Cultural Implications for translation
is a kind of activity which inevitably involves at least two languages and
two cultural traditions. (Toury 1978:200). As this statement implies,
translators are permanently faced with the problem of how to treat the
cultural aspects implicit in a source text (ST) and of finding the most
appropriate technique of successfully conveying these aspects in the
target language (TL). These problems may vary in scope depending on the
cultural and linguistic gap between the two (or more) languages concerned
(see Nida 1964:130).
cultural implications for translation may take several forms ranging from
lexical content and syntax to ideologies and ways of life in a given
culture. The translator also has to decide on the importance given to
certain cultural aspects and to what extent it is necessary or desirable
to translate them into the TL. The aims of the ST will also have
implications for translation as well as the intended readership for both
the ST and the target text (TT).
the cultural implications for a translated text implies recognising all of
these problems and taking into account several possibilities before
deciding on the solution which appears the most appropriate in each
specific case. Before applying these methods to the chosen text, this
essay will examine the importance of culture in translation through a
literature review. The different general procedures of treating the
cultural implications for translation will be examined as well as
analysing the ST and the aims of the author. The translation process will
also be treated using specific examples found in the ST before discussing
the success of aforementioned theoretical methods applied to the TT.
corresponding to cultural categories examined, the title will be
considered separately in order to determine the pertinence of conserving,
highlighting, or excluding certain aspects. Due to these considerations,
the title will be considered after the other aspects as all other cultural
implications need to be examined before reaching relevant conclusions.
definition of "culture" as given in the Concise Oxford
Dictionary varies from descriptions of the "Arts" to plant and
bacteria cultivation and includes a wide range of intermediary aspects.
More specifically concerned with language and translation, Newmark defines
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"
(1988:94), thus acknowledging that each language group has its own
culturally specific features. He further clearly states that operationally
he does "not regard language as a component or feature of culture"
(Newmark 1988:95) in direct opposition to the view taken by Vermeer who
states 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
notion of culture is essential to considering the implications for
translation and, despite the differences in opinion as to whether language
is part of culture or not, the two notions appear to be inseparable.
Discussing the problems of correspondence in translation, Nida confers
equal importance to both linguistic and cultural differences between the
SL and the TL and concludes that "differences between cultures may
cause more severe complications for the translator than do differences in
language structure" (Nida, 1964:130). It is further explained that
parallels in culture often provide a common understanding despite
significant formal shifts in the translation. The cultural implications
for translation are thus of significant importance as well as lexical
theory states that "no language can exist unless it is steeped in the
context of culture; and no culture can exist which does not have at its
centre, the structure of natural language" (Lotman, 1978:211-32).
Bassnett (1980: 13-14) underlines the importance of this double
consideration when translating by stating that language is "the heart
within the body of culture," the survival of both aspects being
interdependent. Linguistic notions of transferring meaning are seen as
being only part of the translation process; "a whole set of extra-linguistic
criteria" must also be considered. As Bassnett further points out,
"the translator must tackle the SL text in such a way that the TL
version will correspond to the SL version... To attempt to impose the
value system of the SL culture onto the TL culture is dangerous ground"
(Bassnett, 1980:23). Thus, when translating, it is important to consider
not only the lexical impact on the TL reader, but also the manner in which
cultural aspects may be perceived and make translating decisions
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 proposes two opposing methods:
transference and componential analysis (Newmark, 1988:96). As Newmark
mentions, transference gives "local colour," keeping cultural
names and concepts. Although placing the emphasis on culture, meaningful
to initiated readers, he claims this method may cause problems for the
general readership and limit the comprehension of certain aspects. The
importance of the translation process in communication leads Newmark to
propose componential analysis which he describes as being "the most
accurate translation procedure, which excludes the culture and highlights
the message" (Newmark, 1988:96). This may be compared to the scale
proposed by Hervey et al, visualised as follows:
et al, 1992:28)
definitions of formal and dynamic equivalence (see Nida, 1964:129) may
also be seen to apply when considering cultural implications for
translation. According to Nida, a "gloss translation" mostly
typifies formal equivalence where form and content are reproduced as
faithfully as possible and the TL reader is able to "understand as
much as he can of the customs, manner of thought, and means of expression"
of the SL context (Nida, 1964:129). Contrasting with this idea, dynamic
equivalence "tries to relate the receptor to modes of behaviour
relevant within the context of his own culture" without insisting
that he "understand the cultural patterns of the source-language
text chosen for translation ("Les
Loukoums chez l'Arabe')
is an extract from La Première Gorgée de Bière et autres Plaisirs
Minuscules (L'Arpenteur, 1998) by the prize-winning
French author, Philippe Delerm. It is a self-contained chapter of a
collection of similar extracts where the author's intention to present
certain aspects of French life in a lyrical way presents matter for
thought both culturally and linguistically. The subject matter is centred
around thoughts on Turkish Delight and the Arab shop where this sweet can
be bought, thus introducing not only French, but North African cultural
aspects. Reflections on the subject, action and dialogue are all presented
in the same narrative form where the voice of the author is omnipresent.
The text contains several culturally-specific words and notions whose
implications for translation merit attention.
question that needs to be asked when considering a text for translation is
for whom the original text was destined and whether this readership
corresponds to the potential TT reader. Thus two types of ideal
reader may be distinguished: the ST ideal reader and the TT ideal reader.
In the text Les Loukoums chez l'Arabe, this notion may be seen as
particularly relevant due to the literary nature of the extract with the
subject matter being specifically linked to culture.
Coulthard (1992) highlights the importance
of defining the ideal reader for whom the author "attributes
knowledge of certain facts, memory of certain experiences ... plus certain
opinions, preferences and prejudices and a certain level of linguistic
competence." When considering such aspects, it should not be
forgotten that the extent to which the author may be influenced by such
notions is dependent on his own sense of belonging to a specific
These principles may be applied to "Les
Loukoums chez l'Arabe" and conclusions may be reached concerning
Delerm's ideal reader in the following way:
Once the ideal ST readership has been
determined, considerations must be made concerning the TT. Coulthard
The translator's first and major difficulty
... is the construction of a new ideal reader who, even if he has the same
academic, professional and intellectual level as the original reader, will
have significantly different textual expectations and cultural knowledge (Coulthard,
In the case of the extract translated here,
it is debatable whether the ideal TT reader has "significantly
different textual expectations," however his cultural knowledge will
almost certainly vary considerably.
Applied to the criteria used to determine
the ideal ST reader it may be noted that few conditions are successfully
met by the potential ideal TT reader. Indeed, the historical and cultural
facts are unlikely to be known in detail along with the specific cultural
situations described. Furthermore, despite considering the level of
linguistic competence to be roughly equal for the ST and TT reader,
certain differences may possibly be noted in response to the use of
culturally specific lexis which must be considered when translating.
Although certain opinions, preferences and
prejudices may be instinctively transposed by the TT reader who may liken
them to his own experience (in Britain, for example, comparing Algerian
and Moroccan immigrants to Indian or Pakistani communities), it must be
remembered that these do not match the social situation experience of the
ST reader. Therefore, the core social and cultural aspects remain
problematic when considering the cultural implications for translation.
It has already been noted that the text in
this case is surely intended for "an educated, middle-class
readership" and, more specifically, a French one with knowledge of
the foreign cultural aspects implied. The problems when translating such a
text are therefore not only of a purely lexical character but also of an
equally fundamental nature - the understanding of a social, economic,
political and cultural context as well as connotative aspects of a more
semantic character. As with all texts of foreign literature, historical,
political and other such cultural references are always of a certain
importance and the TT reader is unlikely to have a full understanding of
such notions. When considering the cultural implications for translation,
the extent to which it is necessary for the translator to explain or
complete such an information gap should be taken into account; on the
basis of conclusions reached concerning the ideal TT reader, the
translator should decide how much may be left for the reader to simply
Taking these last points into consideration,
different elements will be discussed in relation to their cultural
implications for translation. The different aforementioned theories will
be considered and their relative pertinence examined.
Adapting Nida, Newmark places "foreign
cultural words" in several categories (Newmark 1988:95-102).
Following these categories, in the text "Les Loukoums chez l'Arabe,"
the examples leading to cultural implications for translation may be
classed essentially as material culture, and as gestures and habits
although other cultural terms are also present. These aspects may be
translated in different ways according to their role in the text and the
aims for the TT reader. Newmark also states the relevance of componential
analysis in translation "as a flexible but orderly method of bridging
the numerous lexical gaps, both linguistic and cultural, between one
language and another" (Newmark, 1988:123). The two orientations in
translation examined by Nida, namely formal or dynamic equivalence, should
also be considered when analysing the cultural implications for
translation of elements in these categories.
"Food is for many the most sensitive
and important expression of national culture; food terms are subject to
the widest variety of translation procedures" (Newmark, 1988:97). The
terms coming under this category are further complicated due to the "foreign"
elements present. One such case is the reference to the brightly coloured pâtisseries
tunisiennes (l.17). Translating according to the French idea of pâtisseries
would imply using the English "cakes" or "pastries"
yet in the context of Tunisian culture this hardly seems appropriate
bearing in mind the difference in form of the TL reference. This
illustrates the theory developed by Mounin (1963) who underlines the
importance of the signification of a lexical item claiming that only if
this notion is considered will the translated item fulfil its function
correctly. In this case the translation as "sweets" seems to
correspond to the idea of the original signification, even if it is a more
abstract translation of the French original, and is therefore more
appropriate concerning its function in the TT than a translation of formal
Another example of material culture
includes an eponym, namely bouteilles de Sidi Brahim (l.42). In
France this low-quality, Algerian wine is widely known and is the
traditional drink with North African dishes, therefore widely sold in
supermarkets as well as this type of small shop. This example can be seen
as corresponding to the new ideal reader as described by Coulthard, having
different cultural knowledge (Coulthard, 1992:12) as an English-speaking
reader would not necessarily know the name of this wine and even less its
associations. By using strictly formal equivalence, all meaning would be
lost. It would however be possible to neutralise the original term Sidi
Brahim by translating as "wine" or else to introduce a form
of componential analysis, translating as "cheap, Algerian wine."
Sidi Brahim being the area where the wine is produced, it seems
appropriate to keep the original term in the TT but it is necessary to add
a qualifier, here "wine." In this way, although the cultural
implications are not so strong as for an "initiated" French
reader, the information is passed on and elucidated by a qualifier. The
cultural implications automatically understood by the ST reader, namely
the notion of cheap, low-quality wine, are not however conveyed, the
emphasis in this context being on the exotic nature of the product as
conveyed by Sidi Brahim and not on the low cost.
Newmark points out that gestures and habits
are "often described in 'non-cultural' language" (Newmark,
1988:103). In this extract many gestures and habits are implied yet not
specifically described thus making an entirely communicative translation
difficult. Once again, these are cultural references which imply a certain
knowledge of the way of life of the North African community in France and
of the attitudes towards it.
North African men, often working in groups,
are often caricatured by the French as being crafty. As well as this, the
popular French expression "un travail d'Arabe" used to
describe work that has been poorly done further explains popular attitudes.
Due to linguistic and cultural factors, lower class Algerian and Moroccan
men appear overtly servile in French society. All of these factors are
inherently present in the text, yet their full cultural significance is
difficult to portray without such background knowledge.
The possible lack of cultural knowledge of
the TT reader implies translating in a way so as to clearly convey notions
which may otherwise go unnoticed. The proposed translation of "obligeance"
as "obsequiousness" may overemphasise the strength of the
original ST term yet the mockingly over-servile attitude aimed at being
conveyed by the author is respected. When explaining certain principles of
dynamic equivalence, Nida states that "the emotional tone must
accurately reflect the point of view of the author" (Nida, 1964:139).
Newmark's definition of compensation, being "when loss of meaning...in
one part of a sentence is compensated in another part" (Newmark,
1988:90) may seem relevant here. By translating in this way, although
culturally implicit translation loss is inevitable here, a form of dynamic
equivalence through compensation is adopted in order to counterbalance
such loss and seems an appropriate way of conveying cultural implications
present in the ST.
The expression d'après le café
also needs further explanation. In French society, this would immediately
be understood as the time after the small expresso coffee drunk at the end
of a meal. As Sapir claims, "no two languages are ever sufficiently
similar to be considered as representing the same social reality" (Sapir,
1956:69), and even a lexical item seen as having an apparently simple
translation (here, café =coffee) may have a considerably different
signification. The emphasis given by Nida on a TT having to produce the
same response as the original (Nida, 1964) encourages the addition of
"mealtime" as does the aforementioned theory developed by Mounin.
In this way, the lexical function is transferred as far as possible in the
TT as are the ST cultural connotations.
Three examples of potentially opaque
cultural references for the TT reader may be found in the text. The first
of these is "un Berbère à petit beret bleu." The author
regrets not finding a typical Berber shopkeeper each time he goes into an
Arab shop, a notion full of cultural meaning given the context of French
colonisation of Algeria and Arab immigration yet of no great cultural
significance for the TT reader. The slightly ironic touch portrayed by the
image of a typical Berber man wearing the classic symbol of a Frenchman,
namely a blue beret, may not be entirely lost on a TT reader yet without
understanding the historical and cultural background the depth of the
irony of comic paradox may be lost. It does not however seem appropriate
to explore Nida's theory of dynamic equivalence by replacing this image
with a TL equivalent as the cultural implications here are extremely
specific. The text-type as well as the definition of the ideal TT reader
and his motivations may imply preferring the use of transference or formal
equivalence despite translation loss concerning cultural implications.
Secondly, the term "kabyle" must
be considered. This is another reference which has strongly attached
associations due to the same cultural and historical factors and the
meaning is only fully understandable if these associations are known. A
literal translation of the text would be "...where even the red piles
of coca-cola cans have taken on a small, Kabyle look." An educated
French reader would have enough knowledge of Algerian problems to
instantly associate Kabylia with a fiercely independent community which
has always refused to be influenced culturally, linguistically and
politically by the surrounding countries despite great pressure. A
communicative approach implies an explanation of this cultural reference
and may be obtained by the addition of explanatory adjectives in the TT,
thus translating as "...even the red piles of coca-cola cans have
taken on that fiercely independent Kabyle look." This potential
solution is not a direct translation of the ST, however it enables the TT
reader to approach the cultural reference in a more meaningful way, yet
again illustrating Nida's concern that a TT should produce the same
response as the original.
Lastly, the term "boétien" needs
consideration. Transferring this term using formal equivalence would have
little cultural effect on an English-speaking reader and be of no value
considering the text-type and the definition of the ideal TT reader.
Indeed, Boeotians in Antique periods were considered to be a nation of
rough peasants lacking in culture. In French the term béotien maintains
this concept and although the adjective could be translated formally as
"Boeotian," the true sense would be lacking in the TT. The
cultural implications for translation require a full understanding of the
notion rather than an emphasis on the original SL reference. In this case
an appropriate translation would consider the use of a cultural equivalent
and the term "philistine" could be used to represent a similar
As can be frequently found in literary texts,
lexical features present cultural implications for translation. One
example of lexis in this text which may have a different effect on the ST
and the TT reader is the reference "dans la fraîcheur du soir."
This would seem welcoming to a ST reader used to hot days where fresh
temperatures provide a welcome relief. To a British reader however, this
may not produce the pleasurable effect intended by the author and care
must be taken to convey the drop in temperature positively. By translating
as "in the cool of the evening," the same positive aspect may be
maintained on the TT reader as in the SL country.
The title of this extract may also be
considered as having cultural implications for translation. Considering
the titles of the other chapters in the collection, it may be noted that
almost all have cultural connotations and that this is one of the author's
aims. According to Newmark, in literary translation "the title should
sound attractive, allusive, suggestive ... and should usually bear some
relation to the original" (Newmark, 1988:56). This can be seen as
relevant here, the aim being to portray culturally bound aspects; thus the
title may be seen as conveying aspects of the narrative and deserves
Firstly, the word loukoums must be
considered. There are basically two possibilities when translating this
word, keeping the original term or using the wider known term, Turkish
delight, which may however carry a semantic incompatibility with chez
l'Arabe. Loukoum is a term that is used in English but probably
by a smaller community, those familiar with Oriental customs and countries,
particularly Turkey and Greece. It may be misleading to introduce such a
term which could be interpreted as an exotic translation using the scale
presented by Hervey et al, shown previously.
On the other hand, a translation where loukoums
are referred to as Turkish delight may introduce a widely accepted yet
false cultural notion, namely that such a sweet is primarily Turkish and
not something equally common to North African culture. In French no other
term exists, loukoum is a cultural word that has been transferred
as such and French links with North African countries reinforce the notion
of loukoums as a cultural feature.
In English the term loukoums would
need an explanation in the context of this text, destined for a wide
general readership. The cultural knowledge of the TT does not correspond
to the ST reader and it would therefore be difficult to justify the use of
loukoum instead of Turkish delight, a word instantly
understandable to the ideal TT reader and thus corresponding more to the
notion of communicative translation as defined by Hervey et al
(1992:31-32) and Newmark (1988:47).
This part of the title has several cultural
implications to be considered when translating. Whilst conserving the
original aspect of the ST title, a non-French reader would not necessarily
react in the same way to the word "l'Arabe." As we have
seen with the historical context, the French have obvious reasons to feel
cultural implications when dealing with l'Arabe and an average
French reader would necessarily have a large range of associations
connected to the word, not primarily positive. Here, the word refers not
only to the ethnic origin of the shopkeeper but also to the notion "Arab
shop," a place which is always open and where almost everything can
be found. This notion deserves to be maintained although a culturally
bound translation loss is inevitable due to missing background knowledge.
To translate the title simply as "Turkish Delight" would
minimise the importance of l'Arabe in the SL cultural context and
reinforce this loss. This case may be seen to illustrate Nida's
aforementioned theory that differences in culture are often a greater
problem than differences in language.
It must also be noted that a qualifier must
be added to fully translate chez l'Arabe. Several possibilities may
be considered, ranging from "Turkish Delight bought from the Arab,"
"...sold by the Arab," "...bought at the shop of the Arab,"
"...from the Arab shop." Considering the lack of background
knowledge for the TT reader, the last possibility may be the most
appropriate, the idea conveyed by "Arab shop" implying a notion
of difference in French/Arab culture. Following Newmark who claims "the
additional information a translator may have to add to his version is
normally cultural (accounting for difference between SL and TL culture),
technical...or linguistic" (Newmark, 1988:91), it may in this case
prove useful to explain further this relationship by adding a footnote. An
example may be "North Africans have strong colonial ties with France
and many have set up local shops open long hours and selling a large
variety of goods, both of French and native origins."
A variety of different approaches have been
examined in relation to the cultural implications for translation. It is
necessary to examine these approaches bearing in mind the inevitability of
translation loss when the text is, as here, culture bound. Considering the
nature of the text and the similarities between the ideal ST and TT reader,
an important aspect is to determine how much missing background
information should be provided by the translator using these methods. It
has been recognised that in order to preserve specific cultural references
certain additions need to be brought to the TT. This implies that formal
equivalence should not be sought as this is not justified when considering
the expectations of the ideal TT reader. At the other end of Nida's scale,
complete dynamic equivalence does not seem totally desirable either as
cultural elements have been kept in order to preserve the original aim of
the text, namely to present one aspect of life in France.
Thus the cultural implications for
translation of this kind of ST do not justify using either of these two
extremes and tend to correspond to the definition of communicative
translation, attempting to ensure that content and language present in the
SL context is fully acceptable and comprehensible to the TL readership. (Newmark,1988).
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Copyright Translation Journal and the Author 2002