Research Articles and Papers

Descriptive Translation Studies


Gideon Toury is Professor of Poetics, Comparative Literature and Translation Studies at Tel Aviv University, where he holds the M. Bernstein Chair of Translation Theory. He is the founder and General Editor of Target: International Journal of Translation Studies (1989– ) , and for years General Editor of the important Benjamins Translation Library. He has published three books, a number of edited volumes and numerous articles, in both English and Hebrew, in the fields of translation theory and comparative literature.

After his early polysystem work with Even-Zohar on the sociocultural conditions which determine the translation of foreign literature into Hebrew, Toury focused on developing a general theory of translation.

Toury proposed a methodology for the branch of descriptive translation studies (DTS).

Toury agrees with Zohar where translations first and foremost occupy a position in the social and literary systems of the target culture, and this position determines the translation strategies that are employed.

With this approach, Toury further suggested changes in the polysystem work of Even-Zohar and on earlier versions of his own work (Toury 1978, 1980, 1985, 1991). Toury (1995: 36-9 and 102) proposes the following three-phase methodology for systematic DTS, incorporating a description of the product and the wider role of the sociocultural system:

Descriptive Translation Studies

1. Situates the text within the target culture system, looking at its significance or acceptability.

2. Compares the ST and the TT for shifts, identifying relationships between 'coupled pairs' of ST and TT segments, and attempting generalizations about the underlying concept of translation.

3 Draws implications for decision-making in future translating.

An important additional step is the possibility of repeating phases (1) and (2) for other pairs of similar texts in order to widen the corpus and to build up a descriptive profile of translations according to genre, period, author, etc. In this way, the norms pertaining to each kind of translation is identified with the ultimate aim (as more descriptive studies are performed) of stating laws of behaviour for translation in general.


The second step mentioned above is one of the most controversial areas. Toury fails to give any concrete answer to the word, “adequate translation”. However, at the same time he also admits that, in practice, no translation is ever fully 'adequate'. For this contradiction, and for considering the hypothetical invariant to be a universal given, he has been roundly criticized.

Later in his 1995 book, Toury drops the invariant concept. What remains in his model is a 'mapping' of the TT onto the ST which 'yields a series of (ad hoc) coupled pairs'. This is a type of comparison which Toury admits is inevitably 'partial [and] indirect' and which will undergo 'continuous revision' during the very analytical process itself. The result is a flexible and non-prescriptive, if also less than rigorously systematic, means of comparing ST and TT.

Rules, norms and idiosyncrasies

In its socio-cultural dimensions, translation can be described as subject to constraints of several types and varying degree. These extend far beyond the source text; the systematic differences between the language and textual traditions involved in the act, or even the possibilities and limitations of the cognitive apparatus of the translator as a necessary mediator. In fact, cognitive itself is influenced, probably even modified by socio-cultural factors. At any rate, translators performing under different conditions (eg., translating texts of different kinds, and /or for different audiences) often adopt different strategies, and ultimately come up with markedly different products.

Socio-cultural constraints are defined as 1.  general rule 2. norms 3. Idiosyncrasies. Norms come under middle of both occupied by inter-subjective factors. The norms themselves form a graded continuum along the scale: some are stronger and hence more rule- like, others are weaker, and hence idiosyncratic. The borderliners between the various types of constraints are thus diffuse.  

The concept of norms of translation behavior

Toury's case studies distinguishes trends of translation behaviour, to make generalizations regarding the decision-making processes of the translator and then to 'reconstruct' the norms that have been in operation in the translation and make hypotheses that can be tested by future descriptive studies.

Norms means, the translation of general values or ideas shared by a community - as to what is right or wrong, adequate or inadequate - into performance instructions appropriate for and applicable to particular situations.

These norms are sociocultural constraints specific to a culture, society and time. An individual is said to acquire them from the general process of education and socialization. In terms of their 'potency' Toury places norms between rules and idiosyncrasies. He considers translation to be an activity governed by norms, and these norms 'determine the (type and extent of) equivalence manifested in actual translations'.  This suggests the potential ambiguity of the term 'norm'-, although Toury uses it, first, as a descriptive analytical category to be studied through regularity of behaviour (norms are 'options that translators in a given socio-historical context select on a regular basis'; Baker 1997a: 164), they appear to exert pressure and to perform some kind of prescriptive function.

Although Toury focuses initially on the analysis of the translation product, he emphasizes that this is simply in order to identify the decision-making processes of the translator. His hypothesis is that the norms that have prevailed in the translation of a particular text can be reconstructed from two types of source:

1. from the examination of texts, the products of norm-governed activity. This will show up 'regularities of behaviour' (i.e. trends of relationships and correspondences between ST and TT segments). It will point to the processes adopted by the translator and, hence, the norms that have been in operation;

2. from the explicit statements made about norms by translators, publishers, reviewers and other participants in the translation act. Such explicit statements may be incomplete or biased in favour of the role played by the informants in the socio-cultural system and are therefore avoided.

Types of Norms

Initial Norm:

The basic initial norm refers to a general choice made by translators. Thus, translators can subject themselves to the norms realized in the ST or to the norms of the target culture or language.

If it is towards the ST, then the TT will be adequate and if is towards TT culture norms, the TT will be acceptable.

The poles of adequacy and acceptability are on a continuum since no translation is ever totally adequate or totally acceptable.  Shifts - obligatory and non-obligatory are inevitable, norm-governed and 'a true universal of translation'.

Preliminary Norms

Preliminary norms are linked to Translation policy well as Directness of translation. Translation policy refers to factors determining the selection of texts for translation in a specific language, culture or time. Directness of translation relates to whether translation occurs through an intermediate language (e.g. Finnish to Greek via English). Questions for investigation include the tolerance of the TT culture to this practice, which languages are involved and whether the practice is camouflaged or not.


Operational norms

They describe the presentation and linguistic matter of the TT. This area is further subdivided into Matricial norms and Textual –linguistic norms.

Matricial norms relate to the completeness of the TT. Phenomena include omission or relocation of passages, textual segmentation, and the addition of passages or footnotes. Textual-linguistic norms govern the selection of TT linguistic material: lexical items, phrases and stylistic features.

The examination of the ST and TT should reveal shifts in the relations between the two that have taken place in translation. It is here that Toury introduces the term 'translation equivalence. But he emphasizes that it is different from the traditional notion of equivalence. It is a 'functional-relational concept', by which equivalence is assumed between a TT and an ST. This is very important because analysis does not then focus prescriptively on whether a given TT or TT-expression is 'equivalent' to the ST or ST-expression. Instead it focuses on how the assumed equivalence has been realized and is a tool for uncovering 'the underlying concept of translation . . . [the] derived notions of decision-making and the factors that have constrained it' (

As noted above, DTS aims to reconstruct the norms that have been in operation during the translation process. However, Toury stresses that norms are a 'graded notion' since 'a translator's behaviour cannot be expected to be fully systematic'. In addition, these norms are of different intensity, ranging from behaviour that is mandatory (maximum intensity) to tendencies that are common but not mandatory and to behaviour that is tolerated (minimum intensity).

Laws of translation

Toury hopes that the cumulative identification of norms in descriptive studies will enable the formulation of probabilistic 'laws' of translation and thence of 'universal of translation'.

The identified laws are:

Law of growing standardization: The law of growing standardization, which states that in translation, textual relations obtaining in the original are often modified, sometimes to the point of being totally ignored, in favour of [more] habitual options offered by a target repertoire'. This refers to the disruption of the ST patterns in translation and the selection of linguistic options that are more common in the TL. Thus, for example, there will a tendency towards a general standardization and loss of variation in style in the TT, or at least an accommodation to target culture models. This is especially the case if, as commonly occurs, translation assumes a weak and peripheral position in the target system.

Law of interference: It sees interference from ST to TT as 'a kind of default'. Interference refers to ST linguistic features (mainly lexical and syntactical patterning) being copied in the TT, either 'negatively' (because they create non-normal TT patterns) or 'positively' (the existence of features in the ST that will not be non-normal in the TT makes them more likely to be used by the translator). Tolerance of interference to depend on sociocultural factors and the prestige of the different literary systems: there is greater tolerance when translating from a prestigious language or culture, especially if the target language or culture is 'minor'.

Application of Toury’ s theory

Toury (1995) presents a series of case studies, including an 'exemplary' study of conjoint phrases in Hebrew TTs. Conjoint phrases or binomials are pairs of near-synonyms that function together as a single unit. Examples Toury gives from English are able and talented and law and order; and, from German, nie und nimmer. He discusses the significance of such phrases in Hebrew literature, indicating that their use is prevalent in old written Hebrew-texts from the Bible onwards and in Hebrew texts from the end of the eighteenth century onwards, when the language was struggling to adapt to modern writing and was under the influence of imported literary models. However, the preference for conjoint phrases has declined over the past fifty years, now that Hebrew is a more confident and central literature. Nevertheless, Toury (p. 105) suggests that the number of such phrases in Hebrew translations tends to be higher than in Hebrew STs and that translations also contain more newly coined or 'free' combinations (rather than fixed phrases). He supports this with examples from Hebrew translations of children's literature, of Goethe and of a story by Heinrich Boll {Ansichten eines dowries). In the latter case, the translator's very frequent use of conjoint phrases to translate single lexical items in German produces a TT that is almost 30 per cent longer than the ST. The effect, in a translation published in 1971, is also to make the Hebrew seem very dated.

Thus, Gentzler lists four aspects of Toury's theory that have had an important impact on translation studies:

1. the abandonment of one-to-one notions of correspondence as well as the possibility of literary/linguistic equivalence (unless by accident);

2. the involvement of literary tendencies within the target cultural system in the production of any translated text;

3. the destabilization of the notion of an original message with a fixed identity;

4.the integration of both the original text and the translated text in the semiotic web of intersecting cultural systems.


Munday points out that Toury's stance risks overlooking, for example, ideological and political factors such as the status of the ST in its own culture, the source culture's possible promotion of translation of its own literature and the effect that translation might exert back on the system of the source culture.

Gentzler points towards overgeneralization of laws of translation based on relatively little evidence. Moreover, they are simply reformulations of generally-held (though not necessarily proven) beliefs about translation.

Since the norms described by Toury are abstract ones and only traceable Toury  method of examination, how come they (some what a semi-scientific norm/law approach) can be applied to Translation.

One might also question whether the translator's decision-making really is sufficiently patterned as to be universalized. Hermans (1999: 92), for example, asks how it is possible to know all the variables relevant to translation and to find laws relevant to all translation. Toury's two laws themselves are also to some extent contradictory, or at least pull in different directions: the law of growing standardization depicts TL-oriented norms, while the law of interference is ST-oriented. Munday suggest that the law of interference needs to be modified, or even a new law proposed, that of reduced control over linguistic realization in translation.

When taking real-life considerations into account, it is worth noting that systems theorists in general have restricted their work to literary translation. His sociocultural factors in and around the translation process might face more problems while dealing non-fiction or technical texts.


The initial norm refers to a general choice made by translators. Translators can subject themselves to the norms realized in the ST or to the norms of the target culture or language. If it is towards ST, then the TT will be adequate; if the target culture norms prevail, then TT will be acceptable.

The preliminary norms are translation policy involving factors that determine section of texts for translation in a specific language, culture or time, followed by directness of translation that determines whether the translation occurs through an intermediate language.

Operational norms describe the presentation and linguistic matter of the TT. These are metrical norms and textual –linguistic norms. Matrical norms relate to the completeness of the TT. This involves omission or relocation of passage, textual segmentation, and the addition of passages or footnotes. Textual –lingustic norms govern the selection of TT linguistic material: lexical items, phrases and stylistic features.


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