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Review of  Challenging the Traditional Axioms

Reviewer: John Kearns
Book Title: Challenging the Traditional Axioms
Book Author: Nike K. Pokorn
Publisher: John Benjamins
Linguistic Field(s): Translation
Issue Number: 17.187

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Date: Tue, 17 Jan 2006 02:03:06 +0100
From: John Kearns
Subject: Challenging the Traditional Axioms: Translation into a non-
mother tongue

AUTHOR: Pokorn, Nike K.
TITLE: Challenging the Traditional Axioms
SUBTITLE: Translation into a non-mother tongue
SERIES: Benjamins Translation Library 62
PUBLISHER: John Benjamins
YEAR: 2005

John Kearns, Centre for Translation and Textual Studies, Dublin City
University, Ireland


The eponymous 'traditional axioms' which Pokorn aims to challenge in
her highly relevant and engaging study are those which relate to the
received wisdom maintaining that responsible, professional translators
should not translate into their second language (hereafter L2). To this
end, Pokorn sets out to answer a number of more specific
questions: ''Can the native language of the translator be considered
as a criterion for assessing the acceptability or even the quality of a
translation? Are translations out of one's mother tongue indeed
inferior in quality to those carried out by native speakers of the TL
[Target Language]? [...] Can we identify typical features of the
translation that are the result of the translator's or translators' mother
tongue?'' (ix).

Pokorn begins by surveying the fairly extensive research literature on
the twin notions of ''mother tongue'' (hereafter L1) and ''native
speaker'' to demonstrate that both are highly problematic and, as
such, not entirely helpful in academic discourse. This is ground fairly
well trodden in applied linguistics, though necessary nonetheless for
her discussion. More interesting from a translation point of view,
however, is the second chapter, in which she surveys the history of
attitudes to inverse translation in translation theory. This she divides
into four parts -- insistence on translation into the L1 on the grounds
of the translator being ''owner'' of her/his native language, insistence
on an idealised translator who is perfectly bilingual, the tacit
assumption that translators always work into their L1, and attitudes to
a translation team in translation practice. From her presentation one is
led to understand that the odds are stacked heavily against inverse
translation in Translation Studies discourse.

From here she moves on to discuss a series of English translations of
literature by the Slovene writer Ivan Cankar, an analysis which takes
up the greater part of her study. She selects a number of translations
of selected passages by a range of translators -- both native and non-
native speakers of Slovene, as well as translators working in pairs with
various permutations of native languages -- and discusses in
meticulous detail both source and target texts, along with the
biographical and linguistic backgrounds of the translators themselves.
She then sets out her own conclusions regarding the visibility of
nativeness and non-nativeness in these translations before presenting
the experiment which she conducted. This involved selecting
passages from several of these translations -- four translations of the
same passage, two translations of another passage, and one of a
separate passage -- and presenting them to 46 third-level educated
native-English speakers in Britain and North America to see if they
could identify which had been translated by native and non-native
Anglophones. Her conclusions demonstrate that native English
speakers are not always able to identify inverse translations as
such: ''...the assumption that every native speaker is able to rapidly
detect any non-member of his/her linguistic community, when
confronted only with a written document, has no solid foundation [...]
On the other hand [...] translations into a non-mother tongue are often
regarded as acceptable by the target readership, with the degree of
acceptability depending on the individual capacities of the translator''


Pokorn writes that translation into the L2 ''has always been frowned

on within Translation Studies in Western cultures with a dominant
language'' (ix). Of course we are all only too painfully familiar with the
kind of translationese which is the product of inadequate linguistic
abilities in the TL and, as such, we may be tempted initially to agree
instinctively with Pokorn without even examining what Translation
Studies discourse has said on this subject.

Yes, Pokorn is obviously right to criticise the dearth of research which
has hitherto been conducted in mainstream Translation Studies on
inverse translation, and is I believe (along with many others in
Translation Studies, I suspect) also right in maintaining that the
reputation of inverse translation is in urgent need of rehabilitation.
Nevertheless, there is another sense in which Pokorn is being quite
hard on Translation Studies as an academic discourse, when she
notes, for example, how Gorazd Kocijančic refers to ''the invisible
sclerosis of theory'' (Pokorn x). Much research from the past thirty
years has been highly unequivocal about the need to challenge
negative attitudes to inverse translation (and this, of course, must be
understood with the rider that a significant proportion of L2 translation
research will itself be subject to limited diffusion as it is likely to be
published in 'minor' languages). Looking at three recent volumes
devoted to inverse translation and interpreting -- Campbell 1998,
Grosman et al. 2000, and Kelly et al. 2003 -- one can see that huge
(albeit insufficient) progress has been made in Translation Studies
in ''challenging the traditional axioms'' in recent years -- more than
Pokorn acknowledges (for a survey of the trajectory of this research in
Translation Studies, see Kearns (in press)). In fact, Pokorn's
enterprise can also be seen to be part of a more general investigation
into whether translated language can be identified as such (cf.
Tirkkonen-Condit 2002), though this larger enterprise is not discussed
in her book.

So why does inverse translation continue to have such a bad
reputation? Rather than looking to Translation Studies for an answer, I
would contend that it is more appropriate to examine contemporary
professional discourse in translation. Recently a guide to buying
translations has been co-published by three major national bodies
representing professional translation and linguistic interests, a
publication which subsequently gained the endorsement of FIT, the
International Federation of Translators (Durban 2003). In it we find the
highly dogmatic statements that ''professional translators work into
their native language'' and that ''a translator who flouts this basic rule
is likely to be ignorant of other important quality issues as well''
(Durban, unpaginated). This is particularly disheartening for those of
us in communities of languages of limited diffusion ((LLDs) who know
there will never be enough native English speakers to cater for the
demand for translation into English from our communities' languages.
Yet when we train translators to work from their LLD mother tongue
into languages such as English, the implications of the 'traditional
axioms' are that they will be doomed at the outset to be denied
adequate professional recognition in major-language translation
communities. Without in any way wishing to belittle Pokorn's
achievement in this study, changing mindsets within the TS community
appears far easier -- following groundwork already laid by the likes of
Campbell, Grosman et al., Kelly et al., Pokorn herself, and others --
than does changing the mindset of the professional community. As
such, I feel that the orientation of Pokorn's challenge might have been
better refocused from academic to professional circles.

This criticism may impinge on the study more generally -- in some
ways the focus is overly theoretical in its reliance of applied linguistic
notions of nativeness, to the neglect of messier real-life
considerations. For example, one extremely important point that both
Pokorn and much of the research she quotes fail to address is the
relevance of L1 training in second- and third-level education to the
development of mother tongue competence (and, concomitantly, L2
training on the part of the inverse translator, though this is a point to
be developed elsewhere). If one were to pursue the implications of
some of the loftier claims of those who believe that translation should
only be into the L1, then it would stand to reason that absolutely every
native speaker has the same literary potential as the greatest literary
geniuses of their native literary culture. Yet practising English teachers
will be quite ready to admit that not every student pursuing A-level
English in England, for example, is a budding Shakespeare (or -- to
even further emphasise the absurdity of this stance -- a budding
Conrad, Nabokov, or any of the other non-native English users who
have enriched the English literary canon). The wide range of abilities
of such students in all cultures is itself testament to the fact that, put
simply, some of us are better with language than others, just as some
of us are better at maths, physics, geography, etc.

Yet even Pokorn herself makes statements which seem to challenge
this, such as when she claims that adults approach learning a foreign
language differently to children because of their ''...having a perfect
knowledge of at least one language, their mother tongue...'' (15).
Without even mentioning more anomalous examples such as
language attrition (though language attrition is far from an anomaly for
many L1 translators working in L2 environments) the mere fact of
variable student performance on second-level language and literature
courses puts paid to many of the myths of native-speaker authority,
such as that of a 'perfect' knowledge.

While I would not wish to claim a close parallel between the two
discussions, I can see discourse on this subject following a slightly
similar path to that surrounding native speaker authority in L2
teaching. For example, many of us still recall the time, following the
collapse of the Iron Curtain in the late 1980s and early '90s, when
native Anglophones flocking to Eastern Europe to teach English could
often claim a huge, and often largely unearned, authority within the
educational establishment there, simple by dint of their authority in
their native language. Sixteen years on, many involved in the TEFL
industries in these countries now realise that native competence in a
language is often no replacement for methodological competence as a
language teacher. Of course the native translator debate is different
to this in many ways, but one can see it oriented towards the same
horses-for-courses conclusion (which is also Pokorn's conclusion): the
best person for the job is the person who does the job best.
Attempting to guess who this may be at the outset on the sole basis of
mother tongue background is often as fallacious as it is

There are other shortcomings in Pokorn's study. While some
presentation of Cankar's biographical and literary background is
desirable, too much space is devoted to it, and, arguably, to the
author's own analysis of his translations in general. More significantly,
however, I had a problem with her decision that the texts to be
analysed were to be literary. Pokorn defends herself on this point with
the post-structuralist claim that traditional boundaries between fiction
and non-fiction are blurred in twentieth-century literature and with the
argument that '''literature' is a functional term and not an ontological
one [...] which echoes Toury's definition of translations as texts
presented or regarded as translations within the target culture'' (41).
Nevertheless, the selected passages were all linguistically highly
suggestive of their providence being fiction. Also in Pokorn's defence,
one could add that her decision to choose Cankar (in spite of it
probably having been born of necessity -- there are simply more
translations of his works than of any other Slovene writer apparently,
thus more easily facilitating comparison between multiple translations)
is significant in another respect as well. Cankar is a writer with a highly
distinctive literary style: he ''admitted that if having to choose between
grammatical correctness and stylistic clarity and beauty, he would
immediately opt for grammatical irregularity'' (52). Initially I was
concerned that this would skew results of the experiment, with
duplication of this grammatical irregularity in English being
misinterpreted as non-native translation strategy. My fears in this
respect ultimately proved unfounded -- far more relevant were the
strategies of foreignisation and domestication adopted by individual

Yet more worrying is the manner in which literature is a discourse
which naturally privileges the native speaker in the first place in its
common assumption of a native-speaker audience. (It could be
argued, for example, that Pokorn's decision to replicate this receptive
environment by using exclusively native-speaker subjects itself
indirectly valorises native-speaker authority, just as the subjects are
called on to valorise the translations in their assessments of their
authorship.) Literary translation represents such a small and rarefied
position within the translation industry that translators who work in this
area are often highly exceptional themselves
(linguistically, 'interculturally') in the first place. As such, whether one
wishes to ''challenge the traditional axioms'' of TS (as Pokorn does), or
of professional translation practice (as I want to), it would be more
interesting to investigate the functionality of inverse translations of run-
of-the-mill, non-literary texts. Better still, one could investigate, say,
non-native technical texts which display language which is *obviously*
that of an L2 translator, but which nonetheless function efficiently in
their target cultures.

The kind of research I have in mind here dates as far back as 1978,
when Karl-Johan Ahlsved published an excellent paper on why
Finnish translators were better at translating Finnish forestry texts
than non-Finns -- what one might lose on grammaticality, one would
often gain in clarity, with Finnish translators being less inclined to
introduce literary caprices or more idiomatic turns of phrase than
might native English-speaking translators. Non-literary translation into
English presumes a native-Anglophone readership to far less a
degree than does literary translation. In this respect an interesting
point has been noted by Gerard McAlester in his criticism of Christiana
Nord's skopos-theory account of translation evaluation: ''it seems to
equate adequacy with (near) perfection. [...] She does not indicate
that there may be some level of adequacy that is acceptable without
being complete'' (McAlester 233). Such considerations are not within
the remit of Pokorn's study however, which is a shame as their power
to legitimise inverse translation might well be greater than those of
native assessments of inverse literary translation.

Yet, this is not to detract from the significance of Pokorn's study -- as
only the second monograph in English devoted to this subject (to my
knowledge), it is extremely significant and points the direction for
much of the future research which needs to be conducted in this field.
To end on a positive note, I found it interesting that at no point is it
stated as to whether Pokorn herself is a 'native speaker' of English --
the brief biographical snippets which we can ascertain lead us to
suppose that her first language is probably Slovene. If so (and making
obvious allowances for the distinction between linguistic competence
in writing and translation) the book itself stands as an eloquent
testament to the abilities of non-native speakers working in their L2,
presenting a prose style which never fails to be clear and engaging.


Ahlsved, Karl-Johan. (1978) ''Translating into the Translator's Non-
Primary Language.'' Translating -- A Profession: Proceedings of the
Eighth World Congress of the International Federation of Translators,
ed. Paul A. Horguelin. Paris: FIT / Ottawa: Conseil des traducteurs et
interprètes du Canada. 183-188.

Campbell, Stuart. (1998) Translation into the Second Language. New
York: Addison Wesley Longman Ltd.

Durban, Chris. (2003) Translation, Getting it Right: A Guide to Buying
Translations. Milton Keynes / London / Paris: Institute of Translation
and Interpreting / The National Centre for Languages / Société
Française des Traducteurs. Available online at

Grosman, Meta, Mira Kadrić, Irena Kovačič, & Mary Snell-Hornby
(eds.) (2000) Translation into Non-Mother Tongues: In Professional
Practice and Training. Tübingen: Stauffenberg.

Kearns, John. (in press) ''Translate and Be Damned! Professional
Recognition for Translators Working into Their Non-Native
Languages.'' Warsztaty Translatorskie V / Workshop in Translation 5.
Lublin / Ottawa: Towarzystwo Naukowe Katolickiego Uniwersytetu
Lubelskiego, Lublin / Slavic Research Group, University of Ottawa.

Kelly, Dorothy, Anne Martin, Marie-Luise Nobs, Dolores Sanchez,
Catherine Way (eds). (2003) La direccionalidad en traducción e
interpretación. Perspectivas teoréticas, profesionales y didacticas.
Granada: Atrio.

McAlester, Gerard. (2000) ''The Evaluation of Translation into a
Foreign Language.'' Developing Translation Competence, ed.
Christina Schäffner and Beverly Adab. Amsterdam / Philadelphia: John
Benjamins. 229-241.

Tirkkonen-Condit, Sonja. (2002) ''Translationese -- A Myth or an
Empirical Fact? A Study into the Linguistic Identifiability of Translated
Language.'' Target, 14:2, 2002. 207-220.

John Kearns studied at the Universities of Kent and Manchester in
England and subsequently worked for several years as a translator
and translator trainer in Poland. He is currently researching curriculum
design for translator training in the context of the Bologna Process
and divides his time between Ireland and Poland. He is on the
committee of the Irish Translators' and Interpreters' Association (ITIA),
and editor of a forthcoming ITIA publication on translator and
interpreter training. He also edits the quarterly Bulletin for the
International Association of Translation and Intercultural Studies
( Currently he is also developing a bibliography of
Polish translation studies, in association with St. Jerome Press in
Manchester and UJ and APK in Kraków, Poland.