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5.2.3 Polysystems in Tel Aviv  


A second strand of contact led from Russian Formalism to Tel Aviv. The agent of 

transfer here was the Israeli scholar Itamar Even-Zohar, who became aware of the 

Russian texts as a student of Benjamin Harshav at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem 

and started to read them while studying in Copenhagen (see Even-Zohar 2008b; the 

networks of European scholarship are complex) and working on his doctoral 

dissertation. Even-Zohar has generally been concerned with the systemic descriptions of 

the ways cultures develop, and he explicitly follows the insights of Tynyanov, Jakobson 

and Eikhenbaum in studying cultural phenomena as systems, with their own principles 

and laws that await discovery. Rather than focus on literary systems in isolation, Even-

Zohar has sought to see cultures as “polysystems,” roughly as large, heterogeneous and 

complex systems (such as “Israeli culture,” “French culture”) within which there are 

smaller systems like literature, language, law, architecture, family life, and so on (hence 

the “poly,” meaning “many”). These smaller systems may also be complex and 

dynamic, warranting the “poly” prefix as well.  

In his detached view of cultural systems, Even-Zohar has remained faithful to 

the tradition of scientific modeling and to the multiple strands of the European tradition, 

as was shown in his doctoral thesis on translation. Like the structuralists in Prague and 

Bratislava, he has worked from within a “minor” culture (Hebrew), and his interest in 

the pre-Israeli phases of Hebrew literature has led him to develop a view of it as a 

multiple-components system (a polysystem). Even-Zohar founded a section for 

Translation Studies at Tel Aviv University and was at the origin of what would become 

the “Tel Aviv School” of Translation Studies, which includes Gideon Toury (whose 

PhD was supervised by Even-Zohar), Rakefet Sela-Sheffy and Gisèle Sapiro. This 

strand thus leads more or less directly to the coining of the term “Descriptive 

Translation Studies.” 


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