Catford’s shifts in Translation

Shifts in Translation

It is important to point out that the relationship of translation studies to other disciplines is not fixed. This explains the changes over the years, from a strong link to contrastive linguistics in the 1960s to the present focus on more cultural studies perspectives and even the recent shift towards areas such as computing and multi-media.

Gutas, writing from a historical perspective, rejects a simplistic chronological explanation for the shifts in translation style in the ‘Abbasids’ organized translation programme.

Catford’s (1965) linguistic approach, which saw the introduction of the term ‘translation shift


Catford and translation ‘shifts’

HAVING reviewed all types of restricted translation we return, now, to general discussion; in particular, to a brief systematic survey of some of the changes or ‘shifts’ which occur in translation. By ‘shifts’ we mean departures from formal‌correspondence in the process of going from the SL to the TL. Two major types of ‘shift‘ occur: 1) level shifts and 2) category shifts.

Level shifts: By a shift of level we mean that a SL item at one linguistic level has a TL translation equivalent at a different level. Cases of more or less incomplete shift from grammar to lexis are quite frequent in translation between other languages.

Level shifts means a SL item at one linguistic level has a TL translation equivalent at a different level. This shift commonly occurs with shift from grammar to lexis and vice versa.

We have already pointed out that translation between the levels of phonology and graphology—or between either of these levels and the levels of grammar and lexis—is impossible. Translation between these levels is absolutely ruled out by our theory, which posits ‘relationship to the same substance’ as the necessary condition of translation equivalence. We are left, then, with shifts from grammar to lexis and vice-versa as the only possible level-shifts in translation; and such shifts are, of course, quite common.

Hanieh Azimzadegan

Rank of Translation: A third type of differentiation in translation relates to the rank in a grammatical (or phonological) hierarchy at which translation equivalence is established.

In normal total translation the grammatical units between which translation equivalences are set up may be at any rank and in a long text the ranks at which translation equivalence occur are constantly changing: at one point, the equivalence is sentence-to-sentence, at another, group-to-group, at another word-to-word, etc., not to mention formally ‘shifted’ or ‘skewed’ equivalences.

Category shifts: Above, we referred to unbounded and rank-bound translation: the first being approximately ‘normal’ or ‘free’ translation in which SL-TL equivalences are set up at whatever rank is appropriate. Usually, but not always, there is sentence equivalence, but in the course of a text, equivalences may shift up and down the rank-scale, often being established at ranks lower than the sentence. We use the term ‘rank-bound’ translation only to refer to those special cases where equivalence is deliberately limited to ranks below the sentence, thus leading to ‘bad translation’ = i.e. translation in which the TL text is either not a normal TL form at all, or is not relatable to the same situational substance, as the SL text.

In normal, unbounded, translation, then, translation equivalences may occur between sentences, clauses, groups, words and (though rarely) morphemes.

Changes of rank (unit-shifts) are by no means the only changes of this type which occur in translation; there are also changes of structure, changes of class, and changes of term in systems, etc. Some of these—particularly structure-changes-—are even more frequent than rank-changes.

We give here a brief discussion and illustration of category-shifts, in the order structure-shifts, class-shifts, unit-shifts (rank-changes), intra-system-shifts.

Structure-shifts: These are amongst the most frequent category shifts at all ranks in translation; they occur in phonological and graphological translation as well as in total translation. In grammar, structure-shifts can occur at all ranks.


Each picture told a story= هر تصویر داستانی را می‌گفت

Verb+ object         object+ verb

Hanieh Azimzadegan


I saw a light= یک نور دیدم

subject+ verb+ object= subject+ object+ verb

(As cited in Parya Rostamkhani, 2016, pp. 79-80)



Clause-structure shift

SL text     John loves Mary   = SPC

TL text   جان عاشق ماری است.      =SACP

SL text       the man is in the boat = SPA

TL text        آن مرد در قایق است           = SAP

Note: A structure is an arrangement of elements. Thus, the elements of structure of the English unit ‘clause’ are P (predicator), S (subject), C (complement), A (adjunct).

Structure-shifts can be found at other ranks, for example at group rank.

There is often a shift from MH (modifier + head) to (M) HQ,((modifier + ) head + qualifier).

A white house   (MH)

کاخ سفید (HM)

Note: In English nominal groups we must set up three elements: H (head), M (modifier) and Q_ (qualifier).

Old / men     (MH)

These three old / men     (MMMH)

Class-shifts: Following Halliday, we define a class as ‘that grouping of members of a given unit which is defined by operation in the structure of the unit next above’. Class-shift, then, occurs when the translation equivalent of a SL item is a member of a different class from the original item. Because of the logical dependence of class on structure (of the unit at the rank above) it is clear that structure-shifts usually entail class-shifts, though this may be demonstrable only at a secondary degree of delicacy.

Hanieh Azimzadegan

Unit-shift: By unit-shift we mean changes of rank—that is, departures from formal correspondence in which the translation equivalent of a unit at one rank in the SL is a unit at a different rank in the TL. Rank here refers to the hierarchical linguistic units of sentence, clause, group, word, and morpheme (ibid).


Let her have some supper = اجازه دهید شامی بخورد                 phrase to word

Think over your wickedness=فکر کن چه کار بدی کردی               word to sentence

(As cited in Parya Rostamkhani, 2016, p. 63)


Intra-system shift: one might expect ‘system-shift’ to occur along with the names of the types of shift affecting the other fundamental categories of grammar—unit, structure and class. There is a good reason for not naming one of our types of shift ‘system-shift’, since this could only mean a departure from formal correspondence in which (a term operating in) one system in the SL has as its translation equivalent (a term operating in) a different—non-corresponding—system in the TL. Clearly, however, such shifts from one system to another are always entailed by unit-shift or class-shift.

the system is one of two terms: singular and plural—and these terms may also be regarded as formally corresponding.

News (plural)     خبر (singular)

Trousers (plural)    شلوار (singular)

Hanieh Azimzadegan


  1. C. Catfored, (1965), A Linguistic Theory of Translation