Does Where We Work Influence How We Translate?: Translation Policies in the EU Parliament and UNESCO

Any person remotely acquainted with translation—literary or technical, theory or praxis—will at one point come across the scholar Lawrence Venuti and his dichotomy of domestication vs. foreignization. In his 1998 book The Scandals of Translation: Towards an Ethics of Difference, Venuti, a prominent translation theorist and expert translator, classifies translation on a spectrum: on one side is domestication, which is translation aimed to achieve a certain sense of “authenticity” and “naturalness” in the target language, and on the other is foreignization—a translation that employs the characteristics of the source language, remaining faithful to the linguistic constructions of the source text without assimilating into the target language.

Venuti, whose focus is largely on literary translation, argues for the foreignization of texts in translation. Crudely put, foreignization reminds the readers (of the translated text) that the text comes from somewhere else, effectively transporting the reader to the origin of the text and thereby opening up the reader to the inherent multiplicity of the world. Domestication, on the other hand, erases foreignness from the text, thus upholding a monolithic, centralized idea of a single target language, and in the process effaces the existence of the translator as a subjective medium of ideas and words. 

In most realms of translation—technical, political, literary—domestication is still the preferred mode of translation. A majority of institutions that employ translation services codifies “authenticity” in the target language as a general rule to which translators must adhere. Venuti laments such domesticated translations, pointing out that, in English, domestication has been and still remains the primary mode of translation.

Despite current trends of domestication in English-language translations, translators are always faced with the difficult (not to mention unanswerable) decision of whether to stay faithful to the grammatical and linguistic structure of the source text or to domesticate it so that it sounds more natural in the target language. No work of translation is perfectly domesticated or foreignized; there is a spectrum in which a translator must place their work, domesticating and foreignizing as necessary to best convey the message—if that is their primary purpose or skopos.

A large factor in a translator’s decision to take certain steps toward domestication or foreignization is the institution one belongs to. Many, if not most, localization and translation agencies already standardize certain modes of writing (e.g. the Microsoft style guide, the Google developer documentation style guide), as do academic institutions (e.g. MLA, Chicago, etc.) The same remains for large corporations and major organizations.

In his essay “Text Parameters in Translation: Transitivity and Institutional Cultures,” linguistics professor Ian Mason writes about such ingrained tenets of translation guidelines in institutions and how they affect translators as they make conscious and unconscious decisions as they do their work. Mason uses the European Union and UNESCO as his main examples, focusing on English-French-Spanish translations of speeches and discussions. The questions he asks has less to do with the specific kinds of linguistic guidelines (most institutions are lax about this given the fluidity of language) and more to do with the linguistic phenomena or differences that occur while translating under certain guidelines in place.

Given that most translators work under institutions, answering this question of how much institutions affect translators as they work is an important, pertaining to nearly all translation practices happening around the world. Mason is primarily occupied with the notion of “transitivity,” which “pertains to the way processes are viewed and presented” (400); in other words, transitivity shows “how speakers encode in language their mental picture of reality and how they account for their experience of the world around them” (Simpson 1993: 88). How to translators make sense of a certain text in the source language and configure it to work in a target language? How are the messages in the source text mediated to be conveyed in a certain way in the target language, and in what ways are these messages mediated? These are the kinds of questions that pertain to transitivity, which lies at the heart of translation practices in institutions. By questioning such acts of transitivity, one can examine the effect institutions have on translators; at the same time, transitivity allows us to look at how translators themselves position themselves in terms of their relationship to the discourse of the text at large.

In short, Mason narrows his inquiry down to two major questions: “what evidence is there, if any, of a uniformity of approach across different language sections, consistent with the professed aims of the institution?” Second, “to what extent to actual shifts of transitivity contribute to signalling significantly different values at the level of text and discourse in translated documents?” Mason notes that as of now, there aren’t definitive answers to the questions above, and that his inquiry is small-scale. However, even small-scale studies such as this reveal much about the nature of contemporary translation practices.

So what kind of guidelines or policies to institutions implement for translators? Mason provides several examples. First, the Canadian federal government has a “translation doctrine” that states that a translator should render “not the words or the structures of the source-text but rather the message or, in other words, the author’s intention” (Translation Bureau 1984: 3; emphasis by Mason). Furthermore, translators working for the Canadian government should aim for authenticity, in which “authenticity is the impression conveyed by a translation that it is not, in fact, a translation, that it was composed in the target language from the outset, that it is an original piece of writing” (Translation Bureau 1984: 6, cited in Mossop 1990: 347n.)

Such policies obviously advocate for domestication, per Venuti’s dichotomy, and thus propagate the notion of the “invisibility of the translator” popular to “Western (and especially Anglo-American) culture.” This rationale is echoed by the European Union Commission, whose Translation Service is characterized by “a clear, albeit unwritten, preference for surface-level similarity, which is assumed to guarantee that readers of the various translations all get the same message” (401). Translations are completed “as if texts were drafted in all languages simultaneously, as if no source text existed” (401). 

Mason notes that the UNESCO, on the other hand, aims for accuracy as “the very first requirement” for translators, although UNESCO periodicals still insist on “a ‘readable text.’” But all these words thrown around—readable, authentic, clear, similar—are very vague terminology in the fields of linguistics and translation. By what standard do we measure similarity, authenticity, and readability? How do we judge that a translation is similar/authentic/readable when every language is, despite their lexical and linguistic similarities, markedly different in their configuration of ideas and messages?

To approach these questions as directly as possible, Mason compares source and target texts, examining possible trends and patterns in translation techniques to see if there are any correlations to the guidelines mentioned above. However, Mason notes that such an examination is extremely hard to carry out, as it is difficult to determine if certain techniques (“shifts” in transitivity) are natural, indispensable processes when translating from language A to language B or are decisions influenced by the institution. An example Mason provides is “the pronominal verbal construction in Spanish, whereby a process can be presented in an agentless way and the translator has to find an alternative structure in English (often the passive)” as is the case in:

De no hacerse así — y no se ha hecho así — el riesgo que se corre […] (Calzada Pérez 1997: 153)

which is translated into “if it is not done this way — and it has not in fact been done in this way — the risk that is run […]” (403). Here, it is difficult to tell if such a shift in agency has been made as an individual choice by the translator or because all Spanish pronominal processes are treated this way in English as a result of certain linguistic constructions.

Mason introduces other problems he ran into while carrying out his study, such as the fuzzy “boundary between disallowed structures and those which are (more or less strongly) dispreferred” (403). The French sentence “Cela permet d’évacuer rapidement le personnel” can be translated as “This allows rapid evacuation of staff,” although “in this way staff can be evacuated quickly” is a shift in transitivity that would be more preferable. Another problem deals with “the issue of the relative significance of shifts,” such as in the translation of the French phrase “Ma pensée va aux victimes,” which is shifted to become “My thoughts are with the victims” in English: shifts that are conventionally necessary yet insignificant.

Having abandoned quantitative research for these reasons, Mason undertakes a brief analysis of translations, making general yet non-normative observations of translation practices within the institutions of the EU and UNESCO, focusing on “the translator’s creativity and the limits which translators themselves impose on this” (404).

The EU Parliament. Image credits: DW

First, Mason observes that “the translations of the speeches to the European Parliament stay relatively close to the transitivity patterns observable in the source texts (STs)” (404). In other words, translators don’t deviate too far from the source text, making a conscious decision to remain faithful to the source text; Mason deduces that a motivating factor for this can be “the sensitivity of pronouncements by prominent politicians and the need to avoid misrepresenting not only intended meanings but the words” (404), which many translators will empathize with and have experienced at least once when translating official documentation and the like. On the other hand, in the UNESCO Courier, the periodical that Mason is researching, translators “display greater latitude, as befits the field of journalism where ease of processing by the reader of the translations may be seen as a high priority” (405). Already, there is difference in translation practices based on the institution and medium under which translators work.

Mason then notes that, with translations for European Union Parliament, shifts occur “for the sake of idiomatic preference.” For example, “English material processes frequently become French nominalisations; French active processes become English passives; Spanish ‘se hace’, etc. becomes French ‘on fait’, and so on” (405). Furthermore, “in English, there is often personalisation of actors in material processes, where in French and Spanish the actor is not made explicit” (405). So far, all these shifts in transitivity are routine and normal, used by experienced translators to make for “natural expression in the languages concerned” (405). Mason also notes, however, that the reverse processes also happen: “personalisations may be added in translations from English to French and English nominalisations become French material action processes”: for example, the English “adoption” becomes “l’adopte” and the English “implementation” becomes “mettre en œuvre.” It is safe to assume, then, that “a heterodox range of approaches to the task co-exist in both institutions” (405).

At the same time that these shifts take place, there is also “a high incidence of calques,” or loan translations, which Mason describes as “characteristic of a widespread strategy—evinced in both institutions—of adhering as closely as possible to the formal arrangement of the [source text]” (405). This happens in between English and Spanish, as seen below:

Source text: By destroying accumulated wealth and the sources of future production, total war has sharply increased the pressure of existing populations upon their resources and has thereby sharply curtailed the liberties of vast numbers of men and women, belonging not only to the vanquished nations, but also to those which were supposed to be victorious.

Target text: Al destruir la riqueza acumulada y las fuentes de la producción futura, la guerra mundial ha aumentado intensamente la presión de la [sic] poblaciones existentes sobre sus recursos, y, por lo mismo, ha mutilado gravemente las libertades de un vasto número de hombres y mujeres pertenencientes no sólo a las naciones vencidas, sino también a aquellas que se suponían victoriosas.

Such calques also happen between English and French:

Source text: It [the accident rendered a large number of houses uninhabitable and affected the electricity distribution system.

Target text: Il a par ailleurs rendu inhabitables de nombreuses maisons et affecté le système de distribution électrique.

Mason observes that calques occur most frequently between French and Spanish, given the “syntactic similarities of the two languages”:

Source text: La orientación de la PAC ha favorecido la aparición de ciertos problemas. La búsqueda de la competitividad a cualquier precio favorece la introducción de métodos y técnicas cuyas consecuencias a largo plazo se desconocen.

Target text: L’orientation de la PAC a favorisé l’apparition de certains problème. La recherche de la compétitivité à tout prix favorise l’introduction de méthodes et de techniques dont les conséquences à long terme ne sont pas connues.

Of more interest, however, are shifts in transitivity that betray a more conscious decision by the translator to deviate from the source text for the purpose of pursuing a certain discourse. Mason notes that, in some “French-to-English translations of one parliamentary debate, there are instances of a move towards increased directness affecting process, participants or circumstances,” which consequently “serve to intensify some aspect of the overall process” (406). Here are some examples:

Source text: La responsabilité du trust TotalFinaElf […] est entière.

[The responsibility of the TotalFinaElf trust… is complete.]

Target text: The TotalFinaElf corporation […] is fully responsible.

Source text: Le groupe TotalFinaElf récidive, de manière tragique

[The TotalFinaElf group is committing another offence, in a tragic way]

Target text: The totalFinaElf group […] has acted criminally, once again

The above examples are examples of intensification via a wide array of moves such as re-lexicalizations and shift of attitudes, among others. “What is most striking, however,” remarks Mason, “is a general tendency in these translations to move further in the direction of perceived intended meanings.” In other words, the translator has understood the discourse of the French source text to be one of blame, and thus justifies their translations to “intensify the blame or signal dissent,” given the “plenty of discoursal signals in the co-text” (407). With such different strategies exhibited—from linguistic deviation for discoursal similarity to near-equivalent calques—Mason comes to the conclusion that “the treatment of transitivity patterns varies widely within each institution and within each language pair” (407).

What is most interesting, however, is what Mason discovers in the UNESCO Courier as a trend in which “active processes [become] passive ones”; as it happens no fewer than 16 times, we can assume that “an overall trend is established in which processes may be viewed as happening independently of agents [the translators] or at least the dynamism of actors in processes is reduced” (408). Mason quotes from the December 2001 issue of the Courier—the final edition:

Source text: L’Egypte conquit […] son autonomie.

[Egypt won… her autonomy.]

Target text: Egypt came into her own.

Source text: la mystérieuse présence par laquelle les œuvres de l’Egypte s’unissent aux statues de nos cathédrales

[the mysterious presence whereby the works of Egypt unite with the statues of our cathedrals]

Target text: the inexplicable quality which brings the Egyptian masterpieces into communion with the statues of our own cathedrals

In these examples, Egypt is turned from a subject with agency into an object, something Simpson (1993: 89) calls “an action supervention process, that is where the process may occur independently of the volition of the actor” (408). This phenomenon is also exhibited in a speech by a Spanish MEP who is “critical of the British government’s handling of the crisis over BSE (Bovine Spongiform Encephalopathy or, more popularly, Mad Cow Disease)” (408):

Source text: La supeditación de las decisiones políticas a las presiones económicas en el Reino Unido está en el orígen de la problemática inherente a la EEB.

[The subordination of political decisions to economic pressures in the UK is at the root of the inherent problem of BSE.]

Target text: The underlying problem with BSE is that political decisions have been subordinated to economic pressures in the United Kingdom.

Source text: La enfermedad se originó con la introducción de harinas de carne.

[The disease began with the introduction of bone meal.]

Target text: Cette maladie est due à l’introduction de farines de viande…

[The disease is due to the introduction of bone meal.]

Note that the English translation veers towards attenuation, whereas the French translation heads toward intensification. Mason directs attention to how the English translation “concentrates on the results of [the] subordination… merely [claiming] the subordination and [relegating] the UK from being (part of the Actor to a Circumstantial” (409). On the other hand, Mason analyzes how the French translation “introduces direct causation (est due à/is due to) and thus enhances the accusatory illocutionary force, its force as a speech act that performs the action of accusation, by making it explicit” (410).

All this is to say that “the treatment of transitivity patterns varies widely within each institution and within each language pair” (407). The European Parliament translations tend to remain faithful to the source texts, where as the UNESCO Courier translations vary a bit more with their shifts in transitivity. Calques and radical shifts “co-exist in both sets of data,” eventually pointing to the conclusion that “there is… little uniformity of practice or evidence of influence of institutional guidelines on translator behaviour” (410). Mason contrasts this, however, by saying that translators, in all their adherence and deviation from the source text, “[displays] traces of other discourses, fain echoes of ideological stances which are present in the environment (and which, by their very nature, are transindividual)” (410).

Mason’s inquiry into the relationship between the institution and the translator is both thought-provoking and not fully explored; there is simply too much to cover in a study that examines institutional policies and their influence on translation practices. However, Mason’s analysis does provide some evidence that necessary translation practices and individual inclination toward discourse (justified, we should note, by the source text) are more prevalent than actual influence by institutions. 


Venuti, Lawrence, and Ian Mason. “Text Parameters in Translation: Transitivity and Institutional Cultures.” The Translation Studies Reader, Routledge, London, 2021.