Why might it be useful to apply register and genre theory when analysing a source text that you want to translate?
Is it helpful to use the categories of genre, field and tenor to identify key features of a text to aid the translation process?
This report presents a tentative analysis of register variables in a selected source and target text pair, and how such an analysis might relate to the translation process. With reference to relevant theory, this analysis will consider how modern functionalist approaches can offer new approaches to translation. The texts analysed here are taken from the official website of the Jordan Tourist Board. The source text (ST) is an Arabic tourist information webpage and the target text (TT) is its English counterpart. The texts are found at the bottom of the page.
Before applying the framework of register to a given text, its genre membership should be established as this will condition the production and reception of the text, and how translation might be undertaken (Reiss 1971: 53). Genres are text types that establish expectations because they employ features perceived as suitable for their social occasion and therefore conform to established conventions conducive to achieving their intended aim (Hatim and Mason, 1990: 47,140). The text user’s pre-existing awareness of conventions allows for effective communication. Notions of genre membership and conventions do however, vary across languages and cultures.
Nevertheless it is the case that if two texts are used in similar situational contexts through which they are intended to achieve comparable functions, they share the same genre (Teich 2003:4).
The genre memberships of both the ST and TT can be classified as online tourist brochures with a dominant (though by no means exclusive) appellative function (‘operative’ in Reissian terms (Reiss 1971: 32). The framework of register can be explored through the variables of field, mode and tenor. Field is described by Hatim and Mason as pertaining to the social function of the text, or describing ‘what’s ‘going on’’ (2003: 55). Mode relates to the manifestation of the textual code being used, and is distinguished along degrees of writing and speech. The texts discussed here are of course written to be read, although some prosaic features and at least one phatic feature in the TT resembles informal speech that produces formality. Tenor relates to the relationship between the addresser and the addressee of the text and thus supposes a social dimension.
The register variables of the ST and TT at hand are summarized in the table below.
Formal, appellative (major sub-function- informative/ referential)
Written to be read, with extensive use of imagery and some prosaic features reminiscent of speech
Formal with some informal and phatic elements, appellative (major sub-function- informative/ referential)
Written to be read, with extensive use of imagery and some prosaic features reminiscent of speech, phatic feature.
The aim of tourist brochures is of course to persuade visitors to travel to the destination in question. There are also informative/referential purposes at work. It is important to note that multifunctionality is the rule more often than the exception although a hierarchy often obtains. However, the ST and TT can be said to be largely ‘equifunctional’ although as we shall see, the TT makes greater use of the informative function in that it must explain cultural-specific items.
The conventions of tourist information/ brochures are immediately apparent to both TT and ST readers from the headings such as ‘general information’ and ‘where to go’, and lexical items such as ‘accommodation’ that belong to the semantic field of ‘tourism’. That the translator uses the ‘wh- phrases’ as discourse markers indicates that she recognizes their membership to the genre of touristic writing in English. The original Arabic simply reads (when glossed) ‘places deserving a visit’ for ‘Where to go’.
Concerning tenor, there are noticeable differences in the formality of the ST and TT. It is a standard convention of written Arabic to be highly formal, and this may make the text appear ‘stiff’ to non-Arabic speakers.
The English TT however, uses puns such as ‘Jordan Rocks’ as a heading to describe a music festival whilst also alluding to local geological formations. The Arabic in fact uses no heading at all.
The phrase ‘outrageously cool’ is used in the English text to describe a music festival although no equivalent is found in the original Arabic. It may appear that the translator is being overly ‘free’ in her approach by making such additions. However, functional models of register suggest that lexical-syntactic choices are ultimately decided by pragmatic considerations relating foremost to the purpose of an utterance (cf. Hatim and Mason, 1990: 76). The illocutionary force in ‘outrageously cool’ communicates to the TT reader that this festival is associated with the youth, while this is already clear to the Arabic ST reader by the source culture assumption that موسيقى البوب (‘pop music’) is invariably associated with the youth.
The English TT has an additional ‘useful tips’ section that advises travellers not to wear ‘skimpy shorts and tops’ while visiting the Bedouin. This information is of course known to the Arab reader and would be redundant had it appeared in the source text. The addition of the information relating to modest clothing meets the TT users’ needs, and accounts for the compounded informative function necessitated by cultural and social considerations.
Linguistic approaches to translation have traditionally considered that omissions and additions should be avoided. Yet once we understand the semiotic function of register and the ‘dynamic role’ translators assume as cultural mediators, we understand that a text can be adjusted more accurately to create a text for a ‘primary class’ of readers and not merely secondary readers (Sager in Trosborg (ed) 1997: 33). The translator here achieves that by creating an ‘instrumental’ translation (Nord 1997: 47) (see also House’s ‘covert’ translation, House 1997: 69). This postulates that the TT constitutes a new communicative interaction though it does remain equifunctional.
At the linguistic level, interference occurs in the TT whereby an attempt to precisely replicate the source language has produced what House might call an overtly erroneous error (House 1997: 45) (an error pertaining to language and not register itself). The Arabic refers to rock faces that pose a تحديا طبيعيا (lit. ‘natural challenge’- a challenge to do with nature) and the translator has opted for ‘a natural challenge’. This is an odd collocation in English where ‘natural’ here could suggest a challenge that comes naturally i.e. that is easy. Instead the translator could use an ‘oblique’ procedure (cf. Vinay, JP. and Darbelnet J. 1958/1995) by nominalizing ‘nature’ and offering;
‘Nature offers hikers a challenge in the form of 1,750m rock faces...’
The strategy adopted by the translator demonstrates her awareness of register variables and especially those of tenor manifested most noticeably in formality, and she is able to adapt her language accordingly. She is also acutely aware of cultural expectations. It seems though that linguistic difficulties are left largely to the translator’s competence. It is also problematic to suggest that a translation strategy inexorably arises out of register classifications, though we can be sure that linguistic features of the original text production process are informed by register norms and conventions of the source culture. It is instead models relating to aim and intention that are said to influence register variables in translation according to functionalist theorists.
The Skopos theory proposed by Vermeer posits specific communicative needs on behalf of the addressee (Nord in Trosborg (ed) (1997: 46). Where this departs dramatically from traditional linguistic approaches is seen in that fidelity is subordinated to Skopos so that if changes in function are necessary, the standard for translation becomes not intertextual coherence and fidelity but appropriateness in regard to aim. (Reiss and Vermeer, 1984: 139). Hatim and Mason’s expanding of register variables to account for semiotics and pragmatics helps bring function and intentionality to the fore, but these can often become convoluted praises of the importance of cultural equivalence, itself an unresolved issue. Furthermore, text typologies produced by Reiss and others can help determine what the main function of a text should be (informative, expressive, operative etc.) but offer only vague ideas of how to approach translation. To say that a text with a dominant informative function should focus on being logical, or that one with an expressive function should concentrate attention on aesthetic concerns, hardly aids the translator in decision making. Indeed, as Fawcett argues (Fawcett 1997: 106), models like Reiss’ help only to identify text types and do not logically lead to any translation approach. Nord’s understanding that the intended communicative function of the target text is to be considered more important that the dominant function of the source text (as Reiss argued) (Nord 1997: 39), helps divert attention from arbitrary ST-orientated translation approaches that result in the kind of linguistic mismatch seen in the ‘natural challenge’ example cited earlier.
Mistakes at the functional-linguistic levels can be more easily avoided by a top-down approach (Nord 1997: 67) that works from pragmatics (1) to conventions (2) and then text-surface structure (3) rather than the opposite direction used in the traditional bottom-up model. The latter easily causes linguistic and stylistic interference because it focuses on the word or phrase rank during the translation process. Of course, concentrating on small textual units before combining them together ignores genre considerations of intertextuality and the text unit as a coherent whole. In the end, this leads to translators losing sight of the whole text’s communicative function(s).
Overall then, the basic distinctions offered by register variables are not demonstrably helpful in the translation process except in classifying texts into categories which themselves would be better represented on a cline due to their multifunctional nature. Furthermore, these sorts of distinctions are largely intuitive to experienced translators. It is only when functional (and semiotic-pragmatic) approaches are considered that the textual aim becomes wholly manifest, and as we have seen, even this does not lead to clear translation strategies. The functionalist approaches however, have recognized that the aim of the TT can be adapted by the translator in consideration of target text users’ needs, leading to an improved translation when a top-down methodology is employed.
Soure and texts:
Source Text (AR) (http://ar.visitjordan.com/Attraktionen/WadiRum/tabid/66/Default.aspx accessed 09/01/12)
Target texts (EN) (http://uk.visitjordan.com/visitjordan_cms/MajorAttractions/WadiRum/tabid/66/Default.aspx accessed 09/01/12)
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