Shift Approaches in Language Translation


The term “shift” commonly refers to changes which occur or may occur in the process of translating. As long as translating is a language use, the notion of shift belongs to the notion of linguistic performance as opposed to that of theories of competence. Although the term “shift” was initially adopted by Catford as “departures from formal correspondence in the process of from the Source Text (ST) to the Target Text (TT), other scholars like Levy, Popovic, Blum-Kulka, Hatim, M.

Shlesinger, and Van Leuven-Zwart also attempted to produce and apply a model of “shift analysis”.

In this paper, we are going to scrutinize into the topic of shift by giving a detailed account of the theories and discussions on the topic. However, as mentioned above, shifts are parts of the linguistic aspect of language, and therefore, they are closely interwoven with “Equivalence”. Hence, it is deemed necessary to give a brief description of “Equivalence” as an introduction to “shift approach”.

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Equivalence A

Dictionary definition of “equivalence” A typical dictionary definition of “equivalence” is as follows: As an adjective it means: Equal or interchangeable in value, quantity, significance, etc. – Having the same or a similar effect or meaning. And as a noun it means: – The state of being equivalent or interchangeable.

B Equivalence and Translation

It is evident that differences between the systems of the source language (SL) and the target language (TL) bring about the loss of certain functional elements whereas they also give rise to new ones through translation.

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This can be clearly observed when a target-language text (TLT) is compared with its source-language text (SLT).

The literature in translation studies has generated a lot of discussion on the sources of this phenomenon known as ‘translation loss’ which has caused heated controversy in the theory of translation. This could be attributed to differences in views held by various theorists regarding the notion “translating”. The theorists who attempted to define this concept are, tentatively, included under two main groups. In the first, there are those scholars who are in favour of a linguistic approach to translating. Bell (1991: 20), for instance, defines translating as “the replacement of a representation of a text in one language by a representation of an equivalent text in a second language”.

According to Jakobson (1959), languages, from a grammatical point of view, may differ from one another to a greater or lesser degree, which means in “interlingual translations there is no full equivalence between code units [therefore] translation involves two equivalent messages in two different codes” (Jakobson, 1959: 233). Another example can be seen in the work of Nida and Taber (1982) who adopt a less extreme position, believing that translating consists of reproducing, in the target language, the nearest equivalent to the message in the source language.

From the preceding quotes it seems that there is consensus among the supporters of the linguistic approach that the main source of translation problems is mismatches between the linguistic systems of the two languages, which exert a direct and crucial influence upon the process of translating at all linguistic levels (e. g. phonological, lexical, syntactic, etc. ), and can hinder the process of transfer. They lay emphasis on the concept ‘equivalence’ as an important aspect and a method for overcoming translation problems.

Jakobson (1959: 234), for example, writes: “Whenever there is deficiency, terminology may be qualified and amplified by loanwords or loan-translations, neologisms or semantic shifts, and finally, by circumlocutions. ” This principle stipulates that when a translator faces the problem of not finding a translation equivalent in the TL for a particular SL word or phrase, then it is up to the translator to chose (i. e. from the above-suggested methods) the most suitable way to render it in the TT.

Before continuing with the same subject, to have a clearer view of what equivalence is, let’s have some other “equivalence definitions” by some influential scholars with a sideway looking at “translation shift” through them. The bold sentences in Italics focus our attention on the general consensus of theoricians on the concept of “shift”.

Notion of Equivalence C

Vinay and Darbelnet and their definition of equivalence in translation

Vinay and Darbelnet view equivalence-oriented translation as a procedure which ‘replicates the same situation as in the original, whilst using completely different wording’ (ibid.:342). They also suggest that, if this procedure is applied during the translation process, it can maintain the stylistic impact of the SL text in the TL text. According to them, equivalence is therefore the ideal method when the translator has to deal with proverbs, idioms, cliches, nominal or adjectival phrases and the onomatopoeia of animal sounds. With regard to equivalent expressions between language pairs, Vinay and Darbelnet claim that they are acceptable as long as they are listed in a bilingual dictionary as ‘full equivalents’ (ibid.:255).

However, later they note that glossaries and collections of idiomatic expressions ‘can never be exhaustive’ (ibid. :256). They conclude by saying that ‘the need for creating equivalences arises from the situation, and it is in the situation of the SL text that translators have to look for a solution’ (ibid. : 255). Indeed, they argue that even if the semantic equivalent of an expression in the SL text is quoted in a dictionary or a glossary, it is not enough, and it does not guarantee a successful translation.

They provide a number of examples to prove their theory, and the following expression appears in their list: Take one is a fixed expression which would have as an equivalent French translation Prenez-en un. However, if the expression appeared as a notice next to a basket of free samples in a large store, the translator would have to look for an equivalent term in a similar situation and use the expression Echantillon gratuit (ibid. :256). C.

Jakobson and the concept of equivalence in difference

Roman Jakobson’s study of equivalence gave new reasons to the theoretical analysis of translation since he introduced the notion of “equivalence in difference”. On the basis of his semiotic approach to language and his aphorism “there is no signatum without signum” (1959:232), he suggests three kinds of translation: * Intralingual (within one language, i. e. rewording or paraphrase) * Interlingual (between two languages) * Intersemiotic (between sign systems) Jakobson claims that, in the case of interlingual translation, the translator makes use of synonyms in order to get the ST message across. This means that in interlingual translations there is no full equivalence between code units.

According to his theory, ‘translation involves two equivalent messages in two different codes’ (ibid. :233). Jakobson goes on to say that from a grammatical point of view languages may differ from one another to a greater or lesser degree, but this does not mean that a translation cannot be possible, in other words, that the translator may face the problem of not finding a translation equivalent. He acknowledges that “whenever there is deficiency, terminology may be qualified and amplified by loanwords or loan-translations, neologisms or semantic shifts, and finally, by circumlocutions” (ibid. :234).

Jakobson provides a number of examples by comparing English and Russian language structures and explains that in such cases where there is no a literal equivalent for a particular ST word or sentence, then it is up to the translator to choose the most suitable way to render it in the TT. There seems to be some similarity between Vinay and Darbelnet’s theory of translation procedures and Jakobson’s theory of translation. Both theories stress the fact that, whenever a linguistic approach is no longer suitable to carry out a translation, the translator can rely on other procedures such as loan-translations, neologisms and the like.

Both theories recognize the limitations of a linguistic theory and argue that a translation can never be impossible since there are several methods that the translator can choose. The role of the translator as the person who decides how to carry out the translation is emphasized in both theories. Both Vinay and Darbelnet as well as Jakobson conceive the translation task as something which can always be carried out from one language to another, regardless of the cultural or grammatical differences between ST and TT.

It can be concluded that Jakobson’s theory is essentially based on his semiotic approach to translation according to which the translator has to recode the ST message first and then s/he has to transmit it into an equivalent message for the TC. C.

Nida and Taber: Formal correspondence and dynamic equivalence

Nida argued that there are two different types of equivalence, namely formal equivalence—which in the second edition by Nida and Taber (1982) is referred to as formal correspondence—and dynamic equivalence.

Formal correspondence “focuses attention on the message itself, in both form and content’, unlike dynamic equivalence which is based upon ‘the principle of equivalent effect” (1964:159). In the second edition (1982) or their work, the two theorists provide a more detailed explanation of each type of equivalence. Formal correspondence consists of a TL item which represents the closest equivalent of a SL word or phrase. Nida and Taber make it clear that there are not always formal equivalents between language pairs.

They therefore suggest that these formal equivalents should be used wherever possible if the translation aims at achieving formal rather than dynamic equivalence. The use of formal equivalents might at times have serious implications in the TT since the translation will not be easily understood by the target audience (Fawcett, 1997). Nida and Taber themselves assert that “Typically, formal correspondence distorts the grammatical and stylistic patterns of the receptor language, and hence distorts the message, so as to cause the receptor to misunderstand or to labor unduly hard” (ibid. :201).

Dynamic equivalence is defined as a translation principle according to which a translator seeks to translate the meaning of the original in such a way that the TL wording will trigger the same impact on the TC audience as the original wording did upon the ST audience. They argue that “Frequently, the form of the original text is changed; but as long as the change follows the rules of back transformation in the source language, of contextual consistency in the transfer, and of transformation in the receptor language, the message is preserved and the translation is faithful” (Nida and Taber, 1982:200).

One can easily see that Nida is in favour of the application of dynamic equivalence, as a more effective translation procedure. This is perfectly understandable if we take into account the context of the situation in which Nida was dealing with the translation phenomenon, that is to say, his translation of the Bible. Thus, the product of the translation process, that is the text in the TL, must have the same impact on the different readers it was addressing. Only in Nida and Taber’s edition is it clearly stated that “dynamic equivalence in translation is far more than mere correct communication of information” (ibid:25).

Despite using a linguistic approach to translation, Nida is much more interested in the message of the text or, in other words, in its semantic quality. He therefore strives to make sure that this message remains clear in the target text. II. Translation Shift A. ‘Translation shifts’ This section presents a short review of the available studies and models that have touched upon the notion ‘translation shifts’.


As you observed above, although some theoricians did not directly mention the word “shift” in their theories, in fact they meant almost the same thing. Nevertheless, Catford (1965, quoted in Hatim 2001: 15), perhaps, is the first one to introduce this term “translation shifts” to refer to the “departures from formal correspondence in the process of going from SL to TL” (1965: 73). Catford’s approach to translation equivalence clearly differs from that adopted by Nida since Catford had a preference for a more linguistic-based approach to translation and this approach is based on the linguistic work of Firth and Halliday.

His main contribution in the field of translation theory is the introduction of the concepts of types and shifts of translation. Catford proposed very broad types of translation in terms of three criteria:

  1. The extent of translation (full translation vs partial translation);
  2. The grammatical rank at which the translation equivalence is established (rank-bound translation vs. unbounded translation);
  3. The levels of language involved in translation (total translation vs. restricted translation).

We will refer only to the second type of translation, since this is the one that concerns the concept of equivalence, and we will then move on to analyze the notion of translation shifts, as elaborated by Catford, which are based on the distinction between formal correspondence and textual equivalence. In rank-bound translation an equivalent is sought in the TL for each word, or for each morpheme encountered in the ST. In unbounded translation equivalences are not tied to a particular rank, and we may additionally find equivalences at sentence, clause and other levels.

Catford finds five of these ranks or levels in both English and French, while in the Caucasian language Kabardian there are apparently only four. Thus, a formal correspondence could be said to exist between English and French if relations between ranks have approximately the same configuration in both languages, as Catford claims they do. One of the problems with formal correspondence is that, despite being a useful tool to employ in comparative linguistics, it seems that it is not really relevant in terms of assessing translation equivalence between ST and TT.

For this reason we now turn to Catford’s other dimension of correspondence, namely textual equivalence which occurs when any TL text or portion of text is “observed on a particular occasion … to be the equivalent of a given SL text or portion of text” (ibid. :27). He implements this by a process of commutation, whereby “a competent bilingual informant or translator” is consulted on the translation of various sentences whose ST items are changed in order to observe “what changes if any occur in the TL text as a consequence” (ibid. :28).

As far as translation shifts are concerned, Catford defines them as “departures from formal correspondence in the process of going from the SL to the TL” (ibid. :73). Catford argues that there are two main types of translation shifts, namely level shifts, where the SL item at one linguistic level (e. g. grammar) has a TL equivalent at a different level (e. g. lexis), and category shifts which are divided into four types. According to Catford, level shift occur when an SL item has a TL translation equivalent at a different linguistic level from its own (grammatical, lexical, etc.). For example, source text word play achieved at the phonological level may be translated by exploiting the possibilities of the lexical level in the target language. Category shift is a generic term referring to shifts involving any of the four categories of class, structure, system and unit (e. g. ST adjectival phrase becomes an adverbial phrase in the TT). Below is a more detailed analysis of the four sub branches of category shift:

  1. Structure-shifts, which involve a grammatical change between the structure of the ST and that of the TT;
  2. Class-shifts, when a SL item is translated with a TL item which belongs to a different grammatical class, i. e. a verb may be translated with a noun;
  3. Unit-shifts, which involve changes in rank;
  4. Intra-system shifts, which occur when ‘SL and TL possess systems which approximately correspond formally as to their constitution, but when translation involves selection of a non-corresponding term in the TL system’ (ibid.:80).

For instance, when the SL singular becomes a TL plural. Catford was very much criticized for his linguistic theory of translation. One of the most scathing criticisms came from Snell-Hornby (1988), who argued that Catford’s definition of textual equivalence is ‘circular’, his theory’s reliance on bilingual informants ‘hopelessly inadequate’, and his example sentences ‘isolated and even absurdly simplistic’ (ibid. :19-20). She considers the concept of equivalence in translation as being an illusion.

She asserts that the translation process cannot simply be reduced to a linguistic exercise, as claimed by Catford for instance, since there are also other factors, such as textual, cultural and situational aspects, which should be taken into consideration when translating. In other words, she does not believe that linguistics is the only discipline which enables people to carry out a translation, since translating involves different cultures and different situations at the same time and they do not always match from one language to another.


One important source of inspiration for research into shifts of cohesion in translation has been the work led by Blum-Kulka (1986). In her discussion on shifts in cohesion and coherence in translation, she begins from the premise that the process of translation necessarily involves shifts in textual and discursive relationships. Her argument is based on the perception that translation is an act of communication and, as such, differences related to both linguistic and cultural aspects holding between two languages must be considered (Blum-Kulka 1986: 18).

Reference to a number of studies on cohesion is made in her discussion, indicating that differences in levels of explicitness through translations have been attributed to differences in stylistic preferences fore types of cohesive devices in the tow languages involved in translation. Similarly, Blum-Kulka mentions another study that examined the written work of language learners which found that some cohesive markers tend to be over represented in the learner data.

Blum-Kulka postulates that in translation a trend towards explication, especially in the work of non-professional translators, is to be expected and that the less experienced the apprentice translator the more his or her “process of interpretation” of the SL might be reflected in the TL (Blum-Kulka 1986: 20). She includes a table that illustrates the difference in length between an English source text and the French translations; the result in all cases in an increase in the level of explicitness. A further example is presented in her discussion, in this case an excerpt of a professional translation from French into English.

The result is the same: a rise in the level of explicitness. She then concludes that explication is “a universal strategy inherent in the process of language mediation, as practiced by language learners, non-professional translators and professional translators alike” (Blum-Kulka, 1986: 21). As regards meaning, she argues that if cohesive markers create the semantic unity of the text, then the selection of types of cohesive markers used in a particular text can affect the texture as well as the style and meaning of the text. In the same way, unnecessary retention of cohesive devices from source to target texts will also affect the texture.

Blum-Kulka’s discussion of shifts of cohesion and coherence in translation derives from two basic assumptions: first, translation is a process that operates on texts and hence translation needs to be studied within a framework of discourse analysis; and second, that translation is an act of communication and so it must be studied within the methodological framework of studies in communication (Blum-Kulka, 1986: 32).


For Hatim (2001), shifts in translation are seen as positive consequences. He maintains: [The] So-called ‘shifts’ in translation are not considered ‘errors’, as many a translation critic has called them. Shifts are seen as part of the process which is naturally embedded in two different text worlds, intellectually, aesthetically and from the perspective of culture at large. As the Slovak translation theorist Anton Popovic (1970: 79) put it, shifts may simply be seen as all that appears as new with respect to the original, or fails to appear where it might have been expected (Hatim, 2001: 67).


M. Shlesinger (1995) investigates translation shifts in simultaneous interpreting. She examines the number and type of shifts in cohesive elements of an English-language text undergoing simultaneous interpretation into Hebrew. She finds a regular occurrence of shifts in all types of cohesive devices, “particularly those perceived by the interpreter as nonessential”; the most common shift-type being complete omission. She notes that shifts occurred with higher frequency at the beginning of texts. Shlesinger (1995) points out that cohesive devices serve a crucial function in text interpretation in that they define links and relationships between primary textual elements, however, “failure to reproduce these links in a translation can significantly alter text reception and meaning”.

Shlesinger notes that there are three intrinsic constraints have an appreciable impact on an interpreter’s ability to convey true meaning:

  1. the speed of source-text delivery;
  2. text linearity, which forces interpreters to work on smaller, incomplete language units;
  3. assumptions by the speaker as to the level of subject knowledge available to the audience and/or the interpreter.

Finally, Shlesinger concludes here study by noting that “the rates of shifts in cohesion decreased when interpreters benefited from prior exposure to the source text”.


Popovic broadens the concept of the shift (or “shift of expression”) to account for the widespread nature of their distribution. Popovic defines shifts more generally as “all that appears new with respect to the original, or fails to appear where it might have been expected” (1970:79) In this way he includes not only linguistic phenomena, but also replacements arising from textual, literary or cultural considerations.


Finally, the last model in this short literature review is the one that has been developed by Van Leuven-Zwart, published originally as a doctoral thesis in Dutch and then, in abbreviated form, in two articles in Target (Van Leuven-Zwart 1989, 1990). It is somehow the most detailed attempt to produce and apply a model of shift analysis. Her model is intended for the description of integral translations of fictional texts. Her model comprises two complementary models: a comparative and a descriptive model.

The comparative model involves a detailed manual classification of micro-structural shifts (semantic, stylistic and pragmatic, and modulation, modification and mutation) between the ST and the TT. The descriptive model attempts to calculate the effects of the micro-structural shifts on the macro-structural level using the three functions of language from systemic linguistics (interpersonal, ideational and textual functions) and discourse concepts taken from Leech and Short (1981).

In Van Leuven-Zwart’s analysis (1990: 178), segmentation (i. e. word order change) and cohesion are highlighted as two areas where the effects of micro-structural shifts are visible on the textual and interpersonal functions of language and the discourse level. B. Types of shifts Shifts on the part of a translation can occur at any levels, can take various forms, and can have different effects. According to Van Leuven-Zwart’s (1989) model, shifts may manifest themselves on micro- and macro-structural levels.

On the micro-structural level, i. e. the surface constituents of text (e. g. words, phrases, clauses, sentences, etc. ), shifts involving semantic, stylistic and pragmatic values take place. On the macro-structural level, which is seen as a logical consequence of the first one, where units of text deep structure are involved, shifts occur with respect to the meaningful components of the text. Van Leuven-Zwart (1989) points out that some theorists (e. g. Vinay and Darbelnet, 1995, Levy, 1979, etc.) have attempted to classify translation shifts into various types (e. g. shifts from general to specific, abstract to concrete, objective to subjective, and vice versa; along with some shifts that can be characterised as explicitation, implicitation, amplification, reduction, intensification, archaisation, etc. ).

She points out that many of shifts could be theoretically classified under one of the above suggested categories, however, in practice, one would encounter some difficulties in establishing the exact category of a particular shift. Van Leuven-Zwart (1989: 153) clarifies this by saying: [Because] the categories were not clearly defined, so that one particular shift might reasonably be considered specification and intensification, for example, all at once. Moreover, the dividing lines between categories such as explicitation, amplification and addition, on the one hand, and implicitation, reduction and deletion, on the other, were vague and imprecise. Finally, Van Leuven-Zwart (1989) proposes a model for classifying and distinguishing shifts. She believes that shifts can be classified and distinguished by making reference to levels of occurrence (e. g. syntactic, semantic, stylistic, pragmatic, etc. ).


  1. Baker, Mona (1992) In Other Words: a Coursebook on Translation, London: Routledge.
  2. Catford, John C. (1965) A Linguistic Theory of Translation: an Essay on Applied Linguistics, London: Oxford University Press.
  3. House, Juliane (1977) A Model for Translation Quality Assessment, Tubingen: Gunter Narr.
  4. Jakobson, Roman (1959) ‘On Linguistic Aspects of Translation’, in R. A. Brower (ed.)
  5. On Translation, Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, pp. 232-39. Munday, Jeremy. 2001. Introducing Translation Studies – Theories and Applications. London and New York: Routledge.
  6. Chapter Nida, Eugene A. (1964) Towards a Science of Translating, Leiden: E. J. Brill.
  7. Nida, Eugene A. and C. R. Taber (1969 / 1982) The Theory and Practice of Translation, Leiden: E. J. Brill.
  8. Vinay, J. P. and J. Darbelnet (1995) Comparative Stylistics of French and English: a Methodology for Translation, translated by J. C. Sager and M. J. Hamel, Amsterdam / Philadelphia: John Benjamins.

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Shift Approaches in Language Translation. (2016, Sep 19). Retrieved from

Shift Approaches in Language Translation

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