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 first crucial part of this investigation is to the study of the origins of translation, in order to see where today’s theories come from. To start with, the oldest tradition of translation theory is the transmission of the Holy Scriptures. The story of the Septuagint clarifies this conception of translation: when seventy Greek rabbis were asked to translate the Hebrew Bible into Greek, it was found that all the seventy translations were identical. As a consequence, only one true and correct translation existed for this text. At the time, the translator was performing a semi-divine function to spread the holy word to those unable to read the original version, so that through the translation, they could ensure an equivalent experience. As Lefevere will later remark on this matter, “God may have spoken in Hebrew, but He also guided the Greek translators to the one and only possible translation of His word” (Lefevere, 1990, p.14). It was not important that the Greek rabbis merely conveyed the general meaning of the Hebrew Bible, nor that they simply had the sentences more or less in the same order. The key facts were that a) every word was the same in all seventy translations; b) the unique translation was the equivalent of the original. This very concept, developed through the centuries, will lead to Nida’s principle of equivalence, as we shall see later.
In the 4th century, St. Jerome attempted the translation of the same text, this time from ancient Greek into Latin, affecting later translations: he actually preferred a “sense-for-sense approach” (Munday, 2001, p. 20), which implied a freer translation, less “word-for-word”. Theorising his example, under the Romans, Cicero introduced the dichotomy between literal vs. free translation, a concept which will be developed all the way toward present times’ theories, as we will see. As a matter of fact, in the 14th century, when Marsilio Ficino and Erasmus from Rotterdam worked on the Latin edition of the New Testament, they brought up a new attitude towards translation: readers demanded now more “rigor of rendering, as philosophical and religious beliefs depended on the exact words of Plato, Aristotle and Jesus” (Cohen, 1986, p. 13). Nevertheless, non-scholarly literature continued to rely on adaptation. At this early stage of translation history, dichotomies between literal versus free translation were already being fervently discussed.
With the passing of time, writers who knew more than one language started to translate other authors’ works, “in words such as they would have probably been written” (Dryden, 17th century) and they simply assumed that their own style of expression was the best, together with the fact that texts should be made to conform to it in translation (Cohen, 1986, p. 14). Was the style of translators really to be privileged to the original text’s style?
The answer came only with the 20th century, with more recent and scientific studies led by linguists such as Jakobson, Chomsky and Nida, as at the turn of the 19th century, no specific and widely shared theory of translation had yet been formulated.
In the 1960s, Eugene Nida proposed the principle of equivalence, which can be better understood by describing the difference between fidelity – or faithfulness – and transparency, as they are two qualities that, for centuries, have been regarded as ideals to be striven for in translation. Fidelity concerns the extent to which a translation accurately renders the meaning of the source text, without adding to or subtracting from it, that is, without distorting it. Transparency refers instead to the extent to which a translation appears to a native speaker of the target language to have originally been written in that language, and conforms to the language’s grammatical, syntactic and idiomatic conventions (Nida, 1976, p. 51).
With the above definitions, Nida suggested that translation should aim for an “equivalent effect”, introducing the idea that more importance was to be given to “the receiver of the message”, i.e. the audience.
Earlier in the century, the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis or linguistic relativity had already made its way in the field, stating that a) language is the direct expression of culture; b) the structure of a language conditions the way its speakers think. Nida therefore agreed on the fact that language and culture are inseparable concepts, even if this may lead “to radical departures from the formal structure” (Snell-Hornby, 2006, p. 25). Highlighting the fact that there was very “little agreement on what constitutes legitimate translating and how the science of linguistics should be applied” (Nida, 1976, p. 47), he analysed the relationships between the key elements in translation – source, message and receptors – and he spotted the importance of setting in translation, that is time and culture in which the message is issued. For example, when translating business letters, radical adjustments are often needed in order to “make the message more acceptable to the receptors, as business etiquette differs widely in various parts of the world” (1976, p. 51). In this case, a literal translation (formal equivalence) doesn’t mean anything in another culture, so the dynamic equivalence is necessary. Another interesting example is the one taken from the translation of the Bible, where the ‘Lamb of God’ is translated as ‘Seal of God’, because the lamb doesn’t symbolize innocence in Eskimos culture. Furthermore, “as the formal features of a text become more highly specialised, the more difficult it is to approximate the form and the more unlikely is that even a formal equivalence will carry anything like the same significance for the readers”. Nida therefore came to the conclusion that the translator must be willing to express his own creativity through someone else’s creation (1976, p. 58).
A fervent supporter of Nida’s views is S. Bassnett, who brings forward a simple example showing the validity of the equivalence approach: the translation of idioms. If we consider the following sentence and its possible translations:
(Italian): Giovanni mena il can per l’aia
(literal English translation): John is leading his dog around the threshing floor
(sense for sense English translation): John is beating about the bush
It can be easily inferred how a literal translation of the Italian idiom would not make any sense while if the principle of equivalence is to be applied, the message in the source language can be straightforwardly transferred to the target language with no loss in its original meaning. As she further points out, “equivalence in translation should not be approached as a search for sameness, as sameness does not exist between two target language versions of the same text, and not even between source language and target language” (Bassnett, 1980, p. 36).
Following this discussion, it appears that until the second half of the 20th century translation theory seemed stuck to what Steiner called “a sterile debate” over literal, faithful and free translation (Steiner, 1975, p. 319). To tell the truth, according to Snell-Hornby, Steiner’s opinion can have a double aspect from today’s viewpoint: on one hand, he is “polemically oriented” both on traditional translation theory and on the static view of linguists. On the other hand, he hypotheses the internationalisation of English as a “pre-packaged semantic field”, warning against its global diffusion as a means of “destruction of natural linguistic diversity” (Steiner, 1975, p. 470).
After this overview of the main translation theories that have marked history, we should look at more recent studies which actually investigate more in depth the role that culture plays in the translation of a text.
In the ’80s and ’90s, translation theory began a radical transformation, as it started to “move the author toward the reader” (Lefevere, 1990, p. 19) in order to make literary texts in the target language and culture as pleasant as in the source language and source culture. From this derives the emergence of a new understanding of the relationship between the source text – and author – and the target text – and translator. From now on, a text to be translated would no longer be approached as a simple string of words, but rather as an entire text, with cultural entities emerging from one distinctive cultural universe. As a consequence, translators speak not of source and target languages alone, but of source and target cultures too. From now on, there are also fewer discussions about good versus bad translations or faithful versus unfaithful ones. The new thought is rather how translation is not simply the transference of meaning from one language system into another by simply using a dictionary and good knowledge of grammar. Language is now “at the heart of culture; it gives voice to culture, and translators must see the source text within its surrounding cultural context. Texts have images in cultures and these are not always the same in the source and the target cultures” (Lefevere, 1990, pp. 26-27).
Similarly, Shavit sees translation as “part of a transfer mechanism”, that is “the process by which textual models of one system are transferred to another. In this process, certain products (the linguistic signs) are produced within the target system, which relates in various and complex ways to products of the source system. Hence, the final product of the act of translating is the result of the relationship between a source system and a target system” (Shavit, 1986, p. 111). An analogous idea is shared by Terracini who, in his essay Il problema della traduzione (The Problem of Translation), writes: “translating does not imply a formal reproduction of other people’s words, but rather their transfer from one cultural form to another, since every language is the product of a tradition and a particular form of culture” (1983, p. 17). Terracini therefore develops Shavit’s idea by adding the importance of cultural issues. To conclude, we can say that over the past three decades, translation studies have much evolved and we are now in the midst of a “cultural turn”. As Snell-Hornby notes:
as we move toward an understanding of translation that sees it as more a cultural (rather than a linguistic) transfer, the act of translation is no longer a “trans-coding” from one context into another, but an “act of communication.” [..] The new orientation in translation studies is toward the “function of the TT” rather than the “prescriptions of the ST” (Snell-Hornby, 1988, p. 81)
With these words, she clearly highlights again the emphasis to be attributed to the culture of the target language, rather than the faithfulness to the structure of the source language. Therefore, the translator must not only be bilingual, but also effectively bicultural. Furthermore, Snell-Hornby’s Translation Studies: an Integrated Approach clarifies how culture is “all socially conditioned aspects of human life” (1995, p. 39) and how it is tightly connected with the concept of behaviour, events, expectations and norms, all factors which forcedly influence the translation. Attention needs also to be paid to the fact that problems in translating texts do not depend solely on the source text itself, but on the significance of the target text for its readers, as members of a certain culture (Snell-Hornby, 1995, p. 42). Following this discussion, it would seem that not only do translators have to render the text in a given language, but they also have to transmit culture, by making all the necessary adaptations and changes in order to best report the original message. However, in so doing, it is possible that they might make their translation more like a subjective opinion. Venuti supports exactly the same view by seeing translation as a cultural transfer. He criticises the Anglo-American tradition of fluency and transparency in translation as a “forcible replacement of the linguistic and cultural difference of the foreign text with a text that will be intelligible to the target language reader” (Venuti, 1995, p. 18). According to his theory, a translated text should let emerge a different culture, so that the reader can get an understanding of a cultural other. Venuti also advocates resistancy, a translation strategy based on discontinuity, that can best preserve that difference “by reminding the reader of the gains and losses in the translation process and the unbridgeable gaps between cultures” (Venuti, 1995, p. 306). In this sense, he shows how deeply culture influences translation and constrains it. He also introduces the concept of translation as a ‘remainder’, that is the release of multiple meanings that exceed and sometimes impede the transparent uses of language (Venuti 1995, 216). To sum up, Venuti’s vision of translation promotes cultural innovation and change, a ‘cultural transfer’.
Looking at other empirical research accomplished during the 1990s, Mona Baker offers a different solution by supporting the use of corpora-based research. Corpora are samples of the study of language expressed in the so called “corpus linguistics”. They constitute a method deriving a set of abstract rules by which a natural language is governed or else relates to another language. Normally created through an automated process and later corrected, they constitutes the computational method that used to be seen as “the holy grail of linguistic research”, which would ultimately manifest a set of rules for natural language processing and machine translation at a high level. Nowadays there is a large ongoing debate on whether machine translation and corpora are to be trusted but what we can say is that computation capacity and speed keep increasing, and the use of corpora to study language has progressively amplified their respectability.
Baker proposes the use of three corpora: parallel, multilingual and comparable, whose aim is “to identify patterning which is specific to translated texts, irrespective of the source or target languages involved” (Baker, 1995, p. 234). To mention her words:
“we need to explore how text produced in relative freedom from an individual script differs from text produced under the normal conditions which pertain in translation, where a fully developed and coherent text exists in language A and requires recoding in language B” (Baker, 1995, p. 223)
Another important philosophy to be taken into account is Reiss’ and Vermeer’s Skopostheorie, which strongly opposes the concept of equivalence earlier illustrated. The word “skopos” is a technical term to indicate the “aim” of a translation. To quote Vermeer’s words, he is “in favour of a broader concept of translating, translation and translator. This is one of the reasons why [he has] adopted a somewhat new terminology” (Vermeer, 1996, p. 34). In a nutshell, this theory suggest to “design” a new text when translating, a text more adaptable to the target culture. It is clear how this conception sees translation as transcultural communication and this is also why, according to Vermeer, translating a text means “to produce a text in a target setting for a target purpose and target addressees in target circumstances” (Vermeer, 1986, p. 29).
Similarly, C. Nord defines translation as “a purposeful activity”, suggesting that translation is the production of a functional target text that maintain a certain relationship with a given source text, “that is specified according to the intended function of the target text” (Nord, 1997, p. 28).
In connection with the notion of culture in translation, another theory which is worth discussing is the one suggested by Peter Newmark, who argues that there is one single best method of translating, regardless of the translation approach taken into account. He supports what he calls the communicative approach, that is communicative translation attempting “to produce on its readers an effect as close as possible to that obtained on the readers of the original” (1977, p. 39). Because of these hypotheses, Newmark is criticised as he refuses to distinguish linguistic meaning from extra-linguistic sense, which leads him to advocate a literal (word-for-word) translation.
We should finally consider the concept illustrated by Folena: “traduttore = traditore” – from the same Latin origin traditor and traductor (translator = betrayer) (1994, p. 3). As it has been explained in several ways in this essay, the translator works to transfer a message from one language to another. However, he often has to act in favour of the language into which he is translating, which is normally his own. In this sense, translations might be biased. Despite this, it has been explained more than once how important it is in translation to take into account the target culture in which the reader is placed. As a consequence, biases can be justified.
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. Read more at: http://www.essaywriter.co.uk/the-notion-of-culture-in-translation-studies.aspx?id=LNKXo7qYbusoR