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The notion of culture in translation studies

Fascinating different theories have been developed over the centuries on the subject of translation studies. In particular, the notion of culture has been one of the most discussed issues and, for this reason, this essay will investigate into this. We will provide an overview of the main translation theories developed in translation history, trying to identify the impact that culture has on translation and how it (may) constrain it. The topics tackled in this paper will be therefore presented as follows:

  • Insight into the history of translation before the 20th century;
  • Nida's and Bssnett's equivalence approach;
  • Lefevere's rewriting theory;
  • Venuti's cultural approach.
  • Vemere's Skopos Theorie;
  • Newmark's communicative approach;
  • System theories: Even-Zohar's poly-system and Toury's norms;

The essay will focus on how the notion of culture differentiates from the linguistic approach in translation studies and, in doing so, it will support the view that culture is an integral part of the translating process.

The last hypotheses which will be discussed in this paper are the so-called "system theories", Even-Zohar's poly-system and Toury's norms. To start with, Even-Zohar refers to situations where translated literature occupies the primary position in a culture's literature. According to him, the poly-system theory sees any text system as "operating in relation to the other social, cultural and historical systems to which it is connected" (1990). The system is therefore the key concept and the term is used to describe "how nothing is independent of the context in which it exists" (Even-Zohar, 1990).
Let us now spend a few lines on Toury's book "Descriptive Translation Studies", as it marked an important point in translation studies. For Toury, the acquisition of a set of norms is a prerequisite for becoming a translator within a cultural environment, in order to manoeuvre the factors that may constrain the translation (1995, p. 53). He distinguishes three different sets of norms: 1) the initial norm refers to the translator's decision to direct the translation to either the source text norms (adequate translation), or to the target text norms (acceptable translation); 2) preliminary norms focusing on the translation policy and the directness of translation; 3) operational norms.
Although Toury recognizes that the individual translator's use of the socially and culturally acceptable norms may not be fully systematic, he believes that these norms can be used to come to certain conclusions on translation. For example, his concept of equivalence is based on notions of equivalence or acceptability based on the social/cultural norms. He also believes that one can demonstrate certain universals of translation and summarizes them as two laws: a) the law of growing standardization suggests that the target text standards ignore those of the original text, therefore making the target culture more powerful; b) the law of interference suggests that the source text interferes in the target text by default, therefore making the source culture more powerful.
Following the above discussion of Toury's norms, we have now one more confirmation of how translation can be more and more influenced by culture.

At this stage, a summary of the concepts until now illustrated will be useful to draw the conclusions to this paper. First of all, everyone agrees that a perfect theory for a perfect translation has not yet been found. As we have seen, translation always implies some loss, either on the side of content - privileging the original but involving potential misunderstandings in the target culture - or form - privileging the target culture but risking to be unfaithful to the source text. It is the translator's duty to make this difficult decision and to judge what is best for his reader.
Cultural studies have therefore inspired different approaches to translation, but these all share a common ground, that is the radical interference of subjects such as cultural, historical, ideological or political circumstances with the translation itself, which will be therefore irreversibly influenced and biased.

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