individuals or communities”. Within this context, translation belongs to the realm of sociolinguistics since the aim of the latter is the study of language as a medium of communication between individuals and communities. Whereas text – linguistics wrestles with a host of issues (i.e. intersentential cross references, paragraph structure, rhetorical strategies of economy and elaboration etc.) to show how different textual strategies can produce different effects, translators are required to work along the same demarcation lines to be able to produce something that is identical in “meaning” and in “effect” – not only in “code” – to the message emitted by the original text- producer. In this sense, translation offers a wide range of possibilities for language teachers and compilers of teaching materials. It can prove particularly effective for analyzing comprehension problems which inevitably lead to problems in discourse processing and eventually to translation problems. These range from problems of lexical cohesion to sentence perspective and paragraph structuring strategies which would require in most cases knowledge of rhetorical devices and a good command of specific inference abilities to fill potential gaps in understanding the source language text.
In what follows, I would like to demonstrate the relevance and applicability of university translation courses to language teaching and linguistics. The following discussion is intended to demonstrate how a carefully planned translation assignment could consolidate foreign language teaching.

Translation problems: implications for foreign language teaching
Since the rules of textual cohesion and progression of thoughts vary from one language to another, the translator must transcend language in order to comprehend and eventually communicate the original message in its magnitude. As such, translation is not merely transposing from one language to another. It is in the words of Claude Namy (1978:25) essentially an attempt to build-up “a semantic bridge between two different cultures, two different thought worlds”. In the analysis suggested here, two different bodies of original texts, in Arabic and English, are presented. The source language (SL) is presumed to be Arabic and the target language (TL) English. Arabic and English are completely different languages and share few similarities in structure, form and logical relationships. Unlike other Germanic languages, it is extremely difficult to set up simple equal rank equivalence in translation from Arabic into English. It is, therefore, the teacher's task to point out systematically such differences and to explain the level (s) at which such differences are likely to affect the translation process (i.e., lexical, structural, syntactic, stylistic, rhetorical etc.). Consider ,for example ,the following extract:

The Israeli Supreme Court overturned an appeal submitted by three Palestinians from the West Bank and Gaza who were ordered out of the country by the Israeli authorities several months ago.

The Arabic version of the text citedabove was presented informally to a group of Arab students who – at the time – were enrolled in full-time course work at the University of South Carolina. The subjects (numbered 15) were asked to attempt to translate the passage into English and were permitted to use bilingual dictionaries. No time was set, but on an average all responses were submitted within 25 minutes. Here are samples of their responses.
(a) The Israel authorities convicted and deported three Palestinians from the West Bank and Gaza Strip. Yesterday, the Supreme Court in Israel refused the Palestinians' petition.
In the above example, lexical items are basically correct, but there is apparently a lack of textual coherence between the first and the second sentences. There is little to suggest that the situation or event in sentence one creates the necessary conditions for sentence two. Put differently, the Israeli refusal to accept the Palestinian's petition does not follow, as a rational response to the conviction and deportation as is the case in the original text. In addition, two items here are translated word-for-word (i.e. refused and petition) to which students' attention should be directed with specific emphasis on collocational problems associated with verbs, nouns and adjectives in a specific register (i.e. court-room proceedings). In this instance, words such as “refused” and “petition” can then be replaced by “overturned” and “an appeal” respectively. Other contextually fit lexical elements could also be explored. Students should be guarded against the fixation on equivalence, which as Hornby (1985:23) warns, could automatically induce students into isolating “lexemes and hunt for a corresponding dictionary entry for each individual item, without considering how the chosen English word relates to the translated text in the target language”.
The university level translation course can offer the language teacher a valuable opportunity to explore the text stylistically. A careful analysis of the varying merits of alternative translations provided by the students can form the fundamental nucleus of a successful translation course. To achieve this goal, Christopher Titford (1983:55) recommends that teachers get the students actively involved in the translation process through feed back and continued 'Back-translation'. The pedagogical value of this approach is to put the students “in a position to make the comparison needed to locate the 'errors' within their own language. Furthermore, the back-translation approach would increase students' sensitivity to stylistic diversity and would thus guard them against the pitfalls of either 'undertranslation' or 'overtranslation'. Whereas overtranslation occurs when a student's version is too 'fussy' or excessively elaborative of the original text; undertranslation takes place when a student's version represents an overly simplified version of the original text (op. Cit). Consider the following example:

(b) The Supreme Court in Israel denied an appeal by three Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza strip. Those Palestinians a few days ago were indicted by the Israeli court and were ordered to be taken permanently out of the country.

It is quite obvious that there are lexical and stylistic differences between (a) and (b). Such qualitative differences should be brought directly to the students' attention. Example (b) is too long compared to the original and the student should be able to deduce – through classroom interaction and teacher's back translation – that this length can be attributed to excessive repetition resulting from the student's failure to recognize proper 'anaphoric' devices to relate act one 'the denial of the Palestinians' appeal' to act two 'their deportation orders'. At this juncture, the teacher could solicit responses from the students on how to improve their communicative efficiency with a minimum expenditure of effort. This adds a problem-solving element to the translation course by sharpening students' perceptions of language contrasts as a means toward increasing their effort to achieve communicative appropriateness in language 2.
Translation exercises also offer a unique opportunity to explore issues pertaining to contrastive semantics, which could provide the theoretical framework for sensible and methodical vocabulary work. The underlined words and structures in examples (a) and (b) could be contrasted to determine their applicability to the textual function they fulfill (describing court proceedings) in a given register (ESP).
More examples could be cited to augment my contention that a well-designed university translation course provides a rare opportunity for a genuine integration of language teaching and linguistics. A prerequisite, however, is a commitment on the part of the instructor to create an optimal classroom atmosphere to discuss 'errors' and 'inaccuracies' and to explain them rationally in linguistic terms. A carefully chosen text is also instrumental to the ultimate success of translation as a legitimate tool for language teaching.