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Cultural Approaches to Translation

DAVID KATAN
There are numerous cultural approaches to translation, given the numerous denitions of
both culture and translation. We might say that both culture and translation revolve
around difference. We notice culture as difference, and we require translation when dif-
ference signicantly affects communication. The approaches may then be divided according
to how difference between self and other should be managed in translation. In the rst case,
translating from cultures, differences should be explained. In the second, translating for
cultures, differences should either be reduced (domestication) or highlighted (foreignization).
The nal approach, translating between cultures, gauges the likely tolerance for difference
and attempts to mediate or reconcile differences, creating an interspace.
In all cases, it is understood that texts are seen to relate to larger contexts, or frames of
interpretation; and that translation involves a form of intervention which goes beyond
language transfer.
Translation From Cultures
Malinowski was a pioneer in terms of cultural approaches to translation, though he was
neither a linguist nor a translator. As an anthropologist he realized that explaining the
native view of the magic in Trioband stories to an English audience required more than
a literal translation, and hence he was continually striven to link up grammar with the
context of situation and with the context of culture (1935, p. 73). The context of culture
is a wide encompassing frame relating to assumptions regarding appropriate behavior,
practices, and values as cued by language (Halliday & Hasan, 1989, p. 47; see also Katan,
2004).
Take, for example, the following passage from novelist Jane Austen. At a certain point,
Emma nds her hand seizedher attention demanded, and Mr. Elton actually making
violent love to her. The context of situation, pre-Victorian, will inform us that the language
cued courtship; but to actually understand Emmas attribution of violent we would
need to know the context of culture, such as how to court 19th-century style, and at what
stage the language and behavior would be considered violent. More generally, as Goffman
(1974/1986, p. 25) put it, readers need to know What is it thats going on here? and to
have ways of giving meaning to that practice or, as he says, of accessing schemata of
interpretation (p. 8).
If the interpretative frame, or schema, is an internal cognitive representation, then the
thick description is what the anthropologist will use to help the outside reader access
that interpretative frame. Appiah (2000, p. 427) suggests the same approach for translation,
dening thick translation as translation that seeks with its annotations and its accom-
panying glosses to locate the text in a rich cultural and linguistic context. The translator
here is a visible frame maker explaining cultural differences to the target reader, often
through extratextual devices. The famous Victorian translation of The Thousand and One
Nights, for example, became well-known for its explanatory notes on the manners and
customs of Muslim men. Yet there are few examples of this type of intervention (Snell-
Hornby, 2006, pp. 989). This is because most translators and scholars still feel that the
use of any extratextual notes is not only a sign of translator indecision or inadequacy, but
also off-putting for the reader. So, traditionally, this has been the approach to scholarly
works only, such as the translations of the Bible. For the time being, thick translation
remains a seldom-used cultural approach.
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Translating for Cultures
The rst translator to offer detailed considerations about the context and to offer a more
acceptable cultural approach to translation was Bible scholar and translator Eugene Nida.
Though he professed an anthropological approach to explaining the source-text culture, he
actually had much more interest in allowing readers to read and respond to the Bible in
translation in the way the gospel writers had originally intended. However, as he notes,
Reader response can never be identical to the original due to different historical, cultural
and environmental contexts (1964, p. 159).
Reducing Difference
Nidas approach, then, was to translate through dynamic (or functional) equivalence:
Translating consists in reproducing in the receptor language the closest natural equivalent
of the source language message, rst in terms of meaning and secondly in terms of style
(Nida & Taber, 1969, p. 12). The target words would then trigger the same associations
and emotional effect as those of the original text. Hence Nidas provocative suggestion to
substitute the meekness of the lamb of God for Inuit readers with the image of a meek
seal of God.
According to this approach, a translation is unsuccessful when the reader begins to
experience a culture bump (Leppihalme, 1997, p. 4), which is where a reader of a TT
[target translation] has a problem in understanding a source-cultural allusion. Today,
audiovisual (AV) translation scholars are particularly aware of the lingua-cultural drop
in translational voltage (Antonini & Chiaro, 2005, p. 39). The area of intervention revolves
around omitting, glossing, retaining, or substituting references such as institutions and
pastimes through to celebrities and personalities. The approach is linguistic, hence
nonverbal aspects of signifying cultural practices, such as the use of color, sound, kinesics,
and proxemics, meaningful to one audience but not to another, are rarely discussed.
Nida himself was heavily inuenced by Chomsky, and used semantic structures to tease
out culture-bound meanings. A development of this linguistic approach has been success-
fully used with comparable corpora. Tognini Bonelli and Manca (2004), for example, show
how Children and dogs welcome (a standard collocate in accommodation brochures)
must be translated differently if dynamic equivalence is to be maintained. The cultural
approach here is to analyze target-language collocation frequency lists. In this particular
case, Italian dogs are never welcome, but accepted. Even more interesting is the fact
that children in Italian accommodation brochures are not only not welcome but not even
mentioned. Children, by default, are always welcome. Hence, assumptions about children
are clearly dependent on the context of culture.
So far, culture and the context of culture have been perceived as xed and rather
structured entities, framing an original or translated text. During the 1980s, a new loosely
dened school of thought began to appear in translation studies, subsequently labelled
as the cultural turn (Snell-Hornby, 2006, p. 56). The emphasis now was on the text as
an integral part of a larger network or system of cultural signs, and no longer bound by
the search for the formal or dynamically equivalent mot juste.
Deconstructionism and the death of the author were extremely inuential. They paved
the way for the functionalist approach, which was to focus translators attention away
from text-based equivalence toward the skopos: the function that the target text is intended
to full (Vermeer in Nord, 2005, p. 27). Reducing difference was no longer primarily linked
to delity with the original text, but now to target-text coherence within a readers par-
ticular world. However, to do so, the translator would still have to construct a particular
(and static) context of culture.
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cultural approaches to translation 3
Also important was the idea of translation as rewriting (Lefevere, 1992) and of trans-
lation as anything that the culture accepts as such (Toury, 1995, p. 26). This rethinking of
the relationship between the text and its particular contexts meant that there could be no
denitive translation, and that now the difference between a translation and an adapta-
tion was blurring. As a result, translation studies had nally broken the two thousand
year old chain of theory revolving around the faithful vs. free axis (Gentzler, 2001, p. 71).
Thus, the cultural approach favored by the functionalists considers not only culture-
bound terms and collocations, but also culturally appropriate genre styles and norms (Reiss
& Vermeer, 1984; Toury, 1995). This has led to a growth in studies on the subject known
variously as comparative stylistics, intercultural rhetoric, or comparative pragmatics
(e.g., Wierzbicka, 2003; Bhrig, House, & Ten Thije, 2009). These studies tend to focus on
models of appropriate writing style across languages and, in some cases, the culture-bound
motivations fostering such styles (e.g., Katan, 2004).
The cultural lter became a popular analogy. Like a pair of sunglasses, the lter dis-
torts the way in which reality is perceived, and hence also accounts for the differences in
interpreting meaning across linguacultures. For some, the lter should be used actively
by translators for non-ctional texts only (e.g., Bhrig et al.). For others (e.g., Katan, 2004),
cultural and other perception lters are an integral part of interpretation of any text.
An approach designed not just to reduce but to eliminate any trace of source-text culture
came originally from the software industry, which needed to localize (American-based)
products around the globe. The task required making modications to products and services
so that they could sell just as well in local markets worldwide. The cultural approach here
involves, for instance, not only adapting the examples and illustrations in the instruction
manual for the various languages, but also adapting the language of the software instruc-
tions and responses in the computer or phone. Many other features need to be adapted,
such as the type of guarantee and often the plug itself. Also, colors and graphics will often
be modied to meet local cultural norms. Ideally, to improve efciency, products and
documentation will be market-ready, already internationalized (i.e., free of an American
context of culture) and hence ready to be localized into all languages through more auto-
mated translation.
The translation of comic literature has also been considered a form of localization
(Zanettin, 2008), where not only is the dialogue adapted according to the sensitivities
of the receiving culture, but there is often new editing, additional cover art, lettering, and
retouching. Donald Duck in Italian, for example, becomes an Italian icon known mainly
by his new surname Paparino (Duckling), and is more respectful to his elders; while in
Arabic he never kisses. However, comic writing has yet to be internationalized.
Though comics may be retaining their local voice, many translation scholars have noticed
that much of the domestication is actually producing a more standardized approach to
translation worldwide, and where internationalization does take place it tends to follow
an Anglo-American style. The result is a rationalized monocultural McDonaldization of
translation (Katan, 2004). So, for reasons of efciencyor hegemony according to post-
modernist thinking (Robinson, 1997)the translation industry is being streamlined into
a universal way of thinking and practicing, as envisaged through one local (American) set
of appropriate translation strategies and writing styles. In its favor, we have a startling
number of instant multilanguage versions of manuals, software, games, (Hollywood) lms,
and even breaking news. Also the concept of a global norm and lingua franca (English)
regarding academic and scientic production fosters the global dissemination of ideas and
helps those from minority languages earn international recognition. Also, oppressed groups
such as the Dalits (traditionally regarded as an Untouchable caste in India) have found
themselves a new voice and an appreciative audience through translation into English,
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bypassing local caste opposition and able to make an international case for justice at home
(Kothari, 2007).
On the other hand, these voices nd themselves standardized in English: the literature
by a woman in Pakistan begins to resemble, in the feel of its prose, something by a man
in Taiwan (Spivak, 2000, p. 400). And translation out of English, constrained through lack
of time and space (and in the end money) means that readers and viewers learn to live
with translationese or dubbese, as the Anglo-American style is squeezed, unlocalized,
into other language spaces on computers, phones, and lm.
Hence, in this more global view of culture, difference is indiscriminately reduced. The
other, through economies of scale, is classied rationally, simplied and stereotyped,
reducing any in-depth understanding. In the academic and scientic world of discourse
epistemicide (Bennett, 2007) may take place, whereby the straitjacketing of academic
ideas to an Anglo discursive style might actually result in the loss of ideas.
What is being seen is gatekeeping on a global scale, where information and translation
is controlled in such a way that minority voices (writing styles, literatures) have difculty
in being heard as different. Lefevere (1992) introduced the term patronage to describe the
economic and political power issues involved in gatekeeping the translation of literature.
As a result, American lm, TV, and ction are routinely translated, while all other nation-
alities output is notdue principally to issues of patronage rather than to inherent merit.
Highlighting Difference
As a response to the above, postcolonial thinkers are attempting to delimit the spread of
what they see as an Anglo-American monoculture globalizing the planet. Culture here is
ideological and a sign of power. Difference is now seen in terms of inequality, superiority,
and inferiority. This approach pits itself against the dominating colonial master voice in
translation (Venuti, 1998), to safeguard the voices of the subaltern languages and literatures.
This is no easy task when the very essence of translation itself entails the removal of one
language in favor of another, and the voices themselves (in translation) will be reinterpreted
through the limiting cultural lters of the target reader discussed earlier.
The cultural approach, here, attempts to expose and empower the translator, seen no
longer as invisible and working passively within the system, but as committed or even
as an activist, aiming to consciously intervene against those gatekeeping activities that
tend to exclude minority voices. The more activist translators may intervene by subscrib-
ing publicly to an anticapitalist stance, by refusing to translate for the dominant culture,
by making the hidden ideologies explicit in the text, by manipulating the target text covertly
against the original intent, and by producing noncommercial or alternative translations in
support of minoritized groups (Baker & Chesterman, 2008; see www.babels.org).
Committed translation scholars have also focused their attention on how translators tend
to work within the dominant gatekeeping system, and how they have intervened on foreign
texts, distorting them to t what they believe to be superior Anglo style. The Victorian
poet-translator Edward Fitzgerald is a case in point. His cultural approach to translating
a peripheral culture is writ clear: It is an amusement for me to take what Liberties I
like with these Persians, who (as I think) are not Poets enough to frighten one from such
excursions, and who really do want a little Art to shape them (Lefevere, 1992, p. 4). The
result was the lauded, and very English, translation of The Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam, and
the inclusion today of many of Fitzgeralds stanzas in the Oxford Book of Quotations.
Also well known in English are Rabindranath Tagores own translations of his Bengali
poems, for which he received the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1913the rst time it had
been given to an Indian. Sengupta (1990, p. 58) suggests that this was due to his ability to
efface his poems in translation and create the stereotypical role that was familiar to the
coloniser, a voice that not only spoke of the peace and tranquillity of a distant world, but
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also offered an escape from the materialism of the contemporary Western world. And
herein lies part of the problem: To be read and appreciated, the original voice may well
be distorted by the other to t a domestic mold, and difference, as a result, may well
remain stereotypical, linked to a deterministic context of culture.
The postcolonial approach, then, is an attempt to break that mold, focusing on the hybrid
nature of cultural, or rather transcultural, identity (Tymoczko, 2007, pp. 12039).
Postcolonial postmodernist theorists now use the term cultural translation to talk about
individuals who have crossed these articial cultural borders into a third space. Those
who have done so are themselves, like BritishIndian writer Salmon Rushdie, translated
men (1991, p. 17), freed from their original culture to write in their own terms, using their
own brand(s) of foreignized English. However, cultural translation has little to do with
the translating of texts.
Translation is involved, though, as Robinson notes (1997, pp. 88113), when these voices
are to be translated into other languages. He outlines three approaches: literalism (fol-
lowing House); mtissages, the mixing of multiple races and ethnic language; and nally
deliberate mistranslations from the dominant language. However, the last two approaches
pose a fundamental problem for practicing translators and their readers. For there is little
observable difference between a translation regarded as a text which has successfully
subverted the established order, breaking the domestic mold, and one that is considered
incoherent and bad due to its stilted language, signs of interference, and mistranslation.
Indeed, the postcolonial approach has been criticized for its lack of utilizable methodology
and its elitist approach, while Singh (2007, pp. 778) suggests that perhaps it is time to
take a RE-TURN to the study of language and renew the connection between translation
studies and the study of language.
Translating Between Cultures
The nal approach to be discussed is indeed a return to language, focusing as it does on
intercultural communicationa term popularly used in translation studies (e.g., by the
International Association for Translation and Intercultural Studies and The Translator),
though not always properly understood. For some translation scholars, intercultural com-
munication is understood as equalling language-based functional equivalence (Bhrig
et al., 2009, p. 1)which takes us back to Nidas approach.
More relevant for translation is the interculturalists view. First, an intercultural situation
is one in which the cultural distance between the participants is signicant enough to have
an effect on interaction/communication that is noticeable to at least one of the parties
(Spencer-Oatey & Franklin, 2009, p. 3); second, meaning is not innate in the text, but is
constructed through lters according to contexts of situation and culture. This cultural
approach focuses on difference between self and other in terms of communicability and
in terms of reader tolerance of cultural distance.
The translator, here, rst gauges the relative distances (in terms of cognitive environ-
ment, appropriacy, norms, values, and beliefs) between the source and target contexts of
culture, and second, as privileged reader, negotiates levels of tolerance for difference
according to original and new intentions. This requires bicultural competence and the
ability to (dis)associate and take a third perceptual position (Katan, 2002).
Importantly too, in contrast with House, the concept of ideal or model reader (Eco, 1984)
is essential here, for it is necessary to build a plausible model of both original- and target-
reader reaction. Yet clearly this necessity is open to further criticism. Second-guessing reader
reaction will lead once again toward determinism: the static view of individuals ready-
labeled as belonging to idealized or model cultures. Hence the need for the translation to
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take place within the mediation space, as proposed by Wolf (2007, p. 113), open to new
and evolving hybrid solutions, with the aim of reconciling differences according to text and
readership tolerance for difference. The translator as a mediator also lters meaning accord-
ing to her own, at times conicting, professional or committed role to nd out, indeed,
What is it thats going on here? between the two cultural worlds.
SEE ALSO: Cultural Linguistics; Culture; Culture and Context: Overview; Intercultural
Discourse; Language, Culture, and Context; Linguaculture; Linguistic Imperialism; Norms
of Translation; Translation, Localization, and Internationalization; Translation Theory
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Suggested Readings
Brisset, A. (2010). Cultural perspectives on translation. International Social Science Journal, 61(199),
6981.
Hermans, T. (2003). Cross-cultural translation studies as thick translation. Bulletin of SOAS, 66(3),
3809.
Katan, D. (2009). Translation as intercultural communication. In J. Munday (Ed.), The Routledge
companion to translation studies (pp. 7492). Oxford, England: Routledge.
St-Pierre, P., & Kar, P. C. (Eds.). (2007). In translation: Reections, refractions, transformations.
Amsterdam, Netherlands: John Benjamins.
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