Scope and limitations of reiss text typology

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Reiss' translation-oriented text-typology provides a systematic approach to translation. More interestingly, it approaches translation at the text level. This essay will examine Reiss' typology with focus on "Parting the Waters", published in National Geographic, a monthly magazine that borders on science, geography, history and culture.


Reiss sees translation as an act of communication whereby the translator acts as a medium (secondary sender). This presupposes that a message has to be passed across, from a primary source to a target receiver. The major media are the source language and the target language. The aim here is to produce a target language text "that is functionally equivalent" to the source language text (Reiss 2000:160). This means the source text should be the consultative point for the translator. In order to achieve this functional equivalence, Reiss proposes a functional approach of text-typology. This approach takes into account the major communicative function of a source text as a basis for translating into the target text. In other words, a target text that does not have the same function as the source text is not entirely a translation, but what Reiss calls 'transfer'. Reiss' text-typology includes a two-phase approach in translating a text: Phase of analysis and phase of reverbalization. The analysis phase basically involves establishing the text type, genre and style (linguistic form).The phase of analysis is the most important as that is what would inform the translation method to employ.

Text-type of "Parting the Waters"

Reiss identifies three text-types according to their communicative function namely: the informative type (communication of content), the expressive type (communication of artistically organised content) and the operative type (communication of content with a persuasive character). There is another 'hyper-type' which she calls "the audio-medial text type". This is more of a super-ordinate term for the other three and does not concern the text in question since it is a written text. "Parting the Waters" can be seen chiefly as an informative text type; first given the context of the text: magazine and second because it gives factual information about a place: Korea, and the geographical events that take place there. The translation strategy recommended in this case by Reiss should thus focus on conveying content.

Text variety of "Parting the Waters"

This stage has to do with the conventions of structure and language adopted by the text. However, Reiss explains that they may differ according to different cultures. The importance of this is to be able to find a functionally equivalent convention in the target text culture. In this light, "Parting the Waters" is a kind of popular scientific text. This suggests also that it seeks a wider audience other than scientists. This leads to the final stage of analysis: style.

Style in "Parting the Waters"

The final stage of analysis has to do with "detailed semantic, syntactic and pragmatic analysis" of the language use (Reiss, 2000:166). Ordinarily, one would expect that when a text is an informative type, even the language used should be such that it is aimed only at giving facts. But that is often not the case, as Reiss herself admits, "not in one single language do form and function show a 1:1 relation" (2000:166). Hence, looking at the text, one would find a similar occurrence. The text has expressive language such as the internal rhymes: "tides", "divine", "divide"; "of 15 feet". There is also an allusion to a biblical story: "not divine interventions", an expression that answers the presupposition in the title itself "Parting the Waters". Reiss thus considers this stage of analysis the most important, as the translator is faced with a "decisive battle" on what would inform the translation: the language or the function of the text. At this point, Reiss posits that if using an equivalent language style may weigh on the content of the text, then the translator should stick to the predominant function of the text.

Translating "Parting the Waters to Yorùbá": limitations

Taking into consideration the content-focused function of the text, the translator is expected to employ a method that would achieve the same function as that of the target text by translating "according to the sense and meaning" (Reiss 2000:167). This suggests that the meaning conveyed by the target text should be equivalent to the meaning in the source text. Being a popular science text, and specifically about geography, "Parting the Waters" has terms such as "peninsula", "southwestern", "mile", "width", "feet", and "spring". While some of them might have some kind of equivalence (i.e. "peninsula", "mile" "width"), a climatic description like "spring" poses a problem because Yorùbá neither has a word nor group of words for it. This is basically due to the different weather conditions. The question is: what should the translator 'convey' here? This is important because "spring" as used in the text plays a major role in the content; by telling us when an event takes place. The only alternative here would be to replace the word with the time of the year this season occurs in Korea. The problem with this is that it might change the meaning, as the sense of 'season' is different from the calendar year. To solve this translation problem, the translator could adopt Nida's gloss translation of formal equivalence, that is, the use of "footnotes in order to make the text fully comprehensible" (Nida 2000:129). What this means is that Reiss' method is not sufficient to solve this translation problem.

The expression "divine interventions" in the text makes allusion to a biblical story about the Red Sea. This could be because the author had a target audience in mind and presumes they know about the story in the Bible. Although this can also be linked to the use of expressive language, it is however difficult to ignore the fact that this type of language use plays a role in the text- to maintain the interest of the reader. If the original audience for the source text were specialists, there is doubt as to whether expressive language would have been used at all, since all that would be needed are facts. The question is whether or not to include it in the translation. The answer to this is dependent on another question: who are the audience? Sacrificing the expressive form might change the text to an entirely scientific or historic one. This means a different readership, as it may not appeal to a common reader. The problem here is that Reiss' method overlooks the fact there is an addressee for even an informative text type. She acknowledges this only in the text variety stage. However, communication itself is not complete without a receiver, in this case the readers.

The title, "Parting the Waters", also draws attention. It first makes the reader think of the biblical story of the Red Sea, and then makes a reader assume that is what the text is about. But this effect can only be achieved based on a shared knowledge between the author and the reader about the biblical story of the Red Sea. This assumption too must have been informed by the fact that the author had an audience in mind. However, the author quickly attends to this curiosity and possible misconception by the following opening sentence "Tides, not divine interventions, divide..." Unfortunately, the target language (Yorùbá) audience is a mixture of different religions. In this text the title performs an expressive function, but that is not to say its predominant function is expressive. Since it is an informative text, one would expect again that the title would be informed by the major content being conveyed. But this is not the case. Moreover, attractive titles seem to be a common feature of this genre. This is also a common feature of Yorùbá magazines (Salawu 2004:100). The question here is: since content is the aim, should the target title be informed by the content alone and leave the use of expressive language? This of course is possible, as Reiss already advises on ignoring such language use especially if it will weigh on the content. Thus the translation can simply have "Ípa-Õnà Òkun Korea" which means "The Path between Korean Waters". The consequence of this however is that it might not appeal to the wider audience except a few, specialists. This brings up again the question: who are the audience? Reiss considers this an appropriate factor only when the function of the target text is different from the source text (Reiss 2000:170). What her typology fails to recognise is that both source and target texts can have the same function (as in the case of "Parting the Waters") but different addressees.


While Reiss' translation-oriented text-typology provides a systematic method of approaching a translation task, it does not provide a complete solution to some problems in English to Yorùbá translation of "Parting the Waters". This suggests that it is not absolute that a text function will provide a translation strategy. Fawcett (1997: 107) makes this same point:

There is simply no necessary link between text function and translation strategy. Just because we have identified a text function...does not mean that we are led inexorably to any logical or 'translation-scientific' imperative to take this function as an overriding parameter to which we subordinate our translation decisions.

(Fawcett 1997, p.107)

This further suggests that other translation theories are valid and useful to the extent to which they proffer a solution to a translation problem.