cultural factors in translation

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cultural factors in translation

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    On Cultural Factors in Translation

    *Qingling Shi Dezhou University

     Abstract: As one means of communication, translation is not only a process of bilingual exchange, but also a process of cultural transplantation. In cultural transplantation, cultural factors in the source and target language manifest themselves in the forms of cultural overlaps, cultural blanks and cultural conflicts. Since culture is chiefly deciphered by language, reflections of culture by language at the lexicological level are lexical correspondences, lexical blanks and lexical conflicts. Several possible translation strategies are provided to deal with them.

     Key words: communication cultural transplantation translation

     I. Introduction

     Many students assume that the only prerequisite for translation is a bilingual dictionary, an exhaustive encyclopedia. Based on this knowledge, when translating, they often try to match every word and grammar together, so their translated pieces are quite awful. Translation, in fact, seen from

    the perspective of sociolinguistics, is not only a bilingual activity, but also a bicultural one. Therefore, “intercultural communication” is sometimes adopted to substitute the terminological term “translation”. As a linguistic behavior, translation contains both cultural-specific and cultural-universal components, and the cultural-specificity and cultural meaning, many a good deal from one cultural community to the next. As we know, Chinese and English are different language systems, and the

    two-language-speaking people enjoy different cultures. The cultural-specificity really constitutes a serious problem for the Chinese students, who learn English as their first foreign language, to put

    Chinese into English or vice versa. As a result, it is of great significance to study culture and look for some possible ways in dealing with the cultural problems in translation. In doing so can students be facilitated to develop their cultural sensitivity in translation.

     Generally speaking, during the process of cultural communication, the source culture and the target culture manifest themselves in the forms of cultural overlaps, cultural blanks and cultural conflicts. Since culture is chiefly encoded and conveyed by language system, reflection of culture by language at the lexical level is perceptible in the forms of lexical correspondences, lexical blanks, and lexical conflicts.

     II. Lexical Correspondences

     Cultural overlaps are based on the fact that “human experience is so much alike throughout the

    world… In fact, what people of various culture have in common is far greater than what separate them one from another”. It is these overlapping cultural elements that constitute a basis for cross-cultural

    communication. Since language is a medium of culture and mirrors culture, lexical correspondences result from the overlapping cultures. The result of a research on comparative study of English and

    Chinese vocabulary, conducted by Zhang Yanchang and Zhang Erli, two scholars in China, confirms that the similarities of English and Chinese vocabulary can almost amount to seventy percent. It gives a full proof that in the process of using language to express ideas or thoughts, the Chinese and Anglo-Americans share a great deal. We may find that in a great many instances, there are some rough equivalent words or idioms in English and Chinese, such as “ strike iron while it is hot”(趁热打铁)

    walls have ears”(隔墙有耳), “lead by the nose” (牵着鼻子走), “walk on the thin ice”(如履薄冰),

    “fire is the test of gold”(真金不怕火炼;, “chain reaction”(连锁反应;, “a thunder of applause”

    (雷鸣般的掌声; and etc. In addition to these equivalent idiomatic phases, we may also find some other kind of lexical correspondences caused by the overlapping cultures. In English, for example, one

    may say “from the frying pan into the fire”, as a way of indicating increasingly worse circumstances. In Chinese, one may say “离开了咸菜缸又跳进了萝卜窖”,indicating the circumstances become worse

    and worse. When we talk about a person who is quite poor, in English we may say, “he is as poor as a

    church mouse.” In Chinese, we may say “他穿得象个叫化子”. Similar expressions such as “the

    burnt child dreads the fire”(一朝被蛇咬,十年怕井绳;, “as you sow, you will reap”(种瓜得瓜,

    豆得豆;,better be the head of a dog than the tail of a lion”(宁为鸡头,勿为牛后; and etc. In this

    sense, we consider them as lexical correspondences. In the light of above discussion, lexical correspondences take two categories in a sense: (1) Rough equivalents in content and in form, I mean the equivalence in meaning, in style and in rhetoric; (2) The words or idiomatic phrases with the same semantic meanings in spite of their different surface structures.

     As to the first category, the most convenient way is to use the strategy of literal translation, by means of which the translator can reproduce both the ideological content and style of literary works, and retain as much as possible the figures of speech and main sentence structures or patterns.

     Example 1

     In the booming Far East a fast rise in real GNP is still the best prop for semi-dictators; even there, one suspects that some of the most successful economic dictators (South Korea’s President Park, the Philippines’ President Marcoso) would be wise soon to find ladders down which to climb gracefully

    into retirement.

     R: 在繁荣昌盛的远东,纯国民生产总值的迅速增长仍然是半独裁者们最好的支柱。即使在



     How to deal with the words or phrases with the same semantic meaning but different structures? The possible strategy is to adopt the words or expressions in the target language to substitute those having the same semantic meanings and bearing some cultural colors of the source language. It is a

    kind of cultural translation, giving priority to the similar semantic meaning and regardless of the different structures. However, when we translate those with too strong national colors, we’d better not adopt this strategy.

     Example 2


     狐假虎威”is a Chinese idiom. Its literal meaning is that fox borrows the tiger’s terror by walking in the latter’s company. If translated literally, it doesn’t make sense to the foreign readers, another alternative way that can be adopted is to explain the meaning of the idiomatic phase, and then the impact and appeal of the language would disappear. In order to avoid this phenomenon, we pick up the English idiom “a donkey in a lion’s hide”, whose semantic meaning is similar to that of “狐假虎威”:

    to bully people by flaunting one’s powerful connections. This sentence can be best translated as:

     It is all the fault of this rascal Chai. He goes down to the village like a donkey in a lion’s hide and

    he must have scared this painter out of his wits.

     III. Lexical Blanks

     I.A. Richards (1953) has claimed that the translation is probably the most complex type of events in the history of the cosmos. The complexity of translation is owing to the fact that it not only involves the universal knowledge of the human beings but also the personal knowledge, which refers to the culturally specific one for every culture matures in its particularly historical and ecological settings. During the process of cross-cultural communication, we notice a phenomenon that something existing in the source language-culture contains so strong national color and cultural features that we can not find any equivalent in the target language-culture, and this cultural phenomenon is regarded as “cultural blanks”, which leads to “lexical blanks”. For instance, in Chinese, we have specific phrases such as “唱红脸,老油条,瞎子吃汤圆,拔罐子,半路出家,拍马屁,班门弄斧”and etc. In English,

    there are phases such as “a skeleton in the cupboard, a green eye, Trojan horse, take French leave, a black sheep, a frog in the throat, a bee in one’s bonnet” and etc. All these culturally specific phrases

    constitute a great difficulty for the students during the message transfer. Generally speaking, such differences as national, geographical environments, living experiences, traditions and customs, values and faith, social life, economic and political system and etc. can make lexical vacuum. Based on the fact that every culture is one part of the cultural system of the human being, the cross-cultural communication is possible, we try to find some suitable strategies to bridge over the two different language-cultures.

     3.1 To translate literally to keep the original images and retain the cultural flavors

     Just as Lu Xun pointed out that a rendering text would better retain the “sentiment” and “charm” of the original. It can be better conveyed by means of literal translation, for the application of the literal translation is not only faithful to the original in content, but also can reflect the scene and flavor of the foreign country concerned, by absorbing new ways of expressions and introducing the alien culture to the target readers, hence, the target language is enriched.

     Example 3




     R“Which is more valuable, lamp or man? You’re not used to wearing patterns, so get them to

    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?”

     3.2 To interpret the cultural meanings of the source language

     This is one strategy to deal with the problem caused by those language items when it is difficult to retain completely or directly their strong national color of the source language. The application of this approach aims to communicate information by conveying the implied or associative meanings of the original text, but at the same time, its national and cultural features are lost.

     Example 4

     The stork visited the Howard Johnsons yesterday.

     RI: 昨天鹳鸟拜访了霍华德约翰斯顿家。

     After reading RI, the Chinese readers would get an idea, which is quite different from the original; they are led to errors in meanings. Therefore, we’d better make a change of form to reflect its cultural connotation. As a matter of fact, in English mythological stories, it was said that all children were

    brought to the world by a kind of bird, 鹳鸟. Therefore, “a visit by the stock” means the birth of a

    child. In the rendition, it would be better for us to interpret its cultural connotation.


     Example 5


     背上黑锅”is an idiomatic way of Chinese to express the meaning of “being wronged”, which is quite familiar to the Chinese. However, it is difficult for the foreign readers to understand it when we put it literally. Therefore, it seems better to translate this sentence into English by applying the strategy

    of cultural interpretation.

     Did he know that his daughter was a tart? If he didn’t then wouldn’t he put the blame on Xiang Zi?

     3.3 To compensate the cultural default

     Cultural default is defined as absence of relevant cultural background knowledge shared by the author and his intended readers. The strategy of cultural compensation is a kind of redundancy and tries to provide the cultural default with the relevant cultural background knowledge, which is familiar to the source readers but alien to the target readers in order to make the rendition as clear and coherent as possible. Let’s cite several examples to see how the strategy of cultural compensation is applied to deal

    with lexical blanks.

     Example 6

     A frequent interlude of these performances was the enactment of the part of the part of Eutychus by some half-dozen of little girls: who overpowered with sleep, would fall down, if not out of the third left, yet off the fourth form, and by taken up half dead.

     R: 在这中间,还往往有一些小插曲:五六个睡的小姑娘,像犹推古---《圣经》中的一个少



     Example 7

     Discipline prevailed: in five minutes the confused throng was resolved into order, and comparative silence quelled the Babel clamor of tongues.

     R: 纪律终于占了上风,不到五分钟,乱轰轰的人群就又变得秩序井然,比较宁静的气氛使




     Each example contains a cultural term that originates from Bible. It is necessary to put it clearly in the rendition for the Chinese readers lack the relevant cultural background knowledge. These two examples apply two different kinds of cultural compensation to make the cultural term as clear as possible. Example 6 tries to interpret the cultural meaning within the text, keeping the original image at the same time. The advantage of this kind of cultural compensation would not interrupt the readers in their reading so that they can read fast and get a very brief comprehension of the source text. However, the cultural background knowledge received by the target readers is comparatively partial and incomplete. Anyway, it is a much more convenient approach to translate some cultural terms. Example 7 applies literal translation and footnote to compensate the relevant cultural background. It is comparatively better for representing the writer’s artistic motive and the aesthetic value of the original works. As the footnote is not limited by space, more cultural knowledge can be provided in detail to the target readers. Therefore, they may learn the original works in their true colors.

     IV. Lexical Conflicts

     If something happens to exist both in the source language-culture and target language-culture, its connotative meanings in these language cultures at the same time are quite different or contradictory;

    this phenomenon is regarded as cultural conflict or lexical conflict. Comparatively, the lexemes, which can cause conflicts during the process of translation, are not so much as those of lexical blanks. However, if people don’t pay enough attention to them in the process of message transfer, they would be misled. For instance, the cultural connotation of words concerning some plants, animals may cause different or contradictory associations in the minds of English and Chinese people. In English, one

    may say, “I am too old a dog to learn new tricks”. However, in China, no one wants to be called as ”. Out of this kind of consideration, the sentence may be better put adaptively into “我上了年纪,学

    不会新道了。” Similarly, the word “dog” in the following sentence can not be treated as word-for-word

    translation. “It was notable at the conference that minority groups evinced much sympathy for the

    deprived underdog than resentment for the top dog and his privileges.” In the sentence, “top dog” refers

    .To deal with the translation problems to “有权势的富人”, “underdog” refers to “受压迫的穷人”

    originating from lexical conflicts, the context should be the decisive factor on the decision-makings of translation strategies. Context generally includes linguistic context, or context, situational context and cultural context, and then these above strategies, which are used to deal with lexical correspondence, lexical blanks, can be adopted.

     V. Conclusion

     In the light of above arguments, we can note that the cultural factors necessitate decision-makings on translation strategies. In this sense, for a translator, knowing two languages is not enough. It is also essential to be acquainted with the respective culture. Just as Professor Wang Zuoliang once said: “A translator must be a cultural person in its true sense.” Only in this way, can we achieve equivalence not only at the linguistic level, but also at cultural level. My thesis focuses on translation at the lexicological level. I hope it will call attention to all the cultural factors at the different levels of a text.


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     (Edited by: Yanling Zhang, Feng Li

    and Annie)

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