Itamar Even-Zohar

Itamar Even-Zohar (איתמר אבן-זהר, born 1939 in Tel Aviv) is an Israeli researcher of culture and professor at the Unit of Culture Research, at Tel Aviv University. Even-Zohar’s integral contribution is internationally known under the umbrella of Polysystem theory and the theory of Cultural repertoires, which gave rise to a line of research areas.

Heterogeneity and Dynamic Structuralism

Since the early 1970s Itamar Even-Zohar has been working on developing theoretical tools and research methodology for dealing with the complexity and interdependency of socio-cultural ‘systems,’ which he views as heterogeneous, versatile and dynamic networks. This life project on the theoretical level has always been embedded in and emerged from specific case studies within his evolving research frameworks.

As a young literary scholar, he began in the early 1970s, with what was then the cutting edge premises of Structuralism and Semiotics, proposing a multi-layered structural theory of the text (Even-Zohar 1972). Before long however, he became one of the first critics of “static Structuralism” (Even-Zohar 1978), that is, more precisely, of the reification flaw he suggested has been imposed on the Structuralist agenda by what he saw as a rigid and ‘sterile’ interpretations of Saussure’s notions of structure and ‘linguistic system’. In order for these notions to be widely and fruitfully applicable to all living, complex cultural activities in general, Even-Zohar insisted on taking into consideration the interplay of the diachronic (historical) and synchronic (contemporary) dimension of ”a socio-cultural system”. He therefore introduced the idea of “dynamic Structuralism,” with the concept of an ”open system of systems,” to capture the aspects of variability and heterogeneity “both in time and in place” (Even-Zohar 1979) in every historical point under consideration.

This new approach has led him to construct a research program that dealt with literary systems rather than with texts, which in the 1980s and early 1990s was considered a breakthrough in the realm of literary studies, and laid the ground for new schools in literary and translation studies (e.g., the Tel Aviv School, the Leuven School). This actually made him and his students (such as Gideon Toury, Zohar Shavit, Rakefet Sela-Sheffy, Gisèle Sapiro, and the late Rina Drory) forerunners of “historical poetics” (Even-Zohar 1978), which broke with the confined and normative notion of “literature” and “culture” as limited official sets of highbrow products, and expanded their object of study to become multi-layered and include the interplay between “center” and “periphery”, the “canonized” and “non-canonized.” In this context, Even-Zohar’s studies of linguistic diglossia and cases of contacts and exchanges between adjacent literary systems have become landmarks to serve as a model to hundreds of specific studies that have followed this direction in literary history.

Polysystem Theory

Even-Zohar has been striving to substitute univalent causal parameters with polyvalent factors as an instrument of explanation for the complexity of culture, both within the boundaries of one single community and on the borderline between communities. These attempts, which crystallized since the 1970s, and were reworked and modified through the last three decades under the name of "polysystem theory" (Even-Zohar 1978, 1979, 1990, 1997, 2005 [electronic book]), were at first put to work for analyzing sets of relations in literature and language, but gradually shifted towards a more complex analysis of socio-cultural systems. Even-Zohar’s polysystem theory has been increasingly spreading and being embraced by students of literatures and cultures all over the world without losing its strength, and all the more so in modernizing multinational and multi-ethnic socio-cultural federations and in cultures in transition, such as notably Spain and China, where this theory has proven to be particularly relevant and indispensable during the last two decades (Iglesias 1999; Chung Wai Literary Monthly, Vol. 30, No. 3, August 2001).

The Concept of ‘Models’

Even-Zohar took the basic idea of ‘system’ a step further in proposing that the object of study was no longer texts and products as such, but rather the (dynamic and multiple) cultural models that determine the production of concrete cultural objects (Even-Zohar 1997). Developing his work on theories in cognitive science and anthropology, he maintained that it is the inter-personal models which people acquire and employ in their day to day conducts as members of a community that should be traced to understand the dynamics of a certain culture. The theory of models is part of Even-Zohar’s larger Theory of Repertoire, both deeply inspired by the work of Russian Formalism and the later so-called Soviet semiotics (Yuri Lotman, Vyacheslav Vsevolodovich Ivanov, Toporov, Boris Uspensky, and others).

Polysysytem Approach and Translation Studies

This hypothesis has been most lucidly tested by him and his followers in the study of translation, where, following his seminal analysis of norms in translation, a bulk of case studies in many languages have shown that what appears as discrepancies between the source and the target texts can be explained only as the result of actions governed by domestic norms. Even-Zohar’s innovative systemic approach, embraced by many scholars, has laid the ground for a whole new field of research, turning Translation studies from a marginal, often normative philological specialty to a highly theoretical, vital focus of inter-culture research. Developing the field of Translation Studies became for Even-Zohar a fertile springboard for further elaborating hypotheses on culture contacts in general, and particularly on his understanding of processes of ‘culture transfer’, that is of the reception and domestication of inter-culturally imported models and products. Until today Even-Zohar is cited as one of the founding fathers of the modern school of Translation Studies, where his work, and particularly his article, “The Position of Translated Literature”, is repeatedly quoted, translated and reprinted. The renowned British student of translation Susan Bassnett observes that the “polysystem theory opened so many avenues to researchers in translation studies” (1997: 11), and that “all kinds of questions could now be asked that had previously not seemed to be of significance” (Bassnett 1993: 142). According to Lianeri,

“Described in Even-Zohar’s terms, a ‘polysystem’ is inherently multidimensional. It is able to accommodate taxonomies established in the realm of literature (the division between high and low literature), translation (the division between translation and non translation), and other modes of cultural production, as well as the realm of social relations (the division between dominant and dominated social groups). The need to account for the relations between these two realms, to describe translation not as a phenomenon existing in isolation, but as an integral part of a sociocultural totality, leads polysystem model to the supposition of norms and laws of translation production” (Lianeri 2001).

The Construction of Nations via Culture; The Role of “Idea-Makers”

Another influential project of Even-Zohar’s systemic-historical analysis is his study of the role of literature in the construction of national cultures, where his own comparative analyses of cases such as the Hebrew, Italian, Norwegian, Galician, Catalan and Icelandic, have inspired many PhD and MA dissertations dedicated to other cultures. Moreover, Even-Zohar has proposed that ‘culture’ as an object of study should no longer be restricted to products, but include instead the models for cultural actions. In this conceptual framework ‘culture’ is conceived of as life-management programs, not only as sets of elite commodities (Even-Zohar 1997, 2005). From this perspective, Even-Zohar has been working on processes of formation of cultural repertoires, where his 1982 (revised 1990) innovative analysis of the emergence and crystallizations of native Hebrew culture in Palestine has become not only one of the most cited contributions to the history of modern Hebrew culture, but also embraced as a paradigmatic analysis by students of other emergent cultures.

Since the 1990s, Even-Zohar's efforts have predominantly been directed to exploring the instances of deliberate culture planning in relation to the making of new socio-political entities. Problems of majority and minority, center and periphery, which have always been part of his theory, have now been put to test in connection with the study of the ongoing struggles for accessing and eventually controlling resources. In his analysis, the well-known endeavors since the end of the 18th century, when more and more communities around the globe have adopted the model of self-management, more often than not have been bundled together with energetic enterprises to create separate culture repertoires. Even-Zohar’s first study on these issues examined the building of Hebrew culture in Palestine between 1882 and 1948. He then moved to investigating other societies in order to be able to assess the validity of the conclusions based on specific test cases. Since 1993, he has been carrying out research in situ in Spanish Galicia, Catalonia, Iceland, Québec, and Newfoundland.

In the course of this research, questions naturally diversified. As a consequence, the problems of culture planning and the making of entities in the context of the interplay between center and periphery have gradually geared themselves to questions about the relation between survival and success of communities, and the role of the various groups within such communities who may operate as factors of either generating capitals (in the wide sense of the term, not exclusively on the economic level) or failure. Groups traditionally called “intellectuals” and “intelligentsia” may indeed function in either one of these directions. On the other hand, Even-Zohar suggested the possibility to hypothesize that communities severely lacking this category of people have shown little to no capacity for change and improve their life conditions. This latest stage of Polysystem theory, more expressed in Even-Zohar's work since the turn of the century, is a major contribution not only to the understanding of socio-cultural dynamics in general, but most particularly in connection with the burning issues of creating the conditions for a better life for human groups around the globe.


  • Aveling, Harry 2005. “Two Approaches to the Positioning of Translations: A Comparative Study of Itamar Even-Zohar's Polysystem Studies and Gideon Toury's Descriptive Translation Studies and Beyond.” Kritika Kultura - A Refereed Electronic Journal of Literary/Cultural and Language Studies, No. 6, November 2005, pp. 6-25.
  • Bassnett, Susan 1993. Comparative Literature: A Critical Introduction. Oxford and Cambridge, MA: Blackwell.
  • Bassnett, Susan 1997. “Moving Across Cultures: Translation as Intercultural Transfer”. In J.M. Santamaría, Eterio Pajares, Vickie Olsen, Raquel Merino and Federico Eguíluz, eds. Trasvases culturales: Literatura, cine, traducción 2. Vitoria-Gasteiz: Universidad del Pais Vasco, 1997. 7–20.
  • Chang, Nam Fung 2006. “Itamar Even-Zohar’s Culture Theory and Translation Studies”. Paper presented to the 1st Athens International Conference on Translation and Interpretation: Translation: Between Art and Social Science. Athens, 13-14 October 2006
  • DIMIĆ, Milan V. 1993. "Polysystem Theory", in Makaryk, I. ed. Encyclopedia of Contemporary Literary Theory, University of Toronto Press, Toronto, pp. 151-155.
  • Even-Zohar, Itamar 1972. "An Outline of a Theory of the Literary Text." Ha-Sifrut III (3/4): pp. 427-446.
  • Even-Zohar, Itamar 1978. Papers in Historical Poetics. Tel Aviv: Porter Institute.
  • Even-Zohar, Itamar 1979. "Polysystem Theory." Poetics Today 1(1-2, Autumn) pp. 287-310.
  • Even-Zohar, Itamar 1990. Polysystem Studies. [= Poetics Today 11:1]. Durham: Duke University Press.
  • Even-Zohar, Itamar 1997. "Factors and Dependencies in Culture: A Revised Draft for Polysystem Culture Research." Canadian Review of Comparative Literature / Revue Canadienne de Littérature Comparée XXIV(1, March), pp. 15-34.
  • Even-Zohar, Itamar 2005. Papers in Culture Research. [Electronic Book, available from Even-Zohar's Website
  • Gallego Roca, Miguel. 1994. "La teoría del polisistema: Nuevo paradigma para los estudios literarios sobre la traducción". En idem, 1994. Traducción y literatura, pp 145-172. Madrid: Ediciones Jucar.
  • Iglesias Santos, Montserrat. 1999. Teoría de los Polisistemas, Estudio introductorio, Compilación de textos y bibliografía por Montserrat Iglesias Santos. [Bibliotheca Philologica, Serie Lecturas] Madrid: Arco.
  • Lambert, José 1997. "Itamar Even-Zohar's Polysystem Studies: An Interdisciplinary Perspective on Culture Research." Canadian Review of Comparative Literature / Revue Canadienne de Littérature Comparée, XXIV, No. 1, pp. 7-14.
  • Lianeri, Alexandra 2001. “On Defining Norms and Laws: A Western Discourse on Translation Production?” In Workshop Conference: Translations and Translation Theories East and West, Papers from Workshop 1: Basic Issues In The Intercultural Study Of Translation (University College London, 9-10 July 2001).
  • Rodríguez García, José María 2004. “Literary into Cultural Translation.” Diacritics 34.3–4: 3-30.
  • Shuttleworth, Mark 2001. “Polysystem Theory”. In Routledge Encyclopedia of Translation Studies, Mona Baker ed., Routledge: New York & London, pp. 176-179.

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