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Translation and Culture

By Alejandra Patricia Karamanian - a Certified Sworn English/Spanish/English Translator specialized in legal, business and international matters and a French/Spanish Translator. She can be emailed on alejandra@baspeech.com.ar 

The term 'culture' addresses three salient categories of human activity: the 'personal,' whereby we as individuals think and function as such; the 'collective,' whereby we function in a social context; and the 'expressive,' whereby society expresses itself.

Language is the only social institution without which no other social institution can function; it therefore underpins the three pillars upon which culture is built.

Translation, involving the transposition of thoughts expressed in one language by one social group into the appropriate expression of another group, entails a process of cultural de-coding, re-coding and en-coding. As cultures are increasingly brought into greater contact with one another, multicultural considerations are brought to bear to an ever-increasing degree. Now, how do all these changes influence us when we are trying to comprehend a text before finally translating it? We are not just dealing with words written in a certain time, space and socio-political situation; most importantly it is the "cultural" aspect of the text that we should take into account. The process of transfer, i.e., re-coding across cultures, should consequently allocate corresponding attributes vis-a-vis the target culture to ensure credibility in the eyes of the target reader.

Multiculturalism, which is a present-day phenomenon, plays a role here, because it has had an impact on almost all peoples worldwide as well as on the international relations emerging from the current new world order. Moreover, as technology develops and grows at a hectic pace, nations and their cultures have, as a result, started a merging process whose end (-point?) is difficult to predict. We are at the threshold of a new international paradigm. Boundaries are disappearing and distinctions are being lost. The sharp outlines that were once distinctive now fade and become blurred.

As translators we are faced with an alien culture that requires that its message be conveyed in anything but an alien way. That culture expresses its idiosyncrasies in a way that is 'culture-bound': cultural words, proverbs and of course idiomatic expressions, whose origin and use are intrinsically and uniquely bound to the culture concerned. So we are called upon to do a cross-cultural translation whose success will depend on our understanding of the culture we are working with.

Is it our task to focus primarily on the source culture or the target culture? The answer is not clear-cut. Nevertheless, the dominant criterion is the communicative function of the target text.

Let us take business correspondence as an example: here we follow the commercial correspondence protocol commonly observed in the target language. So "Estimado" will become "Dear" in English and "Monsieur" in French, and a "saludo a Ud. atentamente" will become "Sincerely yours" in English and "Veuillez agreer Monsieur, mes sentiments les plus distingues" in French.

Finally, attention is drawn to the fact that among the variety of translation approaches, the 'Integrated Approach' seems to be the most appropriate. This approach follows the global paradigm in which having a global vision of the text at hand has a primary importance. Such an approach focuses from the macro to the micro level in accordance with the Gestalt-principle, which states that an analysis of parts cannot provide an understanding of the whole; thus translation studies are essentially concerned with a web of relationships, the importance of individual items being decided by their relevance within the larger context: text, situation and culture.

In conclusion, it can be pointed out that the transcoding (de-coding, re-coding and en-coding?-the term 'transcoding' appears here for the first time) process should be focused not merely on language transfer but also-and most importantly-on cultural transposition. As an inevitable consequence (corollary?) of the previous statement, translators must be both bilingual and bicultural, if not indeed multicultural.

Is it our task to focus primarily on the source culture or the target culture? The answer is not clear-cut. Nevertheless, the dominant criterion is the communicative function of the target text.

Let us take business correspondence as an example: here what we do is to follow the language commercial correspondence protocol commonly observed in the target language. So "Estimado" will become "Dear" in English and "Monsieur" in French, and a "saludo a Ud. atentamente" will become "Sincerely yours" in English and "Veuillez agreer Monsieur, mes sentiments les plus distingues" in French.

Finally, attention is drawn to the fact that among the variety of translation approaches, the? Integrated Approach? Seems to be the most appropriate. This approach follows the global paradigm in which having a global vision of the text at hand has a primary importance. Such an approach focuses from the macro to the micro level in accordance with the Gestalt-principle which lays down that an analysis of parts cannot provide an understanding of the whole and thus translation studies are essentially concerned with a web of relationships, the importance of individual items, being decided by their relevance in the larger context: text, situation and culture.

In conclusion, it can be pointed out that the transcoding process should be focused not merely on language transfer but also-and most importantly-on cultural transposition. As an inevitable consequence of the previous statement, translators must be both bilingual and bicultural if not multicultural.

This article was originally published at Translation Journal (http://accurapid.com/journal). Re-produced here courtesy of (www.TranslationDirectory.com).