Polysystems and Postcolonialism by William Wesley Gerrard 02.06.16

ML8101 – INTRODUCTION TO TRANSLATION THEORY – Alternative Assessment – ID: C1473322

CANDIDATE NAME: William Wesley Gerrard
MODULE TITLE: Introduction to Translation Theory

SEMINAR TUTOR: Dr Carlos Sanz-Mingo
ESSAY TITLE / COURSEWORK ASSIGNMENT: Polysystems and Postcolonialism – Alternative Assessment



It has been argued that unequal power relationships between languages, countries, cultures and polysystems have important implications for translation. Discuss, making reference to at least one approach from lectures, and provide at least one example.

Translation is at the heart of international relations, hence power differentials are always abundant as translators work. As Venuti identifies there tends to be a potential violence in the interactions:

‘The violent effects of translation are felt at home as well as abroad. On the one hand, translation wields enormous power in the construction of identities for foreign cultures, and hence it potentially figures in ethnic discrimination, geopolitical confrontations, colonialism, terrorism, war. On the other hand, translation enlists the foreign text in the maintenance or revision of literary canons in the receiving culture, inscribing poetry and fiction, for example, with the various poetic, narrative, and ideological discourses that compete for cultural dominance in the translating language.’ Venuti (2008:14)

This essay will explore the relationships between the entities using polysystem theory and also by focussing on postcolonialsim and its effects. In bringing in examples, the differing power relationships between languages will be identified with a particular focus on the role of translators within society.


Itamar Even-Zohar

Polysystem theory was created by Israeli scholar, Itamar Even-Zohar, in the 1970s, based on the ideas of the Russian Formalists of the 1920s and the Czech structuralists of the 1930s and 1940s.

‘According to Even-Zohar’s model, the polysystem is conceived as a heterogeneous, hierarchized conglomerate (or system) of systems which interact to bring about an ongoing, dynamic process of evolution within the polysystem as a whole.’ Shuttleworth in Baker & Saldanha (2009:197)

Translation holds a key role within polysystem theory and the works of translators are at the heart as well as the periphery of the polysystems Even-Zohar identifies:

‘Translation is no longer a phenomenon whose nature and borders are given once and for all, but an activity dependant on the relations within a certain cultural system.’ Even-Zohar (1990:51)

Within a polysystem, varying forms of literature and media form separate subsystems, translations having their own system. The different branches comprising each subsystem then combine to form a grander holistic polysystem. Translations may form the conservative or innovatory elements of a polysystem and may also hold a primary or secondary position depending upon their role within the dynamic hierarchy.

Even-Zohar looked at the example of the polysystem around Hebrew literature published between the two world wars. Translations from Russian were primary but translations from English, German and Polish were secondary. Polysystems are always dynamic and as history progresses the power differentials between languages and culture vary and this impacts the polysystems.

An example from lectures of polysystems in action looks at cinemas in Cardiff, Munich and Cracow. In Cardiff, the overwhelming majority of films are in the English language. Thus translations are on the periphery, which is what one would expect with such a major, dominant language as English. In Munich, the strength of the German language is demonstrated and it is able to withhold the impact of English, maintaining strength in its domestic film industry with most films being locally produced and in German. Cracow shows how Polish has relatively little strength as an international language and translations are in a more primary position here, with most of the films shown being translations from English. The polysystems that one can build around cinema in these three cities would show each domestic language in terms of its strength and the differing roles of translations within each society.

Polysystem theory has been an important aspect of translation studies as it provides the foundation of further models such as that of Gideon Toury’s Descriptive Translation Studies (DTS). It has been criticised as not being scientifically objective and also perhaps to have an over-reliance on the Formalist model, and being too dependent upon the universal laws of translation and doesn’t take into account the reality of translators’ work. Nevertheless, polysystem theory plays an important role in the development for the discipline and does pave the way for future ideas.

‘Polysystem theory has had a profound influence on translation studies, moving it forward into a less prescriptive observation of translation within its different contexts.’ Munday (2012: 169)

Postcolonialism provides interesting angles through which to analyse the effect of power differentials between nations. Being from the English-speaking world, we are always faced with the vastness of the British Empire which has left a legacy for our language and its impact upon the world.

‘Since cultures rarely, if ever, meet on equal terms, a postcolonial approach to translation inevitably poses the crucial but long-neglected question of how blatant power differentials, particularly in the age of European colonialism, have influenced the practice of translation’ Hui in Baker & Saldanha (2009:200)

India provides a powerful example of postcolonial studies in translation. A legacy of the British Empire is that the English language is the most widely spoken language, in particular in business, on the subcontinent. When people from different regions interact they use the Empire’s language to communicate. So, a Hindi speaker, in a Bengali region, will speak English to be understood.

‘Translation as a practice shapes, and takes shape within, the asymmetrical relations of power that operate under colonialism.’ Niranjana (1992:2)

salman rushdie

Salman Rushdie

We can look at Venuti’s foreignising and domesticating translations in the Indian author Salmon Rushdie. He is a hero of postcolonial literature. Rushdie writes his novels in English, so they are thus translations, yet he maintains a foreignising approach is his use of the English language, maintaining his links to the Indian subcontinent and many of his novels, such as Midnight’s Children, have postcolonial hints of Magic Realism using a floral abundance of Indian terminology, not readily accessible to readers who are unfamiliar to India. He thus uses his ‘translations’ to promote Indian identity internationally.

It has not just been the British who have an imperial legacy. The French language can also have a dominant postcolonial impact. Often French subdues regional tongues and Jaffe has identified the struggle between the French mother tongue and more peripheral native Corsican in a study on the imperial island.

‘Political resistance to French domination in Corsica has been fought, as elsewhere, on the level of language and culture. The Corsican language forms the centrepiece of an activist claim to political autonomy, and as such has value in and of itself, as a pure, autonomous code rather than a communicative practice.’ Jaffe (2010:262)

In Corsica, often translators or native Corsican writers face a struggle in getting the correct words and phrases in Corsican due to the dominance of the French language. Often these writers have to think in French first and then translate their ideas into the vernacular Corsican which demonstrates the weakness of the tongue.

Often there is a struggle between weaker languages and their dominant imperial masters. We see this in the polysystems cinema example from lectures but it is more apparent in regional zones where lesser tongues are spoken and really struggle to uphold their role as languages within their host societies. There is a wide struggle within Spain with its regional dialects: Catalan, Galician and Basque, always facing the powerful dominance of Castilian Spanish – the Francoist legacy being important in assessing the political role of language as Franco was forever subduing the role of dialects and regionalism.

Other ideas other than polysystem theory and postcolonoliasm can be used in assessing the question. Mona Baker looks at Narrative Theory as a way of explaining unequal power relationships in translation. The way in which words are used by translators is often used in a socio-political context according to the surroundings of the translators. An example of how translators act can be seen in the 1956 Egyptian crisis and the way in which it is described by different sides of the conflict:

‘The choice of The Suez Canal immediately activates the narrative of the invading powers: for Britain, France and Israel it was useful and expedient to narrate these events as a political crisis. The designation that has currency in the Arabic-speaking world, on the other hand, and practically no currency in the West, is The Tripartite Aggression. This default choice in Arabic activates quite a different narrative framework, one that is embedded in the consciousness and alignments of those on the receiving end of that attack.’ Baker (2010:7)

History is often written by the victors and the way in which this history is documented often draws in translators who have specific choices to make in which words they use to describe historic events. In this case, the widely known Suez Canal crisis deflects the nature of the conflict and leaves the blame of invading powers in a different light.

In concluding it has been shown that translations hold different roles within international societies, often due to the competition between dominant and marginal languages. It is important for translation studies to identify and analyse these linguistic struggles and translators always have a key role in determining how this struggle between tongues fares. Translations have a key role in defining society and culture and without translations polysystems would be restricted in their breadth and colonial powers and their colonies would not integrate and there would be less harmony between powers. Translations have a political role in determining power itself and the inequality within our world is always being addressed by translators. They thus have a key role to play in our society.

1537 words


Munday, Jeremy. 2012 Introducing Translation Studies. Oxon: Routledge.

Baker, Mona. 2010 Critical Readings in Translation StudiesReframing Conflict in Translation Oxon: Routledge.

Jaffe, Alexandra. 2010 Critical Readings in Translation Studies – Locating Power: Corsican Translators and Their Critics Oxon: Routledge

Baker, M. & Saldanha, G. 2009 Routledge Encyclopedia of Translation Studies Oxon: Routledge

Even-Zohar, Itmar. 1990 Polysystem Studies, Special Issue of Poetics Today 11(1) Durham NC, USA: Duke University Press

Venuti, Lawrence. 2008 The Translator’s Invisibility Oxon:Routledge

Niranjana, T. 1992 Siting Translation: History, Post-structuralism, and the Colonial Context. Berkeley, CA, USA: University of California Press



“An excellent essay, drawing on a wide variety of sources (evidence of extensive independent reading). All points are accompanied by relevant comments, relating them to the essay question in relevant ways, although focus on fewer examples or areas would have allowed a more in-depth analysis. Minor formatting queries (alphabetical order in the bibliography, no quotation marks for block quotations).