Norms are psychological and social entities. They constitute an important factor in the interaction between people, and as such are part of every socialization process. In essence, norms, like rules and conventions have a socially regulatory function. They help to bring about the coordination required for continued coexistence with other people. In doing so norms ‘safeguard the condition of social coexistence’, for they usefully mediate between the individual and the collective sphere, between an individual’s intentions, choices and actions, and collectively held beliefs, values and preferences.

Moreover, norms and conventions contribute to the stability of interpersonal relations, and hence of groups, communities and societies, by reducing contingency, unpredictability, and the uncertainty which springs from our inability to control time or to predict the actions of fellow human beings. The reduction of contingency brought about by norms and conventions is a matter of generalizing from past experience and of making reasonably reliable, more or less prescriptive projections concerning similar types of situations in the future. Translation is constrained by social and cultural factors. In most cases, it is the publishers who determine the choice of these social factors and the kinds of translations they would like translators to produce.

So far as the settlement of specific problems is concerned, the translators obviously have the last say, for they are the only people doing the creative work of translation. Translators are manipulated by the patronage. But as the actual performers of the act of translating, they can at times move beyond the norms. Breaking norms is closely related to the motivation of translation. As social agents, translators work in a certain context. They have certain goals to reach, personal or collective interests to pursue, and material and symbolic stakes to defend. Some translators are politically motivated and their very purpose is to subvert the dominant norms. Ideological control of translation is usually strict in a society. But some translators are defiant of or indifferent to the political or ethical norms of the target culture and remain faithful to the source text even if it is hostile or threatening to dominant political or ethical values. And for certain purposes, some would rather challenge the target culture ideological norms and face possible severe punishment.

In the Medieval Period, the Bible was prohibited being translated into vernacular languages. But the attempt of the church authorities finally failed. In the Middle East, similar things happened to the rendition of Koran. In China, during the Cultural Revolution, ideological control of translation went to the extreme. In the five years from May,1965 to November, 1971, not a single translation of foreign literature was published. And in the remaining years of the Cultural Revolution, only a total of 34 translations got printed. But some people secretly translated the Western literature, not to serve the dominant ideology, but just for translation’s sake and their translations came out soon after the end of the Cultural Revolution. Breach of poetical norms is very common in literary translation and is diversified by the translator’s personal aesthetic preferences.

For instance, at the beginning of the 20th century, three kinds of temporal dialects co-existed in the Chinese fiction translation: a). the classical dialect (wenyan); b). the simple classical dialect; and c). the spoken dialect (baihua). Most translators stuck to the use of one form, but some alternated between two. In rendering the same text, some people follow the source culture norms and translate more literally, while others attach greater importance to the readers and produce works with more latitude. The translator’s response to the editors’ poetic requirements and critics’ comments is also complex. Translators normally obey the obligatory requirements, but may accept or reject the technical suggestions according to their own professional judgment. Some translators may be part of a prevailing trend and thus establish good relationships with critics, while others may insist on their own principles in spite of the critics’ opposition. Breach of norms does not necessarily lead to severe punishment, nor does it mean the invalidity of norms. At times, slight breach of norms is not only tolerated, but also encouraged. “Some literary translators might claim that their intention is precisely to break these norms.

And translations of advertisements sometimes appear deliberately to flout the expectancy norms of the target culture. (Chesterman, 1997: 60)” Norms are “the main factors ensuring the establishment and stability of a social order (Toury, 2001:55)”, but they also restrain innovation. In this sense, they must sometimes be challenged and changed. Otherwise, prejudice will last a long time. Here failure to adhere to norms does not mean anything negative. On the contrary, it is often the source of cultural creativity. Only when the previous norms are broken is it possible for new ones to become dominant, and for cultures to develop.

The existence of competing norms in a society involves choices. Translators tend to follow the mainstream norms to be more easily patronized. In some cases, however, particularly in time of cultural transition, several conflicting norms might be equally influential. This enables translators to decide to go with one norm and accept one patronage instead of another. The translator’s position is crucial at this moment. Translation used to be regarded primarily in terms of relations between texts, or between language systems. Today it is increasingly seen as a complex transaction taking place in a communicative, socio-cultural context. This requires that we bring the translator as a social being fully into the picture. Translation involves a network of active social agents, who may be individuals or groups, each with certain preconceptions and interests. The translative operation is a matter of transactions between parties that have an interest in these transactions taking place. For those involved in the transfer, the various modalities and procedures that go with it presuppose choices, alternatives, decisions, strategies, aims and goals. Norms play a crucial role in these processes. In what follows the emphasis will be on the agents involved in these processes rather than on the nature of the relation between source and target texts.

I will refer to norms primarily as social and cultural realities, rather in the way that sociologists or anthropologists might use the term. It is worth pointing out at the start that, as regards translation, norms are relevant to the entire transfer operation, not just the actual process of translating, if only because this latter process is necessarily preceded by a number of other decisions. Translation may be regarded as a particular mode of discursive transfer between cultural circuits or systems. It constitutes one among a number of possible modes of the intercultural movement of texts. Although translation studies today constitutes anything but a unified field of study, some of its larger disciplinary shifts have been felt more or less across the entire range of the subject. At an early stage, for example, ‘fidelity’ was replaced by ‘equivalence’ as a theoretical and methodological concept in applied as well as in descriptive and theoretical approaches to translation.

In the last ten years or so, ‘equivalence’ too has been progressively questioned and hollowed out, largely in favour of the concept of ‘norms’. The first step in the direction of the current preoccupation with norms in translation was taken by Jiri Levý, whose 1967 essay on ‘Translation as a Decision Process’ viewed translation in terms of game theory and the practical reasoning involved in decision-making. The concept itself was introduced into translation studies a decade later by Gideon Toury, who deployed it as an operational tool in his descriptive approach. For Toury, translational norms govern the decision-making process in translating, and hence they determine the type of equivalence that obtains between original and translation. He also distinguished different types of norms, and commented on ways of discovering them.

In practice, Toury saw norms mostly as constraints on the translator’s behavior, and he gave only a brief indication of their nature and broader social function. Since then the concept has continued to receive attention in translation studies. At the same time, the nature and functioning of norms, rules and conventions have been highlighted in a number of publications covering a variety of other disciplines, from law and linguistics to ethics and international relations. The idea of translation being a norm-governed activity was first explored at length by Gideon Toury in his innovative book In Search of a Theory of Translation in 1980. Toury further refined and updated the model in Descriptive Translation Studies and Beyond published in 1995. Translation, as a social activity, is norms-governed. Toury (2001)’s classification of norms shows that every phase of translation, from the selection of texts, to the adoption of an overall cultural stance and the specific strategies, is constrained by norms. John Dryden’s metaphor of ‘dancing on ropes with fettered legs’ refers to the constraints of the source texts and the two linguistic and cultural norms on translation. On the other hand, translation, as a highly creative task, often requires the practitioners to move beyond some norms. Toury identifies different kinds of norms in the translation process. The basic initial norm can be regarded as the choice between the norm-system of the source culture and that of the target culture; subjection to source norms, realized in the ST, or subjection to target culture norms. This will have consequences for the relationship between ST and TT. The translation will be either ST-oriented or TT-oriented. If the translator subscribes to the norms realized in the source text, s/he subscribes to the norms of the source culture and language. This is sometimes referred to as “the pursuit of adequate translation” (Toury 1978/2000:201). This means the adequacy of the translation as compared to the source text. Reversely, adherence to norms in the target culture or language is said to determine the acceptability of the translation. The poles between adequate and acceptable translations “are on a continuum. since no translation is ever totally adequate or totally acceptable” (Munday 2001:114). This means that translation shifts are inevitable; they are a “true universal of translation” (1978/2000:201) and are also norm-governed.

Even the most ST-oriented translation involves shifts from the source text. Toury points out that the initial norm should not be “Over interpreted”. An overall choice between norm-systems does not necessarily imply that decisions at lower levels are made in full accordance with it. “Actual translation decisions” involve an “ad hoc combination […] between the two extremes implied by the initial norm. Toury also distinguishes between preliminary and operational norms. Preliminary norms consider the existence and nature of a definite translation policy; i.e. those factors that govern the choice of text type to be translated into a particular language or culture at a particular time. These choices are affected by e.g. agents and publishers.

Preliminary norms also consider the directness of translation. This consideration involves “the threshold of tolerance for translating from languages other than the ultimate source language” (Toury 1978/2000:202); i.e. whether translation through an intermediate language should be accepted. This is an important consideration for the present study, since it involves one translation made from Swedish to English via German. Toury raises questions about the tolerance to this practice asking if we should mark the translated work as mediated, or if we should ignore/camouflage it. How important is the identity of the mediating language? Should we supply it? (1978/2000:202) Operational norms, then, “may be conceived of as directing the decisions made during the act of translation itself” (Toury 1978/2000:202). They affect the matrix of the text (modes of distributing linguistic material), and govern the relationship between ST and TT as to what will change or not during transformation.

Operational norms are divided into matricial and textual-linguistic norms, where the former have to do with “the completeness of the TT” (Munday 2001:114), involving additions, omissions, relocation, distribution and segmentation of the text. The textual linguistic norms govern the selection of linguistic material with which to replace the original ST-material, involving e.g. lexical items, phrases and stylistic features (Munday 2001:114). Toury stresses that each of these norms is a “graded notion”, since “a translator’s behaviour cannot be expected to be fully systematic” (Toury, in Munday 2001:115). They also differ in “intensity”, from “mandatory” to “tolerated” behavior (Munday 2001:115). According to Toury, norms occupy the middle-ground in a scale of sociocultural constraints ranging, in terms of their force, from more or less absolute rules to mere idiosyncracies (1995:54). The borderline between these constraints is by no means absolute, quite the reverse. They can gain or lose their validity across time along with “changes of status within a society” (1995:54; emphasis original).

Norms could be described as the society’s way of regulating behaviour by saying what is accepted or tolerated, on the one hand, and what is disapproved of or outright forbidden, on the other (1995:55). Learning this code of conduct is part of an individual’s socialisation process (1995:55). Toury points out that possible deviation do not pre-empt the existence of norms; rather, deviations occur at the risk of sanctions on the part of society. He also draws a distinction between actual norms as such and normative formulations; while the latter may reflect actual norms in society, they may also be motivated by other reasons, such as the desire to create new norms (1995:55). According to Toury, translation is a text that occupies a position or fills a slot in the target culture, as well as a target-language representation of a pre-existing source-language text belonging to another culture (1995:56). He considers the choice between these two sources of constraints to be an initial norm. Basically it is the question of a translator deciding to conform to the norms of the source text and, by implication, of the source culture, or to those of the target culture.

The two poles between which a translator then operates are, therefore, the translation’s adequacy, or “adherence to source norms” (1995:56), and its acceptability, or adherence to target norms. In practice, the choices made by a translator involve some sort of compromise or negotiation between the two extremes. Though the theory of translational norms, first proposed by Toury (1980), has been influential in translation studies for quite some time now, this methodological and theoretical framework seems to have had little impact on interpreting research. Most theory-forming work on interpreting, which did not start till the late 1960s (Gile 1994:149), seems to have been preoccupied with the activity as a process of reformulation or as an extraordinary capacity for shared attention. An example of the former is la théorie du sens, the theory of “sense” or “intended meaning”, proposed by Seleskovitch in 1968 (eg Seleskovitch 1978a).

An example of the latter is Gile’s Effort models (eg Gile 1991). Thus, to my knowledge, descriptive work on translational norms in interpreting is rare. Until recently, very few scholars had touched upon the topic at all. Shlesinger (1989) and Harris (1990) were probably the first interpreting scholars to discuss the concept of translational norms in interpreting – both in Target, a journal that has as one of its explicit aims to focus on translational norms. Shlesinger gives a brief account of methodological problems that one might encounter when trying to extend the theory of translational norms to interpreting research. Though she definitely appreciates that norms must play a part in the interpreting process, she concludes that, due to the numerous difficulties involved in their extrapolation, it is too early to start speculating about the nature of such norms2. In a response to these views, Harris argues that it is indeed possible to pinpoint existing norms in the interpreting community, but whereas Shlesinger’s discussion is mainly concerned with methodological problems, Harris merely supplies a list of normative formulations.

Recently a few scholars seem to have found the concept of norms useful in studies of interpreters in institutional settings. Taking his starting point in Descriptive Translation Studies (DTS). According to Hermans (1991:167), there are at least three major models that supply the translator’s norms: (1) the source text, (2) the relevant translational tradition, and (3) the existing set of similar originals in the target culture. These models seem to be equally true for interpreters: (1) some norms may depend mainly on the source speech itself, as well as its context and purpose. (2) Some are drilled into students while still at school, or are developed out of professional experience, for instance when the interpreter listens to a colleague at work. This situation is very likely, as professional conference interpreters are supposed to work in pairs. (3) They may also depend on the nature of speeches (ie originals) that the interpreter has heard in similar contexts. As far as the identification of extra textual norms is concerned, this is only a little harder in connection with interpreting than with translation.

Though there are more books on written translation than on interpreting, it should not be too difficult to find normative literature on interpreting. An example of this is Harris’ norm of the “honest spokesperson”. In accordance with this norm, interpreters should: “… re expresses the original speakers’ ideas and the manner of expressing them as accurately as possible and without significant omissions, and not mixes them up with their own ideas and expressions” (Harris 1990:118). Intercultural traffic, then, of whatever kind, takes place in a given social context, a context of complex structures, including power structures.

It involves agents who are both conditioned by these power structures or at least entangled in them, and who exploit or attempt to exploit them to serve their own ends and interests, whether individual or collective. The power structures cover political and economic power but also, in the field of cultural production, those forms which Pierre Bourdieu calls ‘symbolic power’. The agents, faced with an array of possible options, have to make choices and decisions about how to proceed. It is here that the concept of norms can be usefully brought in. They facilitate and guide the process of decision-making.

Norms govern the mode of import of cultural products – for example, of the translation of literary texts – to a considerable extent, at virtually every stage and every level, whenever choices between alternative courses of action need to be made (to import or not import? to translate or to ‘rewrite’ in some other way? how to translate?) Of course, norms also govern the mode of export, if a culture, or a section of it, actively exports texts or other cultural goods. But whether a product will be imported by the intended receptor system, or imported in the way envisaged by the donor, depends partly on factors pertaining to the receptor system itself and partly on the nature of the relations between the two systems in question. In practice, this means that norms play a significant part, firstly, in the decision by the relevant agent in the receptor system whether or not to import a foreign-language text, or allow it to be imported; secondly, if it is decided to import, whether to translate (whatever the term may mean in a given socio-cultural configuration) or to opt for some other mode of importation; and thirdly, if it is decided to translate, how to approach the task, and how to see it through.

From the point of view of the study of translation it is important to bear in mind that this process of decision-making, and hence the operation of norms in it, takes place in the translator’s head and thus remains largely hidden from view. We have no direct access to it. We can speculate about it, and we can try to move closer to it through procedures like talk-aloud protocols, or through confronting the input of the process with its output, i.e. the source text with the target text, and then make retrospective inferences. In this latter course we are helped by the fact that translation, like any other use of language, is a communicative act. This means that it constitutes a more or less interactive form of social behaviour, involving a degree of ‘interpersonal coordination’ among those taking part (selecting and attuning an appropriate code, recognizing and interpreting the code, paying attention, eliminating ‘noise’, etc.).

However, it depends for its success not only on solving the specific ‘coordination problems’ presented by the immediate situation, but also on the relative positions and qualities of the participants, and on the values and interests at stake. Since these involve issues of material and symbolic power, success too may have to be judged in terms of the interests of one party rather than the other being served.

The complex of translational rules and norms operative in a particular community defines what is translation for that community, because it determines what is recognized as translation. The norms of translation broadly prescribe what can and should be selected, how the material is to be handled by individual translators, and how it is likely to be received. In this sense norms define the contours of translation as a recognized, social category. There are two different sources for studying translational norms: textual sources, i.e. actual translations showing the effects of norms, and extratextual sources, i.e. normative and critical formulations and comments from those involved, though they can sometimes be biased (1995:65).

By studying these sources a scholar could find out whether particular norms are, in terms of their force, basic or rule-like norms, secondary norms or tendencies, or tolerated behaviour (1995:67). While the concept of competence includes the modes available in theory, in a given target culture there are norms directing the choices a translator makes. Delabastita points out that “the effect of norms can be deduced from particular regularities of behaviour” but they can also be detected in metatexts, i.e. “in prescriptive statements but also in scholarly discussions of the subject” (1989:205). One recent example of such a metatext is Karamitroglou (1998), who has suggested a trans-European set of subtitling standards.

Delabastita then formulates two sets of questions a scholar should pose when examining a particular translation in order to detect a norm, or rather “a complex interactive group of norms” (1989:206). The first set is aimed at defining the translation type of an individual film (e.g. what is the technique used? does the syntax sound foreign?) (1989:207).

In the case of subtitling, one should study e.g. what is the presentation time of the subtitles and what kind of source text information has been omitted. The second set of questions can be applied to a large corpus of translations in order to establish the whole cultural framing (e.g. what kind of relations do the source and the target cultures have?) because, according to Delabastita, studying film translation “is necessarily part of the larger project of the analysis of the ‘polysystem’ of culture as a whole” (1989:210-211). Guided by questions such as those above, a scholar could eventually find out what lies behind a translator’s choices. However, this can only be deduced by systematically studying actual translational performance, i.e. a large number of individual translations.


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