Volume 7, No. 4 
October 2003

  Dr. Ibrahim Saad

Front Page  
Select one of the previous 25 issues.


 From the Editor
Theory and Practice

Index 1997-2003

  Translator Profiles
Overcoming Stage Fright: from Ballet to Interpretation
by Izumi Suzuki

  The Profession
The Bottom Line
by Fire Ant & Worker Bee
by Andrei Gerasimov
Are you Prepared to Meet Your Client?
by Danilo Nogueira

Translators Around the World
The Situation of Turkish Literature in the German Polysystem
by Serpil Türk Hotaman

In Memoriam
In Memoriam: William P. Keasbey

  Translation Nuts and Bolts
What's in a Name: Juliet's Question Revisited
by Verónica Albin

  Literary Translation
Language and Choice for Learning/Translating English
by Ibrahim Saad, Ph.D.
La traducción al español de las referencias culturales en Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? de Edward Albee
Mario Juan Serrano

  Translator Education
Corpus-based Teaching: The Use of Original and Translated Texts in the training of legal translators
Esther Monzó, Ph.D.

  Advertising Translation
Loss and Gain of Textual Meaning in Advertising Translation: A case study
by Liu Zequan

  Translators' Tools
Standard Bearers: TM brand profiles at Lantra-L
Ignacio García, Ph.D.
Translators’ Emporium

  Caught in the Web
Web Surfing for Fun and Profit
by Cathy Flick, Ph.D.
Translators’ On-Line Resources
by Gabe Bokor

Translators’ Events

Call for Papers and Editorial Policies
  Translation Journal

Literary Translation


Language and Choice

for Learning/Translating English

by Ibrahim Saad, Ph.D.


ommunication is basic to all human communities and, according to McEldowney (1990:13), can be broadly defined as the process by which information is exchanged. She indicates that there are many ways in which communication takes place—through spoken language, through written language, through signs, through sound, through gesture, through facial expression and so on. It is, however, language which is the central concern of this study.

a translator needs to understand the internal and external structures operating within and around a work of art.
In her various writings, an examination of syntactic features in text enables McEldowney to identify, for instance, language which instructs people to do things, language which narrates a series of events and language which describes things, people, needs, thoughts, ideas, philosophies. She then goes on to consider text from the point of view of how the grammatical features chosen deviate from the "the norm" she has established together with features like choice of lexis, the degree of personal involvement of the writer, the degree of abstraction of concepts expressed and the like. This enables her to identify three central types of language which she typifies as social language, figurative language typical of imaginative creation, and neutral, expository, transactional language (1994:2).

The Language types of the study:

As indicated, human communication is motivated by a need to accumulate and impart information. The more cohesive and coherent a text produced for this purpose, the more comprehensible it will be. In this respect, as referred to above with regard to McEldowney's work, it is possible to establish norms as to the way in which information is communicated and, in general terms, the more closely a piece of writing adheres to those norms the more immediately comprehensible it is.

Such immediate comprehensibility is related to the impersonal nature of the language which is conventionally used to communicate what the writer regards to be factual information. A text written in this way, which cannot be attributed to a particular writer and which does not give rise to a debate about meaning (see Text 1 below), is unlikely to attract the attention of a student of stylistics. The text is appreciated in terms of the reader's interest in the informational content and the explicitness with which it is expressed. As suggested previously, however, there are thousands of deviations from the norm, ranging from le criteaux of the streets to the greatest works of literature and once the norms are flouted, a study of stylistics becomes the focus of attention.

A central aim of this study is the teaching of translation to potential translators and interpreters whose reading comprehension skills in English still need more practice. An important by-product of learning to translate is the enhancement of their reading skills with regard to English text. With this in mind, we note that transactional language is central for learners of English as foreign language. In this respect McEldowney (1996/7:4) argues that, as transactional language is predictable in both form and vocabulary, it is most immediately learnable and that once it is learned, transactional language can be the medium for learning less predictable forms of the language.

Now, let us turn to an illustration of the features which are related to the two types of language with which we are concerned.

Transactional Language

The purpose of the following text is to impart information about Charlemagne in a straightforward way

Text 1

Eleven centuries ago one man ruled most of Western Europe. Charlemagne could hardly read or write, yet he built up a vast empire. Charlemagne was a Frank, one of the people who had invaded the Roman Empire when it collapsed in the 5th century and who then settled in northern France. He was a great warrior. When he became king in AD 768, his territory was small and threatened by its French neighbours. Charlemagne soon overcame them and invaded northern Italy. (Children's Illustrated Encyclopaedia, 1991: 107).

As already indicated, the purpose of this text is to convey facts, language being used merely as a carrier of factual information. Such text can be seen as committed to the organisation of the real world (Beaugrande & Dressler, 1981:160). Expectations of what readers can extract from this text are more or less defined—three events in Charlemagne's life, three events in the settlement of the Franks, descriptive information about Charlemagne, and the situation in Western Europe eleven centuries ago. This information is conveyed in linguistic forms (Clusters of particular verb forms, verb types, sentence patterns and textual organisation of information are matched with particular communicative purposes) identified by McEldowney (1996/7) as typical of these purposes.

The three dynamic, past tense verb forms became, overcame, invaded for instance, indicate a sequence of events related to Charlemagne becoming king and extending his empire. Three similar forms, collapsed, invaded, settled indicate another sequence related to the collapse of the Roman Empire and the invasion of the Franks which historically preceded Charlemagne's rise to fame.

We note that, with regard to this latter sequence, the events are not related in the order in which they actually happened. This is clearly marked, however, by the use of had and when to indicate that the collapse of the Roman Empire happened before the invasion. There are also the sequence markers then and soon to double-mark the order in which the events occurred. The verbs in these sequences occur in typical clausal patterns, maintaining the predominant subject/verb/complement order of English sentences. In this text we find SV (A)—it / collapsed / in the 5th century and who /settled / in northern France and SVO—Charlemagne / overcame / them and (he) / invaded / northern Italy. The sentences are relatively balanced in length.

The features just illustrated are those which McEldowney indicated to be the norm for expressing the communicative purpose of "narrative." She also indicates that it is normal for such sequences of happenings to be padded out by descriptive language using, for instance, the past tense form of stative verbs like was in sentences of the form SVC—Charlemagne / was / a Frank and his territory / was / small.

Text 1 cannot be attributed to any particular writer because it does not use any special features that enable us to identify its writer. The pattern illustrated is one that, according to McEldowney (1990), re-occurs with great frequency throughout educational texts and general information texts written in English.

Let us now examine a piece of literary text to illustrate some of the ways in which it differs from transactional language.

Literary Language

As we have seen, the transactional mode, as illustrated by the Charlemagne text, is neutral with regard to person, culture and style. This lessens the complexity of decoding the information involved. The same cannot be said, however, of literary text which, by its very nature, depends on personal interpretation. For instance, Text 2 below, like the Charlemagne text above, involves narrative sequence with descriptive comment. Virginia Woolf has, however, chosen to communicate the events in a much more complex manner.

Text 2

(6) Macalister's boy took one of the fish and cut a square out of its side to bait his hook with. The mutilated body (it was alive still) was thrown back into the sea.

(7) "Mrs. Ramsy!" Lily cried, "Mrs. Ramsy!" but nothing happened. The pain increased. That anguish could reduce one to touch a pitch of imbecility, she thought! Anyhow the old man had not heard her. He remained benignant, calm—if one chose to think it—sublime. Heaven be praised, no one heard her cry that ignominious cry, stop pain. Stop! She had not obviously taken leave of her senses. She remained a skimpy old maid, holding a paint brush on the lawn. (Woolf, Triad Grafton Edition: 195).

There is much greater linguistic variety illustrated in the extract from To the Lighthouse. For instance, initially, in (6) the sequence of happenings is related in much the same way as in Charlemagne text. The dynamic past tense verb forms took and cut in straightforward SVO clauses outline two steps in the order they happened. This narration by the writer of what the boy did to the fish is then mingled with Lily's stream of consciousness in (7) as she reacts to the boy's actions. The writer does not intervene with expressions like she thought or she felt nor does she challenge Lily's own estimation of herself as a skimpy old maid.

This move from outlining the events which triggered Lily's feelings through the writer's eye to Lily's mental turmoil, the two linked by the description of the fish as mutilated body (it was alive still), is much more effective in depicting Lily's feelings. The reader is much more caught up in her feelings of horror and panic than would be the case if the writer had continued in the manner of the Charlemagne text—Macalister's boy took one of the fish and cut a square out of its side to bait his hook. The fish was still alive when he threw it back into the sea. Lily was horrified by this.

An awareness of the intensity of Lily's feelings of abandonment is developed in a similar way. The use of direct speech in "Mrs. Ramsy!" "Mrs. Ramsy!" as Lily calls for help, blends immediately into the indirect style but nothing happened—a move from outside reality to inner turmoil. This has a greater intensity than would a narration of the steps in the manner of the Charlemagne text—Lily called out for Mrs. Ramsy but no one responded. The tumultuous emotions swarming in Lily's head sweep the reader along as short abrupt comments are inserted into a framework of much longer sentences—... but nothing happened. The pain increased. And ...stop pain, stop!

This variety of form requires much more effort on the part of the reader in the search for meaning than was the case with the much more uniform type of expression illustrated by the Charlemagne text. It also contributes to uniqueness with regard to Virginia Woolf's style. Though other writers may use similar effects, the exact effect made by the complexity of her narration here is not likely to be exactly reproduced by another writer.

Speaking of transactional text, Beaugrande & Dressler (1981: 5) say that cause, enablement and reason have forward directionality, that is, the earlier event or situation causes, enables or provides the reason for the later one. This is quite clear with regard to the straightforward, chronological development of the Charlemagne text. The Woolf text in this respect, however, relies on a repetition of the same idea, that of Lily losing her mind at the horror of the boy's action with regard to the fish. When speaking of Woolf's style in this respect, Marsh (1998: 169) speaks of the chaotic detail of incidents that chime and fill the air with vibrations.

Thus, it can be seen that, with regard to the two types of language which are the subject of this study, it is the purpose of the writer that determines the different characteristics that enable us to distinguish transactional language from literary language and enable us to identify individual literary styles. At one extreme we have a concern with the communication of facts in a conventional, familiar manner. Meaning is communicated in a systematic and predictable way. At the other extreme we find unique pieces of art. Each literary style presents a unique syntactic pattern; speaking of how the writer organises the world that is the literary text, Freeman (1975: 20) says that each reflects cognitive preferences, a way of seeing the world; perhaps more importantly, it reflects the fundamental principles of artistic design. The way an individual writer's work coheres is marked by a combination of features. A literary style can thus be established for particular writers so that we can refer to Virginia Woolf's style, James Joyce's style, Jane Austin's style, Charles Dickens's style and so on.

The Reader/Translator and the Text

It was implicit in our description of the features of transactional and literary text above that it is the way a whole piece of text hangs together that is important. Beaugrande and Dressler (1981: 13, 35) as well as Halliday (1985: 4-6, 48) seem to agree that language should be viewed as a system which is a set of elements functioning together each of which has a function contributing to workings of the whole.

When considering a piece of text from the point of view of the reader, Beaugrande (1980:35) proposes that the text itself be viewed as a system and this view is repeated by Halliday (1985:48) who says that every text provides a context for itself. He says a text hangs together as a result of its internal coherence which comes about from the set of linguistic resources that every language has for linking one part of a text to another. He stresses the importance of the reader's internal expectations in maintaining the flow and understanding of text.

To a large extent, it is the degree of familiarity with the way a text is put together that determines the ease and manner of discovering its meaning. Where emphasis is on real-world meaning and information has been imparted in a systematic and predictable way, readers have a relatively straightforward task. They are able to bring their experience of world knowledge and their experience of similar text to bear in extracting the information involved. In conveying fact, the writer does not present information in a very difficult and ambiguous form... nor force the reader to revise his expectations (Beaugrand, 1978:47). Most readers will decode the same basic information and most translators will pass it on with little distortion.

In contrast, as we have seen above, literary writers commonly construct text in such a way that readers cannot interpret it on relying on their knowledge of "normal" practice with regard to coherence. A unique production elicits its own unique framework. Creative writers are successful when they rely on virtual experience using their own personal choice of grammatical form and lexis. In the process, the writer commonly surprises the reader. There is a gap in expectation in that readers are themselves committed to a predetermined manner of interpreting things (Beaugrande, 1978:44). Not only do poetic devices like metaphor and alliteration demand a personal response, but, sometimes, the normally expected rules and conventions of linguistic coherence are completely shattered. Readers are often forced into at least provisionally accepting the author's views as a point of reference (Beaugrande: ibid) and then are much more personally involved in completing the "jigsaw" than is the case where the extraction of fact from a transactional text is involved.

Though they may disregard the expectation of their readers, creative writers do, however, create their own coherence or artistic pattern. We may study the manner in which each unique piece has been constructed when trying to describe a writer's style. It is the wholeness of the resulting form that conveys artistic meaning. In the interpretation of each artistic creation, both reader and translator must bring their personal life experience to bear. As a result, individual readers and individual translators may well come to different conclusions as to what a particular piece of text means.

As suggested above, transactional language is open to paraphrase. There is no need for translator to take over the source to improve and civilise it in the way suggested by Fitzgerald as cited by Bassnet (1980:xv) when discussing Persian texts. Translators do not need to violate the source text or attempt to create an original text. This is because, with a transactional source text, the meaning is controlled by the writer of the text and is easily decipherable by the translator. An understanding of the internal structure of a transactional source is sufficient to provide a reliable transactional translation in which the majority of the information is preserved. There is no debate over the primacy of content over form or vice versa.

With literary language, however, paraphrase and translation become more problematic. Leech & Short (1981: 25) refer to the fact that the New Critics (a major critical movement of the 1930's and 1940's in America) rejected the idea that a poem conveys a message, preferring to see it as an autonomous verbal artifact. T.S. Eliot, for instance, recommended that a poem should be dealt with as a poem and not a piece of biographical evidence or historical material, something that had been the centre of earlier literary criticism. Leech & Short (ibid) cite Macleish who says that a poem should not mean but be and Tolstoy's affirmation that one of the significant facts about a true work of art is that its content in its entirety can be expressed only by itself. We cannot separate meaning from form. If we imagine that we can separate meaning from form in a literary text, we will discover little meaning. Steiner (1975:24) states that Western art and literature are a set of variations on definitive themes. Further, he goes on to explain that Dada (an anarchical school of literary and artistic movement begun in 1916) believes that, to trigger new themes, language should be re-arranged. Hence, the anarchic bitterness of the later-comer and impeccable of Dada when it proclaims that no new impulses of feeling or recognition will arise until language is demolished. According to Gray (1984:79) the purpose of Dada was a nihilistic revolt against all bourgeois ideas of rationality, meaning, form, and order. Its artists and poets arrange objects and words into meaningless and illogical patterns.


In conveying a message through language, a writer tries to make the communication as effective as possible. In this process there are many choices to make both syntactically and semantically. The choice will depend on the writer's purpose. It is possible to identify a conventional way of putting text together as a means of passing on factual information. From such transactional language, meaning can be extracted and passed on without any damage to content and coherence.

For a translator transferring a literary text, it is not enough to grasp the internal structure of the text. Bassnet (1980:37) believes that a translator needs to understand the internal and external structures operating within and around a work of art. In identifying the difficulty of passing on meaning of the unique ensemble of the original phonetic-syntactic context (Stiener, 1975:352) believes we need a translation which gives language life beyond the moment and place of immediate utterance or transcription (ibid:28)

In the early stages of learning a language and in the early stages of learning to translate it, the aim is to minimise the amount of negotiation involved in order to ensure maximum accuracy.

Learners need to go on to develop skill with more and more complex transactional language and, at an appropriate time, begin to develop their interactive skills beyond those involved in the basic information cycle. Further, each individual has a set of complex intentions with regard to communication and needs to be able to express these in a manner acceptable to whatever situation is involved. This quite involves a more beyond the "norm" represented by transactional language. Individuals need to become dexterous recipients and producers of language beyond the norm if they are to survive in the "real" world and communicate in an acceptable way in whatever situation they find themselves. The final achievement is an interpreter who can work effectively in very controversial situations or a translator who can produce a poem that is as great a piece of art in a target language as it is in the source language.


Bassnet, S. (1980): Translation Studies, Methuen, London

Beaugrande, R. (1978):Factors in a Theory of Poetic Translating, Van Gorcum, Assen, The Netherlands

Beaugrande, R. (1980): Text, Discourse and Process, Longman, London

Beaugrande, R. & Dressler,W. (1981): Introduction to Text Linguistics, Longman, London

Freeman, D.C. (1975): "Style and Structure in Literature" in The New Style, Fowler, R. (Ed), Basil Blackwell, Oxford

Gray, M. (1984): A Dictionary of Literary Terms, Longman, York Halliday, M & Hasan, R (1985): "Language, Context and Text: Aspects of Language" in A Social Semiotic Perspective. OUP, Oxford

Halliday, M. (1985): An Introduction to Functional Grammar, Edward Arnold, London

Leech, G. & Short, M. (1981): Style in Fiction, Longman, London

Marsh, N. (1998): Analysing Texts: Virginia Woolf, the Novel, St Martins Press, New York

McEldowney, P.L (1990): Grammar and Communication in Learning, MD 339, Unit 2, "Communicative Purposes," University of Manchester, Manchester

McEldowney, P.L. (1994): Tests in English Language Skills: Rationale: Part One: "Principles," CENTRA, Chorley

McEldowney, P.L. (1996/7): Language and Learning, Part Two, "An Integrated Learning Cycle," Oldham LEA, Oldham

Steiner, G. (1975): After Babel: Aspects of Language and Translation, OUP, Oxford

English Sources

Kindersley (Pub.) (1991): Children's Illustrated Encyclopaedia, Dorling Kindersley, London

Woolf, V.: To the Lighthouse, Triad Grafton Books, London