My Way to Translation Studies

Gideon Toury interviewed by Miriam Shlesinger


Interviewing someone whom you have known and admired for a long time is a special treat: you already know the basics, and can safely focus on the less-known details. I have known Gideon for many years – ever since I first inquired about the possibility of doing an MA in his department in 1980 – so that an interview about his way to Translation Studies afforded me a memorable opportunity to find out more about a longtime friend and mentor. I was particularly interested in finding out more about how his personal biography had helped shape the choices and decisions which influenced his professional career.


Question: Even in an interview that is supposed to center on your professional biography, I hope you’ll be able to fill us in on some aspects of your personal background. After all, the two are always intertwined. To begin with, like many of us, I suppose you were a practicing translator before you became a researcher of translation. Is this true, and if so, how did it all begin?


Answer: Yes, you’re right, and in my generation this was invariably the case. If you’re asking about my first translations, I’d have to go all the way back to my early childhood. Years later, when I was working as an assistant editor of a children’s weekly, I suddenly remembered that I had translated all sorts of things as a child - short stories, for example.  I dug them out and used some of them, but in those days I didn’t bother signing them as the translator or anything. Even I would not be able to identify them by now.


Question: Translations from English?


Answer: Yes. Initially, I didn’t even realize that I knew German. For ideological reasons, my parents tried hard not to use German, but I was exposed to it anyway. So you see, I started out with literary translation. Besides, the way we studied foreign languages in those days also involved a fair amount of translation as homework, from English into Hebrew and from Arabic into Hebrew. I guess it was mainly on the lexical level to check whether we’d learned the new vocabulary in the foreign language. It was more as a teaching tool and a test than as translation per se.


But my first professional translations came later: for quite a long time I worked as the editor of the Hebrew version of Popular Photography. It was an absurd exercise, in a way.


Question: What was absurd about it?


Answer: I saw a classified ad seeking a Hebrew editor for a new periodical dealing with photography. I had gained some experience by then in the children’s weekly I mentioned, and photography happened to be a hobby of mine. The post was for Hebrew editor but the job interview was conducted in English, because the publisher was British. He had no way of assessing how much I really knew about photography, nor how good my Hebrew writing skills were, but he took me on anyway. Although I liked photography, but I had no training whatsoever. As for the Hebrew, there was virtually no terminology for me to fall back on. I wouldn’t be surprised if some of the terminology used in that field nowadays was first coined by me in those days.


Question: Do you still have the material you wrote or translated in those days?


Answer: I threw it out not very long ago. It was taking up too much space.


Question: How about some basic biographical background?


Answer: I grew up in Haifa. After high-school came the army, where I was part of a group of soldiers that was sent to a kibbutz, to help out with the farming. There too, though, I soon found myself spending less and less time in the fields and more time on “special assignments” such as editing the kibbutz journals (mimeographs in those days), organizing cultural events and so on.


The founders of that particular kibbutz had come from Hungary in the late 40s, and were later joined by immigrants from the Netherlands and the UK. I wound up spending six years there.


Question: Is that where your English got a serious boost then?


Answer: My serious exposure to English came earlier. When I was growing up, my father – a historian – was a teacher at a high-school affiliated with the Technion, and most of the kids in the faculty housing complex  where we lived were children of lecturers from abroad. In a neighborhood like that, you simply had to use English – or keep quiet. In fact, I even wound up staging plays with the kids. The highlight of my short-lived career as theatrical producer was Alice in Wonderland. (Not to worry, I also played basketball.)


One thing that threw me off was the fact that these early experiences were with American English, while the teachers at school were Poles or Turks using British English. To this very day, I find it difficult to maintain some consistency when it comes to the dialects of English!


Question: At what point did you start your academic studies?


Answer: Later than the usual pattern. I was twenty-four by then, because I went on living on the kibbutz for three years beyond my army service. Most of my time on the kibbutz was devoted to farming – vineyards,  avocado and so on – but my involvement with the cultural activities was what left the more lasting imprint.


Question: At what point did you leave?


Answer: In a sense I never left. I mean I never went through the official process of leaving. It’s just that my wife-to-be did not want to live on a kibbutz, so that I gradually found myself spending more and more time in town, and less and less time on the kibbutz, and by the time we were married, I had left.


Question: And when you did finally reach the point of enrolling at the university, what did you choose? Did it have anything to do with translation studies?


Answer: It never even occurred to me that translation could be a profession. I had dabbled in it, as a way of making ends meet. This was in 1966, and Israel was in the throes of a recession, so I continued translating here and there, but didn’t see it as anything like a career.


Question: What was your major?


Answer: I signed up for Hebrew language and literature – considered utterly impractical disciplines in those days – and to be sure that I’d wind up with a profession too, I signed up for the new School of Journalism, having every intention of becoming a journalist. I had written quite a lot by then, after all – stories for children’s weeklies, for the kibbutz bulletin, for the Israel Scouts Movement monthly,  and so on. I dropped out of Journalism, though, when I realized that the courses were not what I had expected. Then, after my second year, a new department was established: Literary Studies. The people who set it up were on the lookout for students who could be recruited as teaching assistants – and that’s how I got roped in, along with the “founding fathers” of that department.


Question: Did this bring you any closer to translation?


Answer: Well, yes and no. Although I did not realize it at the time, I was on my way to becoming deeply involved in the study of translation. The course in which I served as TA was Introduction to Prose Fiction, and virtually all of the texts we used were in fact translations. How absurd, when I think of it now, that we treated every word and every letter in these (Hebrew) translations as if they were precisely what the writer had written.


Question: So translation at that point was purely instrumental?


Answer: Yes, when it came to the course materials. But meanwhile, I had also been recruited into the editorial board of HaSifrut, the university’s Literary Studies Review, where I was charged with translating many of the non-Israeli articles that we chose to introduce our readers to.


Question: Roman Jakobson, for instance?


Answer: Jakobson came a little later. First there was Sebeok and many other classics for me to translate, and it was then that I came into intense contact with translation in a much broader sense. The fact that translation could be an object of study as well as a means to an end was not immediately obvious, and I am grateful to my teachers and colleagues of those days for helping me realize this. Prof. Kadari, for example, a semanticist in the Hebrew Language Department, sensed that my interest went beyond the course materials, and did something which was to make a big difference: he brought me his own copy of Nida’s Science of Translating. Nida’s work was the very first thing I had ever read about translation, and it had a tremendous impact on me: First, it showed me that translation really is a subject in its own right; second, the book’s very methodical approach proved to me that translation can be studied in a methodical way (which impressed me greatly at the time, since I had heavy leanings towards neat taxonomies in those days); and third, it was heavily based on the Bible, and I had easy access to the original text of the Old Testament! After reading Nida, I soon realized that translation was what I wanted to study, and that I would try to do this from a semantic perspective.


I was nearing the end of my BA by then, and I had to choose the direction I would take in my master’s degree. The head of the Hebrew Language Department wanted me to continue by delving deeper into morphology or syntax, rather than semantics, but I knew this was not what I wanted. At that point, Itamar Even-Zohar had joined the Literary Studies Department, and I found in him an ally and guide. 


Question: He was your teacher?


Answer: Not really. He was spending the year in Scandinavia, working on his doctorate on the theory of literary translation. By the way, to my mind, the fact that it was never translated (from Hebrew) and was never published is an incredible mistake. By now there’s no longer any point, but in 1972 or 1973, when he wrote it, it was extremely innovative and well worth publishing. It would probably have made a hell of a difference.


Question: What happened next?


Answer: While Itamar was still busy finishing his PhD I discovered my second book on translation: Catford - another volume that made a lasting impression. Again the methodical approach appealed to me. My third introduction to the field involved two writers at more or less the same time: Itamar Even-Zohar’s doctorate and Jíři Levý. In Levý’s case, it was two of his articles: “Translation as a Decision Process” (1967) and “Will Translation Studies Be of Use to Translators” (1965). The interesting thing is that I started straight off with the contemporary writings; only later did I look at what had been written previously.


Question: OK, so we’ve reached the point where Gideon discovers that translation is a legitimate object of academic interest, and –


Answer: Yes, and Gideon is offered the chance to sign up for an MA and later for a PhD in the newly established Department of Literary Studies. He seizes the opportunity. I did the coursework, and wrote a seminar paper on polysystem theory which was published at the time. I did it under Itamar’s supervision, even though we were both teaching the course together.


Question: Is that when you took time off to write your dissertation?


Answer: I didn’t take time off. I had written a proposal which, in retrospect, was incredibly naive. I figured that enough had been written about the theory of translation, and that I’d better focus on a historical case study. My intention was to describe the main norms of the 30s and 40s in the translation of fiction into Hebrew by simply using the existing apparatus. Little did I realize that no such apparatus existed, and that I’d have to create it as I went along, unless I wanted to make do with “merits” and “demerits”, or declaring translations to be “good” or “bad”. There were no theoretical tools for describing what had happened, as such, without value judgements. I knew that I did not simply want to point out places where the translations had failed to do whatever they had set out to do – when I did not really have a clear idea of what they had set out to do in the first place. In all earnestness, I had never intended my contribution to be in the theoretical direction; I wanted to use the theory, not to formulate it.


In the very same years (the mid-70s) I also became a prolific  - and quite successful, if I say so myself – translator of prose fiction (C. S. Lewis, Scott Fitzgerald, Ford Madox Ford, Günter Grass, Heinrich Böll, Uwe Johnson, Peter Handke, Ernst Hemingway, etc. etc.)


Question: And did you have access to the theoretical literature that had been written abroad. Were those writings accessible?


Answer: You mean in the non-English-speaking world? By then, I had discovered that I do know German, which allowed me to read some East German scholars. (I also discovered that I didn’t know French, and that the French writings were taking quite a different approach.) I did have indirect access to various Slavic writings, thanks to Itamar Even-Zohar, who had summarized or translated them for his own purposes, so I did get a chance to read some of those too, including Russian theoreticians.


Question: If someone in the Czech Republic, for example, had written something important about translation, how could you know about it? What were the mechanisms for the spread of new knowledge in this evolving field?


Answer: The basic mechanism was personal connections. If someone in Czechoslovakia of those days (or Slovakia, mainly, since most of the theoreticians known to us were Slovaks) had published something in Czech or Slovak, it was usually James Holmes who saw to it that the rest of us gained access to it. He made friends with people, he brought us texts. The whole thing was based on networking – on friendships and ongoing exchanges of information. There was no real “School” of theoreticians, but there was a nucleus of people - centering on James Holmes, José Lambert, André Lefevere and Itamar Even-Zohar - who were eager to share whatever information and writings they had. It was a very meaningful period for all of us. It gave us a sense of community, and a setting in which to have our say. Two of the periodicals that are still around today, Babel and Meta, were also useful back then. They didn’t specialize in theory per se, or in “practice” per se, but they did help us reach one another. And after the Leuven Conference in 1976 TRANSST was launched as the official channel of information. (I revived it in 1987, after it had been dormant for a few years.)


Question: How did you personally first join that community?


Answer: Itamar Even-Zohar was on sabbatical in Holland. He didn’t know any of those people, but he started seeking them out. Most of them didn’t have too many publications yet either, but they all decided that perhaps the time had come to join forces and organize a seminar on the state of the art in translation; literary translation, to be precise. This was in Leuven in 1976. The nice thing about it was that each of them also brought a few young doctoral students who were making their own inroads. Itamar asked me to join, and said I needed to deliver a paper. I sat up all night writing it - I never write at night normally, and I don’t usually compose a paper at that speed – but I guess that paper on norms was ripe in my head by then, and it turned out to be the nucleus of my PhD. It is still mentioned sometimes, even though it is outdated, and I worry that people who read it now may forget to take into account how old it is, and how much more has been done since then.


Question: Were you the only doctoral student that Even-Zohar brought along?


Answer: I was the only one. After all, he had just finished his own doctorate a short time before that. He wrote me from Amsterdam: “You’ve got to come to this symposium.” I had never even attended a conference before, I didn’t think I knew how to write in English, I had never published anything outside of Israel. It was quite a shock, but I realized he meant business.


Question: When did you submit your PhD?


Answer: In late 1976. I still wasn’t sure whether this was what I would continue doing, but just about then our department opened a course in translation theory – not as part of Translation Studies, but as a general elective. That was when I launched my Introduction to Translation Studies course.


Question: When I took your course in 1980 it seemed pretty well established.


Answer: Yes, by then it was. But of course, to this day, I still find myself wrestling with the question of how to strike the right balance in a course that consists of no more than about twenty-five biweekly sessions. For some of the students, it’s the only exposure to Translation Studies that they’ll ever have – but at the same time I want to offer something to those who will take it up as their major. In fact, I want to seduce some of the students to do precisely that…


Question: Could we backtrack a little? Tell me some more about your linguistic background.


Answer: As I said, it slowly dawned on me that I did actually know German. After all, like most kids in Israel back then, I grew up in the home of immigrants. (Both of them had come from Germany in the mid-thirties, just in time.) And children of immigrants, whether they realize it or not, are constantly translating, not only on the linguistic level but on the pragmatic and cultural levels too. Of course my parents’ influence also included the materials we had at home. I spent my childhood reading my father’s books – mostly history – including many that I could not possibly have understood at the time. For example, I recall reading Utopia at the age of ten. I don’t remember it, and probably didn’t understand it, but that was what we had, so that was what I read.


Question: What about Arabic?


Answer: I took Arabic in high school and again at university, and I also studied ancient Semitic languages (Acadian, Aramaic, Ugaritic and so on). I knew them well, because the Hebrew Language Department put considerable emphasis on these languages, including translation into and from, as a way of making sure  we understood the texts.


Question: Who were your sources of inspiration? Who influenced you, whether directly or through their writings?


Answer: Eugene Nida, as I mentioned, was the first. Then Catford, and of course Itamar Even-Zohar. And later, James Holmes, who was already in Amsterdam by then. More important even than my own personal debt to him is what the discipline owes him. I make a point of getting people to read what he wrote – which was not much in purely quantitative terms, but was invaluable in terms of sheer insight.


Question: To what extent does your experience in the classroom feed into your work as a scholar-researcher?


Answer: Less and less, but initially it was very significant. There are many things which I discovered by working together with my students. Then again, the students, on the whole, were more keen in the early days, and more academically inclined. Nowadays, it seems as though academic and theoretical questions are a necessary evil on the way to a career in translation. Of course, not surprisingly, after teaching for so long, I get fewer new insights from time spent in the classroom.


Question: Was your work as a researcher affected in any way by the fact that your main language, Hebrew,  is so “limited” in terms of its distribution?


Answer: Given the fact that we rely so heavily on translations, it is certainly a factor to consider. But on the personal level, my answer is less certain. I don’t really know whether I would have been as interested in translation if I were living, say, in the US – but I suppose not.


Question: In your opinion, to what extent does a researcher’s socio-cultural environment affect his research?


Answer: I suppose it varies. If you take, for example, my own interest in norms, I’m interested in them not so much as formal dos and don’ts but more as an abstraction of what people really do in practice. I suppose my interest was, in part, a kind of reaction to what was happening around me – to the overriding tendency in our cultural milieu in those days to classify things in terms of “good” or “bad”. In other cultures, which are larger, I suppose people would find it more difficult to “rebel” by analyzing norms in this way.


Question: In the 50s, you might not have taken that route at all; those were much less rebellious times, don’t you think?


Answer: Well, I was just a child in the fifties, but perhaps that’s true.  The fact that most of “our” literature consisted of translations did of course make us less critical of translated texts, not to mention translation as a cultural practice.


Question: You teach, do research, write, edit and translate. Do you enjoy these multiple roles, or would you prefer to focus on one particular area?


Answer: One area that I attempted but quickly abandoned was translation criticism – writing reviews of new translations for the literary supplements.


Question: A sure way to make enemies, I suppose?


Answer: That wasn’t the main reason I stopped. I simply realized that people tend to think that as a researcher and a theoretician my opinions carry more weight than those of others. I didn’t like that: I mean, I thought my critiques of  translations should be treated like those of any intelligent reader, not of an expert in Translation Studies. That was about twenty-five years ago, and I haven’t written a single critique since.


As for writing and research, I have to say that my role as editor of Target over the past twelve years has meant that I do a lot less writing of my own. First you have to take care of your journal, and only then – if you have time left over – do you write.


Question: Still, you did put out a book in 1995.


Answer: Fortunately, I had a year off. If I hadn’t had a sabbatical, it wouldn’t have happened.


Question: What about your other pursuits?


Answer: Another area I’ve hardly touched for many years is translator training. Recently, I returned to it, and I give a workshop on the translation of academic articles in the humanities and the social sciences. Frankly, I find this even more challenging that the translation of literature.


Question: That’s surprising.


Answer: Of course, I’m not talking about scientific articles per se. The hardest text I ever translated was Patrick Seale’s biography of Assad. There were so many problems of transcription and of figuring out the terminological equivalents and so on.


Question: But if it were an article in your own field, you’d know the terms, and you’d have fewer problems with the transcriptions.


Answer: True, but don’t forget that many of the terms don’t even exist in Hebrew, given the fact that most of us have only published in English over the years.


Question: In recent years, there’s been a tremendous increase in the number of publications and conferences in our field. How deep is your involvement in all this, and what do you think of these developments?


Answer: On the whole, I think it’s a welcome trend. More people are doing more things. The only flaw is that there doesn’t seem to be enough specialization. Everyone seems to be doing everything. Most of the conferences are very heterogeneous – and there’s nothing wrong with that, but as a result, the screening is not always strict enough. The point may be that in some cases at least, we really do find “cross-fertilization” among the different orientations. Some of the new periodicals and ongoing projects are fascinating. Even things that have nothing to do with my own specializations intrigue me, and I only wish I could keep up with it all.


Question: When you were starting out, some of the tools available to us today simply did not exist; machine-readable corpora, for example. If they had been around then, would your research questions have been different?


Answer: I may still have asked the same questions, but I would certainly have gone about things differently – checking my hypotheses on larger corpora, for instance. Just by way of illustration: I’d really be curious to know what variants have been used over time for a source-text lexical item like “ham and eggs”, which is such a problem in Hebrew.  I’ve wondered about that for a long time, but in the past there was no way of quantifying it on a larger scale, beyond the random examples. At this age and stage, I don’t know whether I’d be inclined to create the corpus, but if one existed, I’d be among the first to use it.


I’d also love to try out the software prepared by Arnt Jakobson at the Copenhagen Business School (“Translog”), except that it isn’t Hebrew-friendly either, for the time being. It could answer some interesting questions about the time sequencing of the translation process; I mean I’ve always had some intuititions about that, but I’ve never had the tool for testing them. As a result, the title of my prospective paper – “It Is a Matter of Time” – remained a mere title.


Question: What are you doing these days, and what are your plans for the foreseeable future?


Answer: I’ve just finished my four-year stint as Head of the School of Cultural Studies, which took a great deal of my time. My main priority these days is the Benjamins Translation Library, Target and TRANSST. As for writing something extensive of my own, I don’t know.


Question: How about research?


Answer: I have an ongoing project of research into 18-19th-century Hebrew literature, but much of this hasn’t been published yet. I’ve neglected it for quite a while, and would like to get back to it. I had dreamed of taking on the major project – a comprehensive history - but I’ve become much more realistic, and I suppose I’ll make do with less ambitious plans.


Question: When it comes to the international research community in the world at large, what seems to lie ahead, as far as you can see?


Answer: Only a fool would try to prophesy with any certainty. Some of the recent developments were quite unexpected, in fact. For instance, there’s been a proliferation of translation departments in some places, like Spain. Of course, they vary in what they do and in  how well they do it, but the quantity does also generate quality in the long run. There really is no such thing as “the world at large”. I’d love to see the US play a more central role in translational research, but for the time being, once you’ve mentioned a handful of US scholars, you’ve named them all. And most of them say they feel marginalized.


Question: Is there anything that I haven’t asked, that you’d like to mention?


Answer: I didn’t think I had anything to say in the first place! Maybe I should mention the local scene. My own “community”, unfortunately, is largely abroad, rather than here. It may be regrettable, but that’s how it is.

In a country that has few institutions and few people promoting a field like ours, the prospects are not too promising – which is why there are so few doctoral students. Most of the research, as Daniel Gile has written, and as the 1976 Leuven Conference demonstrated, comes out of people’s dissertations and theses.


Still, if prizes and awards are an indication that a field has gained a foothold in the pantheons of academe, I would like to believe that the Honorary Doctorate that I received recently from the University of Middlesex is a tribute to our profession. More than anything else, it seemed to show that Translation Studies seems to have come of age.


(The interview was tape-recorded in Hebrew and was then transcribed and translated by Miriam Shlesinger. It was conducted in her home in Tel Aviv, on July 12, 2000.)

The interview was published in: ACROSS LANGUAGES AND CULTURES 1:2 (2000), 275-286.

Publishers website: Academia Publishers