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Translation procedures
JL-P. Vinay and J. Darbelnet
Vinay and Darbelnet's book (1958) is a detailed and comprehensive contrastive an
alysis of English and French. The authors treat translation as an exact discipli
ne, and seek to minimize the purely intuitive, subjective, artistic clement. The
y are interested in the way different cultures think differently, along the line
s of the tapir-Wharf hypothesis. Their analysis of the translation process actua
lly aims to "follow the mind", as it were, from one language to another.
The basic units of their analysis are unites de pensee 'thought units', which co
rrespond to the smallest part of an utterance that can be translated intact. The
y may be realized as morphemes, words, phrases, collocations, or even whole idio
The major theoretical contribution of the book is the influential classification
of translation procedures, given below. The present translation into English ke
eps to their technical terms, except that their use of equivalence (for procedur
e no. 6) has been rejected in favour of a more explanatory and less ambiguous te
rm: equivalence now has quite a different sense in translation theory (sec chap-t
cr 10 belays). It should also be noted that their use of the term 'literal trans
lation (procedure 3) is at variance with the usage of many other scholars: Vinay
and Darbelnet mean approximately 'literal and also grammatical, not 'literal in
the sense of word-for-word and thus'(usually) ungrammatical'.
The section in square brackets under Modulation contains examples of types discu
ssed elsewhere in the book. All the procedures are further discussed at length i
n the book, in terms of lexis, grammar and discourse content. The procedure of t
ransposition may be compared to Catford's class shift - sec chapter 8, below.
The general translation approach advocated by Vinay and Darbelnet leads them to
conclude that the traditional controversy between "literal" and "free" translati
on is a red herring. 'The choice is not between literal and free translation, bu
t between exact and inexact translation" (1958:267).

1. Let us start with the general statement that there are two basic translation
methods: direct or literal translation, and indirect or oblique translation.
It ma happen that a source language message can be transferred perfectly into a t
arget language message, because it is based on parallel categories (structural p
arallelism) or on parallel concepts (metalinguistic parallelism). But the transl
ator may also be aware of gaps or 'lacunae" in the TL which have to be filled by
some equivalent means, so that the global impression is the same for the two me
ssages. And there are also cases where, because of structural or metalinguistic
differences, certain stylistic effects cannot be transferred to the TL without r
adical semantic or lexical changes. It is clear that in such cases the translato
r must have recourse to more roundabout procedures which may appear surprising a
t first sight but which nevertheless allow a rigorous analysis of equivalence: t
hese are oblique translation procedures. The first three procedures outlined bel
ow are direct, and the others arc oblique.
Procedure (1): borrowing
In the case of a lacuna (gap), usually a metalinguistic one (e.g. a new techniqu
e, an .unknown concept), borrowing is the simplest translation procedure of all.
Indeed, it would scarcely be a procedure of any relevance here if the translato
r did not occasionally need to make use of it in order to create some particular
stylistic effect. For instance, to introduce an element of local colour foreign
terms are often retained, such as vcrst from Russia, sauna from Finland, tequil
a and tortilla from Mexico, etc. An English phrase such as "the coroner spoke" m
ight be best translated into French, for instance, by retaining the English term
coroner rather than by searchingfor sofne more 4>rnless felicitous equivalent t
itle in the French legal system.
There are many old loanwords which have become so much part of the lexis of the

borrowing language that they no longer appear as loans; examples from English to
French are alcool from alcohol, rcdingotc from ^riding-coat, paquebot from pack
et-boat. Of more interest to the translator are the new loans, even personal loa
ns. It is worth noting that loans often actually enter a language via translatio
n as happens with semantic loans or false friends, against which one has to be o
n one's guard.
Elements of local colour evoked by means of borrowings have an effect on the sty
le, and consequently also on the message itself.
Procedure (2): calque
A caique is a loan translation of a particular kind: a complete syntagma (syntac
tic unit) is borrowed, but its individual elements are translated literally. The
result may be a calque of expression (loan translation), which preserves the sy
ntactic structure of the SL while introducing a new mode of expression (cf. Fren
ch Compliments de la saison from Compliments of the season |on a Christmas card)
, or it may be a structural calque, which introduces a new construction into the
TL (such as science-fiction, used as such in French).
As with borrowings, there are many old calques which have become fixed in the la
nguage; these too may undergo a semantic change which makes them false friends{a
word in a foreign language that is similar to one in your, so that you might wr
ongly think they mean the same}. The translator will be more interested in new c
alques which seek to fill a lacuna without recourse to an actual borrowing (such
as French economiqucment faible 'economically weak', originally from German; Fr
ench rhommc dans la rue, straight from English the man in the street - more natu
ral French would be horn me de [4of] la rue or even le Frangais moyen 'the avera
ge Frenchman ). It would seem that the best solution is usually to create a new le
xical form from Greek or Latin roots, t>r to make use of conversion (hypostase sec Bally 1944: 257). This would avoid such awkward forms as thcrapie occupatione
lle for occupational therapy, les quatre Grands for the Six Four, le Premier fra
ngais for the French premier |the French form, allowing for a small P, can-also
mean 'the first Frenchman J; calques of this kind arc often felt to be deplorable.
4. Procedure (3): literal translation
Literal, word-for-word translation is defined here as one where the resulting-TL
text is grammatically correct and idiomatic,, but where the translator has not
needed to make any changes other than those that are obviously required by the T
L grammar itself [such as concord, inflectional endings]. Examples: / left my sp
ectacles on the table downstairs' -> J\ai laissc mcs lunettes sur la table en ha
s; Where arc you? -> ctcs-\>ous?
In principle, literal translation is a unique solution, reversible and complete
in itself. It is most commonly found in translations between closely related lan
guages (e.g. French-Italian), and especially those having a similar culture. If
literal translation is often possible between French and English, this is becaus
e shared metalinguistic concepts can equally well derive from a physical co-exis
tence, periods of bilingualism, with the conscious or unconscious imitation that
accompanies a certain intellectual or political prestige. Another reason is the
general convergence of thought, and sometimes of structure, among the European
languages (such, as the creation of the definite article, the concepts of cultur
e and civilization); interesting research has been done here in General Semantic
5 Up to procedure (3) it has been possible to translate without recourse to speci
al stylistic procedures. If this were always the case the present comparative st
udy of two languages: would- be unnecessary, and translation being reduced to a
univocal transfer from SL to TL, would be of no interest. The machine translatio
n project at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (see Locke and Booth 1955
), working on scientific texts, is largely based on the existence of parallel se
gments of text, corresponding to parallel reasoning processes, and as one might
expect these are particularly frequent in scientific texts.
However, if a literal translation (in the sense of procedure (3)) is felt to be

unacceptable, the translator then has to turn to an oblique procedure. -By unacc
eptable we mean that the literally-translated message
has another meaning
has no meaning
is structurally impossible
does not correspond to anything in the metalinguistics of the TL
does correspond to something, but not at the same linguistic level.
By way of illustration, consider these two examples: (i) He looked at the map; (
ii) He looked the picture of health. The first can be translated literally: Il r
egarda la carte; but the second cannot be translated Il paraissait image de la sa
nte, unless for some particular expressive reason (e.g. an English person who sp
eaks bad French, in a dialogue). If the translator ends up with a version such a
s Il se portait comme une charmc, which is an idiomatic equivalent of the Englis
h, this is precisely because he recognizes this equivalence, at the level of the
message; his ability to recognize this is due to his unique position "outside"
both SL and TL. Equivalence of message, in the last resort, depends on identity
of situation, and it is this alone that allows one to say that the TL retains ce
rtain features of reality that the SL does not recognize.
Normally, if there were dictionaries of signifies, of meanings, all we would nee
d to do would be to look up the situation identified by the SL message and trans
late accordingly. But since, practically speaking, such dictionaries do not exis
t, we have to start with words or units of translation, submitting these to cert
ain procedures in order to arrive at the desired message. Since the meaning of a
word is a function of its place in the utterance, it may well happen that the f
inal solution is a choice of words so far from the point of departure that no di
ctionary would mention it Given the infinite number of combinations of interveni
ng signifiants [signifiers], it is clear that a translator cannot always find re
ady-made solutions in dictionaries. For he alone is in possession of the totalit
y of the message which guides his choice; in the last analysis it is in terms of
the message alone, as a reflection of the situation, that the parallelism betwe
en the two texts is judged.
Procedure (4): transposition
Transposition means the replacing of one word-class by another without changing
the meaning of the message. The procedure can also be used within a language, as
in rewording: thus He announced that he would return can be reworded, with the
subordinate verb becoming a noun, as He announced his return. We call this secon
d version the transposed form, and the original (verb) one the base form. In tra
nslation, two types of transposition can be distinguished: (i) obligatory, and (
ii) optional transposition. For example, the French des son lever requires more
than a literal translation, because there must also be an obligatory transpositi
on from the French noun lever 'arising to an English verb phrase: as soon as he g
ets / got up, since the English only has the base (verb) form here. Translating
in the opposite direction, though, we have a choice between the calque and the t
ransposition because French has both forms.
By contrast, the two equivalent phrases apres qu il sera revenu and after he com
es back can both be rendered as a transposition: apres son rctour, after his ret
The base and transposed forms ate not necessarily equivalent from the stylistic
point of view. The translator must thus be prepared to carry out a transposition
if the resulting version fits better in the sentence or allows a particular sty
listic nuance to be^retained. The transposed (nominal) form generally has a more
literary character.
[Transposition does not only occur between verbal and nominal expressions/but be
tween any two word-classes.]
Transposition often involves a reciprocal change (chasse-croise): one change lea
ds to another. [For instance French emportc par le vent literally translates as
carried away by the wind, but a transposed version would be simply blown away: h
ere the meaning element in the French verb appears in the English preposition, a

nd the sense of the French noun vent 4wind' is now expressed in the English verb
Procedure (5): modulation
Modulation means a variation in the message due to a change in the point of view
: seeing something in a different light It is justified when a literal or transp
osed translation results in a form which is grammatically correct but not quite
natural, going against the feeling of the TL.
As with transposition, we can distinguish free or optional modulations from fixe
d or obligatory ones. A classical example of an obligatory modulation is the phr
ase the time when which must be rendered in French as le moment u [i.e. time beco
mes the moment, a unit of time; and when becomes where). A common example of an
optional modulation takes place when a negative expression in the SL becomes pos
itive in the TL, although this is also closely linked to language-specific styli
stic features: it is not difficult to show ... -> it est facile de dimontrer 'it
is easy to show .
The difference between fixed and free modulation is one of degree. In the case o
f fixed modulation, a competent bilingual will not hesitate to have recourse to
this procedure if it is supported by frequency of usage, total acceptance of usa
ge, or a status established by the dictionary or a grammar book.
With free modulation no fixation has taken place and the process must be undergo
ne anew in each case. However, this kind of modulation is not really optional in
the strict sense; correctly carried out, it must result in the ideal TL solutio
n corresponding to the SL situation. By way of comparison, one could say that a
free modulation leads to a solution which makes the reader exclaim "Yes, that's
just how it would be said." Free modulation thus nevertheless tends towards a un
ique solution; and this unique solution rests on a habitual mode of thought, whi
ch is imposed and not optional. Between fixed and free modulation, then, there i
s only a difference of degree; a free modulation may at any moment become a fixe
d one as soon as it becomes frequent, or as soon as it is felt to be the unique
solution (this usually happens during the examination of bilingual texts, or dis
cussions at a bilingual conference, or as a result of a famous translation which
becomes established by virtue of its literary value). The evolution of a free m
odulation into a fixed one becomes complete when it is recorded in dictionaries
and grammar books, becoming something to be taught. From that moment on, non-mod
ulation constitutes a mistake of usage and is condemned as such.
[There are several types of modulation. Some examples are: concrete vs. abstract
: give a pint of your blood -> donnez un peu de votresang 'give a little of your
blood ;
whole vs. part: he shut the door in my face -> il me claqua la porte au net 'he
shut the door in my nose ;
part vs. different part: he cleared his throat -> it s'cclaircit la voix 'he cle
ared his voice ;
converses: you can have it -> jevous le laisse I leave it to you ;
cause vs. effect: baffles analysis -> echappe.a analyse 'escapes analysis
means vs. result:firewood -> hois de cliauffage 'wood for heating ;
different sense: the rattle of a cab (sound) -> le roulement d'un fiacre (moveme
nt) 'the rolling of a cab .]
Procedure (6): total syntagmatic change
We have repeatedly emphasized that two texts may account for the same
situation by means of very different stylistic and structural devices. This is
what procedure (6) Equivalence) is about. A classical example is the reaction
of an amateur banging in a nail and hitting his finger by mistake: if he is
French he will say Are!, but if he is English he will say Ouch! ^
This example, albeit rather oversimplified, illustrates one particular character
istic of this procedure: the change involved is usually syntagmatic, affecting t
he whole of the message. Most examples are thus fixed, to use this term again; t
hey belong to the phraseological repertoire of idioms, cliches, proverbs, nomina
l or adjectival collocations, etc. Proverbs typically provide perfect illustrati
ons of the procedure: like a bull in a china shop -> commc un chicn dans un jeu

de quilles 'like a dog in a game of skittles'; too many cooks spoil the broth ->
deux patrons font chavirer la barque 'two skippers will capsize the boat . And th
e same is true of idioms: to talk through one's hat or as like as two peas must
not be translated as calques on any account; yet this is what one notices among
so-called bilingual populations which are in permanent contact with the two lang
uages but end up mastering neither. Of course, some such calques may eventually
become accepted by the other language, especially if the situation that they evo
ke is a new one and thus susceptible to acclimatization into the target language
. But the responsibility for in- traducing calques into a language already perfec
tly organized should not be the translator's: only the author can allow himself
such fantasies, and their success or failure will reflect on him. In translating
one must keep to more classical forms, for any attempt at innovation via calque
s will seem to carry the taint of an anglicism, a germanism, a hispanism etc.
Procedure (7): adaptation
This last procedure brings us to the extreme limit of translation; it is used in
cases where the situation to which the message refers does not exist at all in
the TL and must thus be created by reference to a new situation, which is judged
to be equivalent. This is therefore a question of situational equivalence. To t
ake an example: it is culturally normal for an English father to kiss his daught
er on the mouth, but a similar action would be culturally unacceptable in a Fren
ch text. To translate he kissed his daughter on the mouth literally as // embras
sa sa fillc sur la bouche, in a context of a loving father returning home after
a long journey, would be to introduce into the TL message an element which is ab
sent in the SL; this is a kind of overtranslation. A more appropriate translatio
n would be il serra undrement sa fitte dans ses bras He tenderly embraced his da
ughter in his arms', unless the translator wants to make a cheap attempt to intr
oduce some local colour.
The adaptation procedure is well known to simultaneous interpreters; there is a
story that one interpreter into French, having adapted cricket into the Tour de
France bicycle race, in the context of a sport that was particularly popular, wa
s put into a difficult situation by die reply of the French delegate, who thanke
d the original speaker for referring to such a typically French sport The interp
reter had to reverse the adaptation and return to the English cricket...
A refusal to make use of adaptations which are not only structural but also pert
ain-to the presentation of ideas and their arrangement in the paragraph, leads t
o a text that is perfectly correct but nevertheless invariably betrays its statu
s as a translation by something indefinable in its tone, something that does not
quite ring true. This is unfortunately the impression all too frequently given
by texts published by international organizations: either because of ignorance,
or because of a misplaced concern with the literalness of translations, they dem
and versions which are as close to calques as possible. The result is a balderda
sh which has no name in any language, but which Etiemble has justly referred to
as Norths-Atlantic-ese (sabir Nord-Atlantique). A whole text cannot be a calque, n
either on the structural nor on the metalinguistic level. All the great literary
translations have implicitly recognized the existence of the procedures outline
d here, "as Gide shows, for instance, in the preface to his translation of Hamle
t. One wonders whether the reason why the Americans refused to take the League o
f Nations seriously was that many of its texts were non-modulated and non-adapte
d translations from a French original, just as North-Atlantic-ese can only deriv
e from ill-digested versions of Anglo-American originals. This is an extremely s
erious problem, but there is not the space here to discuss it further: intellect
ual, cultural and linguistic changes can, in the long term, give rise to importa
nt documents, scholarly manuals, scientific and technical articles, film dialogu
es etc, all produced by translators who cannot or dare not venture into oblique
translations. At a time when excessive centralization and a lack of respect for
other cultures are driving international organizations to adopt a single working
language in which to draw up texts that are subsequently translated hastily by
an unappreciated and insufficient staff, one may well worry that four-fifths pf
t&e globe arc nourished exclusively by translations, suffering a gradual intelle

ctual decay under this diet of pulped cat food.

10. Application of the procedures
The seven procedures outlined above apply equally to lexis, grammar, and the mes
sage itself. In addition to grammatical (structural) borrowings like science-fic
tion in French, one can for instance also speak of borrowings on the lexical lev
el: bulldozer, stopover have entered French as loans; and borrowings on the mess
age level are e.g. OK, five o'clock tea in French and bon voyage in English.
Finally, it is clear that within a single sentence several of these procedures m
ay be used simultaneously, and that some translations depend on a highly complex
technique that is difficult to define; for example, the translation of paper-we
ight by presse-papiers involves both transposition and modulation, both fixed of
course. Similarly, the translation (on a door) of PRIVATE by DEFENSE D'ENTRER '
prohibition to enter' is at the same time a transposition, a modulation, and a t
otal syntagmatic change. It is a transposition because there is a change from a
statement ('This is private^ to a warning (cf. wet paint -> prencz garde d lapei
nture 'watch out for the paint ); and there is a total change of syntagma since th
e translation has been. arrived at via the situation itself, not via the linguis
tic structure.