In defence of polysystem theory

Nam Fung Chang

This article revisits Itamar Even-Zohar’s polysystem theory, including its hypotheses on the position of translated literature and its relation with translation norms, and some of its basic assumptions and principles, such as the heterogeneity, dynamics and overlapping of systems, the quest for probabilistic laws, and objectivity and neutrality. Through reading Even-Zohar’s texts closely and tracing the later developments of the theory, it attempts to explore the complexities of the theory, and clear up some misunderstandings, citing examples from polysystem-inspired case studies. It also discusses the complications caused by the expansion made by Gideon Toury on the concept of “adequacy” and “acceptability”, presents a revised version of Even-Zohar’s hypothesis on the situations in which translated literature is likely to occupy a central position, and suggests ways in which polysystem theory can or should be rendered more intricate. It argues that polysystem theory and other cultural theories can be complementary and mutually enriching.

Table of contents

Polysystem theory was developed by Itamar Even-Zohar in the 1970s for the study of language, literature and translation, and expanded into a general theory of culture in the 1990s. In the first twenty years since its birth, it had a great impact on translation studies and was well received by theorists. Gentzler (1993) made a very positive assessment of the theory. Although he questioned some of its basic tenets, he regarded the problems as “minor” (Gentzler 2001: 120). Hermans (1999) cast more serious doubts on some important assumptions of the theory in a systematic and substantial critique, but still endorsed systems thinking. With the rise to power of morally/politically committed approaches and the emergence of other cultural-sociological approaches in the twenty-first century, more and more [ p. 312 ]scholars find polysystem theory unable to handle the complexities and versatility of translation phenomena, and systems thinking in general seems to be on the verge of being abandoned. Meanwhile, Even-Zohar’s later writings, as well as some endeavours to augment polysystem theory (such as Chang 2000, 2001), have attracted little attention.

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