Polysystem theory: Its prospect as a framework for translation research

Nam Fung Chang

This article deals with three interrelated issues: first the ‘cultural turn’ of Itamar Even-Zohar in contrast to the ‘cultural turn’ in Translation Studies, then the application of an augmented version of Polysystem theory in a short case study, and finally the question of objectivity and neutrality in descriptive polysystem studies. It is argued that Polysystem theory and other cultural theories of translation, be they descriptive or politically committed, can be mutually enriching rather than incompatible, and that, with some augmentation and further development, it may serve as an adequate framework for research into the ‘external politics’ of translation.

Table of contents

Developed in the 1970s, Itamar Even-Zohar’s Polysystem hypothesis was originally designed as a theoretical framework for the descriptive study of literature and language in their cultural context. His theory has made a great impact on the discipline of Translation Studies, and a ‘school’ is said to have been formed under its influence. The attraction of his theory to some translation scholars presumably lies in the prospect that, as Even-Zohar states (1979:300), “the complicated questions of how literature correlates with language, society, economy, politics, ideology, etc., may here, with the PS theory, merit less simplistic and reductionist hypotheses than otherwise”. Facilitated by Polysystem theory, these scholars have taken a ‘cultural turn’ (Hermans 1999: 110), [ p. 318 ]focusing their attention on the ‘external politics’ of translation. Paradoxically, it is also a movement away from Polysystem theory on the part of a number of scholars, mainly because they find the theory inadequate as “a comprehensive theoretical and methodological framework that can encompass the social and ideological embedding and impact of translation” (Hermans 1996: 41).

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