Cultural Connotation of Words
and Their Translation
(Research Dept. Guangsha College of Applied Construction Technology, Dongyang 322100, Zhejiang)
Abstract: This paper is about cultural connotation of words and their translation. Because of the different culture in the world, we
may not understand the explicit meaning of a word. In this paper, we just discuss the comparison of the cultural connotation of words,
and put forward some methods.
Key words: cultural connotation of words and translation；non-equivalence；conceptual grouping；cultural background；and
（浙江广厦建设职业技术学院 科研处，浙江 东阳 322100） 摘 要：词语的文化内涵与翻译，由于世界文化的差异，我们可能无法理解一个词的准确含义，并作准确的翻译。我们通过
关键词：词语文化内涵与翻译 不对等 概念归类 文化背景 联想差异
As either literal translation or cultural translation is associated with two cultural contexts in which
their cultural content is conveyed in two different languages. Undoubtedly, one of the basic principles
of translation is to be faithful to the original. According to this principle, translation should first of all
be faithful to the content of the original, with literal translation on how to convey in a precise way the
original cultural connotation and how to interpret it on the basis of the native cultural perspective.
From the above, to those who are interested in translation, literature translation in particular, an
important topic for study is the culture value of language. And what is culture? “Culture consists of all the shared product of human society,”(Robertson, 1981) This means culture includes not only material
things such as cities, organizations and schools, but also non-material things, such as ideas, customs,
family patterns, and languages. In a word, culture refers to the entire way of life of a society. What’s
more, culture is like an iceberg with a big part of its real substance hidden in the sea. “ Culture hides much more than it reveals, and strangely enough, what it hides, it hides most effectively from its own
Language is a part of culture and plays a very important role in it. Some social scientists consider
it the keystone of culture. On the other hand, language is influenced and shaped by culture; it reflects
culture. In the broadest sense, language is the symbolic representation of a people, and it comprises
their historical and cultural backgrounds as well as their approach to life and their ways of living and
Receiving Date：2008-10-12 About the author：Zhu Yifang（1954-），Female，Dongyang, Zhejiang, Undergraduate course, Senior lecturer.
thinking. Language is the principal means whereby we conduct our social lives, when it is used in
contexts of communication, it is bound up with culture in multiple and complex ways.
As lexicon is the most active and the liveliest component of a language, in the course of
translation, due attention must be given to the analysis and comparison of the cultural connotation of
words. They can be found in the following areas of lexicon: non-equivalence, conceptual grouping,
cultural background, and association- derivation.
In translating one invariably searches for an equivalent to render the original meaning in the target
language, using the word “ equivalence” in this context, immediately brings to mind the idea of
identifying the absolute corresponding equivalent words in two languages. But this is not the case.
11 term in one language that does not have a counterpart in another language
When the American historian, Henry Brooks writes, “Words are slippery.” he must have referred to the fact that language translation is difficult and subject to countless misinterpretations.
One thing is unique in one country, and the equivalent word reflecting this object can’t be found in other countries. Thus non-equivalence of words comes into being, which illustrates culture difference
directly. For instance, there is no equivalent Chinese term for sphinx’s riddle. On the other hand, the Chinese words “芝麻酱煮饺子” which means dumplings being cooked in the sesame paste. And “夏炼三伏，冬炼三九”, which means urging people to exercise, and keep fit, are difficult to translate into
When a word is adopted by one language from another it is referred to as a loanword. Loanwords
may retain a pronunciation similar to what they had in their language of origin or the pronunciation
may be adapted to the phonology of the adoptive language. For instance, Chinese words such as “咖
啡，啤酒,吉普车”，etc have become the basic vocabulary in daily life, so anyone wouldn’t feel “an
exotic atmosphere” when using these words.
Some English words with the color “red” can hardly find their equivalence in Chinese. The phrase
“red-handed”, for instance, can not be translated into Chinese as “红手” as it means “ caught in the act of doing something wrong” as in the sentence: they caught him red-handed while he was just putting
the stolen diamonds in his pocket.
12 ords or items in both languages that appear to refer to the same object or
concept on the surface, but which actually refer to quite different things
There are numerous examples that we could cite of an object or concept that exists in one culture
but not in another. For example, “改善生活” is not equal to improve one’s standard of living. This short term in the People’s Daily is an example of its present day meaning. “ One of my neighbors is a woman over sixty. Every now and then, she goes out for a meal for a change. But she always goes to
one particular eating place—one owned and run privately. When asked why she stuck to that place, she
explained that it was because of the friendliness of the people there— they always greet you with a smile and a word “ welcome”. In current Chinese usage, “改善生活” means simply to have an occasional good meal or feast.
2 Conceptual grouping
When defining the same object, languages in different countries is different in category, extension
and intension, etc, which reflects culture difference, too.
21 Things or concepts that are represented by one or perhaps two terms in one
language, but by many more terms in the other language, that is, finer distinction
exist in the other language
Language and its cultural influence are exemplified in the theoretical formulations of the
Sapir-whorf hypothesis, which in essence states that language is a guide to “ social reality”. This
hypothesis implies that language is not simply a means of reporting experience, but more important, it
is a way of defining experience. I provide an example of the Sapir-whorf concept in practice: if my
language has only one term— brother-in-law that is applied to my sister’s husband, my husband’s
brother, and my husband’s sister’s husbands, I am led by my language to perceive all of these relatives
in a similar way.
22 Terms that have more or less the same primary meaning, but which have
secondary or additional meanings that may differ considerably from each other
R. Wardhaugh once said: “The color spectrum is a physical continuum showing no bleaks at all.”
Yet we parcel it out in bits and pieces and assign names to the various component parts. We also find
that we sometimes cannot directly translate color words from one language to another without
introducing subtle changes in meaning.
The English phrase “ red-blooded” does not mean “红血”, rather, it is another way of saying that someone or their behavior is confident and strong. And the English phrase “ red-eyed” just means
“ having red eyes” ( for lack of sleep), while the Chinese equivalent “红眼” means at least two things: having red eyes, and interesting enough, “ green” with envy.
3 Cultural background
The words people utter refer to common experience. They express facts, ideas or events that are
communicable because they refer to a stock of knowledge about the world that other people share.
Words also reflect their authors’ attitudes and beliefs, their points of view, which are also those of
others. In both case, language expresses cultural reality.
If we include culture as a variable in the process of abstracting meaning, the problems become all
the more acute, for culture teaches us both the symbol and that the symbol represents. When you are
communicating with someone from your own culture, the process of using words to represent your
experiences is much easier because within a culture people share many similar experiences. But when
communication is between people from distinct cultures, different experiences are involved and the
process is more troublesome.
Intercultural awareness becomes especially important. Lack of cultural knowledge affects his
comprehension negatively. For example, if a learner does not know that English pillar-boxes are
painted red, he might not be able to appreciate the humor in the following passage:
Bright red costumes, with hats, shoes and stockings to match, are to be all craze in the spring.
Smart women will have to be careful not to yawn in the streets in case some shortsighted person is on
his way to post a letter.
Moreover, intercultural awareness cannot grow naturally. It has to be trained. It is known that in
native language learning, a child’s acquisition of “cultural competence” (Wallace, 1998), each supportive of the other. For example, when a child from the Anglo-American world learns the word
“ dog”, he will normally learn the cultural meaning of the word: the dog is “ man’s best friend”. A
child brought up in the Chinese culture may be taught that the dog is a dirty and dangerous animal.
People, who have thus been initiated into the culture associated with their mother tongue, are naturally
inclined to interpret things with their own cultural references. This natural inclination is called
“ intuitive competence”. (Brown, 1990)
In linguistic translation, it is important to be familiar with cultural background of the words. When
creating an artistic image, a writer not only takes the description and portray of the image, but also
projects his own thoughts and feelings into the image.
Let’s look at one example as follows:
Government policy in interest rates, and on finance generally, have been marked by vacillation,
useful thinking, electoral expediency of the most shameful type towards the end of last year,
contortions and contradictions all to accommodate the redneck economics of the national country
The word “ redneck” might strike Chinese counterpart“红脖子”, hints that someone is turning extremely angry. In English, however, these words first appeared in 1830, referring to a white member
of the US.
The Chinese culture was once profoundly influenced by religion, mainly Buddhism and Taoism.
As a result, in the contemporary Chinese language, we find many sayings with origins in religious
stories, true or fabricated. For instance, “平日不烧香，临时抱佛脚”，“to embrace the Buddha’s feet
in case of emergency—but it is too late” shows us a wisdom of Buddhism: we should keep faith in
what we believe is true and work hard to achieve our goal. By contrast, the English culture is strongly
influenced by Christianity that has found its way into English-speakers’ language. In “ Man proposes, god disposes.” “God” is believed to be an omnipotent presence and disposes and this God is, of course,
a western God, who can exert very little, if any, power over the Chinese people, whose belief is always
with “ Buddha’s”. In English, people talk of “ bring sleep to the fold” which means the verge of committing wrongdoing. This idiom clearly shows its Christian origin.
It is clear that people often associate certain qualities with certain creatures or objects. These
qualities often arouse certain reactions or emotions, although there is little or no scientific ground for
such association. The qualities that are associated, or the emotions that are aroused, are not always the
same with different people.
In the Chinese culture, the most favored animals should be the dragon and the phoenix. The dragon
stands for the emperor, and the phoenix for the empress. All Chinese people regard themselves as
descendants of the dragon. To English speakers, however, the dragon is often a symbol of evil, a fierce
monster that destroys and therefore must be destroyed. And the phoenix is by no means the spouse of a
dragon; rather, it is associated with rebirth and resurrection.
Another example, the English word “daffodil” is often used to mean the spring and joy, as in
When daffodils begin to peer,
With height, the doxy over the dale!
Why, then comes in the sweet o’ the year.
A fuller description of daffodils as the messenger of the spring can be found in William
Wordsworth’s “The Daffodils”. Such an image of the daffodil has been a symbol of the joyful
springtime, however, it is not popular in the Chinese literature. Conversely, a number of Chinese
words with special images can hardly arouse English-speaker’s any association. Consider the word “ crane”, which is a widely used symbol for sturdiness and long life. Gifts with such paintings of the
crane the pine trees are favorites for older people, especially on birthday occasions.
The title “ A Dream of Red Mansion” may cause misunderstanding in American’s minds. For in their opinions, it means a person slept in a red room, which may cause their mysterious association.
But unfortunately, it is not what the Chinese title means. David Hawke’s translation of “ The Story of the Stone” is even easier for the Americans who don’t have a solid foundation in ancient Chinese to
understand the text. To this extent, it is a successful translation, for it is faithful to the original and
expressive in the target language. However, to the Chinese, the title “ A Dream of Red Mansion” can
cause them unlimited association. This clearly illustrates cultural difference.
On the basis of his own translation practice Wang Zuoliang stresses that in translating literature,
one should emphasize the following three points: (1) to translate the concept and convey the complete
feeling of the original rather than just one word;(2) to use different styles with different genres; (3) to
pay more attention to the reader.( Wang 1989:35). That is, a translator should attach greater
importance to cultural equivalence than to any other aspect. Obviously, equivalence can be achieved,
but not always on the same level. We can choose suitable translation method from the following seven
procedures of establishing cultural equivalence.
41 Retain original cultural flavor
Whether to retain original flavor depends on the literal form and inner meaning that can be
accepted by the reader. For example, in “ A Dream of Red Mansion”, 黛玉道：“跌了灯值钱呢，还是跌了人值钱？你又穿不惯木屐子。那灯笼叫他们前头点着：这个又轻又亮， 原是雨里自己拿着的。你自己手里拿着这个，岂不好？明儿再送来。----就失了手也有限的，怎么忽然又变出这剖
腹藏珠的脾气来！”（曹雪芹《红楼梦》）Daiyu said: Which is more valuable, lamp or man? You’re
not used to rearing patterns, so get them carry the horn lantern in front and take this one yourself, since
it’s handy and bright and meant to be used in the rain. Wouldn’t that be better? You can send it back later. And even if you drop it, it won’t matter. What’s come over you suddenly that you want to cut
open your stomach to hide a pearl? (translated by Yang Xianyi and Gladys Yang) “剖腹藏珠” is
translated in literal meaning directly. The metaphor in the original text is extremely lifelike in the
translated text, which is widely accepted by the readers, and achieved the same effect as English idiom
“ penny wise and pound foolish”. Other idioms such as “打草惊蛇”( to stir up the glass and alert the snake), “雪中送炭” ( to send charcoal in snowy weather), “画蛇添足” (to draw a snake and add feet to it) has the same result.
Transference means that the original word is all or partly transferred into the translated text. Such
word are popular for the propaganda of media, for example, VCD, KTV, ISO9001, MTV, WTO, etc.
Almost all the Chinese readers can understand their meanings.
Translation means words are translated according to the pronunciation, for instance, AIDS（艾滋
病）， Benz（奔驰）， Pizza（比萨）.
44 Translation plus a generic word
Chinese readers may not understand the explicit meaning when using transliteration, so we should
plus a generic word after transliteration if necessary. Such words include Motor (摩托车), jeep（吉普
车） , hamburger（汉堡包）, sonnet（商籁体）.
45 Replace the cultural expressions of the source text with those of the target
Such method is most useful in translating proverbs. Proverbs are short sayings of folk wisdom—of
well-known maxims, facts or truths—expressed succinctly and in a way that makes them easy to
remember. People in different regions use proverbs and sayings invariably display deep-rooted
Chinese qualities. “芝麻开花节节高”( A sesame stalk puts forth blossoms notch by notch, higher and
higher) is widely used by Chinese people, who are familiar with or taught about the agriculture plant of
sesame. Other examples: “路遥知马里,日久见人心”( As a long road tests a horse’s strength, so a long task proves a person’s heart.) “初生牛犊不怕虎”(New-born calves make little of tigers)
These examples demonstrate the truth that people in different cultures do have the same
understanding of certain natural phenomena and social events. And they have a common wisdom with
regard to many respects of life. This might explain why people say “ Great minds think alike” “英雄
所见略同”, which in itself is a good example of the similarity in the two cultures: after all, people do
think alike—at least in some ways.
Sometimes when translating certain word of the cultural flavor, there is no equivalent word in
target language but only to explain.
47 Translate the implied meaning of foreign cultural expressions
Because of the difference of the mode of thinking, they express words differently. In that case, we
should translate the implied meaning according to the context, for instance, “Steve was the only good thing on her horizon.” (见到史蒂夫是唯一使她心情愉快的事。)“When I was in trouble, Paul was the only one who would stick his neck out to help me.(一旦我有了困难，保罗是唯一冒风险保护我的
We build our bridges not only between languages but also between the differences of two cultures.
We have established that each language is a way of seeing and reflecting the delicate nuances of
cultural perceptions, and it is the translator who not only reconstructs the equivalences of words across
linguistic boundaries but also reflects and transplants the emotional vibrations of another culture.
One of the goals of translation is to convey the meaning and style of the original language. A good
interpreter needs special, highly developed skills. He or she must be able to translate a message so that
others hear it as though it were the original message. This means that the interpreter must be skilled in
more than vocabulary. He or she must also know the word’s emotive aspects, as well as the culture’s thought processes and communication techniques.
Cultural factors necessitate decision-making on translation strategies. However, they are not all
blocking factors( Gutknecht and Rolle 1966). Comparative studies on the cultures do shed light on
strategies in translation of cultural factors, but the study of culture can never all the aspects of
translatology, which should be focused on the text-linguistic model( Nellbert 1912) and the way the
text is related to the situational context.
Culture-related problems can never be dealt with exclusively by translators since their main
responsibility is to operational issues, but they can, at least, call attention to these factors.
[responsible editor：Wu fengqin]