What is theme and how to translate it

Freiwald, Jonas; Neumann, Stella (Thesis advisor); Steiner, Erich (Thesis advisor)

Aachen : RWTH Aachen University (2021, 2022)
Dissertation / PhD Thesis

Dissertation, Rheinisch-Westfälische Technische Hochschule Aachen, 2021


Despite their strong genetic relation, the English and German languages show a variety of contrastive differences, which pose problems during the translation process. One such contrastive difference is Theme. Halliday and Matthiessen (2014: 89) define Theme as the "point of departure of the message", a system that is not limited to English, but may be applied across languages. This definition of Theme is very broad and abstract, and it can be argued that a multitude of clause elements can fulfill this function. In English, a variety of Theme zones have been proposed by systemic functional linguists, with Halliday & Matthiessen’s (2014) concept of Theme as everything up to the first experiential element being among the most popular. For German, Steiner & Teich (2004) have argued that Theme in German is limited to the one element before the Finite, which may be instantiated by a variety of different experiential and also non-experiential constituents. This lack of universally accepted formal and functional definitions makes Theme a challenging unit of analysis in an empirical research project, especially in contrastive analyses. This thesis aims at disentangling the contrastive differences of Theme in English and German and test how they affect translations. The main goals of this dissertation are thus twofold: First, I want to gain a thorough understanding of Theme regarding its functional definition and its formal realization in both English and German. To do so, I explore different plausible Theme hypotheses on how far the thematic space extends and on the basis of this, work out all the contrastive differences of Theme between English and German. And second, I aim to investigate the effects of Theme on English-to-German and German-to-English translations. In this context, I am particularly interested in Theme aspects that are systematically changed in translations and the most common translation procedures that are associated with them. For these purposes, I focus only on declaratives in both languages since thematic structure and mood are tightly linked and multiple separate accounts of Theme would go beyond the scope of this project. To work out contrastive differences and their effects on translations, I annotated authentic German and English original texts and their matching translations in the translation corpus CroCo (Hansen-Schirra, Neumann, and Steiner 2012). Three different Theme hypotheses in both languages were annotated, which allowed me to compare different Theme forms and weigh up their advantages and disadvantages. The project has an empirical, quantitative research design since any drawn conclusions will be corroborated by authentic translation data that was produced independently of this study. The results will be tested statistically using mostly generalized mixed models to allow claims about the general population. The study is quantitative as opposed to qualitative due to the fact that it takes note of a large number of texts and data points instead of only analyzing exemplary texts. The empirical results are manifold and cannot all be considered here. The use of multiple Themes and the average number of Theme elements, unsurprisingly, depended heavily on the choice of Theme hypothesis. The use and frequency of marked Themes differed contrastively and thus corroborated most claims by the state of the art. However, the detailed analysis of circumstantial Adjunct in this thesis also revealed the importance of Circumstance types and their semantic meanings regarding clause positioning in both languages. In terms of participant Themes and process types, the contrastive results could not have been more similar between German and English, which goes to show how similar the experiential space is between the two languages. The same also held true for Subject Theme identifiability. Contrary to previous assumptions, no significant differences could be demonstrated between English and German originals regarding Subject Theme agency. Register, on the other hand, was a consistent significant predictor for almost all Theme-related measures. The descriptive translation analyses exhibited the same tendencies as the contrastive results regarding multiple Themes, marked Themes, participant Themes and Subject Theme agency. The relative frequencies of German and English translations were generally in between the two original corpora, a combined effect of normalization and shining-through. Subject Theme identifiability increased significantly in German translations even though no prior contrastive difference could be established. This was interpreted as a difference in the use of abstract nouns, especially in the register of political speeches. The inferential analyses revealed interesting relationships between Theme measures and the presence of a translation shifts, which in many cases mirrored the contrastive results but also uncovered unsuspected predictor of translation changes. References: Halliday, M.A.K. & C. M. I. M. Matthiessen. 2014. Halliday’s Introduction to Functional Grammar. 4th ed. Abingdon: Routledge. Hansen-Schirra, S., S. Neumann, & E. Steiner. 2012. Cross-Linguistic Corpora for the Study of Translations: Insights from the Language Pair English-German. Berlin: de Gruyter Mouton. Steiner, E., & E. Teich. 2004. "Metafunctional Profile of the Grammar of German." In Language Typology: A Functional Perspective. A. Caffarel, J. R. Martin, and C. M.I.M. Matthiessen (eds.). Amsterdam and Philadelphia: Benjamins. 139-184.


  • Chair of English Linguistics [793810]