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Bosbici Oana
Profesor conf. dr. Adriana Neagu
Redactri de lucrri academice
11 iulie 2015

Cultural references in translation


Abstract: The translation of cultural references is a subject that has been debated over the
years and it still poses a great number of difficulties due to the differences between cultures
which may be observed in equivalence issues, or the lack of knowledge of the target audience
about that particular subject. This article illustrates the importance of cultural reference in
translation as well as some procedures that could be used in translating from a source
language to the target language. Scholars have not been able to reach a conclusion or a
worldly accepted categorisation of the procedures and strategies used in translating cultural
references, therefore a general approach should be attempted. Understanding the procedures
and using them consciously can make the difference while trying to render meaning.
Key words: cultural references, translation, procedures, strategy, difficulty, source language,
target language, role, classification

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I. Introduction
Translation is not just rendering meaning from one language into another, but is rather
an integral process which inevitably involves at least two languages and two cultural
traditions. It goes beyond the code-switching process, and involves a battle or a negotiation
between source and target cultures. Generally, language is an expression of culture and
individuality of its speakers. It influences the way the speakers perceive the world. So
focusing on the issue of translation from one language to another, the culture of both
languages in the process of translation is influential. As a result, translators are permanently
faced with the problem of how to treat the cultural aspects implicit in a source text and of
finding the most appropriate technique of successfully conveying these aspects in the target
language. As Von Humboldt said in a letter to A.W. Schelgel:
All translation seems to me simply an attempt to solve an impossible task. Every
translator is doomed to be done in by one of two stumbling blocks: he will either stay
too close to the original, at the cost of taste and the language of his nation, or he will
adhere too closely to the characteristics peculiar to his nation, at the cost of the
original. The medium between the two is not only difficult, but downright impossible.
(1982:35)

These problems may vary in scope depending on the cultural and linguistic gap
between the two languages concerned. The 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 target
language. The aims of the source text will also have implications for translation as well as the
intended readership for both the source text and the target text. The choice of translation
strategies is not purely a personal and random act. From the functionalist perspective, the
selection of strategy is governed by the specific purpose and textual function of the translated
text. From the polysystem perspective, the selection of strategy is decided by the status of the
translated text in the entire literary system. From the cultural perspective, the selection of
strategy relies on how some conflicts are mediated between source and target cultures.
Furthermore, from the ideological perspective, the selection of strategy is affected by the
translator's ideology constrained by authoritative bodies such as publishers, institutions,

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clients, and governments, either implicitly or explicitly, representing different ideological


positions.
II. The role of culture in translation
In the early stages of translation theory, translation was defined as replacing a text in
one language by another in a different language, with the two texts having approximately the
same meaning. The main emphasis was on the linguistic and the semantic aspects of
translation, whether in the process of the product. The meaning in translation has always been
problematic; what meaning is intended? Is it semantic or pragmatic or social? Finally all
these types of meaning were thought relevant, and have been resumed under cultural aspects
of translation. Nowadays translation is rarely envisaged without one taking into account the
source culture and the target culture.
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 (95). Contrarily, Vermeer states that language is part of a culture (1997:222). The
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 source language and
the target language and concludes that differences between cultures may cause more severe
complications for the translator than do differences in language structure (1997:130). 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 concerns.
III. Translation procedures
Every society has its own set of habits, value judgements and classification systems
which sometimes are quite different and sometimes overlap. Modern literature on translation
draws heavily on the important role of cultural gap between source language and target
language communities. Most researchers seem to propose their own classifications of
procedures after highlighting inconsistencies or due to the lack of clarity of the previous ones.
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One of the leading taxonomies, and certainly the best known, is that of Vinay and Dalbernet.
The seven basic translation procedures are, according to them, adaptation, calque,
equivalence, modulation, borrowing, literal translation and transposition; although they also
refer to compensation, expansion and contraction. The procedures which will be presented in
the following section should be seen as a general classification of cultural references
translations applicable to any context.
Adaptation is used in those cases in which the type of situation being referred to by
the source language message is unknown in the target culture and translators create a new
situation that can be described as situational equivalence. There are situations in which
adaptation seems, to some extent, necessary: in advertising slogans or childrens stories, for
example. There are situations in which adaptation seems, to some extent, necessary: in
advertising slogans, or childrens stories, for example. In other cases there are certain
conventions, more or less generalized, as regards adapted translations of foreign cultural
elements in the target language. This applies, for instance, to weights and measures, musical
notation, generally accepted titles of literary works or geographical names. The basic goal of
the translator when trying to adapt the translation is to have a similar effect on the target
language.
Borrowing a term is taking a word or expression straight from another language,
without translating it. The procedure is normally used when a term does not exist in the target
culture, or when the translator tries to get some stylistic or exotic effect. It can be pure, if
there is no change of any kind in the foreign term or naturalized, if the word has some
change in the spelling, and perhaps some morphological or phonetic adaptation. Some
authors prefer the terms foreign word when referring to pure borrowings (that have not been
fully assimilated into the target language system), and use borrowings or loans when the
words are naturalised, the difference being when the term has been incorporated and how it
has been adapted to the target language. When translating texts with a great amount of
cultural terms, however, we should be cautious, unless we want to maintain a certain local
colour or exoticism.
Calque could be described as a literal translation (either lexical or structural) of a
foreign word or phrase. It could actually be considered a special type of loan or borrowing,
since the translator borrows the source language expression or structure and then transfers it
in a literal translation. The difference between borrowing and calque is that the former
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imitates the morphology, signification and phonetics of the foreign word or phrase, while the
latter only imitates the morphological scheme and the signification of that term, but not its
pronunciation. Compensation is a technique that balances the semantic losses that translation
involves (either in the content of the message or its stylistic effects). Compensation
introduces a source language element of information or stylistic effect in another place in the
target language text because it cannot be reflected in the same place as in the source
language: the translation of dialects, irony, politeness values. In the case of RomanianEnglish translation, we could mention, for example, the familiarity or formality of tu and
dumneavoastr. Both words are translated into English as you, so the translator will have
to express degrees of formality in different ways, maybe compensating by using other
English words of the formal and informal registers, in order to preserve the same level of
formality.
Equivalence refers to a strategy that describes the same situation by using completely
different stylistic or structural methods for producing equivalent texts. This basically means
that the translator uses a term or expression recognised as an established equivalent in the
target language. It is similar to adaptation in that it expresses the same situation in a different
way mainly in cases of idioms. Another strategy is explicitation which means that we express
in the target language something that is implicit in the context of source language, or that we
introduce details that are not expressed in the source language, such as more information,
translators notes, or explicative paraphrasing. Literal translation, or word by word, occurs
when a source language word or phrase is translated into a target language word or phrase,
without worrying about style, but adapting the text to the target language syntactic rules, with
minimal adjustments, so that it sounds both correct and idiomatic (word order, functional
words).
Transposition involves changing a grammatical category or replacing one part of the
speech for another, without changing the meaning of the message. Grammatical
transpositions, with appropriate morphological and syntactic adjustments, are quite frequent
in order to obtain a translation that sounds as if it had been originally written in the target
language. Modulation consists of using a phrase that is different in the source language and
target language to convey the same idea. In other words, there is a change in the point of
view, focus, perspective or category of thought in relation to the source language. It is similar

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to transposition and, sometimes, necessary in order to avoid lack of fluency or exoticism in


the translation.
A translator has many options at his disposal to deal with translating cultural
references. The translator then uses this strategy to respond to the nature of the cultural
reference in terms of its linguistic expression and correspondents in the target language as
well as the nature of the cultural reference in terms of its communicative purpose. Linguistic
notions of transferring meaning are seen as being only part of the translation process. To
choose a procedure on the cultural reference level, the translator must take into account
various parameters, such as: source and target text functions, pragmatic coherence, role of the
cultural references in the source and target texts, the readerships knowledge of the source
culture, contextual information, referent type, formal transparency of the cultural reference,
the frequency of the cultural reference, cultural coherence, semiotic value of the referent,
linguistic and cultural relationships, stylistic equivalence, elegance. Therefore, on a textual
level, with three procedures and four parameters available, it is possible to make strategies.
However, on an individual cultural reference level, there are too many parameters and
procedures for the translator to be able to formulate a strategy.
IV. Conclusions
As frequently emphasized by different translation scholars, the issue of culture and its
complex relationship with language in terms of culture-specific items are among the thorniest
issues that a translator or interpreter may face. Despite the fact that translators have been
carrying out their task for more than two thousand years, some scholars consider that, in
some cases, translation is impossible, basically when one has to translate poetic texts or those
of a cultural nature. 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 culture bound. Considering the
nature of the text and the similarities between the ideal source text and target text reader, an
important aspect is to determine how much missing background information should be
provided by the translator using these methods. Of course, when gaps between two languages
and cultures exist, to achieve a perfect transfer will be very difficult, and cultural gaps
certainly seem to prove the problematic nature of translation, but the translation of any text is
objectively possible, even if there are different codifications, historically conditioned,

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resulting from the fact that not all speech communities are at the same stage of evolution. As
Walter Benjamin pointed out:
The transfer can never be total, but what reaches this region is that element in a
translation which goes beyond transmittal of subject matter. This nucleus is best
defined as the element that does not lend itself to translation. Even when all the
surface content has been extracted and transmitted, the primary concern of the
genuine translator remains elusive. Unlike the words of the original, it is not
translatable, because the relationship between content and language is quite different
in the original and the translation. (1992:76)

Procedures have been criticised arguing that knowing them is not useful for the
translator and that studies on the several types of strategies or procedures are mere labels
used to designate what translators do intuitively and what they have done for centuries,
before linguists gave those procedures a name. Understanding and knowing when to apply
such procedures, however, can be very helpful and methodologically useful for students. In
some occasions students should also try, perhaps, to have some freedom when translating
these cultural elements, since their main problems were basically that they either focused
primarily on the cultural elements and not on the language and the style of the text, just trying
to adapt the source language culture to the target language culture, or they focused mainly on
language and style, preserving elements of the original culture and not rendering the message
accurately. A balance between domesticating and foreignizing the target language text would
be the most appropriate, though.

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Works Cited
Newmark, Peter. A Textbook of Translation. New York: Prentice-Hall International, 1988. 9495.
Vermeer, Hans. Skopos and Commission in Translational Activity. The Translation Studies
Reader. Ed. Lawrence Venuti. London: Routledge, 1997. 222.
Nida, Eugene. Principles of Correspondence. The Translation Studies Reader. Ed.
Lawrence Venuti. London: Routledge, 1997. 130.
Benjamin, Walter. Illuminations. London: Fontana Press, 1992. 76.
Wilss, Wolfram. The Science of Translation. Problems and Methods. Tbingen: Gunter Narr
Verlag, 1982. 35.

Bibliography
Primary sources
Vinay, Jean Paul and Jean Darbelnet. Stylistique compare du franais et de langlais.
Mthode de traduction. Pars: Didier, 1977
Toury, Gideon. The Nature and Role of Norms in Translation. The Translation Studies
Reader. Ed. Lawrence Venuti. London: Routledge, 1997.
Kramsch, Claire. Language and culture. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1998.
Katan, David. Translating Cultures. An Introduction for Translators, Interpreters and
Mediators. Manchester: St. Jerome, 1999.
Mounin, Georges. Les problmes thoriques de la traduction. Paris: Gallimard, 1963.
Kelly, Louis. The True Interpreter. A History of Translation Theory and Practice in the West.
Oxford: Basil Blackwell, 1979.

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Lrscher, Wolfgang. Translation Performance, Translation Process, and Translation


Strategies. A Psycholinguistic Investigation. Tbingen: Narr, 1991.
Nida, Eugene and Charles R. Taber. The Theory and Practice of Translation. Leiden: Brill,
1982.

Secondary sources
Baker, Mona. In other words. A coursebook on translation. London: Routledge, 1992.
Munday, Jeremy. Introducing Translation Studies. Theories and Applications. London:
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Newmark, Peter. Approaches to Translation. London: Prentice Hall, 1981.