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A pedagogical perspective

Effective translators must be like the texts they handle — at once bilingual and bicultural. The meaning of a text is to be found within its cultural, historical and literary contexts.

Literary translation is a highly meta-linguistic [1] transaction requiring not only perspicacity but also mental flexibility, the more so because far from being a mindless replacement of lexical items in the source text by equivalent linguistic elements in the target text (Catford, 1966), translation practice has metamorphosed into cultural exegesis [2]. What accounts for the complexity of literary translation as opposed to the non-literary is the peculiarity of the stylistic aesthetics and socio-cultural matrices in which works of literature are hatched. One of the vocal voices in this school of thought is House (2002) who contends that “in recent years there has been a shift in translation studies from linguistically-oriented approaches to culturally-oriented ones” (92). Arguing along similar lines, Steiner (1998) maintains that translation is an “act of elicitation and appropriative transfer of meaning” (312). He likens translation to an operative convention which derives from a sequence of phenomenological assumptions about the coherence of the world, about the presence of meaning in formally antithetical semantic systems.

It is tempting to deduce from the foregoing that there is tacit agreement of sorts among translation theorists who view translation as an act of cultural hermeneutics [3]. In this essay, rather than dwell on the underpinnings of translational theorization, we would rather shed light on the ramifications of viewing translation practice as an act of interpretation (exegesis). Our adumbrations in this discourse do not apply to technical and specialized texts. The reason is that the formalistic and aesthetic qualities of non-literary texts call for an entirely different set of skills that will not be broached in this paper. Suffice it to say that the faithful translation of a non-literary text depends on the translator’s deliberate conformity with professional canons; with the rules of the trade as it were. Literary translation is governed by rules that underscore best practices; these canons constitute the crux of the discussion that follows.


In a bid to produce a text that meets the demands of dynamic equivalence from a cultural viewpoint [4], competent translators function as cultural brokers. Dynamic equivalence determines the inter-textual, intercultural and inter-lingual transfers that occur between source and target texts. In a bid to transfer meaning holistically from source to target texts, seasoned translators endeavor to unravel the latent significations embedded in the source text signifiers. House (1997) observes that the source text ought to be analyzed at the levels of language, register and genre. The reason she provides for such analysis is that in conveying information from one language to another, translators seek functionally equivalent linguistic and non-linguistic equivalents in the receptor language.

Dynamic equivalence is a key notion is translation theory and practice. The genesis of this discourse dates back to Eugene Nida, who in 1964 argued that translators should translate so that the effect of the translation on the target language reader is roughly the same as the effect of the source text on the source language reader. It is worth mentioning, however, that this is not meant to suggest that the translator should always find one-to-one categorically or structurally equivalent units in the two languages. Sometimes two different linguistic units in different languages perform the same function. As a cultural communicator, the onus rests with the translator to bridge the gap between source and target text significations at both linguistic and cultural levels. As Siegel (2013) observes in one of her write-ups, “A source text could be thought of as a blueprint. If one strays from the instructions given, they end up with an entirely different product than the one originally intended.” [5] Fidelity to the source text means that the intention with which the source text was created has to be faithfully reproduced in the target text. Viewed in this light, the practice of translation appears to be a deliberate act of cultural interpretation.


The thesis according to which literary translation is a sort of interpretation has gained leverage among translation practitioners. It is customary for literary translators to seek out the author’s thoughts and communicative intent (Buhler, 2002). To put this differently, effective translation derives from the translator’s ability to decipher the significations of the words in the source text. The term ‘interpretation’ is used in this paper to mean ‘exegesis,’ the act of deciphering the meanings embedded in the linguistic and non-linguistic aspects of the source text. Exegesis presupposes a deliberate attempt by the translator to unveil the communicative motivations of the author of the text s/he is rendering. Competent translators are mindful of the fact that written texts embody among other things, cultural peculiarities, worldview and imagination of members of the linguistic community for whom the texts were written. The task of the translator does not end with uncovering the hidden meanings in the source text; an even more important demand on the translator is the task of transposing the unraveled meanings over into the target language.


Jones (1997) sheds light on the signification of the term ‘transposition’ when she notes that transposition is a non-literal translation device. Transposition involves a change in grammatical categories, namely nouns, verbs, adjectives, adverbs, prepositions and more. For example, the source text in French which reads “quelques jours après sa mort, la presse fit des révélations sur la vie privée du président” could be rendered as “A few days after he died, the press leaked out information on the president’s private life.” Notice that the noun phrase “sa mort” has been translated as a verbal statement, “he died.” We must not lose sight of the fact that subtle differences exist between English and French. One such difference is that English is a synthetic language whereas French is analytical. To do a good job, the translator is expected to be conversant with structural discrepancies between source and receptor languages. Such knowledge enables the translator to resort to modulation as a translation technique.


Modulation as a translation strategy involves a change not in grammatical category as with transposition, but rather in the thought pattern of the source text writer. The ability to skillfully effect a message modulation distinguishes competent from incompetent translators. Highly effective translators are those who have mastered the ropes and know when to resort to modulation in a bid to not only maintain the figurative connotation of the source text message in the target text but also to demonstrate sensibilities of the to target language community.


Texts are not written in a vacuum; they are offshoots of cultural milieus. To a large extent, deeply held beliefs in a target language community determine the extent to which a translated text will be accepted or rejected. This has wide-ranging ramifications for the marketability of translated works. As Lefevere (1992) puts it, “translators are interested in getting their work published. This will be accomplished much more easily if it is not in conflict with standards for acceptable behavior in the target language culture: with that culture’s ideology” (87). Seasoned translators know that if the source text is at variance with the ideology of the target culture, the translator has the latitude to tinker with the text so that the seemingly offensive passages are modified to conform to the ideology and poetics of the recipient community. This presupposes that the translator disposes of a sizeable socio-cultural baggage. Without such knowledge, the translator would be hard pressed to find relevant analogies in the target language culture and literature. The foregoing discourse places a huge premium on the primacy of cultural literacy as an effective operational tool in literary translation.

The question that begs to be asked at this juncture is why is it important to know all that has been said above? How valuable is this knowledge to budding translators, translation instructors and students of translation? We will provide answers to these questions below. The intent of this paper has not been simply to provide a plethora of modes of achieving faithful translations. The primordial intention has been to provide instructors and students of translation with some food for thought. The second and, certainly more important rationale has been to provide instructors of translation courses with a working model for conducting translation studies. We maintain that knowledge of the source and target languages alone will not suffice to be a good translation instructor. Given the polytonality and hybrid nature of the texts that are often assigned for translation, appropriate instructional models must be conceived for teaching literary translation. Culture-based literary texts, undoubtedly call for culturally-oriented pedagogical models. I will discuss one such model - the Bloom-Hermeneutic (Exegetic) model - below.


The Hermeneutic Model propounded by Schleiermacher and Bowie (1998) could be used in conjunction with Bloom’s Taxonomy (1956) to create an effective model for teaching translation. This dual model of textual analysis would be germane for teaching literary translation. The theory of hermeneutics underscores the importance of interpreting, not only the hidden significations embedded in the source text but also the situational dimensions that constitute the substructure on which the text is anchored. The model facilitates the teaching of translation by enabling instructors to come to grips with the rudiments of text analysis. The model is anchored on the perception that a holistic understanding of a text is feasible when the relationship between individual parts and the whole has fully been grasped.

Bloom’s Model of textual analysis requires instructors to create higher-order learning tasks that require translation students to interact with source texts at six different levels: 1. Evaluation (making value judgments about issues discussed in the text, resolving semantic controversies, assessing the function of vocabulary in context and other textual issues);2. Synthesis (creating a unique original product that may be in verbal form or a combination of concepts to form a new whole, using old concepts to create new ones); 3. Analysis (organizing ideas and recognizing trends, finding the underlying structure of communication, identifying motives); 4. Application (using and applying knowledge, problem-solving, use of facts and principles implied in the source text); 5. Comprehension (interpreting, translating from one medium to the other, demonstrating, summarizing, and discussing the signifier-signified relationship); 6. Knowledge (recall of information, discovery and observation).


In a nutshell, instructors tasked with teaching the translation of culture-based texts cannot but be like the texts they teach—at once bilingual and bicultural. The Bloom-Hermeneutic Model is distinctive by its circular nature. It is built on the concept that neither the whole text nor any individual parts can be understood without reference to one another, hence, its circularity. The circularity inherent in the Bloom-Hermeneutic Model implies that the meaning of a text is to be found within its cultural, historical and literary contexts. The interface between socio-linguistics and literature implied in this model makes it particularly suitable for teaching the translation of hybrid literatures. There is no gainsaying the fact that this two-pronged pedagogical paradigm is exegetic and thus suitable for teaching the translation of multi-layered texts that call for multi-faceted analysis.

* Dr. Peter Wuteh Vakunta is professor of Modern Literatures at the United States Defense Language Institute, California.


[1] Meta-linguistics is the branch of linguistics that deals with language and its relationship to other cultural behaviors. It is the study of dialogue relationships between units of speech communication as manifestations and enactments of co-existence.(cf.
[2] Exegesis is a term used in translation circles to describe the unraveling of the significations embedded in the linguistic and non-linguistic components of source-text. Ljuldskanov (1969) posits that exegesis refers to the translator’s willful attempt to decipher the context, style and intent of the source text. Buhler (2002) opines that viewing translation as interpretation conditions the translator to “examine the social factors present in the surroundings of the author” (62). For more on exegesis, see George Steiner’s “The Hermeneutic Motion” in After Babel: Aspects of language and Translation (1998). Also see Vakunta’s The Role of Extralinguistic Factors at the Exegetic Stage of the Translation Process (1991).
[3] Hermeneutics is the theory of textual interpretation, especially the interpretation of Biblical literary and philosophical texts. Modern hermeneutics includes both verbal and nonverbal communication as well as semiotics.
[4] According to Nida (1974), dynamic equivalence is to be defined in terms of the degree to which the receptors of the message in the receptor language respond to it in substantially the same manner as the receptors in the source language.
[5] Online communication in a translation course taught at the University of Indianapolis by Peter Vakunta, 2013.


Buhler, Axel. “Translation and Interpretation,” in Translation Studies: Perspectives in an
Emerging Discipline. Ed. Riccardi, Alessandra. Cambridge: Cambridge University
Press, 2002.

Cadford, J.C. A Linguistic Theory of Translation. London: Oxford University Press, 1966.