Positioning Readers

Brian Mossop

York University School of Translation


1.1 Nida on readers

There is a fascinating passage at the end of chapter 2 of Nida and Taber’s The Theory and Practice of Translation. In considering how to prepare a translation of the Bible into languages which “have no literary tradition and no Biblical translation.. rooted in the life of the Church,” the authors give a remarkably detailed description of the audience which the translators should have in mind:


(1) Non-Christians should have priority over Christians.

Not only is this principle important in making the translation of the Bible effective as an instrument of evangelism, but it is also necessary if the language of the church is to be kept from becoming an esoteric dialect—a symbol of belonging and identification or a semi-magical means of imploring God

(2) The use of language by persons 25 to 30 years of age has priority over the language of

      older people or of children

If one insists on using primarily the speech of the elders, many of the words and expressions are likely to be unknown or to appear odd within a few years…At the same time,…the language of children or teenagers…does not have sufficient status to be fully acceptable. Such forms…are generally rejected by the young people themselves, who may be offended by being addressed in a style which seems substandard or paternalistic

(3) In certain situations, the speech of women should have priority over the speech of men.

This is true in places in which men…go off to work in mines or on plantations in which other languages are spoken. Men therefore may acquire a number of expressions quite unknown to the women. [If these expressions are used in the translation,] comprehension by women will be relatively low and the probability of women learning to read will be severely reduced, with the result that the children are very unlikely to have any significant instruction in Biblical content.”

(Nida & Taber 1969:31-2)


It was Nida who introduced to modern thinking about translation the idea that one should attend not just to correspondence with the source text, but also to communicating with readers. The need to have readers in mind has become a commonplace in professional practice and translator training. We are advised to make our wording choices in the light of who the readers will be and why they will be reading the translation.


What is most striking in the above passage is that for Nida &Taber, readers are very far from being an abstraction: Bible translators working into languages with no literary tradition should imagine themselves addressing 25-30 year-old non-Christian women. However when we turn from practice to theory, the picture is rather different. Just a few pages earlier in their book, the authors present the now familiar flow chart diagram of the communication path involved in translation, with boxes for the various participants, connected by arrows. Here readers of the translation are reduced to a singular abstraction, “R2”—“the final receptor” (R1 being the receptor of the source text) (1969:22).[1] In my view such extreme abstraction is not really very satisfactory. Even if we are leaving the details of a particular translation situation aside, and shifting our attention to theory, a more complex picture of the receptor is required.


1.2 Readers: actual and imagined

A distinction is commonly made between the actual readers of a text and the way readers are pictured in the mind of the writer. Nida & Taber’s “R2” is presumably the actual reader of the translation. They write that investigating reader reception is “something like market research, in which the response of the public to the product is tested” (Nida & Taber 1969:163; see also Nida & de Waard 1986: 204-6). However Nida does not report any systematic research on the response of actual readers of Bible translations, and Wilt (2003:72) implies that there has been little progress in this regard.[2] In this article, I will be concerned with the receptors as imagined in the translator’s mind.


The imagining work of the translator can vary greatly from text to text and from translator to translator. One translator may conjure up a rather detailed picture of future readers and very consciously adjust linguistic choices accordingly. Meanwhile another translator may give little conscious thought to readership and write in a default style—one of his or her own styles—or even in translationese. In theoretical writing that concerns the translation product, this difficult question of the translator’s awareness of tailoring the text to a particular readership can be avoided; one can simply speak of the ‘implied reader’—the type of reader implied by the linguistic choices which have already been made in the texts which the theoretician is examining. However, if the theoretician is positioned at the moment of translation production, when choices are just about to be made, the question of awareness cannot so easily be solved. For the purposes of this article, I simply assume some degree of receptor-imagining work.


1.3 Readers: given or invented

There are two aspects to imagining future receptors. First, their characteristics may be given: the translator is told by the commissioner, or finds out by some other means, or deduces, that the readers will be subject-matter experts rather than non-specialists, or that they will be senior citizens, or that they will be immigrants with limited reading ability in the target language. The translator then tailors the translation to these givens, perhaps avoiding idioms and local sports metaphors if writing for recent immigrants.


However if we consider our passage from Nida & Taber, we can see that it does not really fit this picture of writing for a given readership. Theirs is a more active approach. They do not start from an audience which they have been given, or one they have assumed. Instead, they invent their audience. In the picture they paint, the translator picks out certain speakers of the target language (non-Christian women in a certain age group) and then writes in a manner suited to them. It’s true that one might interpret the passage as a proposal for instructions from the commissioner, but it could also be a decision by the translators. Like other writers, translators are just as capable of selecting a readership as commissioners, publishers or editors. Only someone fooled by the frequent self-portrayal of translators as compliant servants would think otherwise.


The two approaches (writing for a given readership versus writing for an invented readership) are not mutually exclusive. The translator can in part respond to given features of the audience and in part invent an audience. So I might write my translation in language suited to non-experts because I have been told that the final users will be non-experts (thus I would write not ‘large vehicle fleet operator requirement’ but rather ‘a need for people to operate a fleet of large vehicles’). However in the same text I may translate certain proper names rather than leave them in the source language as instructed by the commissioner (not ‘all such applications must pass through the Régie des transports’ but rather ‘…must pass through the transportation regulation board’). Perhaps I think that following the commissioner’s instruction will baffle or annoy readers, and make them feel that the text is not really for them. By writing ‘transportation regulation board’, I position the readers to feel directly addressed, much as Nida & Taber want to ensure that women feel addressed, through avoidance of expressions used by men who ‘go off to work in mines or on plantations’.



2 Receptor positions

Sociologist Erving Goffman has provided a well known framework for conceptualizing receptors, and specifically those who are listening in the course of conversation (Goffman 1981:131-2). He said that the concept ‘hearer’ needs to be replaced by four possible roles:


(1) addressee: a member of the ‘official’ audience of the communication who is currently being addressed

(2) auditor: a member of the ‘official’ audience of the communication who is not currently being addressed

(3) overhearer: an ‘unofficial’ participant in the communication who inadvertently hears it

(4) eavesdropper: an ‘unofficial’ participant in the communication who deliberately listens in.

(The above role names and definitions do not precisely reflect Goffman’s phrasing and terminology, but the differences are unimportant.)


If Peter is sitting at a restaurant table with Carlos and Marie, he may say something to Carlos, who will then be the addressee, while Marie is an auditor. At that moment, the waiter walks by and overhears what Peter says. Meanwhile, at the table behind them, Peter’s rival Eric has managed to seat himself, unobserved, in order to eavesdrop.


Goffman’s approach arises from his interest as a sociologist in human face-to-face interaction. He took a particular interest in one mode of interaction, namely conversation, and it is therefore unsurprising that the TS literature which draws on Goffman’s work concerns dialogue interpreting (starting with Wadensjö 1992/8; Mason 2004:91-3 proposes that Goffman’s approach be applied to both oral and written translation).


Can Goffman’s four roles be applied to text translation? Certainly their names are suggestive: when reading a translation, one does sometimes feel like one is ‘overhearing’ something intended for someone else. However it is doubtful that the roles can be applied directly to writing in general or to translation in particular. Unlike a conversationalist, a translator writes while staring at a computer screen, often with no other human beings anywhere nearby. Occasionally a telephone call or email may arrive, but for the most part, the co-creation of meaning by the parties to a conversation is not found in writing (except in Internet chat) because the time gap between production and receptor’s response (if any) is too great. A conversation is a single social occasion, whereas the writing of a translation and its later reading by someone are two occasions. Additionally, written language is not embedded in all the other forms of human interaction typical of conversation which Goffman invokes during his discussion of the hearer roles: gesture, eye contact, posture and the like.[3]


Speech and writing are of course not utterly different. When conversing, we do have to make a certain effort to imagine our interlocutors even though they are physically present. For it is in the nature of human communication that even when speaking to someone face-to-face, we cannot be inside their minds. Be that as it may, the main interest of Goffman’s work lies not in the specific roles he proposes but in the idea that the notion ‘hearer’ is not unitary; there are several different roles a receptor can play. This is an idea which can certainly be applied to writing and translation.


Linguist Stephen Levinson has several criticisms of Goffman’s approach, one of which is that Goffman does not define the roles clearly enough. He suggests defining roles in terms of what he calls dimensions, and he defines seven roles using four dimensions, as shown in Table 1: (1) Is the person being addressed (for example through eye contact, or through the vocative use of the person's name)? (2) Is the message in some sense for the person? (3) Is the person an 'official' participant in the event? and (4) Is the person channel-linked, i.e. within hearing range and/or able to understand the language being spoken?


Table 1 Dimensions for reception roles, adapted from Levinson (1988:175)  




Target of message?

Official participant?







Indirect target




















Targeted overhearer





Ultimate destination






In our little restaurant scene, Peter looks at Carlos and says something. Carlos may be the interlocutor, with Marie as audience, but if Peter’s message is really for Marie, then Carlos is intermediary and Marie is indirect target. Alternatively, it may be clear that the ultimate destination of what Peter is saying is Lise. Lise is not present or doesn’t understand the language Peter is speaking, but Peter expects that someone present, or someone who does understand the language, will tell her what he said. Indeed this may be explicit, as when Peter says to Carlos: “Tell Lise she’s not invited”.


The interest of Levinson’s scheme lies not in his specific proposals (which I have simplified) but in the idea of defining roles in terms of dimensions of the communicative situation. An overhearer is entirely defined as a receptor who is not addressed, not the message target, not an official participant and channel-linked. Other connotations of the English word ‘overhearer’ are irrelevant.


Journalist and sociolinguist Allan Bell adapts Goffman’s roles to receptors who constitute an audience that is not in the physical presence of the communicator, with special attention to print and broadcast news (Bell 1991: 90-101). He redefines the roles in terms of the communicator’s expectations, and in this way makes the roles applicable to writing for an unseen future audience.  The addressees are “expected to be present in the audience and targeted by the message”, the auditors are “expected but not targeted”, the overhearers “not expected to be present” and the eavesdroppers “expected to be absent”. While some broadcasts and publications are addressed to ‘everyone’ (the evening news), others are not: a magazine about monarchy will have fairly clearcut addressees and eavesdroppers (diehard republicans will be expected to be absent from the readership). Translations too can of course be aimed at audiences of varying breadth. Also highly relevant to translation is Bell’s discussion of how a news writer’s audience includes other communicators such as editors, who take the writer’s output and rewrite it.


3 Positioning receptors through wording

Before attempting to apply certain aspects of Goffman’s, Levinson’s and Bell’s work to translation (i.e. multiple receptor roles, each defined in terms of a small set of dimensions, with some receptors being positioned to rewrite), let us first notice that a translational communication can be seen from several different points of view. Most of the Translation Studies literature adopts a bird’s eye view—the view we get as we look at Nida’s box-and-arrow diagram of translational communication. Bird's eye views can be misleading in that they represent the knowledge of a god-like, all-knowing outsider, and they suggest a smooth flow of information along the path charted by the arrows. If we look at things instead from the viewpoint of one of the writers or readers on the diagram, the picture becomes more complex. A translator can assign different roles to different potential readers, while each reader can accept a certain role or assign themself a role (in our restaurant scene, Peter may speak in such a way as to assign Marie the role of auditor, but she need not accept this role; she could respond as if she were the addressee). Also, there may be conflicts affecting the flow of information, for example between the translator and the reviser. Furthermore, imperfect knowledge is commonplace: the translator may think that the future readers will be subject-matter experts whereas in fact the commissioner plans to distribute the translation to non-experts.


In this section of the article, I shall adopt the viewpoint of the translator; in section 4, the viewpoint of various text distributors.


What then is the view from the translator’s mind, as he or she positions the imagined readers? Following Levinson, what will the possible role-defining dimensions be? Levinson himself aims at a universal set of dimensions and derived roles that would be applicable to language generally. My aim here is far more modest. I shall not attempt to account even for all instances of translational writing, let alone writing in general. Instead I shall begin with a system of two dimensions that define four receptor roles. This system will be applied to the set of readers typically involved when translations are being produced in a large corporate/government translation department—an environment with which I am familiar. Perhaps some other set of dimensions would be better, but my aim here is simply to show how this approach works.


Table 2: Positioning of receptors through the wording selected by a translator in a corporate/government translation department



Target of wording?

Read as translation?



Report audience



I want you the final user to read this as a translation and I have worded it with your status as a non-expert in mind

Direct audience



I want you the proofreader to read this as original writing and I have written it in accordance with the style sheet our organization uses

Report overhearer



I want you the reviser to read this as a translation but I have not used certain of your linguistic preferences because they are not suited to the final user

Direct overhearer



I want you the subject-matter expert representing the commissioner to read this as original writing, attending solely to the substance of the text and ignoring my phrasings except for terminology.


What is important on Table 2 are the dimensions in the second and third columns. The names of the roles in the first column are arbitrary, selected for convenience of reference only.


In the first dimension (second column of the Table), the question is whether the wording selected by the translator is aimed at the receptor. Now, ‘aiming’ a wording is a somewhat broad notion: to aim a wording at a final user of a translation may mean, for example, writing in a way suited to non-experts; to aim a wording at a reviser may mean catering to that reviser’s known target-language usage preferences. This dimension comes indirectly from Goffman/Levinson, who in their discussion of language production roles (as opposed to reception roles) distinguish the party whose views are being expressed from the party who creates the wording. This distinction is especially important in a corporate/government setting where people often find themselves writing documents which express the view of the organization or some subpart of it. What I have done is create a mirror image of this distinction for reception. In this section, I shall refer to the ‘target of the wording’; in section 4, I shall refer to the ‘target of the message’. By the way, I am using ‘wording’ in an extended sense to include matters such as typography, paragraphing and layout.


The second dimension (third column of  the Table) is somewhat more specific to translation: is the receptor to read the text as a translation or as a target-language original? Or to be put it more generally, is the text to be read as reported discourse? In our restaurant scene, Peter might say to Carlos: “Lise told me she was sick”. Here Carlos is positioned to receive the message as coming from a party other than Peter, namely Lise. This is precisely what happens when a reader is positioned to receive a text as a translation, through a variety of devices: the word translation is placed in the header; there are translator’s notes; non-TL rhetoric is deliberately retained.[4] Nida’s ‘dynamic equivalence’ is of course designed to position receptors to read the Biblical text as an original.


The fourth column of Table 2 should make it clear that the table concerns the translator’s intentions. Success is another matter. Because of lack of knowledge or inattention or rushing to complete a job, a translator who is attempting to write for non-experts may use wordings that are unlikely to accomplish this. Also, whether or not a particular reader does in fact read the text as intended is a completely separate matter. In the English-speaking world, translations of the Bible are most commonly read as originals (sometimes archaic-sounding originals) even when the reader knows that they are translations. This is a complex matter, and one that is distinct from the question of interest here: Is the translator writing the text in such a way that (he or she hopes) a particular receptor will read it as a translation or will feel addressed by the wording choices?


4 Positioning receptors through distribution


Not all positioning of receptors is done through the wording choices of text writers. Commissioners of writing position certain people as readers by the way they distribute the text. For example, the commissioner may have a completed translation printed in the same document as the source text, thus suggesting to readers that at least one of the versions is a translation; or the commissioner may charge a fee for the translation, thus excluding certain final users, and so on. Here, however, I shall be interested not in how the text is distributed but to whom. Both the head of the translation department and the commissioner position receptors. The former may arrange for the draft translation to be distributed to the reviser, while the latter may distribute the revised translation to a subject-matter editor or a page designer.


Table 3: Positioning of receptors through distribution in a corporate/government translation department



Target of message?

Read to rewrite?



Targeted rewriter



subject-matter expert

Targeted non-rewriter



final user

Non-targeted rewriter



reviser, proofreader

Non-targeted non-rewriter



clerk, messenger


Table 3 proposes two dimensions to characterize the way people such as the commissioner position the readers to whom they distribute texts. In the first dimension, the question is whether the receptor is a target of the message, that is, whether the substance/content of the text is for this person. An obvious example: the commissioner wants to convey the substance to the final user. Note that the message in question is the one conveyed through the translator’s wording, regardless of its relationship to the message conveyed by the source-text wording.


The second dimension concerns the kind of response the receptor is expected to engage in after reading.[5] Examples of expected responses to reading: engaging in a non-linguistic action after reading instructions, answering questions after reading a chapter of a textbook. In the case of receptors such as editors in newsrooms or revisers of translations, texts are distributed to them in order that they may check it and possibly rewrite it. Different rewriters are expected to attend to different aspects of the text: the commissioner may ask a subject-matter expert to attend mostly to content, while a proofreader attends mostly to linguistic form.


5 Applying the roles 

The receptors of written translations in a corporate/government setting can for convenience be grouped into seven types:


(1)   revisers,

(2)   proofreaders, page designers, style editors, etc.,

(3)   subject-matter experts, marketers, etc.,

(4)   clerks, messengers, etc.,

(5)   the commissioner of the translation,

(6)   the writer of the source text, and

(7)   final users.


The Translation Studies literature deals almost exclusively with receptors of type (7), but a theory of translation should really take into account the workplace organization and institutional framework within which the translator functions. Translations do sometimes go straight from translator to final user, but more often they do not. Nida has had occasion to mention receptors of types (1)-(5):


The presumed audience of a translation is not limited to those who will buy a published translation. For the translator, a more critical and crucial audience includes those who pay for the translation and those who judge it at various stages, including the responsible person in the agency that contracts for the translating and one or more editors of the agency or of the organization paying for the translation process.” (2000:7; see also Nida & Taber 1969:185-7 and Nida & de Waard 1987:Appendix B).


Wilt provides several rather elaborate diagrams for Bible translation that include a wide selection of receptors of this kind (2003:32). However his diagrams are really just useful summaries of the publishing process. Here my aim is rather to characterize the diverse set of receptors in terms of dimension-based schemes such as those proposed in Tables 2 and 3.


5.1 Revisers

Those who have never worked in the translation department of a ministry or corporation may be surprised to learn that for junior translators, the fact that the first reader of their translation will be a senior translator looms rather large, since this person will be reporting on the quality of their work as well as making changes in it. Similarly, freelances who are on a department’s list of translation suppliers may know that a reviser employed by the department will be the first reader of the translation and will pronounce on its acceptability before payment is made. Interestingly, Bell mentions that as a journalist, the parties “most salient in my mind during actual copy handling are…fellow journalists…” (Bell 1991:100).


In cases where it does not occur to the translator that a reviser will read his or her output (i.e. the internal workings of the department are somewhat opaque to the staff or freelance translators), the schema of Table 2 does not apply, for the translator is not then writing with the reviser in mind. Alternatively, we might draw on Bell to account for this situation by adding a third dimension to Table 2—‘expected to read?’—and say that the reviser is ‘not expected to be’ a receptor in such cases.


In those many cases where the translator is aware of the reviser-receptor, it would seem that the reviser will often be a “report audience” under our scheme, i.e. the translator is targeting the wording at the reviser and is also positioning the reviser to read the text as a translation. So for example, if the SL-TL pair permits, a translator may decide to facilitate the reviser’s work by keeping word order as close as possible to the source text and by rendering each sentence by a single sentence instead of splitting or combining sentences. An eager-to-please junior translator may also cater to known linguistic preferences of the reviser, for example by avoiding recent innovations if the reviser is somewhat old-fashioned about usage. The reviser is then being positioned as a target for linguistic form.


Now, a translator can equally well decide to pay no attention to the reviser’s convenience or usage preferences. The reviser is then positioned as a “report overhearer”. This may simply be a matter of self-assertion on the part of the translator, but there is also a broader issue here. The translator may know that his or her work will be read by some combination of the following: a reviser, a proofreader, a subject-matter expert, the commissioner, the source-text writer, and the final users. But it may not be worth the effort, or even possible, to word the text in such a way as to please all these receptors. The translator may for example be aware that the source-text author is fussy about having his every nuance captured, but that may not be compatible with the commissioner’s desire for speed, and the translator may decide that since the final users are reading the translation for information only, small nuances are irrelevant. Too bad for the source-text author. Such situations are not quite captured by Bell’s definition of an eavesdropper—someone ‘expected to be absent—for this fails to evoke deliberate exclusion. It is one thing to aim one’s writing at some group such as subject experts, which has the side-effect of making it hard for outsiders to understand; it is something else to deliberately not write in a manner suited to someone you know will be reading your text. On Table 2, the answer ‘no’ to the question ‘target of wording?’ is ambiguous; I am using it to cover both exclusion-as-a-side-effect and deliberate exclusion.


Turning to Table 3, the head of the translation department distributes the draft translation to the reviser, positioning the latter to do any needed rewriting. The reviser is however not a target of the text’s message. This is true of many of those involved in the production of texts in a corporate/government setting. Unlike the situation in Bible (and other literary) translation, those involved in such settings have no inherent interest in the messages of the texts. Revisers are of course very much interested in whether the message is similar to the message of the source text, but they have no interest in the message as such, except by accident (the text is about boating safety and the reviser happens to be an avid sailor).


5.2 Proofreaders, etc.

I am using ‘proofreader’ here as a cover term for people who read the text as an original (even if they know it is a translation) and take an interest in matters of wording and appearance: style editors, page designers, and so on. Sometimes revisers act like members of this group also, when they read only the translation without referring to the source text, though the translator may not know in advance whether the reviser will exercise this option.


Just as translators may decide to cater to revisers, so may they cater to the various types of ‘proofreader’. If they do, then they position the proofreader, in terms of Table 2, as a “direct audience”. But they may also choose not to cater to the proofreader. Perhaps it is known that the page designer wants the paragraphing of the source text to be followed, but the translator decides not to follow it because the final users are being positioned to read the text as an original rather than as a translation, and paragraphing habits in the genre at hand are not the same in the target language as in the source language. The translator thus positions the proofreader as a ‘direct overhearer’.


Regarding positioning through distribution, the head of the translation department or the commissioner may distribute the completed translation to one or another type of proofreader, who will then be positioned as ‘non-targeted rewriters’.


5.3 Subject-matter experts, etc.

Again, ‘subject-matter expert’ is a class name for people who, unlike the reviser or proofreader, have expertise on the topic of the text: reviewers, subject editors, marketers, and so on. These readers will on the whole not be positioned by the translator as targets of the wording, though they may attend to terminology and perhaps subject-specific phraseology, so that they are in fact also carrying out group (2) duties as editors.


These readers will most often be positioned to read the text as an original. However, in a multilingual organization, the translator may be aware that the commissioner will be distributing the translation to, for example, a lawyer as part of the process of preparing multilingual legislation or multilingual product documents such as warranties. The translator might then position the lawyer to read the text as a translation, perhaps by adding several translator’s notes. Correspondingly, in terms of Table 3, the commissioner would position the lawyer as a ‘targeted rewriter’.


5.4 Clerks, etc.

In a corporation or government ministry, a translation will usually pass through the hands of several members of the support staff—a variety of clerks, messengers and the like who retrieve a text from one step in its production and pass it on to the next. Communication often involves such individuals, at both the sending and receiving ends: I drop a letter in a mailbox which was written by someone else, or deliver a letter not addressed to me.


In terms of Table 2, translators will typically ignore this group, not positioning them at all. In Bell’s terms, they are expected not to be among the readers. In terms of Table 3, the translation department head as well as managers elsewhere in the organization must arrange for translations to be distributed to members of this group, their work being obviously vital to completing the communication circuit. However they are not targets of the message, and they are not positioned as rewriters. Instead their task is to manipulate the physical entity which bears the message and the wording—a matter which I have left out of account. During such manipulation, they may change the message for better or worse, for example when they convert it from one software format to another, or when they assemble the parts of a text that has been translated by more than one person.


5.5 Commissioners

Commissioners are the people who order and pay for translations. In one sense, they are institutions: the corporation or the ministry, or a subpart thereof. In a more immediate sense, the commissioner is the individual who authorized the preparation of a particular translation. The commissioner may read the completed translation personally or pass it on to a representative such as someone from group (3), who can advise on whether the text is ready for the final users.   


Now a bird’s eye view may reveal that at ministry X or corporation Y, certain commissioners never bother reading translations or assigning a representative to read them. However, the translator may well have imperfect knowledge of what happens to completed translations. He/she may decide to target the wording at the commissioner, perhaps by using the special terminology of ministry X or by carefully following instructions for that specific job. Alternatively, the translator may decide not to cater to the commissioner. Perhaps the commissioner requested that new terminology approved by a terminology standardization committee be used, but the translator may feel a greater loyalty to the final users, who may not be familiar with the new terminology and would thus not feel addressed by a text that uses it.


5.6 Source-text writers

The source-text writer may happen to be a subject-matter expert, or may be the commissioner of the translation, but here I am considering the ST writer as such. The translator may be aware or suspect that the commissioner will be distributing the translation to the ST writer,  and may word the translation specifically with that in mind, perhaps making sure that it is particularly faithful to small details. The ST writer will then be positioned as a ‘report audience’.


5.7 Final users

The translator may position certain final users as ‘report audiences’ or ‘direct audiences’, but other final users—whether inside the corporation/ministry or more likely outside it—may  fall into Bell’s categories ‘not expected to be present’ in the readership or ‘expected to be absent’ from it, in which case they will not be positioned by the translator. A common situation is that the commissioner fails to pass on the identity of final users to the translation department, and the translator may not inquire into the matter, or inquire and fail to obtain an answer. The translator may then guess at their identity and possibly position them in a way not consistent with the commissioner’s intent, for example, position them as ‘report audiences’ when the commissioner in fact wants the translation to be read as an original. 


6 Positioning the translator as reader

In his analysis of news production, Bell points out that news writers often do not start from a blank screen; rather they read old versions of a news story, or a story taken from a wire service. They then rewrite this material, making additions and subtractions. Translators too may read (or have Translation Memory read) old translations or old target-language documents and then rewrite certain passages of these for incorporation into the current translation. There is also a more fundamental sense in which a translator rewrites: the commissioner distributes to the translator a text in a certain language which thus becomes a source text, to be read and then rewritten in another language. Applying the roles of Table 3 to this situation, we can say that the translator is positioned by the commissioner as a ‘non-targeted rewriter’.


Some texts may be written in the source language with the knowledge that the translator will be their sole reader. For example, a foreign affairs official writes a text in English, which will then be translated into Russian and sent off to Russia. In terms of Table 3, we might say that the translator is again positioned as a ‘non-targeted rewriter’, not by the commissioner but by the source-text writer.


More interestingly, the categories of Table 2 can be applied as well. Some text writers in a corporate/government setting may think of the translator as a future reader, and give consideration to the fact that the translator is not a message target, i.e. not a subject-matter expert. Consequently the translator may be positioned as ‘direct audience’: perhaps the writer explains acronyms, or explains the meanings of terms in notes,  even though this is not necessary for the writer’s intended (expert) readers.


Then there are cases where the translation is being done in two stages because there is no translator available who knows both the source and target languages. Here, the first translator (working from the source language to an intermediate language) may position the second translator (working from the intermediate language to the target language) as a ‘report audience’, wording the translation in ways that will help the second translator, perhaps by writing more explicitly or less ambiguously (‘a need for drivers’ instead of ‘a driver requirement’).


Finally, there are situations where the commissioner has a translation backtranslated into the source language as a (not very good) way of determining its quality. Here the first translator may be aware of what will happen and may decide to word the translation in such a way as to increase  the likelihood that the backtranslator will reconstruct the wording from which the first translator started.


Of course, despite all these interesting cases, the writers of the overwhelming majority of texts arriving in the translation department have not given thought to the translator as a future reader. Flow chart diagrams of translation such as Nida & Taber’s are somewhat misleading in that the arrows may suggest that the source-text writer was sending a message to the translator and ultimately to the reader of the translation. While much of that message may indeed eventually get through to the reader of the translation, there is typically no intention on the writer’s part that this should happen; in Bell’s terms, the translator is an overhearer—not expected to be among the readership. One suspects, for example, that most of the writers of the Biblical texts never gave thought to their work coming to the attention of translators or translation readers.


To conclude, I have attempted in this article to demonstrate how a small set of dimensions can be used to define a larger set of receptor roles, which in turn can account for the activities of an even larger number of individuals in a particular translation setting.

[1] In this article, ‘receptor’ and ‘reader’ are mostly interchangeable. However, while all readers are receptors, not all receptors are readers. They could be listeners to speech, or they could be people who receive the physical object bearing a text but never actually read it (see section 5(4) for an example).

[2] Little has been done within Translation Studies to understand the actual experience of readers of translations (though see Mason 2008). Outside Translation Studies, social scientists, public health researchers and marketers have studied the responses of readers of translated questionnaires (see the bibliography in Douglas & Craig 2007). The lack of work on the reading process extends to translators and revisers as well, who are most often pictured as writers rather than readers. No doubt part of the difficulty is methodological: the output of writing is visible or hearable, whereas the output of reading is mostly mental and therefore difficult to study, though the advent of eye-tracking technology offers some hope that the reading process can be monitored.

[3] Goffman 1981 contains separate chapters on conversation, lecturing and talking on the radio. The chapter on lecturing does have a little to say about the differences between speech and writing, and a fair amount about reading aloud—a topic which may be of interest to Bible translators, since the Bible is a text that is frequently read aloud to an audience. Goffman does not attempt to apply his four roles to lecturing and radio talk, never mind writing.

[4] In Mossop 2007, I discuss three different ‘voices’ which the translator can project at the reader. One of these is a voice that seems to emanate from a distant place unfamiliar to the reader. This is contrasted with a voice that seems to be the reader’s own, and a voice which is the translator’s own.

[5] Wadensjö 1992/8:90-3 suggests three roles which a listener can be given or adopt in reaction to what is heard: reporter, responder or recapitulator. The only other attempt of which I am aware to formalize possible receptor positions is Pym 1992. Pym says that a translation can position a given reader as participative, observational or excluded. He also has a lot to say about the distribution of a text, but in a broader sense than mine.



Bell, A. 1991. The Language of News Media. Oxford: Blackwell.

Douglas, S. and & S. Craig. 2007. “Collaborative and Iterative Translation: an alternative approach to back translation.” Journal of International Marketing 15:1, 30-43.

Goffman, E. 1981. Forms of Talk. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press.

Levinson, S. C. 1988. “Putting linguistics on a proper footing: Explorations in Goffman’s concepts of participation.” In Erving Goffman: Exploring the interaction order, P. Drew and A. Wootton (eds.), 161-227. Boston: Northeastern University Press.

Mason, I. 2004. “Conduits, Mediators, Spokespersons: Investigating Translator/interpreter Behaviour.” In Translation Research and Interpreting Research, C. Schaffner (ed.), 88-97. Clevedon & Buffalo: Multilingual Matters.

Mason, I. 2008. “Translator Moves and Reader Response: the Impact of Discoursal Shifts in Translation.” To appear in M. Schreiber and M. Klein-Kuhle (eds) Papers in Translation Studies, Frankfurt am Main: Peter Lang.

Mossop, B. 2007. “The Translator’s Intervention through Voice Selection.” In Translation as Intervention, J. Munday (ed.), 18-37. London: Continuum.

Nida, E. and C. Taber. 1969. The Theory and Practice of Translation. Leiden: Brill.

Nida, E. and J. de Waard. 1986. From One Language to Another. Nashville: Nelson.

Nida, E. 2000. “A Fresh Look at Translating.” In Investigating Translation. Selected Papers from the 4th International Conference on Translation, Barcelona, 1998, 3-12. Amsterdam/Philadelphia: Benjamins.

Pym, A. 1992. “The relations between translation and material text transfer.” Target 4:2, 171-89.

Wadensjö, C. 1992/1998. Interpreting as Interaction. London and New York: Longman.

Wilt, T. 2003. “Translation and Communication” in T. Wilt (ed), Bible Translation: Frames of Reference, 27-80. Manchester: St. Jerome.