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Itamar Even-Zohar's Polysystem Theory

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Anne Sophie Voyer

on 11 November 2014

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Transcript of Itamar Even-Zohar's Polysystem Theory

Itamar Even-Zohar
Since the early 1970s Even-Zohar has been working on developing theoretical tools and research methodology for dealing with the complexity and interdependency of socio-cultural ‘systems,’ which he views as
networks of ideas.

In 1972, he proposed a multi-layered structural theory of text ("An Outline of a Theory of the Literary Text.",),

One of the first critics of “Static Structuralism”, and argues against the 'reification flaw' brought forward by a rigid interpretation of Saussure’s notions of structure and ‘linguistic system’.

Structuralist Research and Birth of Polysystem Theory
Polysystem Theory
Borrows from the Russian Formalists of the 1920s and the Czech Structuralists of the 1930s and 1940s
Translated Literature
as system
The Aftermath
Even-Zohar's polysystem theory has opened many avenues to researchers in translation studies.

Highly adaptable theory: in Even-Zohar’s terms, a ‘polysystem’ is multidimensional and able to accommodate taxonomies established in the realm of literature (the division between high and low literature), translation (the division between translation and non translation) and social relationships (the division between dominant and dominated social groups)

Edwin Gentzler lists at least three advantages to polysystem theory in translation studies:

(1) Allows literature to be studied alongside social, historical and cultural forces
(2) Moves away from the isolated study of individual texts towards the study of translation (or translated literature) within the cultural and literary systems in which it functions
(3) Creates non-prescriptive definitions for equivalence and adequacy, whcih allow for variations according to social, historical and cultural setting of the text.
Itamar Even-Zohar
"The Position of Translated Literature Within the Literary Polysystem"
- Born in Tel Aviv in 1939
- Culture Researcher and
Professor at Tel Aviv
- Pioneer of Polysystem
theory and the theory
of cultural repertoires.
Advocates for the simultaneous evaluation of the interplay of the diachronic (historical) and synchronic (contemporary) dimensions of a socio-cultural system.

Introduced the idea of “Dynamic Structuralism” with the concept of an ”open system of systems,” to capture the aspects of variability and heterogeneity in time and place, which became the Polysystem Theory
Dynamic Flux
Primary position
: translated literature participates actively in in shaping the centre of the polysystem.

Occurs in 3 cases:
(1) When a 'young' literature is being established
(2) When a literature is 'peripheral' or 'weak'
(3) When there is a critical turning point in literary history - established models will become insufficient - or when there is a
literary vaccum

Secondary position
: represents a peripheral system within the polysystem; no major influence over the central system. Translated literature thus becomes a conservative element, preserving conventional forms and conforming to the literary norms of the target culture.

Translatd Literature and its positions within a polysystem
- interaction and positioning occurs in a dynamic hierarchy that changes according to historical moment
- position of translated literature is not fixed either: primary or secondary
Even-Zohar suggests that the position occupied by TL in the system conditions the translation strategy:
Primary: translators feel less constrained to follow target literature models, more creative, prepared to break conventions more freely.
Secondary: translators tend to use existing target-culture models for the target text, and produce more 'non-adequate' translations (See Toury's three-phase methodology for systematic descriptive translation studies)
Criticism from the field
Antoine Berman condemns Even-Zohar's proposition that translated literature generally occupies a role of secondary importance in the target culture, because then, it "downplays [translated literature's] creative and formative aspect" (Hermans, 1999, p.154), and argues that translated literature remains a separate entity within the target culture.

Susan Bassnett critiques Even-Zohar's description of target literature as 'young', 'weak' or its description as 'vacuum' are higly subjective, and thus questions the abstract nature of the theory, which tends to neglect concrete examples. (Bassnett & Lefevere, 1998, p.127)

Edwin Gentzler notes that there might be an overgeneralization to 'universal laws' based on relatively little evidence, which could be due to Even-Zohar's over-reliance on the Russian Formalists of the 1920s. He additionally critiques the theory's tendency to focus on the abstract model rather than the concrete constraints placed on texts and translators.

Translated literature acts as a system in at least two ways:

(1) in the way the target language(s) choose(s) works for translation
(2) in the way translation methodology varies according to the influence(s) of other systems
(Even-Zohar, 162-163)
Translated literature is "not only [...] an integral system within any literary polysystem but as a most active system within it" (163).

A Polysystem functions as a system based on the relationships between a series of opposites which include: canonized (high) and non-canonized (low) forms, centre and periphery, primary (innovative) and secondary (stagnant) models, as well as source text and target text, translated and non-translated texts.

Key idea: continual repositioning of genres in relation to each other, continual shifting between power relations, which allows for the dynamic nature of literature.
Literary work is not studied in isolation, but rather in relation with other texts from a literary system.
Literary system: system of functions of the literary order, which are in continual interrelationship with other orders
Novelty of Even-Zohar: considers previously disregarded sub-genres of literature (children literature, thrillers, and the entire spectrum of translated literature) as part of the literary system
Emphasizes the fact that translated literature operate as a system in itself
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