Cultural problems in translation | July 2018 | Translation Journal

July 2018 Issue

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Cultural problems in translation

The culture as a perspective is defined in the dictionary language teaching and applied linguistics (Richardson and all. 1995: 94) as: "[culture] the total set of beliefs, attitudes, customs, behavior, and social habits etc…, of the members of a particular society". For many people culture is considered as a gateway to a given society heart, to have a close insight about its identity. In spite of its crucial role in conveying cultures through history; demonstrating and introducing cultures of different people, old nations, ancient civilizations, and even prehistoric events, thoughts, and achievements. A few writers, translation theorists, and linguists have fully discussed the problems of translating cultures in the various departments of thought; fewer members have dealt with translating what is culturally specific either from Arabic into English or vice versa. This may be due to several reasons. On one hand, it is always difficult to make generalizations […] On the other hand, interest in translation has been subservient to other ends….

The problem is that, some languages are loaded with cultural terms and expressions called (cultural specific). The cultural specific expressions are somehow difficult to translate, even professional translators find it difficult to deal with them. That is because the cultural context is too vague, it represents the world view of a society, its beliefs, emotions and values. Thus it comprises some important factors which help in building up the information necessary to interpret the message; enable for the translator to translate easily and effectively. That's why, any term; one word or an expression is said to be cultural specific when it denotes concrete objects or abstract aspects that may be related to religious beliefs, social habits, customs and traditions or social situations, moral values, a type of cloth or a life style, kind of food, economical principle, political ideology…that are specific to the culture in question. Henceforth, when translating cultures linguistic element should be related to the cultural context they belong to. For E. Nida (1964: 90) "the person who is engaged in translating from one language into another ought to be constantly aware of the contrast in the entire range of culture represented by the two languages". Meaning that, language is considered as a part of culture and the society's identity. For instance, according the Maya Indians who lives in the tropical countries, there is no place without vegetation unless it has been cleared for Maize-field. However, a cleared field is not the appropriate equivalent of the desert of Palestine. The word desert (ءاﺮﺤﺻ /Şhra? /) then represents a feature of the SC which is not found in the TC. For that reason, E. Nida (1964: 91) argued that "words are fundamentally symbols for features of the cultures". So, any lexical item can’t be understood apart from the culture of which is a symbol that belongs to.

Though some cultural concepts seem to be universal, however; they are not interpreted in the same way; each language has its own interpretation according to its peoples’ way of thinking, living style, and even their geographic position. Since as said before by Ivir (1981: 56) that languages are equipped and lexicalized differently. The interpretations may be completely different as they may just slightly different, subtle overlaps. The differences between cultures and life perceptions from a society into another may cause a lot of problems to translators. They create a lot of gaps which lead to plenty of overlaps between language pairs. Hence the translation task is going to be too complicated.

Telya et al. (1998: 58) argued that, for example, the Russians understand "conscience" as the presence of God in one's soul; whereas the English view it as knowledge of good and evil. One can notice that the Russians perception of such a term "conscience" is roughly the same as the Arab Muslims perception; both languages consider it as religious concept. For Arab Muslims; good and evil are all related to religion. God is only the one truth; to do well is to obey god, to do evil is to disobey god. For them; the conscience is feeling the presence of God all the times and everywhere. So, the translator who ignores such cultural specifities would not be able to recognize the different ways of perception which do exist between people, languages, and cultures. So in such diversion like in the example above, the translator would misunderstand, mistranslate the concept of conscience wrongly because he may take for granted that it means the same thing in all languages, for all people of different regions.

Cultures cause a lot of problems that is why translators are required to be competent not just at the linguistic level, rather at the cultural level. Let’s consider how Russians translate the expression "House of Commons".

The Russians used to translate as "chairman" which


Obviously is appropriate equivalent; it does not reflect the role of the speaker not its expression has no equivalent in the Russian, Arabic, Chinese languages.

‘’The-House-of-Commons” as an independent person who maintains authority and order in parliament (Mona, 1992: 21).

The cultural translation problems are the results of the differences between languages as a set of lexemes, and meanings, as between cultures as ways of expressing oneself identity, living style. Especially when translators come across a word in the SL/C that may express a concept which is totally unknown in the TL/C; be it an abstract concept or concrete.

In 1992, Mona Baker stated that S.L word may express a concept which is totally unknown in the target culture. It can be abstract or concrete. It may be a religious belief, a social custom or even a type of food. In her book, In Other Words, she argued about the common non-equivalents to which a translator come across while translating from SL into TL, while both languages have their distinguished specific culture. She put them in the following order:

a) Culture specific concepts
b) The SL concept which is not lexicalized in TL
c) The SL word which is semantically complex
d) The source and target languages make different distinction in meaning
e) The TL lacks a super ordinate
f) The TL lacks a specific term (hyponym)
g) Differences in physical or interpersonal perspective
h) Differences in expressive meaning
i) Differences in form
j) Differences in frequency and purpose of using specific forms
k) The use of loan words in the source text

Mona Baker also believed that it is necessary for translator to have knowledge about semantics and lexical sets. Because in this case:
S/he would appreciate the “value” of the word in a given system knowledge and the difference of structures in SL and TL. This allows him to assess the value of a given item in a lexical set.
S/he can develop strategies for dealing with non-equivalence semantic field. These techniques are arranged hierarchically from general (superordinate) to specific (hyponym)

  • Some strategies introduced by Newmark for dealing with cultural gap:

1) Naturalization:
A strategy when a SL word is transferred into TL text in its original form.

2) Couplet or triplet and quadruplet:
Is another technique the translator adopts at the time of transferring, naturalizing or calques to avoid any misunderstanding: according to him it is a number of strategies combine together to handle one problem.

3) Neutralization: 
Neutralization is a kind of paraphrase at the level of word. If it is at higher level it would be a paraphrase. When the SL item is generalized (neutralized) it is paraphrased with some culture free words.

4) Descriptive and functional equivalent:
In explanation of source language cultural item there is two elements: one is descriptive and another one would be functional. Descriptive equivalent talks about size, color and composition. The functional equivalent talks about the purpose of the SL cultural-specific word.

5) Explanation as footnote:
The translator may wish to give extra information to the TL reader. He would explain this extra information in a footnote. It may come at the bottom of the page, at the end of chapter or at the end of the book.

6) Cultural equivalent:
The SL cultural word is translated by TL cultural word

7) Compensation:
A technique which is used when confronting a loss of meaning, sound effect, pragmatic effect or metaphor in one part of a text. The word or concept is compensated in other part of the text.

In 1992, Lawrence Venuti mentioned the effective powers controlling translation. He believed that in addition to governments and other politically motivated institutions which may decide to censor or promote certain works, there are groups and social institutions which would include various players in the publication as a whole. These are the publishers and editors who choose the works and commission the translations, pay the translators and often dictate the translation method. They also include the literary agents, marketing and sales teams and reviewers. Each of these players has a particular position and role within the dominant cultural and political agenda of their time and place. Power play is an important theme for cultural commentators and translation scholars. In both theory and practice of translation, power resides in the deployment of language as an ideological weapon for excluding or including a reader, a value system, a set of beliefs, or even an entire culture.

In 1988 Newmark defined culture as "the way of life and its manifestations that are peculiar to a community that uses a particular language as its means of expression", thus acknowledging that each language group has its own culturally specific features. He also introduced ‘Cultural word’ which the readership is unlikely to understand and the translation strategies for this kind of concept depend on the particular text-type, requirements of the readership and client and importance of the cultural word in the text.

Peter Newmark also categorized the cultural words as follows:

1) Ecology: flora, fauna, hills, winds, plains
2) Material Culture: food, clothes, houses and towns, transport
3) Social Culture: work and leisure
4) Organizations Customs, Activities, Procedures,


• Political and administrative
• Religious
• artistic

5) Gestures and Habits

He introduced contextual factors for translation process which include:

1- Purpose of text 
2- Motivation and cultural, technical and linguistic level of readership
3- Importance of referent in SL text
4- Setting (does recognized translation exist?)
5- Recency of word/referent
6- Future or refrent.

He further clearly stated that operationally he does not regard language as a component or feature of culture in direct opposition to the view taken by Vermeer who stated that "language is part of a culture" (1989:222). According to Newmark, Vermeer's stance would imply the impossibility to translate whereas for the latter, translating the source language (SL) into a suitable form of TL is part of the translator's role in transcultural communication.

Language and culture may thus be seen as being closely related and both aspects must be considered for translation. When considering the translation of cultural words and notions, Newmark proposed two opposing methods: transference and componential analysis. According to him transference gives "local colour," keeping cultural names and concepts. Although placing the emphasis on culture, meaningful to initiated readers, he claimed this method may cause problems for the general readership and limit the comprehension of certain aspects. The importance of the translation process in communication led Newmark to propose componential analysis which he described as being "the most accurate translation procedure, which excludes the culture and highlights the message".

            DR. OUKAB CHAHROUR   12/3/2018

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