University of Oxford

Shift In Translation Or Translation Shift

Translator Studies has undergone a shift from focus on SC constraints to the manipulation by TC patronage. Translators play an active role in different phases of the activity and their agency has not been given due attention. Norms determine the suitability of translation. Non-compliance is not only possible but also necessary at times, though the behavior involves a price to pay. Norms and the translator’s agency are two sides of every translation activity. The former lays down socio-cultural constraints on translating, and the latter is the source of creativity. Both adherence to and breach of norms require the translator’s agency. Both the theory and praxis of translation would stand to benefit from a dialectical, rather than a mechanical, view of their relationship.

 Traditionally, translation was defined from the perspective of linguistics. According to Eugene A. Nida, the renowned American theorist on translation, “Translating consists in reproducing the receptor language the closest natural equivalent of the source-language message, first in terms of language and secondly in terms of style”(1969/1982:12). Another English translation theorist by the name of Catford more clearly defined translation as “the replacement of textual material in one language(SL)by equivalent textual material in another language(TL)” (1965:20).

Thus, translation studies conducted from linguistic perspective result in the neglect of cultural factors involved in translation. Translation is in nature a cross-cultural communication rather than a mere handling of languages. As is known to all, language, as a cultural phenomenon and a major carrier of culture, can’t survive once separated from the cultural background in which it is deeply rooted. So, translating itself is a process in which cultural intercourse is conducted through the very cultural carrier of language. Every language was born of culture and draws nutrition from it. Therefore, translators should not just concentrate on how to convey the message in one language by the means of another language but endeavour to display the differences of the two cultures’ modes of thinking and the habits of expressing feelings.

 All through the history of translation study, the concept of naturalness has been changed by different definitions. It has been affected by some misunderstandings and false assumptions. There is no doubt that offering a natural translation cannot be assumed to be an easy issue inasmuch as it can turn out to be very troublesome in practice and needs very sensitive decision-making on the part of both translator and reader within translation process and evaluation.
Lack of consensus can be considered as the major problem. Each of translation studies’ scholars have offered their own definition that will have been rejected or taken under questions by another one. If the scholars consider a set of criteria for their particular definition, it can be possible to depict a shared platform for them. The principle for presenting a new discipline includes two facts, firstly to have a comprehensible definition and then introducing a set of basic rules for it. Naturalness is a reader-oriented approach and can be checked at both macro and micro structural level (Lambert and Vangorp, 1985). In order to judge about naturalness of translation, the norms of target language are considered as the scales of evaluation. These norms are specified by native speakers of that language. Native speaker is defined by The Oxford Advanced Learner’s Dictionary as follow: “A person who speaks a language as their first language and has not learned it as a foreign language”.
All languages have particular terminology, some of which are deeply rooted in the culture of the speakers of the specific language; consequently, they can pose unique difficulties in the comprehension of culture specific texts. To evaluate naturalness of a translation, reader should be aware of these items which are constituent of target culture norms.

Norms refer to the translation of general values or ideas shared by a group – as to what is conventionally right and wrong, adequate and inadequate – into performance instructions, appropriate for and applicable to particular situations, specifying what is prescribed and forbidden, as well as what is tolerated and permitted in a certain behavioral dimension (Toury 1998: 15). Translation, as a social and cultural activity, is norms-governed. Norms are not to be understood as hard and fast rules though. Norms operate not only in translation of all kinds, but also at every stage in the translating event (Toury 1995: 58). John Dryden’s metaphor of ‘dancing on ropes with fettered legs‘ refers to the constraints imposed by the source text and by the linguistic-cultural ethos of the potential or intended target text as well as to the linguistic and cultural norms on translation. On the other hand, as a highly creative task, translation sometimes requires the practitioners to move beyond norms. The relationship between translation norms and the translator’s agency is hence paradoxical and complex. This paper is an attempt at clarifying the relationship between the two. The article begins with a review of the translator-studies literature, and after a discussion of the possibility and necessity of loosening up norms, investigates the translator’s role in the different phases of translation. It perorates with the conclusion of a dialectical view of the relationship between translation norms and the translator’s agency. 

 The existence of competing norms in a society involves choices. Translators tend to follow the mainstream norms so as to be more easily patronized. In some cases, however, particularly at times of cultural transition, several conflicting norms might be equally influential. This enables translators to decide to go with one norm and accept one patronage rather than another. The translator’s position is crucial at this moment.

The translator’s response to the editor’s poetic requirements and the critic’s comments is also complex. Translators normally obey the obligatory requirements, but may accept or reject the technical suggestions according to their own professional judgment. Some translators may establish good relationships with the critics, while others may insist on their own principles in spite of the critics’ opposition.

The selection of alternative norms involves a price to pay. But it does not necessarily lead to severe punishment, nor does it mean the invalidity of norms. At times, a slight breach of norms is not only tolerated, but also encouraged.

Some literary translators might claim that their intention is precisely to break these norms. And translations of advertisements sometimes appear deliberately to flout the expectancy norms of the target culture

(Chesterman 1997: 60)

Norms are “the main factors ensuring the establishment and stability of a social order” (Toury 1995:55), but they may also, in effect, restrain innovation. In this sense, they must sometimes be challenged and changed. Otherwise, prejudice will last a long time. Hence failure to adhere to norms does not always mean anything negative. On the contrary, it may be the source of cultural creativity. Only when the previous norms are broken is it possible for new ones to become dominant, and for cultures to develop.

The Translator’s Agency in Different Phases of Translation

Translation is governed by norms, but as a creative activity, it also requires the maximum use of the translator’s agency.

The translator’s agency is manifested not only in the translator’s comprehension, interpretation and artistic re-presentation of the source texts, but also in the selection of source texts, the cultural motivations of translation, the adoption of strategies, and the manipulation in the prefaces of the expected functions of the translations in the target culture.

(Cha et al 2003: 22)

The translator’s role in text selection varies from time to time. In most cases, it is the publisher who selects source texts and translators. But translators have the right to accept or reject the rendition of certain works. Regardless of the actual power of translators, in the Chinese context, text selection has often been an important criterion of translation criticism. The product of translating is directly shaped by the translator’s comprehension of the source texts and the specific strategies he employs. Competence is crucial to the accuracy of translation, but the translator’s conscious or unconscious intervention is inevitable, particularly in the forms of ideological and/or poetical deletions, rewritings and additions. Manipulation exists not only in the translations, but also in the prefaces and postscripts, which are short, conspicuous, and therefore very effective in manipulating the readers to produce the desired cultural results.

Translators manipulate the source texts in the service of power. They are in turn manipulated by the patronage so that the target readers and society are manipulated. On some occasions, however, translators may manipulate their patrons.

Translation involves trust. The audience, which does not know the original, trusts that the translation is a fair representation of it.

(Lefevere 1990: 15)

Trust from readers and translation commissioners bring some power to translators, the exercise of which is closely connected with the translator’s loyalty and reliability. In case translators have access to information unavailable to their clients, or where translators are in short supply, they might make full use of this and manipulate both the source texts and the patrons in order to achieve certain purposes. This helps us to understand why translators who have exclusive or near-exclusive access to information otherwise unavailable to those in power tend to be closely supervised and vetted for political loyalty (Hermans 1999b: 130).

Among all factors affecting the occurrence of stylistic shifts, the role of the translator stands as the most recognizable factor. The majority of optional shifts taking place in translation can be attributed to the differences between the original writer and the translator as two text-producers. However, the impacts of these differences are usually suppressed by the literary norms of the TL and the norms of the translation activity itself. More important is the translator’s relation to the text given. This relation is neatly described by Popovič (1970:80) as follows:

It is not the translator’s only business to ‘identify’ himself with the original; that would merely result in transparent translation. The translator also has the right to differ organically, to be independent, as long as independence is pursued for the sake of the original, a technique applied in order to reproduce it as a living work… Thus shifts do not occur because the translator wishes to ‘change’ a work, but because he strives to reproduce it as faithfully as possible and to grasp it in its totality.

Popovič’s statement reminds us of many factors, which affect the translator’s adoption of a particular style in rendering a particular text into another language. One of these factors is the literary norms that may differ in the SL and TL, the case which leaves the translator with three choices: to imitate the original style, to rely on the TL stylistic norms, or to compromise the two by practicing his own stylistic prejudice. The last two options would naturally result in a great deal of stylistic shifts.

The other point is that some languages may have much more highly developed aesthetic and rhetorical patterns than other languages, which gives the translator more freedom to choose the way he likes in expressing the original message. Moreover, the range and refinement of some literary genres could be more developed in one language than in another. Both cases are typically applicable to the translation of elevated literature such as poems, epics, religious texts, etc.

The third factor relevant to the role of the translator in stylistic shifts relates to the ‘national features’ of the ST. In this regard Zora Jesenka (quoted by Popovič, 1970:81) has the following to say:

Both the translator and the reader are the children of their generation, which displays its own character in its manner of perception and expression. And the older the work we translate and the more distant the culture which produced it, the more crucial culture is the question of how to preserve the temporal and national features of the original and to make them accessible to the actual perception of the present reader.

Thus, it is the aim of making such literary works accessible to the TL reader that encourages the translator to use stylistic shifts. Following Popovič (ibid.), such shifts are expected as a rule “because the identity and difference in relation to the original cannot be solved without some residue.” Up to this point, the translator’s dilemma becomes evident: he would never strive to preserve all the singularities of the original but rather he would try to reflect his own identity while preserving the gist of the original message. Furthermore, he will try to make use of contemporary equivalents and comprehensible by his perceptive reader. Doing all these tasks, the translator will display much of his translation skill and literary taste. Skill and literary taste are two prerequisites to produce a ‘natural’ translation because the act of substituting the SL norms by TL ones is a highly subjective issue that demands creative intuition on the part of the translator. Again, this is so because direct transfer of specific stylistic features from the SL into the TL is hindered by both the organic character of the ST components and the divergence between the two stylistic norms of both languages, on the other. This transfer becomes possible “only by means of an equivalent function, namely by appropriate shifts.” (Popovič).

To sum up, our perception of the role of the translator is that he is a performer of a dual task. On the one hand, he has to adhere as much as he can to the content of the message, including its form (if it is part of this content); on the other hand, he tries to reflect his identity and tends to produce a ‘natural‘ text. This tendency, we believe, can best be achieved by means of a set of stylistic shifts.

Shifts of Cohesion and Coherence

Approached from reader’s point of view, Blum-Kulka (in Venuti 2000:304) equates coherence with the text’s interpretability. In considering shift in coherence through translation she points out the possibility that the text may change their potential meaning through translation. The above quotation answers the question ‘what’ is coherence and what is shift of coherence. Bell (1991:165) identifies that coherence consists of the configuration and sequencing of concepts and relations of the textual world which underlie and are realized by the surface text. Hu (1991:42) states that coherence covers cohesion and they are intertwined. Further she describes that coherence in the SLT is closely tied to cohesion, and translation equivalence can sometimes be attained by manipulating those markers that are overt. As search for coherence is a general principle in discourse interpretation, Blum Kulka (in Venuti 2000:298) states that coherence can be viewed as a covert potential meaning relationship among parts of a text, made overt by the reader through process of interpretation. For this process to be realized, the reader or listener must be able to relate the text to relevant or familiar worlds, either real or fictional. From the above description, in relation to this study we can say that coherence shift is an adjustment of SL unknown concept into known TL concept by making overt the covert discoursal potential meaning relationship among parts of the text through process of interpretation. On the other hand, as semantic translation, it can be stated that cohesion shift is meaning adjustments of meaning components in textual relationships of a known concept in a different linguistic system of two languages. 

Theoretical Framework

The Theoretical Framework of this study based on the theory proposed by Blum-Kulka (in Venuti 2000) about ‘Shifts of Cohesion and Coherence in Translation’, for the classification of cohesion shift of expression. This theory is supported by Larson (1998) for the analysis of meaning components of a concept of expression, for the translation equivalent.

Blum-Kulka quotes Haliday and Hasan (1976), cohesion ties do much more than provide continuity and thus create the semantic unity of the text. The choice involved in the types of cohesive markers used in a particular text can effect the texture as being “loose” or “dense” as well as the style and meaning of that text. On level of cohesion, he divides shifts in cohesion into two:

a. Shifts in levels of explicitness, namely the general levels of the target text’s textual explicitness is higher or lower, than that of the source text.

b. Shifts in text meaning(s); namely the explicit and implicit meaning potential of the source text changes through translations.

Cohesion in this study means cohesive relationship of meaning component in a semantic domain of a concept. Larson (1998:429) states that semantic domain does not refer to using the same form or referring to the same specific item over and over (this would be concordance), but rather to the fact that the things being referred to are from the same domain, i.e., center around the same topic or have certain semantic components in common. For example: from specific to generic meaning component or vice versa, from explicit to implicit meaning or vice versa. On coherence, for objects and events which are unknown in the receptor culture, this study quotes Larson (1998:181) that understanding correspondence of the form and its function is crucial to finding good lexical equivalents (we are not talking about linguistic form, but physical form). She divides the correspondence of the FORM and its FUNCTION into four possibilities: 

a. A THING or EVENT in one language ands culture may have the same FORM and the same FUNCTION in another language. For example, eyes with the function of seeing are the same in all cultures and languages.

b. The FORM may be the same but the FUNCTION may be different. For example, fried rice for western people may only be served for breakfast, but for eastern people may be served for lunch and dinner as well.

c. The same FORM does not occur, but another THING or EVENT with the same FUNCTION does occur. For example, heart in SL expression broken heart, does not have the same FORM in TL.

d. There may be no correspondence of FORM and FUNCTION at all. For example, sheep has the function of being a sacrifice for sin for a certain culture. However, for a SL culture animal sheep does not occur because of no comparable animal for a sacrifice for sin. There is no correspondence of either form or function. In that case, the translation will need to use a descriptive phrase for both the FORM and function.   


2.1 Cohesion Shift of Expression

In translating concept of meaning, it is often found that there is no exact equivalent between the SL and target language expression due to linguistic differences of two languages. There will be expressions which have some of the meaning components combined in them matching an expression which has the components with some additional ones. There will be overlap, but there is seldom a complete match between languages. Further, Blum-Kulka defined that on the level of cohesion, shifts in types of cohesive markers used in translation seem to affect translations in one or both of the following directions:

2.1.1 Shifts in Levels of Explicitness

In translating, the process of interpretation performed by the translator on the source text might lead to a TL text which is more redundant than the SL text. This redundancy can be expressed by the higher level of cohesive explicitness in the TL text.

(1)The General Level of the Target Text’s Textual Explicitness is Higher than that of the Source Text

Larson (1998:495) stated that in the most general terms, the rule is that implicit information should be made explicit, if the receptor language necessitates it in order to avoid wrong meaning or in order to present the material in natural forms and pleasing style.

(2)The General Level of the Target Text’s Textual Explicitness is Lower than that of the Source Text

The guidelines for the discussion are very similar to those given above but are the converse, since the level of target text’s textual explicitness is not always higher than that of source text. They also have to do with the requirements of the target language grammatically, semantically, and stylistically as, always, general principle in translation. 

Coherence Shift of Expression

From the above discussion, in cohesion shift, as a semantic translation, there is an adjustment of target texts’ textual explicitness that can be overtly seen at textual relationship namely objectively detectable of lexically dependable in the phrase (as a language pair-specific phenomenon) of TL translation. On the other hand, as a communicative translation, coherence shift is an adjustment of meaning concept of a covert discoursal potential meaning relationship among parts of the text made overt by the translator through process of interpretation. Larson, (1998:181) stated that when the concept of expression for objects and events to be translated is not known in target language, the translator will be looking for a way to express a concept which is part of the translator world knowledge related to the experience of target language reader by transferring them into SL objects /events. Such transferring may result shift of SL text meaning. Further, he states that things and events can be looked at from the perspective of the FORM (FORM here means physical form not linguistic form) of the THING or EVENT, or from the perspective of its FUNCTION. 


A translator is at the same time social and individual. Which means he is constrained by social and cultural norms of the time, and at the same time, has his own specific individuality and agency. The translator’s agency and the factors that constrain his agency exist side by side. On the one hand, the translator is bound to constraints by certain factors in his exercise of agency. Faced with many constraints, on the other hand, the translator still has room to exert his agency. Translation is a combination of universal constraints on translators as a group and the agency of translators as individuals. As Hermans (Hermans 1999b:74) put it, “translation decisions are neither fully predetermined nor totally idiosyncratic”. Over-emphasis on social constraints and ignoring the translator’s agency will result in the fall of the translator’s status and responsibility as well as the quality of translations. And negligence of cultural norms might lead to random translation.

Translation, as a norms-governed creative work, requires the translator to follow his own inclinations, but within an acceptable range of norms. For this, the maximum use of the translator’s agency is required. Norms ensure the suitability of the translation behavior, and the translator’s agency is the source of creativity. Both the adherence to and loosening up of norms require the translator’s agency. A dialectical rather than a mechanical view of their relationship is healthy for translation studies and practice.

In transferring the source language expression, the translator applies cohesion shift and coherence shift. In brief, it can be stated that cohesion shift is meaning adjustments, of meaning components in textual relationships of a shared or known concept in a different linguistic system of two languages. On the other hand, coherence shift is an adjustment of an unknown meaning concept of a covert discoursal potential meaning relationship among parts of the text made overt by the translator through process of interpretation to appropriate the meaning for the intended reader. The principles of classification of cohesion and coherence shifts of expression are as follows:

Cohesion shift of expression: (1) Shifts in Levels of Explicitness namely the general level of the target texts’ textual explicitness is higher or lower than that of the source text, (2) Shifts in Text Meaning(s) namely the explicit and implicit meaning potential of the known and unknown concept of SL text changes through translation due to different TL linguistic system.


Coherence shift of expression: Changes on most general level of SL unknown concept with the text’s interpretability. As a covert SL potential meaning relationships among parts of a text, it is made overt by the translator through process of interpretation namely: (1) From the FORM of the THINGS to the different FORM of the THINGS, (2) From the FORM of the THING to the FORM of the EVENTS, (3) From FORM of the EVENT to the different EVENT, and (4) Coherence shift by cultural gap.


Bell, Roger T. 1991. Translation and Translating. London: Longman Group UK Limited.Longman House, Burnt Mill, Harlow, Essex CM 20 2JE.

Blum-Kulka, Shoshana. 2000. Shifts of Cohesion and Coherence in Translation. In The Translation Studies Reader. 298-313. London: Routledge.

Catford, J.C. 2000. Translation Shifts: In The Translation Studies Reader. 141- 147. London: Routledge.

Halliday, M.A.K. and Ruqaiya Hasan. 1976. Cohesion in English. London: Longman Group Ltd.

Hornby, A S. 2003. Oxford Advanced Learner’s Dictionary of Current English. London: Oxford University Press.

House, Juliane. 1997. Interlingual and Intercultural Communication. Tubingen: University of Amsterdam.

Hu, Helen Chau. 1999. Cohesion and Coherence in Translation Theory and Pedadogy. Word 50 (1): 33-45. University of London.

Larson, Mildred L. 1998. Meaning-Based Translation. A Guide to Cross- Language Equivalence. Lanham. Maryland: Second Edition.UniversityPress of America, Inc.

Maclachlan, Gale and Ian Reid. 1994. Framing and Interpretation. Melbourne University Press.

Nida, Eugine. 2000. Principles of Corresspondence. In The Translation Studies Reader. 126-140. London: Routledge

Tan, Zaixi (1991) Brief History of Western Translation Beijing: The Commercial Press.

Toury,Gideon(1995)DescriptiveTranslation Studies and Beyond. Amsterdam/Philadelphia: John Benjamins Publishing Company.

Toury, Gideon (1998) A Handful of Paragraphs on Translation and Norms, Current Issues in Language & Society, Vol. 5, Nos. 1&2.

Wang, Kefei & Fan, Shouyi (1999) Translation in China: A Motivating Force Meta, XLIV, (1).


Follow us