Review: Translation; Pragmatics: Morini (2012)

AUTHOR: Massimiliano  Morini
TITLE: The Pragmatic Translator
SUBTITLE: An Integral Theory of Translation
SERIES TITLE: Bloomsbury Advances in Translation
PUBLISHER: Bloomsbury Publishing (formerly The Continuum International Publishing Group)
YEAR: 2012

REVIEWER: Elena Gheorghita, State University of Moldova

‘The Pragmatic Translator’ was conceived for a quite unfashionable purpose in
the age of case studies: it aims to provide a general, deductive theory of
translation, based on the observation of a large number of processes and
products of translation (in Italian and English). It will be of particular
interest to academics and postgraduates researching in translation studies and
related fields, as well as to advanced students studying  translation and
interpreting modules.

Chapter I re-reads the key theories from which the author’s study stems. It
briefly discusses the birth of translation studies as a discipline and
presents the theory of the three functions of translation: performative,
interpersonal and locative. Chapter II treats functional theories and accounts
of specialized translation. The performative function of translation is
examined in the context of literary and specialized translation. Chapter III
revisits commonly held scholarly views on the translation of poetry. Poetic
translation is discussed in performative terms. Most of Chapters IV and V,
centred on the interpersonal function of translation, is dedicated to the
analysis of English classics in Italian translation and vice versa. Both prose
and poetry are addressed. Chapter IV is a review of so-called
‘translator-centred’ approaches, from Lawrence Venuti’s works to more recent
collections of essays on the translator as writer. Chapter V discusses
ethnographic theories of translation, as well as a number of studies on
canonicity and translation. Chapter VI picks up on the effects of
geographical, historical and even intertextual distance in translation, from
Ezra Pound to James S. Holmes and André Lefevere. It studies what happens to
the locative function of texts in the translation of non-standard writings.
Chapter VII briefly discusses the critical literature on constrained
translation, audiovisual translation and the translation of comics, briefly
touching upon aspects of translating humour. In particular, it deals with the
locative transfer of humour in cases of audiovisual translation and in the
translation of comics.

Morini has accomplished a very difficult task: he explains difficult
theoretical issues in extremely clear and lucid language, providing plenty of
relevant microlinguistic examples in Italian and English. The theory developed
in this book will help translation trainers not only to explain to their
students that all translation is essentially manipulation, but also to set
more or less clear limits on these manipulations and provide theoretical
background for those limits. Thus, after reading this book, trainees as well
as researchers will be less prone to fall back on old tricks and habits
whenever they get in a situation that is not quite straightforward, as they
will learn about the translation act and translation process rather than
existing translations or interactions between translation and culture.

The book is quite successful at gauging the unfortunate gap between
translation theory and practice. Practitioners are often too busy to write
books and if they do, they often produce collections of empirically-based
practical advice for fellow translators and translation trainees, leaving
theory aside. This does not happen because they find theory useless. The
reason is more pragmatic: translation theory is frequently helpless when it
comes to making a decision concerning the choice of equivalent, for example.

What makes Morini’s book stand out from previous research is the fact that it
aims to formulate a general pragmatic theory of translation and this goal was
certainly achieved successfully. The word ‘theory’ here is used in its
etymological sense of ‘observation’ and defined as deductive rather than
inductive. More than two decades have passed since the last similar attempt
was made in Mary Snell-Hornby’s ‘Translation Studies’ (1988). The theory
proposed in ‘The Pragmatic Translator’ is itself linguistic, but takes into
consideration the momentous changes which have occurred in linguistics since
the 1970s. This material is covered in a sufficiently detailed manner in
Chapter I.

Previous translation theories have described things that are external to the
process of translation. They were theories of ‘translations’ rather than of
‘translation’ or ‘translating’. Morini’s pragmatic theory may truly be called
‘integral’ as it aspires to reconcile existing theories instead of trying to
disprove or supplant them, which is very welcome. A theory is good if it meets
two requirements. It must accurately describe a large class of observations on
the basis of a model that contains only a few arbitrary elements, and it must
make definite predictions about the results of future observations. Morini’s
theory is good as it is based on observation of vast array of translation
processes and products. It is a step towards a single theory that would
describe both the process and the product of translation. Morini’s theory will
provide a good framework for observation of translation processes and
products. It presents translation as something done to the text in space and
time and involving people. Again, this may seem obvious, but looking at
translation along these three axes simultaneously indeed amounts to a small
revolution, if not yet a paradigm shift.

‘The Pragmatic Translator’ is not organized as a handbook, certainly, but it
can be read as a critical survey of translation theory. Throughout the book,
theory and practice mix quite naturally and easily. This ease may give rise to
the impression that his approach is just another rather obvious, neutral and
probably not very useful way of looking at translation. That would of course
be wrong. First, many scientific discoveries provided humankind with an
obvious way to look at things.  Second, the author’s pragmatic view of
observing translation will be very useful to both practicing translators and
translator trainers as it is based on observations of a large number of
processes and products. The author has practical experience in translation and
has interacted with other representatives of the profession, which definitely
adds value to the ideas set forth and the conclusions drawn.

Oftentimes both translators and translator trainers continue to apply the old
tricks and ‘rules’ which so frequently have nothing to do with recent
developments in translation theory. The pragmatic theory proposed in ‘The
Pragmatic Translator’ will provide a necessary theoretical matrix that starts
from the acceptance that translation is manipulation (i.e., has a performative
function) and describes many ways in which that manipulation may be exercised
in translation of poetry, constrained translation, audiovisual translation and
the translation of comics et al. Theoreticians of translation, after reading
this book, will have an up-to-date definition of translation practice provided
by a practitioner, which is valuable, giving them a more realistic picture of
not only translation as product, but also translation as process.

Morini is far from the view that translation is mere rewriting of an original
text in another language. He brings up a very sensitive issue for both
translation practitioners and theoreticians: all or almost all available
up-to-date translation theory is about existing translations or the
intersection between translation and culture (typical of Eastern European
schools of translation theory) and very little about the translation process
itself, its nature and key elements. Thus, even when translation trainees and
researchers know the works of Bassnett, Lefevere and others, they still do not
apply their insights to practice and tend to follow older descriptions of the
craft when they do their job, i.e. translate. Moreover, many retain the vague
idea that ‘faithfulness’ or ‘closeness’ in lexicon, syntax, metaphors and so
on is a desirable quality of their work, which, along with insufficient
linguistic skill both in the native and foreign language, may truly be the
scourge of all translator training courses.

Morini accepts that all translation is manipulation, and looks at this
manipulation from a translator’s point of view. His theory tries to define
various kinds of manipulations which are possible or necessary in a certain
textual situation, as well as their effects on the performative, interpersonal
and locative functions of the translated text. By doing so, the theory
proposed in ‘The Pragmatic Translator’ makes explicit many things that have
been vaguely defined in translation practice. For example, translators often
work with incomplete and somewhat misleading concepts like text-type or genre.
By seeing each text as performing an act they will be able to consider more of
the aspects of what a text does or should do. The proposed theory will also
give the translators a sense of their own position as secondary authors as
well as of the personal voices inscribed in the source text.  They may have a
number of techniques at their disposal for translating dialectal or historical
variations of source language, but the pragmatic theory will enable them to
consider the options of maximizing the interpersonal and performative value of

To sum up, the integrated theory outlined in the book has the advantage of
being practically applicable and theoretically valuable, because it is
descriptive and open-ended in nature. Just like descriptive translation
studies, the theory looks at the product and process of translation as it is
and not as it should be. The theory finally makes it loud and clear that there
is no stable connection between a given translation problem and its solution
(which obviously does not mean that there is no connection at all, it is the
nature of the connection that is to be seen in a different manner). There is
great potential for similar studies, both empirical and theoretical, micro-
and macro-linguistic.

Snell-Hornby, Mary 1988. Translation Studies: An Integrated Approach.
Amsterdam: John Benjamins.

Holmes, James S. 1972/88. The name and nature of translation studies, in
‘Translated! Papers on Literary Translation and Translation Studies’.
Amsterdam: Rodopi, pp. 67-80.

Elena Gheorghita is a post-doctoral researcher at State University of Moldova
and a practicing conference interpreter, collaborating with many international
organizations in her home country, the Republic of Moldova. Among her
research interests are: translation studies, research methodology, cognitive
and pragmatic aspects of translation. She is a member of Scientific Committee
of Lumen Publishing House, Romania, and of academic journals both in her home
country and abroad. She is also running an MA student research group “The
Craft of Language”, working on stylistic, pragmatic and cognitive aspects of

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