Systemic functional linguistic approach to translation studies

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Aug. 2007, Volume 5, No.8 (Serial No.47) US-China Foreign Language, ISSN1539-8080, USA

Systemic functional linguistic approach to translation studies
LIU Ming
(Foreign Languages College, Jiangxi Normal University, Nanchang 330022, China)
Abstract: Hallidayan linguistics has gained an important and influential position among linguistic
approaches to the study of the English and Chinese languages in the Peoples Republic of China. This paper
mainly explores the functional linguistic approach to translation studies from several functional parameters within
Systemic Functional Linguistics (SFL) theory, such as transitivity, modality, and thematic structure and so forth.
Key words: text; translation; systemic functional linguistics
1. Introduction
Systemic Functional Linguistics (SFL) theory, founded by Halliday, M. A. K, views language as a social
semiotic resource people use to accomplish their purposes by expressing meanings in context. Hallidayan theory
has gained a prominent place in discourse analysis in China for the past 20 years and is likely to remain influential
in the years to come, which thus has reached Halliday’s aim of constructing the functional grammar for purposes
of text analysis. In recent years some articles appeared in the latest periodicals show that the theoretical
framework of SFL can also be applicable to the field of translation studies, especially the different translated
versions of ancient Chinese poem (HUANG, 2002, 2004, 2006; LI, 2007). ZHANG & HUANG (2003) expounds
the functional perspective to translation studies from several aspects: textual characteristics, context and language
choice, the relationship between meaning and its realization. This paper attempts to discuss the SFL approach to
translation studies from multi levels in a comprehensive way and further validates the applicability of SFL to
translation studies.
2. Linguistic Approach to Translation Studies
Since 1950s to 1960s, the development in the linguistic theory has been promoting the development of the
translation theory. The important work of translation scholars based on linguistics, such as Mona Baker, Roger
Bell, Basil Hatim, Ian Mason, Kirsten Malmkjaer, Katharina Reiss, Hans Vermeer and Wolfram Wilss, to name
but some of the better-known, has done a great deal to break down the boundaries between disciplines and to
move translation studies on from a position of possible confrontation (cf. Bassnett 1980, 2004, p. 3). Nida (2001,
p. 244) once stated that some scholars have approached the issue of translating from the viewpoints of linguistic
differences between source and target texts. Just as Bell (1991) argues that “It is difficult to see how translation
theorists can move beyond the subjective and normative evaluation of texts without drawing heavily on
linguistics”. In the 1960s, during the boom of the strictly scientific linguistic theories, English-speaking linguists
also developed theoretical approaches to translation. In England, Catford (1965) has applied Halliday’s systemic
grammar to translation theory, and has fruitfully categorized translations shifts between levels, structures, word

LIU Ming (1980- ), male, graduate student of Foreign Languages College, Jiangxi Normal University; research fields: systemic
functional linguistics, translation studies.

Systemic functional linguistic approach to translation studies
classes, units and system. He proposes that the equivalence in translation should be established only in the aspects
of discourse and function. In his opinion, translation may be defined as follows: The replacement of textual
material in one language (SL) by equivalent textual material in another language (TL) (cf. Catford 1965, p. 20).
According to Catford, the central problem of translation practice is that of finding TL translation equivalence and
the central task of translation theory is that of defining the nature and condition equivalence.
Translation is a process of transforming a text originally in one language into an equivalent text in another
language. To understand the nature and the using law of language is essential to the translation, so the theory of
linguistics plays a quite important role in the developing of the translation theory. In the early days of translation
theory, when Eugene Nida wrote Towards the Science of Translation (1964)—this was the first time that linguists
began to concern itself with translation—it was sometimes hoped to evolve a single theory, a semiotic, if not a
linguistic theory, that would encompass all translating that would perhaps also produce a single scientific method
applicable to all translation human and machine (cf. Newmark, 1988, 2001, p. 97). Without the guidance of the
linguistic theory it would be hard for the translation theory to be systematized and theorized, even though the
process of translation is involved with a lot of non-verbal questions related to the two different languages, e.g. the
different traditions of the philosophy, esthetics and culture loaded by different languages. ZHANG (2005) has
introduced several functional approaches to translation according to researchers who employ more or less
functional method to analyze SL and TL. The study of translation theory would be benefited from the theory of
SFL, even though SFL is not a specialized translation theory. SFL takes the actual usage of language as its study
object and sees language as a tool for social communication. In addition some articles appeared in the latest
periodicals show that the theoretical framework of SFL can be applicable to the field of translation studies,
especially the different translated versions of ancient Chinese poem (HUANG, 2002, 2004, 2006; LI, 2007).
3. SFL Approach to Translation Studies
3.1 General ideas towards language
People do different things with language in order to accomplish their own different objectives. In general
people can use language to express inner and outer experience around the world in which language is only one of
the means to voice what is going on around them and inside them. However language itself is a colorful resource
and provides plenty of choices for language users. According to Halliday (1994, 2000, p. F40), systemic theory is
a theory of meaning as choice, by which a language, or any other semiotic system, is interpreted as networks of
interlocking options. “The value of a theory”, Halliday wrote, “lies in the use that can be made of it, and I have
always considered a theory of language to be essentially consumer oriented” (1985a, p. 7). As Coffin (2001, p. 94)
points out “SFL is primarily a linguistic theory” and “one of the main purposes for Halliday… in developing SFL
has been to create a theory for solving a range of problems faced by potential ‘consumers’ of linguistics”. The
personal factors of language users, which have effect on actual words, are considered in the course of exploration
of the utterance communicated by language users. In any context, there are a number of meanings that speakers
might convey, and a number of ways that they might use to express them. Thompson (1996, 2000, p. 8) has at
several points used term “choice” in discussing meanings. The idea of choice that speaker/writer has multiple
ways to express what they want to convey in a given situation has permeated in many works related to
Systemic-functional Linguistics. Language realized in actual utterance by language users is a result of choices
among a number of possible ways to express the meanings they want to communicate. Halliday (1994, 2000, p. 16)


Systemic functional linguistic approach to translation studies
argues that “language is a resource for making, an indefinitely expandable source of meaning potential”. This
view of language as a system for meaning potential implies that language is not a well defined system not a “the
set of all grammatical sentences”. It also implies that language exists and therefore must be studied in context. The
available choices depend on aspects of the context in which the language is being used.
Since language is viewed as semiotic potential, the description of language is a description of choice. SFL is
mainly established for the text analysis. Berry (1996, p. 2) also points out that “one of the great strength of
Halliday’s work is its applicability to text analysis”. Fairclough (1995, p. 10) views the grammar of SFL as “a
textually oriented theory concerned with producing grammatical descriptions which are useable in textual
analysis”. Language is functional in the sense that it is designed to account for how the language is used and
language has evolved to satisfy human needs; and the way it is organized is functional with respect to these needs
(cf. Halliday, 1994, 2000, p. F39).
3.2 Ideational function and translation
Halliday identifies three metafunctions, namely, the ideational, the interpersonal, and the textual. And he
once stated “all languages are organized around two main kinds of meaning, the ‘ideational’ or reflective, and the
‘interpersonal’ or active” and “combined with these is a third metafunctional component, the ‘textual’, which
breathes relevance into the other two” (cf. Halliday, 1994, 2000, p. F39). The ideational metafunction is concerned
with ‘ideation’ which is about the content or proposition of message. It can be further classified into the
experiential and the logical subtypes. The experiential function is mainly realized by transitivity and voice.
“Experiential meaning”, according to Eggins (2004, p. 206), “is expressed through the system of transitivity or
process type, with the choice of process implicating associated participants roles and configurations”. Transitivity
is the representation in language of processes, the participants and the circumstantial elements associated with
them. The meaning of transitivity refers to the language features of the clause which represent the speaker’s or
writer’s experience or something else around the world, not the narrower meaning as in “transitive and intransitive
verbs”. The term is used in line with “mood” and “theme” which represent respectively textual and interpersonal
function. The transitivity system of a language will construe experience into a small set of domains of meanings
which differ according to the process itself and the nature of the participants involved in it. In English, the primary
options in process type are material/mental/ verbal/relational, “which is also applied to Chinese”.
Bell (1991) once expounded the issue of transitivity and translation within the theoretical framework of SFL.
As a linguist, he naturally explored the questions related to translation in the aspect of linguistics, especially in the
SFL theory, and attempted to explore an objective method in order to describe the problems confronting
translation. In the theoretical framework of transitivity the process mainly consists of three components, namely,
the process itself, participants in the process and circumstances associated with the process. The analytical model
is also applied to Chinese because Chinese and English are very similar in the balance between the models in their
transitivity systems. HUANG (2002) has exploited the experiential function to analyze DU Mu’s poem
“Qingming” and its six translated texts. The overall aim of that paper is to uncover how experiential meanings in
“Qingming” are represented and reproduced in its six English translations. The objectives associated with this aim
are: (1) To compare the process types employed by different translators; (2) To evaluate the translated versions by
looking at how processes are chosen. Therefore, the linguistic analyses in the aspect of transitivity system would
benefit the comparative studies of Chinese and English as well as the translation studies. In the same way logical
function that concerns with the relationships established between linked clauses offers a useful model to analyze
the internal configuration of language units. Each language has its own logic-semantic relation, some of which

Systemic functional linguistic approach to translation studies
may be independent of other languages. For instance, Chinese construes meanings with less conjunction than
English and does not have plenty of subordinate clauses because it arranges clauses one after another without
connectives showing relation between them, e.g. 洪水泛滥,房屋被冲;while English construes meanings with
dependent or subordinate construction or relationship of clauses with connectives, e.g. the house washed away
because the river flooded. The differences between languages in terms of logic-semantic relation can be
exhaustedly uncovered by means of the theory of the logic function, which is beneficial to analyze the inherent
distinction between SL (Source Language) and TL (Target Language) from the dimension of clausal relationship.
A particular translated text that construes meanings of source text may convey different meanings because it
is possible for translator to choose different process type or logic-semantic relation to reproduce original meanings.
For example, the lines “门前迟行迹,一一生绿苔”,which are adopted in “Changgan Xing” a yuefu song written
by LI Bai (pp. 701-763), have several different translated versions. XU Yuan-chong put them into “green moss
now overgrows before our door; your footprints, hidden, can be seen no more” while QIU Xiao-long “the
footprints you left, step by step, by our door, were moss-covered”. XU’s text uses a material process and a mental
process to convey original meanings of source text construed with an existential process and a material process.
Nevertheless QIU’s text has utilized a material process and a relational process and focuses upon the objective
description of the natural scene. Besides, both translated texts have different logic-semantic relation, which
respectively construes different meanings.
Therefore, the ideational function that constructs the experiential meaning of clause and the logic-semantic
relation of linked clauses offers a practical theoretical framework to embark on the comparative analysis of SL
and TL and then the evaluation of translated texts, that is to say in what respects it succeeds and in what respects it
fails or is less successful.
3.3 Interpersonal meanings and translation
We use language to interact with other people, to establish and maintain relations with them, to influence
their behavior, to express our own viewpoint on things in the world, and to elicit or change theirs (cf. Thompson
1996, 2000, p. 28). The interpersonal meaning is concerned with the interaction between speaker and addressee,
which is mainly manifested in the level of clause by mood, modality and evaluation. In other words, the
interpersonal function, clause as exchange, reveals the speech roles in as an interaction, in which “giving” implies
receiving whereas “demanding” implies giving in response. The sort of interaction if combined with “goods &
services” and “information” would form the four primary speech functions: offer, command, statement and
HUANG (2006, pp. 44-51) exploits the theory of interpersonal function to analyze different translated texts
of Du Mu’s poem “Qingming” within the Hallidayan framework and argues that the analyses of different
translated texts by means of interpersonal meanings can accurately define the relationship between characters of
the poem, through which the effect of translated texts are exposed. LI (2007) investigates the expression of
interpersonal meanings in poetry from several dimensions and how the interpersonal meanings are translated into
English with special reference to equivalence. He provides an analytical model for translating interpersonal
meanings in Tang poems into English and offers principles, methods and strategies of translating interpersonal
meanings. As mentioned above the interpersonal meanings are mainly realized in the level of clause by mood,
modality and evaluation, which exist in any kind of discourse because the interpersonal meanings are the kernel of
discourse. By making selections in the area of mood system, a speaker adopts a speech role and assigns a
complementary role to the listener—roles such as offerer and accepter or rejecter of offer; commander and


Systemic functional linguistic approach to translation studies
complier; questioner and answerer. However, the organization of the mood system and the realizations of the
various options, differ from one language to another. For instance, the degree of the grammatical category
corresponding to commands is variable: there may or may not be a distinct form of the imperative, and even
where there is, there are usually many other possible realizations. In the course of interlingual translation, it is
vital to keep the correspondence of the meanings of mood between SL and TL. In order to attain this goal,
translator should be acquainted with the features of mood system which are realized respectively in the SL and TL.
The features include mood structure, the degree of modal adjuncts and the semantic function of mood elements.
Modality is also one of important resources for construing interpersonal meanings. Halliday (1994, 2000) has
established a systemic network for modality, which contains such several categories as types of modality
(modalization and modulation), orientations in modality (subjective and objective; explicit and implicit), values of
modality (high, median and low) and polarity (positive and negative). The network specifically offers practical
parameters for the translation of meanings of modality and also provides a criterion for functional equivalence
translation. For example, the lines “一夫当关,万夫莫开” have the meanings of “cannot be breached” implied by
the lexical items “莫开”. In addition “莫” shows that the lines have the negative polarity (one kind of modality) in
the source text, which is differently reproduced in several translated texts. SUN Da-yu translates the lines into “let
one valiant man block the pass, and then ten thousands others cannot go through”. However XU Yuan-chong put
them into “rugged is the path between the cliffs so steep and high, guarded by one and forced by none”. In the
SUN’s text, the modal operator “cannot” belong to a negative polarity, the value of modality of which is classified
into the high type. Conversely, XU’s text whose predicate element is a positive polarity does not utilize modal
operator and it expresses the negative meanings through the circumstantial element ‘by none’. It is obvious that
SUN’s text keeps better in line with the source text in terms of the meanings of modality than XU’s text. Though
XU’s text has the features of brevity and rhyme, the subject is realized by the expression “the path”, which does
not conform to that of source text. However, subject expresses the entity that the speaker/writher wants to make
responsible for the validity of the preposition (Thompson, 1996, 2000, p. 45). The subject in the XU’s text that is
different from that of source text reflects different entity responsible for the validity of the preposition, with which
the interpersonal meanings of mood has been reproduced. Therefore XU’s text deviates from the source text in the
aspect of interpersonal meanings, especially modality. It is proper to state that no equivalence of modality between
SL and TL has been reached before recognizing those parameters of modality.
In addition, evaluation, one kind of interpersonal meanings, is worthy to be investigated in the course of
translation. Evaluation is a central part of the meaning of any text and that any analysis of the interpersonal
meanings of a text must take it into account (Thompson, 1996, 2000, p. 65). The theory of evaluation is developed
in the Martin & Rose (2003), in which appraisal that is concerned with evaluation has been discussed in a detailed
way. Appraisal theory that refers to the linguistic resources by which texts or speakers come to express divides
evaluative resources into three broad semantic domains: attitude, engagement and graduation, which respectively
have their own subtypes. The appraisal system constructed by Marin and Rose (2003) offers us a practical and
theoretical foundation, according which the appraisal meanings of lexical items can be identified and analyzed in
the process of translation. In some way it is necessary for translator to choose appropriate lexical items with the
help of appraisal theory to approximately reproduce the appraisal meanings implied by the corresponding
linguistic elements of SL.
3.4 Textual organization and translation
While doing translation studies the researcher who is equipped with the knowledge of how a text is

Systemic functional linguistic approach to translation studies
constructed may be much more familiar with the organizational rules of SL and TL as well as the structural
divergence between them. Such kind of textual organization has been being explored in Hallidayan Functional
Grammar, which also investigates the meanings of how one message fits in with the other messages around it.
Thompson (1996, 2000, p. 27) holds that these meanings are mainly expressed by the ordering of the constituents
of the clause. The theory that specifically deals with the ways of how messages are organized is technically called
textual function, which is mainly composed of three subtypes of semantic systems: thematic system, information
structure and cohesion system. The thematic organization that concerns with the way of how message is conveyed
consists of two functional components: Theme refers to a point of departure for the message and Rheme new
information about the point of departure. The definition of Theme as given by Halliday and Matthissen (2004, p.
64) is that it is the element which serves as ‘the staring-point for the message: it is what the clause is going to be
about’. In English Theme is easy to be recognized for it often comes first in the clause. Halliday (1994, 2000, p.
37) categorizes the remainder of the message, the part in which the Theme is developed, into the Rheme. Rheme
combines with Theme to form a clause, which expresses a complete meaning from the textual organization.
All languages will have thematic structure for organizing the clause as a message, assigning different textual
statuses to different parts of the clause though the identification of Theme-Rheme may vary with languages (for
example, according to Eggins (2004, p. 300) Theme can occur in other positions in the clause because there is a
specific grammatical particle “wa” which can be used to mark it). For this reason, the theory of thematic structure
is applicable to exploring the difference between SL and TL in the course of the translation studies. For instance,
the lines“清明时节雨纷纷,路上行人欲断魂”also adopted in DU Mu’s poem “Qingming” take “清明时节” as
the point of departure of the whole poem, which particularly confines the time of source text and are differently
reproduced in several translated texts. WU Jun-tao put the lines into “It drizzles thick on the Pure Brightness Day.
I travel with my heart lost in dismay”, in which “it” and “I” respectively occupy the slot of Theme. But SUN
Da-yu translates them into “Upon the Clear-and-Bright Feast of spring the rain drizzleth down in spray,
Pedestrians on countryside ways in gloom are pining away”, in which the circumstantial element “upon the
Clear-and-Bright Feast of spring” acts a marked Theme and the nominal group “pedestrians on countryside way”
takes the position of Theme in the second clause. It is obviously seen that the two translated texts respectively
employ different functional elements to express the point of departure of the whole text. WU’s text utilizes a
non-participant “it” as Theme while SUN’s text a circumstantial element “upon the Clear-and-Bright Feast of
spring”. In Chinese it is frequent to use temporal phrase to take a Theme. But in English it is vice versa. Just as
Baker (1992, p. 172) suggests, the target text has some thematic organization of its own, that it reads naturally and
smoothly, and does not distort the information structure of the original. Consequently SUN’s text has utilized a
marked Theme to achieve the same effect as source text for emphasizing the circumstantial element which is
concerned with the topic of poem. In a word Sun’s translated text is much better than WU’s translated text in
terms of equivalence of translation after linguistic analysis within the framework of thematic structure. The
thematic structure offers us a functional parameter to explore the comparative analyses of languages as well as
translation studies, and what is more it can explain the motivation of choosing a marked theme along with
information structure.
Information, in a technical grammatical sense, is the tension between what is already known or predictable
and what is new or unpredictable (Halliday, 1994, 2000, p. 296). A whole information unit should be made up of
two parts, the New and the Given. It is natural that the Given typically comes before the New and the unmarked
position for the New is at the end of a clause. Of course it is possible to have the New come before the Given,


Systemic functional linguistic approach to translation studies
which is called a marked information structure. But in the theory of information structure the critical issue is how
to identify the Given information. Firbas (1992, p. 22) roughly lists two types of known information that can be
conveyed by the sentence in the act of communication. One is the information that is fully retrievable from the
context. So in the poem “Qingming” the first clause takes the expression “清明时节” as a known information
which is immediately recoverable from the title and put in the initial position of the clause. SUN Da-yu’s
translated text that has the prepositional phrase upon the Clear-and-Bright Feast of spring” filling the function of
the Given conforms to meanings of source text. But in WU Jun-tao’s translated text, the prepositional phrase “on
the Pure Brightness Day” is put at the end of clause and called as unknown information. The fact that Sun’s
translated text is much better than WU’s text is once again substantiated by the theory of information structure,
which shows information structure is a useful tool to evaluate translated texts as well as make a direction of how
to appropriately arrange lexical items or components in the course of translation. Cohesion system is another
important parameter of textual organization and deserves to be explored in the text linguistics and translation
studies. Newmark argues that “the topic of cohesion … has always appeared to me the most useful constituent of
discourse analysis or text linguistics applicable to translation” (cf. Baker, 1992, p. 180). Halliday and Hasan (1976,
p. 7) define cohesion as non-structural text-forming relations. They identify five main cohesive devices in English:
reference, substitution, ellipsis, conjunction and lexical cohesion, which have been discussed in Halliday and
Hasan (1976), Baker (1992) and Halliday (1994, 2000). These devices are probably common to a large number of
languages. However, Baker (1992, p. 211) suggests that different languages have different preferences for using
specific devices more frequently than others or in specific combinations which may not correspond to English
patterns of cohesion.
While doing translation studies, researcher had better know the distinction between languages in the aspect of
realization of cohesion devices and then embark upon evaluating cohesion devices inherent in the source text and
target text. Cohesion system, being a subsystem textual function, provides an analytical parameter, which is
beneficial to translation studies focusing on the surface structure expressions that include the cohesion devices.
And what is more the other two textual organizations (thematic structure and information structure), which
respectively concern with the clause as message and the flow of message of clause, are two particular analytical
tools for parsing the ways whereby messages are organized and further explaining the reason why translator put
the source text into target text by using these textual organizations rather than others.
4. Conclusion
Translation is a process of transforming a text originally in one language into an equivalent text in another
language. To understand the nature and the using law of language is essential to the translation, so the theory of
linguistics plays a quite important role in the developing of the translation theory. However, of those linguistic
theories, SFL is most appropriately applicable to text analysis because it is mainly constructed for purposes of text
analysis. In the analytical model of SFL, the ideational, interpersonal and textual functions consist of three
orientations to language, which exist simultaneously in every level of language. The three functions of language
are realized with their own subsystems referred to earlier and in turn these subsystems (transitivity, mood,
modality, evaluation, thematic structure, information structure, cohesion system) are composed of
multi-parameters for linguistic analyses as well as translation studies.


Systemic functional linguistic approach to translation studies
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