Textual equivalence: thematic and information structures

a sentence is not autonomous, it does not exist for its own sake but as part of a situation and part of a text. And one of the most important functions of information dynamics is precisely to link a sentence to its environment in a manner which allows the information to flow through the text in the desired manner. (Enkvist, 1978a: 178)

A translator should be aware not only of cognitive meanings and basic syntactic structures in his text, but also of its information dynamics. Such an awareness does not necessarily imply theoretical sophistication in linguistics, or an ability to analyze sentences into themes, rhemes, and focally marked or unmarked elements. Here too a translator must rely on intuition and Sprachgefühl. But in situations where theory may be of help, even in defining problems rather than in solving them, it should not be avoided. (ibid.: 180)
We ended the last chapter with a brief discussion of word order and of text. It was suggested then that the linear arrangement of linguistic elements plays a role in organizing messages at text level. In this chapter, we resume our discussion of word order as a textual strategy (rather than a grammatical feature) and explore a number of ways in which its role in controlling information flow can be explained. 

To illustrate what is meant by ‘information flow’, consider some possible formulations of sentence (2) in the following extract from Stephen Hawking’s A Brief History of Time (1988: 3).

(1) Ptolemy’ s model provided a reasonably accurate system for predicting the positions of heavenly bodies in the sky.

(2) a. But Ptolemy had to make an assumption that the moon followed a path that sometimes brought it twice as close to the earth as other times, in order to predict these positions correctly. 

(2) b. But an assumption that Ptolemy had to make in order to predict these positions correctly was that the moon followed a path that sometimes brought it twice as close to the earth as at other times. 

(2) c. But in order to predict these positions correctly, Ptolemy had to make an assumption that the moon followed a path that sometimes brought it twice as close to the earth as at other times.

(3) And that meant that the moon ought sometimes to appear twice as big as at other times! 

[...]
Clause as a message can be analysed in terms of two types of structure: (a) thematic structure (5.1.1) and (b) information structure (5.1.2). There are two main approaches to the analysis of clause as a message. The Hallidayan approach treats thematic and information structures as separate, though often overlapping features of discourse organization. The two structures are seen to be essentially distinct from each other. Linguists belonging to the Prague School by and large conflate the two structures and combine them in the same description (see section 5.2 below). The two approaches are often at odds with each other and can produce completely different analyses of the same clause. However, translators with different linguistic backgrounds should benefit from a brief exposure to both points of view. Here, as elsewhere, a translator would be well advised to use those explanations which are compatible with the languages that are of interest to him/her and ignore the rest.

Both approaches are outlined below, starting with a general overview which follows the Hallidayan or ‘separating’ approach. For a good overview of both positions, see Fries (1983), who refers to them as the ‘separating’ approach and the ‘combining’ approach.


Mona Baker (1992) In Other Words: A Coursebook on Translation, Routledge: London and New York, pp. 120-121.