Animal Metaphor And Cultural Bias: Implications For The Translator | April 2015 | Translation Journal

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Animal Metaphor And Cultural Bias: Implications For The Translator

Animal Metaphor And Cultural Bias

Abstract: The translation of animal metaphor is problematic. It is even more so when the languages are unrelated, as in the case of Arabic and English. The task of the translator between related languages involves more a automatic fetching of a shared equivalent than also seeking to hedge a risk of ‘cultural incorrectness’, while the task of the translator into Arabic (unrelated language, say, to English) is not only to seek out an equivalent, but also to guard against the risk of automatic appropriation and reception, to avoid bringing a systematic “SL cultural bias” and a unfounded “TL cultural assumption” into play, and this, by imposing restrictions on the selection of candidate properties based on the context of utterance, speaker/user tone/ intent, target culture sympathy with/ antipathy towards the animal referred to and gender of animal metaphor target. My interest is the cultural dimension which, in my view, is the determinant factor in interpreting, screening and assignment of candidate properties in animal metaphor, on the one hand, and in taking the complex decisions involved in the translator’s work as he/she seeks to attain equivalence through impersonation, i.e. deconstructing the assumptions of a different society (its “given”), keeping his/her own cultural bias at bay (“sorting”) and reconstructing “in other terms” the intended meaning (“re-creation”). It is my claim that the translation of animal metaphor is more a creation of a new similarity than the reformulation of some similarity that is previously created and consigned in the words; it tends to involve more a broad context of culture than a narrow context of utterance. The hedging I propose may range, as I shall argue, from animal substitution (inter-species) to animal avoidance (‘de-metaphorising’ / reducing to sense).



In animal similes, such as “stubborn as a mule,” “curious as a cat,” “silly as a cow” or “crafty as a fox,” the ground ascribes a animalistic property to the human tenor. When, in addition to the specified ground, a culture’s stock of tropes, a people’s ecology and a language community’s common usage are brought into play, the connotation becomes pretty straightforward for the native recipient of the utterance. The polarity of positive-negative / good-bad (arising from ‘specified ground’ and ‘conventional usage,’ as well as tone of utterance and gender (as in “silly cow!” for instance)) helps detect the animalistic property ascribed to the human tenor and appreciate the evaluative content of the animalistic vehicle. In all this, the task of the translator into a related language is considerably eased. Even the translator into a unrelated language is helped by such packaging.

In the examples above, a stated—and readily perceived—similarity, property or attribution of the animalistic vehicle (stubbornness, inquisitiveness, silliness, or craftiness) is assigned to the human tenor; but even when the ground is not stated, as in “You elephant”, a dominant association is fetched in what I would call the ‘animal world picture’ of the community involved; the candidate property and evaluative content are checked against what I would call the ‘animalistic thesauri’ of the culture involved, and a sense is prioritised in view of all this body reference and further refined against context of utterance, tone and gender. The native recipient screens and assigns candidacies in a quasi-automatic manner, and the task of the translator into a related language does not seem to be problematic. 

When it comes to metaphors, however, the assignment of positivity/negativity becomes problematic for the recipient in the same language and the translator into a related language (not to speak of the translator into an unrelated language), as the level of confidence attached to the evaluative content of the animalistic property weakens. Indeed, in such animalistic utterances as “He’s a pig”/ “She’s a fox”/ “My neighbours are rabbits”/ “His lawyer is a shark”, “He’s an owl,” “You’re a lamb” and “She’s a cat”, among many other animal-inspired metaphors, the apprehension, interpretation and translation (metaphor detection and recreation into another language, especially recreation into the Arabic from the English) are further compounded, in addition to the unstated ground, by the un-relatedness of the two languages under consideration, and the consequent culture bias that requires questioning and adjustment. For instance, in moving from English to Arabic, the carry-over requires a more in-depth analysis, a more discriminate processing and a more careful rendering than, say, in moving from English to French. 

Within the same language, recognition of positive vs. negative indicators in animal metaphor is helped by insider knowledge. For the translator into a related language, that recognition is helped by the relatedness of SL and TL and by relative consensus within a broader community (even though ‘policemen’ were once called “pigs” in English, are “cows” in German and are “poulets” (chicks) in French).[i] For a more systematic recognition of positive vs. negative indicators, some researchers from the University of Birmingham[ii] have used WordNet (gloss-base, with words and glosses, and further links to related words, for lists of positivity and negativity indicators). Yet, even there, they recognise that there are instances “where an animal does not have a metaphorical sense in WordNet as a kind of person (for example, ‘You elephant’)” and, therefore, “the level of confidence attached to its detection” weakens. (2)

I have qualified my statement on ease of recognition within the same language by using the mitigating “does not seem” because, in a multi-cultural society where various communities speak the same language, the use of animal metaphor—even within this same language—is fraught with risks pertaining to the range of its differing “cultural associations” and assumptions about usage. While one can imagine contexts where “silly cow” is processed as socially-incorrect, there may be other contexts where it is processed as religiously-loaded, as in the case where an Indian community group, say in the UK, is involved.

Admittedly, from a translation point of view, the commonalities between languages of the same origin tend to facilitate equivalencies and help bring the metaphor back to some ‘transparency’: “She’s a viper”, “He’s a pig” and “Lead a dog’s life” should not raise significant problems in translation between English, French, Italian and Spanish, for instance. In such a case, the task of the translator between these related languages involves more a automatic fetching of a shared equivalent than seeking to hedge a risk, while the task of the translator into Arabic (unrelated language, say, to English) is not only to seek out an equivalent, but also to guard against the risk of automatic appropriation, to avoid bringing a systematic “native cultural bias” into play, and this, by imposing restrictions on the selection of candidate properties based on the context of utterance, speaker/user tone/ intent, target culture sympathy with/ antipathy towards the animal referred to and gender of animal metaphor target. The hedging may range, as I shall argue, from animal substitution (inter-species) to animal avoidance (reducing to sense).      

A host of uneasy questions and vexing problems, indeed, arise when it comes to screening, prioritising and assignment of similarities, properties or attributions of the vehicle (animal) to the tenor (person) in the context of translation into unrelated/ remote languages: How are the similarities/ properties/ attributions screened? How are they prioritised? How are they assigned? How are they interpreted and (re)created? What part does the “cultural dimension” play in both interpretation and (re)creation of animal metaphor? How can the process of acclimation[iii] recreate, and to what extent does it create, “cultural significance”? If a campaign slogan was “Put a tiger in your engine” and that a “tiger” was perceived as a lazy animal in my culture, how would I go about translating the slogan to my culture?

These are important questions, but they remain ancillary to my major concern in this paper: How to handle the issue of the translator’s “arbitrariness” or, what I am tempted to call, the translator’s “cultural bias”, in animal metaphor, i.e. the local associations connected with certain species of animal? (Needless to say that the bias extends to the target readers who share the same culture as the translator when the latter translates to his/her mother tongue.) To what extent can the translator of animal metaphor at once construe or recapture the author’s intent/ tone and counter or keep at bay his/her own cultural bias? How can the translator from English, or any other unrelated language, into Arabic bridge the worlds of author and audience that are all the more different as the topic at issue is animal metaphor and as Arabic is an unrelated language? As has now become a commonplace, the original is produced by an individual for a linguistic community; the translation is produced by an individual for a different linguistic community (with each community having its lore and propriety rules). It is my claim that the process of translating animal metaphor in this context (of unrelated/ remote languages) involves not so much a (re)creation of a analogue previously created in the words (which is the usual way of handling metaphor in translation), as a tentative reaching out beyond the words to appreciate a “local colouring” of the original metaphor (man/pig: dirtiness/greed, etc) and an informed move to indulge or expunge a compulsive cultural bias invoked by the metaphor (man/pig: moral looseness).

Black (1962), Catford (1965), Gentner (1983), Wisniewski (1996, 1997) and Glucksberg (2001) have sought to propose models of analogy and metaphor comprehension involving, in particular, alignment-and-comparison, structure-mapping and interactive property attribution models (on which more later). My concern is how to account for the equation of a moral and a physical attribute, for neither party to the series of such metaphors as “He’s a pig”/ “She’s a viper”/ “My neighbour is a rabbit” is, across cultures, literally “mean” (person and pig), “cruel” (person and viper), and “malevolent” (person and rabbit). My submission consists in making a case for a hardly escapable “cultural bias” involved in animal metaphor as a major factor that such approaches seem to have overlooked because, perhaps, it is difficult to account for linguistically, because—as the relevance rule cannot be applied, the differences tending to be non alignable—their schemas may not coherently be put into correspondence. Addressing the translation exercise requires, obviously, a consideration not only of the two dimensions, that of the stated (literal) and that of the intended (figurative)—an exercise that belongs in the interpretation phase and relies mainly on the text—but also of another pair of dimensions, that of the observed (the sense-experience aspect) and that of the conventional (whereby the abstract characterisation comes to bear a local garb)—an exercise that belongs in the reformulation phase and is affected by the Lebenswelt (the world of lived experience), as developed by Stephen David Ross in “Translation and Similarity” (Translation Spectrum 10).

As a preliminary, we need to remind of the obvious distinction between the literal and the figurative. In the metaphor “it was just a red herring on the part of the author” (ce n’était qu’une diversion de la part de l’auteur, or لم يكن ذلك إلاّ صرفا للأنظار (أو تمويـها) من قبَل الكاتب), ‘red’ does not refer to ‘colour’ nor does ‘herring’ refer to any fish, although there is something fishy about the whole matter (with ‘fishy’, again, having nothing to do with ‘fish’ as a species!). Similarly, in the idiom, “red tape” (bureaucratie/ paperasserie,إجراءات رسمية عقيمة), there is not the least coincidence between the intended meaning and the literal (taken, here, as “denotative”) meanings of the words constituting the statement. On the subject of figurative language, A. C. Partridge, in The Language of Renaissance Poetry (42), says of Richard Puttenham that he “recognises the immediacy by which metaphor reaches the reader before meaning has done its work. It makes sensuous impressions real to the consciousness.” It is, precisely, that “immediacy” which one needs to be wary of in translation. According to Terence Hawkes, “figurative language is language which doesn’t mean what it says”, in contrast to literal language which is at least intended to be, or is taken as, purely denotative. (1972, 1) More contemporary views claim that figurative language (best exemplified by metaphor and idiom), not less than literal language, involves both linguistic and pragmatic operations in the processing and comprehension of discourse (see Glucksberg (2001), as a case in point).

In fact, there is a rhetorical code in the conventions of figurative language. The code relates to the way things are represented in a given culture; to understand this code is a mark of belonging to the culture in which this code is used. My interest is the cultural dimension which, in my view, is the determinant factor in interpreting, screening and assignment of candidate properties in animal metaphor, on the one hand, and in the complex decisions involved in the translator’s work as he/she seeks to attain equivalence through impersonation, i.e. deconstructing the assumptions of a different society (its “given”), keeping his own cultural bias at bay (“sorting”) and reconstructing “in other terms” the intended meaning (“re-creation”).

This paper, therefore, proposes to undertake a consideration of the comparison processes and comparison processing involved in animal metaphor comprehension, property interpretation and property assignment from a translation perspective. It relates these processes and processing to the context of translation into Arabic and seeks to investigate how people go about creating new categories via metaphor (by “creating new categories”, I mean seeking them out in the conventional, the cultural, the local), as well as labelling new, non-lexicalised categories (as part of the necessary adjustment to the bias involved in animal metaphor). Indeed, and as stated above, my submission is that the translation into Arabic of animal metaphor is more a creation of a new similarity informed by an assumed cultural bias (in the original, the point of view of the language community) and adjusting it based on a cultural input (or, more precisely, the deconstructing of a pre-existing bias in the translator’s culture, and adjustment of the similarity) than the reformulation of some similarity that is previously created and consigned in the words.[iv]

Take, for instance, the comparison statement “He’s a pig”. In translation into Arabic, this nominal metaphor gives “هو خنزير”. In this dissimilar noun-noun compound, rather than involving a cross-cultural comparison, the translation (re)creation process implies the attribution of cultural properties of the vehicle “pig” to the tenor “he” which go beyond the normal candidate dimensions borne out by the vehicle term (reference to pig as a prototypical exemplar of that species: an animal, a real pig; as well as reference to the categories that the vehicle can ‘culturally’ exemplify, such as dirt, greed, ill-manners/ excess drinking or eating, indecency, perversion—as in “dirty little pig”, or stubbornness—as in “pig-headed”).[v]

The ground in the translation of animal metaphor, whatever the context of utterance in the original, tends to prioritise the negative in terms of behaviour or conduct, such as ‘looseness’, ‘viciousness’ and ‘deviousness’ in related languages; more than that, it straightaway points beyond this to the extremely pejorative in a moral and even religious sense, especially in certain unrelated languages. Indeed, even when the ground is specified (“He’s as dirty/ greedy as a pig” which would give in Arabicإنـّه قذر/ نهِم كالخنزير), the ground will tend to be construed according to the recipient culture—here, Arabic—(after word-for-word translation) as necessarily extending beyond the physical properties, inviting a pre-existent moral colouring—‘dirtiness’/’greed’, as dimensions partaking of a moral order, thus invoking moral looseness and depravity. Even more, there does not seem to be much difference between the strictly equating nominal version “he’s a pig” and the expanded, ground-specified version “he’s as dirty/ greedy as a pig.” Somewhere there in my mind (because of my “universal” culture), a “pig” may qualify a person as physically dirty or as greedy (according to the specified “ground”); still, somewhere there in my mind, too, and more importantly at this (because of my “local” culture), the human tenor cannot be other than morally loose, religiously at fault. The cultural bias holds sway in spite of the specified ground. In other words, even when the qualifying lexical clues (“dirty”/ “greedy”) appear in my translation, they will tend (in reception) to be only the outer mark of an inner “viciousness” in, and beyond, the terms of the metaphor, both borne and borne out by the animal. While within a single language (leaving aside dialects and idiolects) and a culturally available stock of tropes (leaving aside regional, local culture constructs), metaphor may often be brought back to ‘transparency’ through substitution and the interplay of signifier/ signified, in translation between languages, metaphors hardly retreat to ‘transparency’ as the process involves two cultures, two societies, two worlds of living experience, a producer (who uses animal imagery according to a certain culture) and a receiver (who perceives that imagery according to a different culture).  

The question is: What is it that prioritises in the comprehension, interpretation and recreation process of animal metaphor the moral over the physical? Let us imagine a comparison statement with even more ample, qualifying contextual clues as: “He’s a pig; for him, life means nothing but guzzling and gulping” (هو خنزير، فليس له من حياته سوى الأكل والشرب). Do the additional clues—which specify the ground as “gluttonousness”—impose any constraints on the comprehension, interpretation and recreation of the animal metaphor, tethering its meaning to the physical? Well, they do not; rather, they tend only to confirm the cultural bias (which should normally be at most an adjusted cultural input, a type of mediation): indeed, “moral looseness” remains the ground of resemblance (whenever “pig” is mentioned), and the Arabic term used to translate “gulping”—though otherwise morally neutral (جرع / ازدرد)—suddenly becomes loaded in the pig-metaphor, with “immorality” being fore-grounded, paradoxically enough, because lying as backcloth. On the “manners of eating,” the Quranic text advises against gluttonousness, “Be not prodigal; God loves not the prodigal” (“Cattle” 140, Trans. A. J. Arberry). The “pig” becomes some kind of a “scapegoat” on which frustrations are taken out.

Therefore, some safeguard needs to be provided against unconscious indulgence in the construal of an unwarranted, ‘religiously coloured’, extremely pejorative ground for animal metaphor in translation. To counter the “religious colouring’ extension or input in translation into Arabic—where it is uncalled for—, one may need to consider acclimating the metaphor by de-animalising it altogether, proposing something like “هو أشـْرَهُ/ أنـْهَمُ من أشعب” (he’s greedier than Ash’ab), the latter figure—being described in common Arabic anecdotes as a sponger, an uninvited guest—is considered as the epitome of gluttonousness. In the proposed version, the animal is eclipsed (thus neutering the cultural bias), and the new vehicle, “greedy Ash’ab”, recreates the gist of the original animal metaphor while expurgating the processing of the original, as it were, of the animal-inspired “religious” dimension, thus precluding an unwarranted extension.

In a poem entitled “Base Details”, Siegfried Sassoon (1886-1967) pokes  fun at the “Majors at the Base”, holding them up to ridicule for being insensitive to the young soldiers they speed up the line to death. Indeed, while the soldiers serve as cannon-fodder, the Majors are busy “guzzling and gulping in the best hotel”. When one adds to the latter phrase such other bits of the poem as “scarlet Major” and “puffy petulant face”, one has the spitting image of a pig. Yet, as the poem bears no mention of the animal itself, the ‘piggishness’ involved is construed as highlighting ‘insensitiveness’ and ‘lack of concern’ through self-indulgence, without possible extension into ‘moral looseness’ or ‘irreligiousness’. Were a ‘pig metaphor’ proposed, the reader of a translation into Arabic would be prompted to systematically extend the ground to the latter aspects.           

Glucksberg (2001, 60) states that, normally, the notion of relevant dimensions of attribution is used to select the properties relevant to the topic (by which he means the tenor), i.e. context-of-utterance appropriate ones. The relevant dimensions may also be specified according to the concept of within-category variation: thus, the ways in which men can share certain animal features constitute relevant dimensions for attribution (an elephant in a china shop; man is a wolf; these businessmen are sharks; my lawyer is a snake, etc). However, in our view, cultural inputs in the translation of animal metaphor often tend to be biased towards the super-ordinate/ higher-order category (‘moral looseness’ and ‘deviousness’, in the case of “pig”; ‘malevolence’ and ‘deceptiveness’ in the case of “viper”) rather than the subordinate, literal referent (‘dirty’/ ‘greedy’, in the case of “pig”; ‘slippery’/ ‘elusive’ in the case of “viper”). The labelling of new, non-lexicalised categories in this case involves a value, rather than a ‘physical’ feature, which would be—outside of the cultural-bias perspective I am submitting—not a candidate attribution at all.[vi] This should confirm our claim that the translation of animal metaphor is more a creation of a new similarity than the reformulation of some similarity that is previously created and consigned in the words; it tends to involve more a broad context of culture than a narrow context of utterance. In the French expression “Quelle vache!” (literally, “What a cow!”), the “cow” has nothing to do with fatness; it stands for “swine” or “bitch”.

In her Dictionary of Comparative Proverbs (English-Arabic), Julie Mourad proposes over 470 English proverbs together with “their match in the Arabic language” (8). It is quite interesting to note that most animal-based English proverbs are matched by animal-free Arabic equivalents. Here are a few examples:

- “A good dog deserves a good bone”           “لكلّ عمل ثواب” (literally, “A good doer deserves a reward”); 

- “Every dog has his day”                               “الدّهر يومان، يوم لك ويوم عليك” (literally, “Time is two days: one is auspicious; the other is inauspicious”).

“Dog”, thus, remains mostly pejorative, and the equivalent Arabic proverb avoids it almost systematically as part of countering the related cultural bias. Significantly enough, though, the “horse” (in non vocative) or “lion” species—being bias-free—is not only maintained across the English and Arabic cultures, as in “Every horse may trip” (“لكلّ جواد كبْوة”), but also offered as an Arabic equivalent when the English proverb does not literally mention it, as in “Like father, like son” (“إنّ ذاك الشبل من ذاك الأسد”, literally: “This cub is of that lion begotten”). Thus, in human-animal metaphors where “dog” is involved, we have a low-constraining topic (“dog” remaining mostly negative, the opportunities for interpretation cannot be culturally narrowed down to any ‘positiveness’; rather, the risk of ‘negative’ cultural bias is high and is countered by avoidance), while in human-animal metaphors where “horse” or “lion” is involved, we have a high-constraining topic (“horse” or “lion” being mostly positive, the opportunities for interpretation are easily narrowed down to ‘positiveness’, or, more appropriately perhaps, cannot be broadened to any ‘negativeness’; as the risk of ‘negative’ cultural bias is nil, the opportunities for interpretation may even be indulged (preserving “horse” in the Arabic equivalent of “every horse may trip”, and proposing “cub” and “lion” for “son” and “father”, respectively).

Let us now consider this case of extended metaphor, where the term “equivocal”—offering a ground for the initial dissimilar noun-noun compound “Life the hound”—seems to narrow down the opportunities for interpretation of an otherwise low-constraining topic:

Life the hound


                                                Comes at a bound

                                                Either to rend me

                                                Or to befriend me.

                                    I cannot tell

                                                The hound’s intent

                                                Till he has sprung

                                                With teeth or tongue

                                                Meanwhile I stand

                                                And wait the event.

                                                                        Robert Francis


                                                            إنّ الحياة ضِْرو

                                                            أراه لغزا مبهما

                                                            يبرز لي في خلو

                                                            مكشـّرا أو باسما

لا أكنه ما يزمع

وهو إليّ يسرع

بأنياب تمزّق

أو بلسان يلعق

وفي الأثناء أمكث

منتظرا ما يحدث. (My translation)

This example from Robert Francis seems to prove, on the face of it, that the only way to counter this tendency to bring this systematic “cultural bias” into play is to impose restrictions on the selection of candidate properties. In reality, however—and as hinted above—, animal metaphor cannot escape cultural bias. Indeed, in order to effect such restrictions, one would attempt offering abundant information about the “ground” of the comparison. Yet, as we have seen, even such provision cannot keep “cultural bias” at bay. Crude “animalness” and “treacherousness” remain, in fact, the overriding features.


Glucksberg (2001, 60) offers the following analysis of Wisniewski’s (1996, 1997) alignment-and-comparison model which, he says, extends Gentner’s (1983) structure-mapping model of analogy and metaphor comprehension:

in order to comprehend a combined concept, one must initially align the schemas of the two constituent concepts so that the dimensions of one constituent are put into correspondence with analogous dimensions of the other constituent. Once the dimensions are aligned, one then compares the features of the two concepts.

We are tempted to apply this alignment-and-comparison process on the combination “viper woman”. In the alignment stage, one aligns such dimensions as “twisting”, “slipperiness”, “biting”, “unpredictability”, “spitefulness”, “treachery”. This allows one to make feature comparisons, from which “commonalities” and “alignable differences” may emerge. Both “women” and “vipers” may be “unpredictable”, “spiteful” and “treacherous” (commonalities), but “vipers” typically “twist” and “bite”, whereas “women” typically do not (alignable differences).

Glucksberg (2001, 60) deduces, after Wisniewski (1997) and based on an example different from ours above, that “alignable differences are necessary for property interpretation because they indicate (a) what properties to attribute, and (b) the dimensions that they should be attributed to”. This does not illuminate as to what to be wary of, what to avoid, and—thus—begs the question: What about cases of dissimilar combinations, such as “hawk territory”? Glucksberg would argue that the noun-noun compound does present differences, but these differences tend to be nonalignable, so their schemas may not coherently be put into correspondence. A “hawk territory”, in his view, likely is not a territory that has properties of hawks but rather a territory that is ‘populated’ by hawks. I tend to believe, however, that “hawk territory” should not be difficult to process for someone living in the Middle East, for instance, and familiar with the frequent media reference to some government of Israel as a “government of hawks” or some US administration as an “administration of hawks”. Beyond middle-eastern cultural bias, the connotation of “hawk”, when associated with “country” or “government”, now invokes—thanks to the press—a universal bias, reaching beyond ‘predatory nature” into ‘warmongering’, if not ‘pathological unreasonableness.’ In any case, in a move that seeks to resolve a similar problem of constituent dissimilarity, Glucksberg (2001, 61) proposes what he calls “interactive property attribution”. He explains this as follows:

Instead of matching features and seeking alignable differences, we propose that the head and the modifier play the same roles that are played by metaphor topics and vehicles. Like a metaphor topic, the head provides relevant dimensions for attribution. Like a metaphor vehicle, the modifier provides candidate properties for attribution. For example, in the combination shark lawyer, the head concept lawyer provides relevant dimensions for attribution (e.g., degree of aggressiveness, competence, cost), and the modifier shark provides salient candidate properties (e.g., “predatory”, “aggressive,” and “vicious”) that can be attributed. (Italics in original.) 

Commending the virtues of this model, Glucksberg (2001, 61-62) adds that

like the alignment-and-comparison model, it includes an alignment stage, but it differs in what is aligned. Rather than exhaustively aligning the dimensions and comparing the features of the two concepts, the interactive property attribution model proposes that relevant dimensions of the head are aligned with the salient properties of the modifier. According to this model, it is not constituent similarity but rather the interaction of dimensions and features that guides interpretation.

All this is fine; but how to account for inputs that are not warranted either by the alignment-and-comparison model (Wisniewski) or by the interactive property attribution model (Glucksberg)? Consider, for instance, the metaphor “my neighbour is a rabbit.” There are two representational assumptions—dual reference of metaphor vehicle terms and differential information made available by the tenor (topic) and vehicle. These suggest the following process of comprehension of nominal metaphors. In terms of given-new convention, one looks for the properties of the vehicle to be considered for attribution to the tenor (topic). So, how can one align the vehicle and tenor concepts to be able to match any dimensions for attribution of the tenor against potential, candidate properties of the vehicle? Thus, for a tenor as “neighbour”, relevant dimensions such as “closeness”, “familiarity” and “mutual support/competitive interest” would be matched against candidate properties of the vehicle (“timidity”, “homeliness” and “discreetness”). If the vehicle provides properties appropriate for those dimensions, then those will be taken as the grounds for the metaphor. However, the salient characteristic properties tend to be taken in translation as unambiguously negative, precisely because of the cultural bias associated with the animal metaphor: “rabbit” is associated with “gnawing”, “burrowing”, “taking up space” (in Arab culture) and with “timidity” or, more frequently, “randiness”, “extreme sexual lust”, “over-development of sexual impulses” (in other cultures, such as the Anglo-Saxon or French, for instance). The properties are, therefore, assigned because certain metaphor vehicles (animal vehicles, in particular) tend to exemplify an attributive category in the ways that “pigs”, “vipers”, “sharks”, “hawks” (and now “rabbits”) do, almost regardless, or even in spite, of the context of utterance. And, yet, one may think of cultures where a neighbour can only be supportive. Accordingly, a metaphor such as “dog neighbour” might only be interpreted, in certain cultures, as “one who keeps a watchful eye on my house in my absence”, regardless of whatever characteristics, features, properties, dimensions such utterance-based contexts may mean.

It, thus, emerges that neither the “alignment-and-comparison” model (Wisniewski), nor the “interactive property attribution” model (Glucksberg) can address the issue of cultural bias satisfactorily. In the former model, the commonalities of “rabbit” and “neighbour” highlight “timidity”, “homeliness” and “discreetness”; the “alignable differences” are that a “rabbit” gnaws and burrows while a neighbour typically does not. Yet, in a culture where the rabbit is perceived as a “territorial competitor”, the “rabbit” metaphor can only highlight the neighbour’s “invasive” character. This is not accounted for by the “alignment-and-comparison” model. In the latter model, the head concept (metaphor topic) is “neighbour”; it provides relevant dimensions for attribution (e.g., “mutual support”, “competitive interest”). The modifier (metaphor vehicle) is the “rabbit”; it provides salient candidate properties that can be attributed (e.g., “closeness”, “homeliness”, “shyness”, “burrowing”). Yet, in a culture where the rabbit is perceived as “randy”, the “rabbit” metaphor can only highlight the neighbour’s lusty character. This is not accounted for by the “interactive property attribution” model.  

The translation of animal metaphor, thus, involves not so much semantic knowledge as it involves locally-sensitive world knowledge. The cultural and experiential have it all. When a metaphor has an animal for a vehicle, no matter the context of utterance/ no matter the ways in which the comparison statement is qualified, the reader—whether translator or not—cannot help going for the worst (and hedge its implications, as perceived/ required). The worst—from a translation point of view—is local cultural bias, and—thanks to globalised media—, even universal cultural bias. Accordingly, rather than focusing on relevant semantic features, it would be more practical—and more relevant—to begin by considering cultural bias. So, when the original uses “pig”, “viper”, “shark”, “dog” or “snake”—as a vehicle for a (human) tenor—, the relevance factor must comprise not only the semantics of the term but also, and above all, the cultural bias (as a value to be countered or adjusted, or still given free play, not according to the packaging of the original but, rather, according to “cultural significance” or “cultural import”).

The task of the translator of animal metaphor would require the questioning (and, perhaps, countering) of local cultural bias before any attempt at offering an equivalent comparison statement that adjusts the bias to the thrust of the original. For so doing, one needs, first of all, to invoke the recipient culture’s framework of reference with regard to animal imagery as traditionally conceived. In order to measure the extent of “local colouring” in Arabic and, hence, appreciate the extent of the “cultural bias” to guard against in the translation of animal metaphor into Arabic, we propose a scale of “least to most pejorative” animal “vehicles” for human “tenors”:

-          Lion: أسد (bravery, strength)/ Lioness: لبؤة (strength, authority)

-          Lynx/Cheetah/Panther: فهد /Tiger/Leopard: نمر (swiftness, fierceness)/Tigress: نمرة (bravery, nimbleness)

-          Eagle: نسر (high status, shrewdness)

-          Horse: حصان/جواد (nobleness, elegance)

-          Dove: حمامة (peaceableness, bearing)

-          Lamb: حَمَل (mild-temperedness, gentle-heartedness) vs. “Sheep” (meekness, cowardice)

-          Camel (forbearing (صبور), vindictive)

-          Peacock: طاووس (pride, conceitedness)

-          Rabbit: أرنب (burrowing, taking up space)

-          Fox: ثعلب (craftiness, slyness)

-          Bull: ثور (excitement, furiousness)

-          Mule: بغل (stubbornness, dullness)

-          Dog : كلب (lowness, wretchedness)

-          Pig: خنزير (dirtiness, moral looseness).

It is worth mentioning that the top two animal names are often used as human names in the Arab world. At least one former President was named “Assad” (lion) and one former King was named “Fahd” (tiger). Thus, the translator into Arabic would have no negative “cultural bias” to guard against in translating the English “Like a lion, he entered the fray” or “Like a tigress, she drove the attackers off her land plot”, but should be most alert when the original invokes “bulls”, “mules”, “dogs” or “pigs”.     

Accordingly, even when certain animals may be “universally” amenable to “positiveness”, the original animal metaphor “my neighbour is a dog” (literally, "جاري كلب"), for instance, would—in translation into Arabic—drop the “dog” (vehicle) and reformulate its thrust —according to construable “cultural significance” or “cultural import” (and in wariness of possible local “cultural bias”)—as جاري عين ساهرة (“my neighbour is a watchful eye”), thus interpreting the animal metaphor positively in spite of the local cultural bias against “dogs”, but reducing it to sense  (i.e., avoiding equation). It is interesting, in this regard, to sound the reaction of Arab students to such expressions as “consumer watchdog” or “watchdog committee”! They see the ‘dog that spies on folks’, not the ‘dog that keeps watch and reports on abuses’! On the other hand, “She’s a viper” may give the cultural bias free play (هي أفعى رقطاء), as “viper” tends not to allow for “positiveness”, according to the translator’s construal of the original “significance” or “import” and as warranted by the lebenswelten (the worlds of lived experience) of author and audience. The adjective “raqtā’” (i.e., “spotted”), while seeming to highlight the physical (colour), actually emphasises the moral dimension (i.e., inherent “deceptiveness” or, let us say, “viperness”) which the original can only be construed as emphasising and which is coincident with our lebenswelt (vipers are known to hide in Saharan sand). As “pig” is morally loaded, reducing the original metaphor to sense, i.e. avoiding equation, should be the rule. In animal metaphor, the translator’s motto should be: detect “cultural bias” and counter it, even if that means inter-species substitution (using “horse” instead of “dog” to highlight an intimate man-animal relationship) or ‘de-animalising’, i.e. dropping the “animal” reference altogether.

The deconstruction of animal metaphor is highly revealing of cultural assumptions and dominant conceptions. However, while analysing the other culture, based on a projection into it, we need to be reflexive about our own. Indeed, awareness of animal associations in both original and target cultures (more than knowledge of semantic value of animal imagery) seems to be the more pragmatic approach to translating animal metaphor, as ‘metaphor does reach the reader before meaning has done its work’. The spectrum seems to range, with variances according to local culture, from predominant negativeness (pig, dog, mule, bull), through ambivalence (fox, rabbit, lamb), to predominant positiveness (lion, lynx, eagle). The translation of animal metaphor requires preliminary assignment of a value (in the culture of the original) and a re-formulation of that value (in the culture of the translation); this process must also provide for animal substitution or for reducing to sense (even if that were to lead to “de-animalising” the metaphor). I would even argue that, in a context of remote cultures, de-animalisation should be a first option. Indeed, one would have a hard time persuading our Consumer Interest Organisation (ODC) that calling it “consumer watchdog”—in a translation into English—is well intentioned!               

[i]Caveat:Animalistic usage may turn out to be free from any evaluative content assignable to the tenor. Indeed, the French police seem to have earned their animalistic nickname (“poulets”) from nothing more than a historical coincidence. “In 1871, Jules Ferry makes available for the Police Prefecture the city barracks to establish their HQ. The barracks had been constructed on the site of the old poultry market of Paris.” My translation of the original reference in the French: (consulted on 20 May 2012).

[ii]Tim Rumbell, John Barnden, Mark Lee and Alan Wallington, “Affect in Metaphor: Developments with WordNet” (http://www.cs;;pdf (consulted on 16 May 2012)

[iii]In Translation Spectrum, the editor, Marilyn Gaddis Rose, writes in the introduction that, during the phase of acclimation of the text, “the translating goes from internal to external. We have told ourselves roughly what the work means [during the previous phase, “exhaustive style and content analysis”], but there have probably been verbal ellipses in our internal translations. Indeed, although we may well have settled certain expressions or key terms in our text-to-be, we have been thinking in the language of the source text. We now work out our own strategies—perhaps compromises—with the form of its message. We decide what is the irreducible invariable and how or if we can preserve it.” (3) Gaddis Rose’s concept of acclimation seems to be confined here to the packaging of the message. In my view, “acclimation” is, above all, cultural—and even more so, in the case of animal metaphor—, having to do, besides the packaging, with such aspects as the implications/ impacts of the message itself, the bridging of the worlds of author and audience, the striking of cultural compromises.

[iv]I could have chosen translation into another language (French or Italian, for instance, with which I am familiar), since my argument is cultural bias of the translator. If I have chosen Arabic, it is because English and Arabic are unrelated languages, because Arabic is my mother-tongue and because I am addressing the issue as a translator into Arabic, bringing my Arabic culture bias to bear on the translation of animal metaphor and questioning it.

[v]In “Animal Names Used in Addressing People in Serbian,” (Journal of Pragmatics 35 (2003): 1891-1902;, Sabina Halupka-Resetar and Biljana Radié argue that, while, in Serbian, the use of animal names in vocatives tends to be more invective and abusive than affectionate and positive, the use of diminutives, typically related to “size”, tends to express affection and endearment, as in “little cow” or “piglet”.  But, note that, in Arabic, French and English, for instance, a “cow”, a “bull”, a “mule”, a “pig”, or a “mouse” will remain pejorative almost regardless of the “littleness”/ “smallness” pre-modifying qualifier.

[vi]In Tunisian dialect, the colloquial term “hallūf”—literally, “tame/ domestic pig”—means “crafty” (in a positive sense; i.e., cannot be fooled) when used to qualify a person. Accordingly, a person thus qualified would not, if belonging to the local culture, take the term as pejorative. It is interesting to know that this term is not used in any other of the dialects of the Arab world. In other Arab countries, both the domestic and wild species are referred to by the term “khinzīr” (literally, “boar”); this is the standard Arabic equivalent, and it can only be pejorative when used to qualify a person. In these countries, the animal used to qualify a “crafty” person is “fox”. While it is difficult to explain how “hallūf” came to be used in this context in Tunisia (I would surmise that it was popularised, originally as a term of endearment for “hog”, by some foreign community at the beginning of the twentieth century, most likely the Maltese whose language borrows considerably from the local dialects of the region), it is not as difficult to explain why “khinzīr” is no substitute, no synonym. Indeed, because the attributes assigned by the cultural and the religious to the term “khinzīr” can only be negative—and of the moral order—, the only country that uses the species in a positive context has had to name it differently, thus circumventing the cultural and religious bias. It is also interesting to recall that the French and English equivalent in translation would not be “porc/ cochon” and “pig/ swine”, but “renard” and “fox”, respectively. Notice how, here again, cultural bias holds sway, in spite of the relatedness of the languages. “Pigginess” remains loaded! The translation of such animal metaphors thus emerges as both reflection and departure, selection and discrimination; the equivalence is judgemental, adjudicative. Baby animal names, such as the Tunisian Arabic “hliliif” (“piglet”) has an affectionate quality.


Books and articles:

Aristotle (1996). Poetics. Tr. by Malcolm Heath. New York: Penguin Books.

---. (1946). Rhetoric. Tr. by R. Roberts. Oxford: OUP.

Black, M. (1962). Models and Metaphors. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press.

---. (1979). “More About Metaphor”. In A. Ortony (Ed.), Metaphor and Thought (pp.

19-43). Cambridge: CUP.

Brown, R. (1958b). Words and Things. New York: Free Press.

Catford, J. C. (1965). A Linguistic Theory of Translation. London: Oxford University


Gaddis Rose, Marilyn. Ed. (1981). Translation Spectrum. Albany: State University

of  New York.

Glucksberg, S. (2001). Understanding Figurative Language: From Metaphors to

Idioms. Oxford: OUP.

Hawkes, Terence (1972). Metaphor. London: Methuen.

Johnson, M. (1981). Philosophical Perspectives on Metaphor. Minneapolis:

University of Minnesota Press.

Kittay, E. V. (1987). Metaphor: Its Cognitive Force and Linguistic Structure.

Oxford: Clarendon Press.

Lakoff, G., and M. Johnson (1980). Metaphors We Live by. Chicago: University of

Chicago Press.

Leary, David E. Ed. Metaphors in the History of Psychology. Cambridge: CUP,


Mourad, Julie (1998). Dictionary of Comparative Proverbs. Beirut: al-Mourad


Partridge, A. C. (1971). The Language of Renaissance Poetry. London: Andre

Deutsch Ltd.

Searle, J. (1979). “Metaphor”. In A. Ortony (Ed.), Metaphor and Thought (pp. 92-

123). Cambridge: CUP.

Soskice, J. (1990). Metaphor and Religious Thought. Oxford: Clarendon.

Steen, G. (1994). Understanding Metaphor in Literature. London: Longman Group.

Electronic sources:

Sabina Halupka-Resetar and Biljana Radié, “Animal Names Used in Addressing People in Serbian,” (Journal of Pragmatics 35 (2003): 1891-1902;

Tim Rumbell, John Barnden, Mark Lee and Alan Wallington, “Affect in Metaphor: Developments with WordNet”



About Mohamed Mansouri


Pr. Mohamed Mansouri obtained a PhD in English Poetry from the Faculty of Letters and Humanities (Tunis – Tunisia) in 1985. Back in 1981, he was recipient of the Ecole Normale Supérieure research grant awarded to top-ranking graduate of English. He currently teaches English Literature and Arabic-English Translation (bi-directional) at the Faculty of Letters, Arts and Humanities Manouba, University of Manouba (Tunis, Tunisia). He has published three books and several articles on Translation, and three books and several articles on Poetry. He served as a member of the Editorial Board of Bulletin of Francophone Africa (University of Westminster – UK), and is a founding member of the Association of Professors of English and Translation in Arab Universities – APETAU (Amman, Jordan) and a member of the Tunisian Writers’ Union. He is also a free-lance translator and interpreter.

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