Wandering through vietnamese culture

Notion of culture in translation

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1.2. Notion of culture in translation

The definition of "culture" as given in the Concise Oxford Dictionary (1999) 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 (1988:94) 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", 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 transcultural communication.

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 (1964:130) 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". 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.

Lotman (1978:211-32) 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". 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 accordingly.

1.3. Cultural categories

Adapting Nida, Newmark (1988:95-102) places "foreign cultural words" in several categories as follows:

  1. Ecology

Animals, plants, local winds, mountains, plains, ice, etc.

  1. Material culture (artifacts)

Food, clothes, housing, transport and communications

  1. Social culture – work and leisure

  2. Organizations, customs, ideas – Political, social, legal, religious, artistic

  3. Gestures and habits (often described in ‘non-verbal’ language)

1.4. Translation methods

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 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:

(Hervey et al, 1992:28)

Nida's definitions (1964:129) of formal and dynamic equivalence 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. 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 context". All in all, it can be easily seen that the above approaches are not very much different from what Venuti (1995:20) named “source language oriented and target language-oriented” translation approach, which may share some similarities with Newmark’s ( 1988: 145) methods of translation as follows:

SL emphasis TL emphasis

Word – for - word translation Adaptation

Literal translation Free translation

Faithful translation Idiomatic translation

Semantic translation Communicative translation

Word-for-word translation

This method focuses on SL word order in which words are translated by most common meaning and out of context. Therefore, the results of this method are that the translation is read like original text.

Literal translation

The SL text, concretely its grammatical constructions are converted to their nearest equivalents. In this method, words are translated single and out of text.

Faithful translation

Where the translator reproduces precise contextual meaning. Here, cultural words are not translated.

Semantic translation

More account is taken on aesthetic value of the SL text and some small concessions are made to the readers. As a result, the translation is more flexible and less dogmatic than the application of other methods in the group

Communicative translation

This method attempts to produce on its readers an effect as close as possible to that obtained on the readers of the original.

However, according to Peter Newmark (1988), there are only two methods of translation that are appropriate to any texts. They are as follows.

1) Communicative translation

In this method, translators try to produce the same effect on the TL readers as the original does on the SL readers

2) Semantic translation

Translators attempt to reproduce the exact contextual meaning of the author with the constraints of the TL grammatical structures.


This is the ‘freest’ form of translation. It is used mainly for plays (comedies) and poetry; the themes, characters, plots are usually preserved, the SL culture converted to the TL culture and the text rewritten. The deplorable practice of having a play or poem literally translated and then rewritten by an established dramatist or poet has produced many poor adaptations have ‘rescued’ period plays.

Free translation

Free translation reproduces the matter without the manner, or the content without the form of the original. Usually it is a paraphrase much longer than the original, a so-called ‘intralingual translation’, often prolix and pretentious, and not translation at all.

Idiomatic translation

Idiomatic translation reproduces the ‘message’ of the original but tends to distort nuances of meaning by preferring colloquialisms and idioms where these do not exist in the original. (Authorities as diverse as Seleskovitch and Stuart Gilbert tend to this form of likely, ‘natural’ translation.)

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