Volume 10, No. 4 
October 2006

  Salah Salim Ali

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Index 1997-2006
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  Translator Profiles
A Career in European Translation
by Emma Wagner
Interview with Gabe Bokor
by Verónica Albin

  The Profession
The Bottom Line
by Fire Ant & Worker Bee
The Power of Saying "No"
by Danilo and Vera Nogueira
Educating the Customer
by Brett Jocelyn Epstein

  Translators Around the World
Translating Freud: A Historical Experience
by Leandro Wolfson
Certification Programs in China
by Jianjun Zhang

  TJ Cartoon
Great Moments in Languages—Voice of Translator
by Ted Crump

  Translation Nuts & Bolts
Translation of Vietnamese Terms of Address and Reference
by Thanh Ngo
Dealing with Abbreviations In Translation
by Adetola Bankole

  Language & Communication
"Heads I win, Tails You Lose": Logical Fallacies and Ethics in Everyday Language
by Elena Sgarbossa, M.D.

  Book Review
Dictionary Review: Hungarian Practical Dictionary
by Catherine Bokor, Ph.D.
Book Review: Corinne McKay’s How to Succeed as a Freelance Translator
by Eve Lindemuth Bodeux

  Cultural Aspects of Translation
Connotation and Cross-cultural Semantics
by Salah Salim Ali

  Legal Translation
Incongruity of Company Law Terms: Categorization of Polish Business Entities and their English Equivalents
by Łucja Biel, Ph.D.

  The Related Arts
Adding Value to Translation with DTP Partnership
by José Henrique Lamensdorf

Spanglish: To Ser or Not to Be? That is la cuestión!
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  Translation Journal

Cultural Aspects of Translation  

Connotation and Cross-cultural Semantics

by Salah Salim Ali

Poetry is what is lost in Translation.

Robert Frost


Connotation is one of the most pervasive categories of literary and non-literary discourse, and is, therefore, strongly enmeshed with culture. In this paper, connotation will be tackled from as board a perspective as possible so as to include literature, art and linguistics—in other words, culture at large.

After expounding on the nature of pervasiveness of connotation and its relevance to translation, a distinction will be drawn between various linguistic and literary categories that are either ostensibly intertwining or conceptually overlapping with connotation such as polysemy, homonymy, pun, symbol, allusion, etc.

Then, a section will be set apart for the elucidation of the place of connotation in linguistics and how it figures out in several linguistic relations and dimensions such as paradigmatic/syntagmatic relations and synchronic/diachronic dimensions.

In a third and rather lengthy section, I shall navigate through figurative language so as to probe into areas where connotation and metaphor diverge and converge in the meeting-ground of the hidden meaning. Here, the color 'black' will be the pivotal point of demonstration and discussion.

Finally, the paper tackles the relevance of connotation to style. Some comparisons with Arabic are provided besides numerous examples drawn from various literary genres as well as from non-literary discourse.

Definition & Scope of Application:

onnotation involves the semantic structure of both individual words and texts. It, therefore, deals with complex semantic relations working at the level of microsemantics, and it is for this reason, strongly related to literature and the language of poetry in particular. Connotation in words, expressions and texts expounds both the expressive and the emotive aspects of language and as such it seems that all connotative words and expressions verge on the vague and stand midway between symbolism and ambiguity. In other words, it belongs to poetics and aesthetics more than it does to any single member in the triune family of semiotics.[1] Connotation thus constitutes one of the main components of poetry, and by virtue of its suggestive power as an emotive and expressive vehicle, it offers one of the most effective parameters according to which both the literary competence of the writer and the cultural awareness of the reader are revealed and gauged.

But since every word is either slightly or significantly connotative, connotation must, by necessity, be both text-bound and culture-bound. So the cultural and contextual relevance combined single out connotation from figurative devices such as metaphor, metonymy and allusion, as well as from certain lexical microsemantic categories such as polysemy and homonymy.

Although connotation can be easily defined through connotation itself—that is by providing several examples where it occurs in texts, its distinctive features gain more salience by setting it off against its correlates represented by polysemy, homonymy and allusion leaving out metaphor which is reserved for another realm of interest.

As a concept, connotation is both ubiquitous and pervasive. It exists across all cultures and ages and dwells in almost all artistic and literary genres, styles and cultural products such as architecture, sculpture, music and painting besides most fine and plastic arts from Michelangelo through Vivaldi to Rodin.[2] Architecture, sculpture, and music have something else to tell us beneath the stones and rhythms. Connotation thus relates to ambiguity in its being capable of harboring double meaning and euphemism in its hiding something that can be more interesting or repulsive beneath the verbal and figural fig leaves it parades.

Connotation in language involves the semantic or deep-structure of words, expressions and texts and is, therefore, strongly related to literature and culture.
Being staggeringly submerged and entangled in the rather reticulate web of culture, connotation encompasses a manifold process of analysis. On the single-word level, we can trace all the possible meanings a word may harbour or its intension.[3] On this level a distinction may be drawn out between a word connotation and a word homonym or polyseme, [4] for polysemy also means the several meanings a given word may have. In this respect, we discern that the polysemes are more context-bound than culture-bound, and the two or several meanings a polysemic word may enwrap a sort of twin closeness of the relevant meanings of the word concerned, while the connotation of a given word does, in many cases, stand further apart from the literal meaning of this word; rather, there are instances where the connotation of a given word stands in opposition to its denotation.

Homonymy, on the other hand, is self-explanatory since a homonym of a given word is more akin to its denotation than to its connotation or implicit meaning; so homonymy is easy to tackle and less onerous to discern than connotation.

Connotation and Allusion

On the textual level, a distinction may be made between a word allusion and its connotation. An allusion is a brief reference to a person, a phrase, a place or an event drawn out from actual history or fiction; as such, all allusions involve connotation, whereas not all connotations involve allusions. Allusion shares with connotation its power of thematic condensation, conciseness and suggestiveness; however, it differs from connotation in its definite reference or pertinence, for while connotation leaves the interpretation somewhat open-ended, allusion resolves on a definite meaning. And while both writer and reader agree on a given point of reference in the determination of meaning of a given allusion, it necessitates the co-operation between the writer's intention and the reader's awareness to stabilize the connotation of a given word, text, or expression. Unlike allusion, connotation rarely has a definite point of reference in history, geography, or literature. Thus it appears that while allusion is mainly intensional in its determinacy, connotation is mostly intentional and it, therefore, harbours a certain degree of indeterminacy.

Connotation and some Linguistic Categories:

Connotation also embraces both paradigmatic and syntagmatic relations between words: the connotation of the color black calls to mind its paradigmatic system of shared associations such as Negroes, Africa and blackberry as well as its syntagmatic counterparts in the opposite system of shared associations in white, daytime and sun, introducing such rhetorical devices and figures of speech as pun, symbol, oxymoron and mixed metaphor.[5]

Moreover, connotation holds both diachronic and synchronic lexical relationships: synchronically, a word's connotation can be compared to the living bark of a tree, whereas the rings that accumulate beneath it stand for the diachronic record of its history. The synchronic meaning thus presents us with the living sense with all its current associations and counter-associations, while the diachronic meanings register the word's past growth with all the transformations and ramifications it has undergone. However, while the bark is visible, the rings are only revealed in a cross-sectional view, which is by no means an easily accessible.

The Color Black and its Connotations:

The word black in the context of the following quotations changes its meaning a great deal opening up its innermost layers:

  1. The Red & the Black.
  2. The Green & the Black. [6]
  3. The future is black.[7]

Black in the context of these quotations has nothing to do with the color black per se. The French original of Stendhal's famous novel Le Rouge et le noir is allegorically used to connote so many things such as Napoleon, love, energy, happiness, vitality, the peasants, blood, and red wine le rouge as contrasted to the Old Regime, hatred, inertia, misery, lethargy, the aristocracy, the clergy and dark death le noir.8 Likewise, the black in The Green & the Black refers to Africa as contrasted to the Green which in this context connotes the Libyan president who painted his flag, pamphlets and ideology green. Green has the further connotation of stupid. In the third connotation, Baldwin refers to the possible supremacy of black power in the future while, in the same time, hinting at the destiny waiting those who may choose to counteract this power and foil the black drive to survive. Black contextualized, loses its blackness; for more than any other color it is archetypal, deeply-rooted in man's consciousness and it has, all the way through history, been strongly associated with darkness, evil and tragedy.[9] This explains Macbeth's inquiry: What's the night? And his wife's reply: Almost at odds with morning which is which. To the Elizabethan mentality black is a synonym to cruelty, infidelity, piracy and lust. Shakespeare makes Iago express the Elizabethan disgust of the black moor in racial terms:

...an old black ram
Is tupping your white ewe. Arise, arise;
Awake the snorting citizens with the bell,
Or else the devil will make a grandsire of you.
Arise I say...

Othello, I, i, p. 1092.

This animal metaphor used in connection with Othello points out the historically established association of the color black with evil in the Western mind. Thus in the binary system of opposites which does, more or less, reflect the archetypal dualism in nature and in man's consciousness, black occupies a central place on the passive side alongside with female, darkness, crooked, left-handed, and evil; while on the positive side white stands alongside male, light, straight, right-handed, and good.[10] Evidently, the color black continued to connote or symbolize evil implicitly or by way of analogical transfer across all ages and in almost all cultures except perhaps the Indian, Bantu and other non-white cultures. The word negroes in Melville's epigraph to The Bell Tower is unconsciously made to imply the inherent repulsiveness of the Western man from the perils black things entail:

Like negroes, these powers own man sullenly, mindful of their
Higher master; while serving plot revenge. [11]

The reference here to black is being indirectly emphasized by a clandestine lower implicitly hidden in the word higher. White & black thus become the model or source of most metaphorical transformations involving a binary system of negative-positive dyads such as higher vs. lower, clean vs. dirty and good vs. evil, etc.[12] When the binary system index is hypothetically omitted, however, a complex situation surfaces and the connotation of a single word, concurs with oxymoron, so the slave-king, the black sun, the bitter-sweet and terrible beauty[13] strike us as strange connotational combinations simply because they involve a transvestism—a compromise between opposites. Nevertheless, white becomes black in Frost's poem Design. In this poem, the spider, the flower, and the moth are white. This color has in the modern Western world two contradictory sets of connotations: negative and positive. The flower, diseased, stands for female beauty contaminated and plagued whereas the moth connotes the male which the flower attracts to its destruction. The spider preying on the moth symbolizes evil. The whole picture is a metaphorical representation of the cosmic conflict between good and evil. If the spider however was black, the contrast would seem self-defeating, the image diluted and the association weakened. It follows that Frost is preparing a sort of witches' froth[14] that puts the reader on the spot and motivates in him a sense of horror and disgust. And like the witches, who are an instrument of the power of darkness, the fat spider, the froth-like flower, and the ghastly moth constitute the filth and evil—the black darkness that appals.

Contextualization of the color white in this poem marks a departure from the norm and impinges on the expectations of the reader as an abnormal contrast and it is from this contrast that aesthetic pleasure is derived.

The eagle as height symbol receives similar metamorphosis when contextualized. The eagle attacking a snake has the connotation of good in conflict with evil. Mythologically, it indicates the triumph of celestial and solar deities over terrestrial and chthonic totemism. In contrast, depicting an eagle attacking a dove brings in the Genesis benign connotation of the latter and takes the eagle down in the hierarchy of beings for the dove represents innocence, peace, and angelic beauty, Thus, black becomes white and white turns to black.

Black is a synonym of dark, opaque, murky, sable, dusky which have their semantic coefficients in dingy, dirty, soiled, stained, swarthy; and powerfully, in atrocious, mournful, villainous wicked, depressing, dismal, distressing, doleful, foreboding, funeral, gloomy, horrible, infamous, infernal, lugubrious, ominous; and ethically, in ignorant, dishonest, vague, good and white. Thus connotation does limitlessly expand the semantic field of words, drive them beyond the borders of the ordinary and force them into the realm of poetics and cultural semantics.

Literal rendering in most cases obliterates the sense and aesthetics of the original. To saddle our black horse once again for an example, we notice that the literal translation of the words black and white as they occur in the following quotation to describe coffee and cream respectively does conspicuously hit wide of the mark. What is meant by black coffee is the black power and by cream the white denizens who shared the black their cause in South Africa. The text runs as follows:

it's just like when you've got some coffee that's too black, which means it's too strong. what do you do? you integrate it with cream, you make it weak...it used to wake you up, now it puts you to sleep.[15]

Of course wake you up and put you to sleep in the context of this

quotation need to be rendered as trouble and kill respectively for the new amalgam in South Africa did not weaken the black power but, on the contrary, strengthened it. And while the black, before getting mixed with the white, were used to a sort of small-scale sabotage that only woke you up, the white seem to have injected a new force into them, so what we had then was a large-scale subversion that kills—puts you to sleep.

Thus literal equivalence is, by no means, acceptable and we seem to have been left with the functional equivalence which will turn coffee into the black and cream into the white; wake you up into trouble you and puts you to sleep into kills you. This obviously, serves providing Arab readers with an adequate semantic counterpart, but soon we come to realize that the problem is more complex than it first seemed to be. The functional equivalence simply and unfortunately, obliterates the representational colors. It blocks, while admitting meaning, the allegory and the aesthetics of the original text altogether. Still, it seems that the only possible fire-exit from this Hobson's choice is to provide both literal and functional equivalence of the English original at the same time either by providing typographical embedding or two translations: one literal, the other connotational.

Of no less relevance is the fact that connotational words and texts also involve ambiguity. Black in the quotation C. Above may either refer to the supposed supremacy of the black race or a catastrophic future; yet, the resolution of ambiguity soon surfaces once we come to realize the identity of the speaker, the contextual reference or the cultural setting—in other words, the pragmatics of the text. It goes without saying that an American anti-Ku Klux Klan black or black sympathizer would rather like to see a world in which the black have the upper hand; rather a black world! For black is beautiful to the black.

However, there are cases where resolution of ambiguity gives place to indeterminacy. In Blake's London the phrase Black'ning church appalls provides an example:

How the Chimney-sweeper's cry
Every black'ning Church appalls;
And the hapless soldier's sigh
Runs in blood down Palace walls

Daiches comments on this phrase. He says:

The black'ning Church either becomes black with the guilt as well as
Soot, or makes things black by its indifference and hypocrisy; and the
Cry of the sweeper changes its color either by making it pale or by
Casting a pall of metaphorical soot over it...The point, however, is that
The lines do not carry an obvious meaning; they cannot be naturalized
As an intimation of oppression without the help of a considerable
Amount of condensation and displacement. [16]

It is my impression that Blake had in mind more than such intimation. As a visionary Romantic driving at transforming the world by imagination, he attacks the triple monster represented by Industry, Religion and Government. They implicitly constitute the moral soot that stains the faces of the child, the soldier and the poet respectively.

Similar indeterminacy hovers in Pink Floyd lyrics Us and Them. Black here once again connotes all the possible war and melancholy aspects:

Black and blue
And who knows which is which and who is who
Up and down
And in the end it's only round and round and round [17]

Some texts occasionally say more than they state, which would lead either to redundancy or pertinence and make the field of interpretation grow proportionally to the degree of indeterminacy. In other words, the more pertinent the text, the less are the demands for interpretation.

Connotation and the Cultural Context:

In an ordinary discourse, the sentence: This man is kind or I like this man because he is kind is pertinent and as such it does not need interpretation while The Eagle and the Lion in the context of a fable, political discourse or a book title is vague and needs to be interpreted by recourse to a certain register or an ideological or cultural framework which both the author and the reader share. The animal metaphor thus leaves its fabulous ground and becomes a national symbol; and the reader soon comes to realize that the USA's relations with Iran are being targeted by this title.

The pertinence of a given text then does largely depend on the cultural and ideological framework which both the author and the reader partake. From the first glance, the quotation: The Channel really is not much wider than the Rhine [18] sounds illogical if not altogether bizarre. We all know that the Channel is actually much wider than the Rhine. But knowledge of geography, politics and the events which occasioned the statement imposes the necessity of a paraphrase that digs down to the roots and unearth the hidden connotation which makes what looks on the surface impertinent effectively pertinent. The Rhine forms a borderline between South East France and Germany while the Channel lies between England and France. Politically, the reference is to Anglo-French relations. If, however, we drop out the occasion for this saying, it will still remain ambiguous whether Pierre Pflimlin means that rapprochement is no less commendable with England than it is with Germany or that the English are as near to France as the Germans, and hence, a European common market incorporating England will give the latter what General De Gaulle declined, namely: A European Function. If the speaker, however, expresses a French point-of-view, then, Franco-German in comparison with Anglo-French relations are targeted, for England, regardless of bitter war memories, would still like to see prosperous if not imperial Germany. Reading the following passage from Fisher's A History of Europe will shed some light on this side of the prism:

While England agreed with France in thinking that German militarism was the danger, and was willing that Germany and Austria should be stripped of non-German territory, in two vital particulars she parted company with France. Her trade interests demanded a convalescent, a prosperous Germany. Her political interests required that Germany should be peaceful and content. [19]

In connotation several figurative categories come into play in sequence . When they particularize the USA and Iran, the Eagle and the Lion stand for symbols, but they also serve as metonymies when they refer to sky might and land power respectively. Connotationally, they both imply power, speed and supremacy. Other categories besides symbol and metaphor that overlap with connotation include: allegory, pun, and allusion. But out of all these symbol and metaphor are the most important. However, a distinction, at this point, need to be expounded between symbol and metaphor. First, while metaphors are pervasive, symbols are particularized, for instance, the key in Dǘrer's Melancholia No. 1 symbolizes power while the bag stands for wealth in Dǘrer's words himself. Similar fixed associations are attached to the cross, the lamb and the eye of providence. The same entities are pervasively used in various metaphors to describe several other things. However, while symbols rarely figure out without signs and images, metaphors can go all the way through without envisaging an image. This, of course, brings us to the serious problem of interpretation, for while cultural and ideological reference works actively in the interpretation of connotation, symbols and allusions, mostly aesthetic and psychological factors work in the interpretation of metaphors. Let's take for an example Pascal's famous aphorism:

If the nose of Cleopatra had been shorter, the whole face of the earth would have been changed.[20]

The first anomaly that encounters us here is the use of a logical word if to introduce a proposition. If, when, not, unless, since, etc. are logical words with which language performs logical inferences or syllogisms. They help communicate ideas. If, grammatically, is a subordinator; here, it is used as a conditional that refers to past time. It mentions something that is not true while the main clause expresses a consequence that is not true because the condition was not fulfilled. But logically it implicitly presupposes and proposes the possibility that that condition could have been true and its consequence would have accordingly been fulfilled. What has Cleopatra's nose to do with the face of the earth? Historical, political and cultural awareness of the connotative meaning will reveal the beauty of Pascal's aphorism and its depth: The achievements of the Romans and their swift conquest tactics where thought by Pascal to have been hindered by Caesar's and later, Mark Anthony's love of the Egyptian queen. Also, the Romans' love of exotic and oriental beauty is another key to the implication that Cleopatra was charming. However, a short nose on a beautiful face is a horrible distortion. It follows that if Cleopatra was snub-nosed, she would not have been so attractive as to enmesh the two imperial leaders into her web. The consuls themselves, would not have fallen in love with her and could have instead, resolved to pursue their conquests to the effect that the whole face of the earth would have been changed. Indeed, Pascal's formula is both logical and poetic.

Roses and Lilies

Colors, animals and plants can, among other things, evoke connotation of dynamic growth that sends its roots deep into biological, historical, religious and cultural domains. Lilies and roses viewed from a pre-Raphaelite stand-point acquire ethnomorphic associations in poetry and art. Titan in his Sacred and Profane love [23] sets a comparison between lust and chastity—roses and lilies. In the following poem by B. Jonson the lily is contrasted to the oak, youth to old age:

It is not growing like a tree
In bulk, doth make man better be;
Or standing long an oak, three hundred years
To fall a log at last, dry, bald, and sere,
A lily of a day
Is fairer far in May
Although it fall and die that night,
It was the plant and flower of light
In small proportions we just beauties see;
And in short measure life may perfect be.[24]

Lilies in Keats' La Belle Dame sans Merci has a different connotation:

I see a lily on thy brow
With anguish moist and fever dew
And on thy cheeks a fading rose
Fast withereth too.[25]

Clearly, lilies in Western traditions are strongly related to innocence, tenderness and transient beauty. A lily also has the implicit connotation of death. The Victorian poetess Christian Rossetti stresses this association:

Young love lies sleeping
In May time of the year,
Among the lilies,
Lapped in the tender light
White lambs come grazing,
White doves come building there
And round about him
The May bushes are white.[26]

However, May lilies gain in salience when contrasted with June roses. Platonic yearning is set off against carnal lust:

My love is like a red red rose
That's newly sprung in June
My love is like the melodie
That's sweetly played in tune.[27]

A generation later D.H. Lawrence presents us with the modern sense of lilies and roses. The connotation here is of two types of ideology, two trends of social and personal values:

But if it is a question of the sound love lyric, My love
is like a red red rose - ! then we are on other ground.
My love is like a red, red rose only when she's not like
a pure, pure lily. And nowadays the pure, pure lilies
are mostly festering, anyhow. Away with them and
their lyrics. Away with the pure, pure lily lyrics, along
with the smoking-room story. They are counterparts,
and the one is as pornographic as the other.[28]

Indeed, it seems that associating red color with blood, rituals, sacrifices and virginity deflowering has given roses their sexual and profane connotations and made painters employ all the possible shades of red in their representation of Hell and massacre, war, and sexual scenery on canvas.

There are instances where connotation is used as verbal fig-leaves to make what may otherwise look a flagrant obscenity an aesthetically or culturally acceptable expression, for example:

  • Love is not the dying moan of a distant violin. It is the triumphant twang of a bedspring.[29]
  • An old man marrying a young girl is like buying a book for someone else to read.[30]

These, as is the case with numerous other connotational texts show that most connotations are literary creations and what applies to literary works equally applies to them too. However, it is in cross-cultural communication that connotation gives rise to several translation problems:

A Four-leaf Clover

Certain phenomena do not have or evoke the same associations in Arabic as they have or do in say, English, Indian, Chinese, or Bantu cultures. Animals such as owls, asses, mice, crows; or plants such as tulips, thyme and clover mean different things to different people. Rather, every signified and signifier, in Saussurian terminology, mean different things across time and cultures. It might be that, with the shimmering exception of certain vicious and/or filthy animals such as pigs, all other animals possess contradictory associations across cultures. A raven is a bird of good-omen in Libya and an owl is a benign bird in Greece and England but never so in Arabia, where it shares with the crow a highly negative symbolism, so much that they—the crow and the owl—are thought of to be interchangeable; an owl is called a night crow

"Ghurabu 'l-layl", which is also a term of insult. A cow in India is as sacred as a pipe to a red Indian. The Indian Panacea is a mixture of cow's dung, blood and milk with some water of the Ganges.

A typical example is the inclusion of certain culture-bound items in a serious and purpose-built scale designed to measure personality variables in psychology. One such scale is Nowicki-Strickland's Locus of Control Scale in which item 21 runs as follows:

  • If you find a four-leaf clover, do you believe that it might bring you good luck? [31]

The various metamorphoses this item has undergone have only distorted the original one. Translations brought in several false friends such as the holy shrine of Zaynab in Cairo as an equivalence for the four-leaf clover. Other versions rendered it as a dove, a pretty face and an amulet. All these approximations mar the cultural and functional associations entailed by the English four-leaf clover and inject into it new associations which Arabic alternatives harbor. In an experiment, one thousand respondents ticked the Arabic equivalence to item 21 yes . This is because the religious associations of the first rendering , i.e. Zaynab Holy Shrine provided for four-leaf clover excludes any negative response which all tip the balance of accurate correlation and undermine the reliability of the whole scale in its Arabic version.

Such distortion induced by social desirability can be effectively reduced when four-leaf clovers as harbingers of good-luck remain within the borderlines of literature and folklore where they do not entail any empirical results as is the case in psychology. And, also because occurrence of any sign be it a four-leaf clover, a nightingale or a whale in literature usually strips this sign from its real-world identity and makes it, if not ideologically ambivalent, indeterminately polyvalent and unreal.

Both Keats' Nightingale and Mellville's Moby Dick have their own textual or fictional reality. They both occupy a significant region in the world of literary aesthetics. As animals, they belong to animal biology. The word nightingale signifies a nightingale as an old world thrush (genus: Luscinia) noted for the sweet nocturnal song of the male.[32] In poetry, the nightingale undergoes certain metamorphoses. The most spectacular of them are that of Ovid's Metamorphoses 6, Chaucer's The Legend of Good women, Keats' Nightingale, Arnold's Philomela and Swinburne's Itylus. The nightingale here belongs to a rather mytho-poetic or hypothetical world whose model depends on subjectivity and subjective vision rather than on objectivity and objective reality. The nightingale is a symbol of virtue, innocence, injured beauty and when viewed as Procne, it connotes severity and revenge. In Keats' Ode To a Nightingale , it stands for a Dryad of the trees, a deceiving elf and an immortal bird. So both the nightingale and the whale enter into two diametrically opposing systems of world organization or models: One is objective, tangible and palpable, the other is subjective, metaphorical and imaginary. One is denotative, precise and reasonable; the other is connotative, vague and emotive.[33] Hence it becomes obvious that when color, plants, and animals leave nature and enter into the cultural grid of literature, they become humanized and lose their biological and zoological features and characteristics. In other words, they come into the possession of polyvalence and connotation. Thus one of the functions of connotative meaning rests on diversification and ramification of the cultural grid for culture and connotation are companions and without culture no connotations seem to mushroom.

Moreover, it is well-worth bearing in mind at this juncture, that connotation, being inherently associated with culture, is largely relative and temporally subject to change. For instance, in pre-Islamic poetry, dogs always come and are represented in packs and benches while a wolf stands alone. A poet always likens himself to a wolf but only very rarely and only miserably to a dog. Dogs in pre-Islamic poetry generally stand for despicable gangs, greed, misery and malignancy while a wolf stands for perseverance, courage and extreme individuality. The symbolism and, hence, the connotation of dogs and a wolf, however, changed in the Abbasid poetry with the exception of Al-Mutanabbi's and Al-Buhturi's) : a wolf stands for malice and perfidy while dog stands for fidelity and loyalty.* Of course, there are some few exceptions to both periods. In Modern Arabic poetry a dog is a friend while a wolf is an enemy. It follows that connotations change both synchronically across cultures and diachronically within each and every culture across time.

Connotation, Genre and Translation

Another and very exciting characteristic of connotation is the condition-ability to generic domains. The same word in poetry shifts its connotation as it moves to narrative and from narrative to drama or plastic art. Tenderly in the context of the following stanza has the connotation of black :

To fling my arms wide
In the face of the sun,
Dance! Whirl! Whirl!
Till the quick day is done.
Rest at the pale evening
A tall, slim tree
Night coming tenderly
Black like me.[34]

Whereas tender in the following text from Henry IV is only a softer alternative of regard:

King. Stay, and breathe awhile.
Then hast redeem'd thy lost opinion;
And show'd thou mak'st some tender of my life,
In this fair rescue thou hast brought to me.[35]

Again Keats' by shifting the word-order in his Ode to a Nightingale gives the word tender the resonance of a golden bell that rang twice in the Ode.[36]

Though the dull brain perplexes and retards
Already with thee! Tender is the night.[37]

Unlike other genres, poetry always harbors the most condensed and serendipitous connotations. Leda and the Swan for instance, is another, but very condensed version of Homer's Iliad. The critical lines are:

A shudder in the loin engendered there
The broken wall, the burning roof and tower
And Agamemnon dead................[38]

Leaving out war imagery, the phrase shudder in the loin stands out as the most enigmatic expression in the poem. It links war to sex, death to desire and mythology to history. The connotation of shudder in the context of The Fall of the House of Usher is that of fear and terror:

His eyes were bent fixedly before him, and throughout
His whole countenance there reigned a strong rigidity.
But as I placed my hand upon his shoulder, there came
A strong shudder over his whole person, a sickly smile
Quivered about his lips.[39]

Fortunately, Arabic has two words for shudder i.e. racshatun and rajfatun and whereas the shudder of Zeus has its equivalence in the former, Usher's has its counterpart in the latter. But this is an exceptional case. For how it could simply be possible to account for all the variations in the connotational shifts in the red and the black in Stendhal's Le Rouge et le noir in an Arabic counterpart? This brings in the conclusion that multiconnotationality of a given word or expression is both bound and free. In other words again, the connotation can be culture-bound such as in the case of four-leaf clover example, or free such as in the case of certain animal and color connotations. Given all that, it should be born in mind that the same word can be both culture-bound and free depending on the context in which it occurs which conduces us to project a sort of distinction between a stereotype and unrestricted connotation: Black, stereotyped, connotes melancholy, bad luck and tragedy; red, anger, danger and sex; while white connotes peace, cleanliness and innocence. On the other hand, the same colors can be used non-restrictively as in Stendhal's Le Rouge et le noir, the communists' flag and slogans, and Frost's Design that acquire novel connotations which drastically depart from the normal, the expected and the stereotyped and commence on seeking interpretation before they are regenerated into another cultural grid.

Evidently, stereotyped connotations rarely occur in literary texts and are mostly reserved for fossilized idioms and are therefore, definitive and marked such as under the black dog, red-light district and white elephant which brings the locus of the problems in translating connotational expressions between Arabic and English to independent or nonrestrictive connotations that are largely reserved for literary and poetic texts[40], although connotations in non-literary discourse abound as well.

Anyway, the fact must be stressed that Arabic poetry, be it old or modern, differs widely from English poetry in several significant aspects. Contrasted with English poetry, Arabic poetry is generally mostly rule-bound and allusional; and while it shares with English poetry its lyricism and metaphoric richness, it enjoys, with the exception of some modern poems, structural continuity, aesthetic incongruity and atomism all the way through. However, in sharp contrast to English poetry, old and modern Arabic poetry —with the exception of few poems—drastically lacks organic unity and thematic depth. The quality connotational words and expressions in English poetry is expected to double-fold its counterpart in Arabic poetry, rather connotation here has given its place to allegory and metaphor. Nevertheless,, while connotation in Arabic poetry is largely reserved for single words and some idiomatic expressions, it covers in English poetry the whole expanse of a poem providing a deep-structure reading.

It is noticeable that numerous Arabic words have their poetic alter ego.

This alter ego is not merely a synonym for almost every Arabic neutral word in ordinary discourse has its counterpart in poetry. For instance, the words marad = sickness, harb = war, karam = generosity, sahar = sleeplessness, nisyan = oblivion, khati'a = sin and famm = mouth invariably have their poetic alternative in suqm, wagha, jawd, suhad, salawan, raziya, thaghr respectively. Clearly, providing the ordinary equivalence for the poetic one diminished the quality of the translated version. In the following passage from Salome the word famm for mouth is not poetic. Thaghr is more correct:

It is thy mouth that I desire Jokanaan. Thy mouth is like
A band of scarlet on a tower of ivory. There is nothing in
The world so red as thy mouth. Suffer me to kiss thy mouth.[41]

Sure lips is an alternative more suitable, if not sensational, than mouth. Paradoxically, the English mouth for the Arabic thaghr only dilutes the effect and renders the translation tasteless. Famm, then is more of a false friend that replaces a faithful one in thaghr, mabssam and muqabbal. Moreover, Arabic thaghr specifies female's open lips while mouth in English can be applied to both male and female and can be either open or closed at the same time. This shows Arabic poetic richness at the level of words in contrast with English which presents us with a web of connotative relations which re-echo the organic unity, thematic depth and aesthetic dimension characteristic of English poetry, a typical example is Lawrence's Fig:

The proper way to eat a fig, in society,
Is to split it in four, holding it by the stump,
And open it, so that it is a glittering, rosy, moist,
honied, heavy-petalled, four-petalled flower,
Then you throw away the skin
Which is just like a four-sepalled calyx
After you have taken off the blossom with your lips.

But the vulgar way
Is just to put your mouth to the crack, and take out
the flesh in one bite

Every fruit has its secret
The fig is a very secretive fruit
As you see it standing growing, you feel at once it is symbolic;

And it seems male
But when you come to know it better, you agree
with the Romans, it is female.[42]

Reading the poem twice will certainly reveal the intrusiveness of the phrase in society. Evidently, the fig has its secret, and to strip it out of its skin in society is to let on its secret. The connotation is clearly sexual from beginning to end but since these lines are too revolutionary in a relatively conservative period in the English society; let alone, the ordeals the poet personally underwent expounding his new way of thinking, it seems to be there was no other way but to mask what would otherwise betray the poet's flagrant sexual portraiture.[43] However,, this phrase, while synchronically served the purpose the poet wanted it to serve, it turns now to be more telling about the poet's techniques, attitudes and his relation to his social environment. In other words, about the norms and values held correct during the first half of the twentieth century England. A point in case that gives connotation a pragmatic dimension as an indicator of the value system in a given culture and age.

These lines have more than nature embedded in their clamminess.[44] They have also something to tell us about culture: They illustrate two types of conduct towards women. In fact, two kinds of family relations, one civil, decorous and delicate, the other brute, savage and uncouth. Europe vs. Asia. And it is rather this verbal aesthetics that makes connotation one of the most interesting phenomena in literary texts.


It emerges from the discussion I have detailed so far that connotation is one of the most general and pervasive categories of literary discourse. Considered from a broad perspective, connotation is not reserved for literary and other types of verbal discourse. It exists in several forms of arts such as architecture, sculpture and painting.

Connotation in language involves the semantic or deep-structure of words, expressions and texts and is, therefore, strongly related to literature and culture. However, a distinction is being briefly made between the various literary and linguistic categories that are either ostensibly intertwining or conceptually overlapping with connotation such as polysemy, homonymy, allusion, ambiguity, intension, extension, metaphor and symbolism.

Also, connotation figures out in several linguistic dimensions and relations such as paradigmatic vs. syntagmatic relations and synchronic vs. diachronic dimensions.

Figuratively, connotation, like metaphor, in that it deals with indirect or hidden meanings and like metaphor in being capable of motivating analogical transfer. It parallels allusion, ambiguity, symbol and pun.

Structurally, connotation has some relevance to rhetorical devices such as ellipsis, hysteron-proteron and repetition, but this aspect has not been discussed here for technical and methodological reasons and because such topics are being dealt with in other chapters.

There are instances where certain natural phenomena like colors, plants and animals come to acquire constant associations or connotations, thus pushing these connotations into the field of cultural universals. In such a case, the connotation becomes stereotyped. Yet, even in this case, cultural relativity persists and differences in the connotations of natural phenomena exist. It is no less significant to point out that connotation harbors a pragmatic dimension too because it reveals something about the mentality, value-system and taste of a given culture.

In translating English connotational words, expressions and texts into Arabic, it is commendable to bear in mind that the requirements for translating single words differ from those needed for the translating of an idiomatic expression or a whole text i.e. a poem. The Arabic reservoir of words is exceedingly rich where almost every common word has its poetic counterpart. But when it comes to texts and poems e.g. Fig, and/or culture-bound expressions e.g. four-leaf clover, English manifests a thematic depth which Arabic, especially modern standard Arabic (MSA), drastically lacks. Arabic culture exhibits a great disparity when compared with several aspects of English culture: Semitic vs. Indo-European, Muslim vs. Christian and closed perspective vs. open perspective. Many things English that are both meaningful and lively sound meaningless and trite in their Arabic literal and occasionally functional translations.

This obviously stresses the significance of cross-cultural semantics in tackling translatological problems and, at the same time, shows that cultural barriers cannot simply be abridged by functional equivalence alone.


*A possible explanation of this change is the shift effected by Islam to the nomadic ways of life of the Bedouin Arabs. The Abbasids left the desert and moved to dwell in urban centers. Of course, a dog is much more benign and useful in the cities that it is in a desert


Notes and References:

  1. Crystal, David. A First Dictionary of Linguistics & Phonetics. Andre Deutsch, 1980, p. 317.
  2. Eve in the Creation of Man by Michelangelo in the Sistine Chapel, Vivaldi's Four Seasons and Rodin's Gate of Hell are examples of connotation in Art.
  3. Beaugrande, De Robert. Factors in a Theory of Poetic Translating. Van Gorcum, The Netherlands, 1978, pp. 19, 38-39, 97-99.
  4. Ullmann, Stephen. "Stylistics and semantics". In: Literary style - A Symposium. Ed. Seymour Chatman, Oxford University Press, 1971, pp. 142-148.
  5. Ibid., pp. 147-149.
  6. a book title on the Libyan relations with Africa.
  7. Baldwin, James, quoted in the observer: Sayings of the Week, 25, Aug. 1963.
  8. Turnell, Martin. "Le rouge et le noir". In: Stendhal: Twentieth Century Views. ed. Brombert, Victor, Prentice-Hall, inc., Englewood Cliffs, N.J. 1962, pp. 15-33.
  9. Pickering, James H. & Jeffrey D. Hoeper. Literature. Macmillan Pub. Co., Inc., 1982, p. 1092.
  10. MacLean, Ian. The Renaissance Notion of Woman. Cambridge: CUP, 1980, pp. 2-3.
  11. Melville, Herman. Selected tales and Poems. Ed. Richard Chase. New York. Rinehart, 1955, p. 203.
    Even to a liberal mentality as Lawrence's, the color black is associated with dismalness, negation and misery; e.g.
    " The car ploughed uphill through the long squalid
    straggle of Tevershall. The blackened brick dwellings,
    the black slate roofs glistening their sharp edges, the
    mud black with coal-dust, the pavement wet and black.
    It was as if dismalness had soaked through and through
    Everything. The utter negation of the gladness of life".
    This attitude holds powerfully in the Arab-Muslim as well as in the Christian worlds where whiteness is a synonym of cleanliness and blackness is a synonym of dirt, guilt and unholy things. In the Qur'an a black face (verse 28, Surah 32; Verse 39, Surah 60) is the description given to a bad and sinful deed. Also, we read in the Revelation (19) that the saints dress in white where whiteness is a synonym of cleanliness. Other examples abound.
  12. Scholes, Robert. Textual Power. Yale University Press, 1985, pp. 32-34, 53-54, 112-113.
  13. The reference here is to Yeats' Poem Easter 1916.
  14. An allusion to the witches' froth in Macbeth.
  15. Malcolm, X. On the Black power and the Civil rights Movement.
    Quoted in the Penguin Dictionary of Modern Quotations. J, M. &
    M. J. Cohen, 1983, p. 367. For an ideological manipulation of the
    Colors black & white, see Jean Genet's Les negres. 1959, where
    Colors are used to represent different conflicting powers in both Society and man's psychology.
  16. Daiches, David. Critical Approaches to Literature. 2nd ed. Longman, 1981, pp. 380-381.
  17. Beaugrande, Robert de. "Native Respondent and Creative Response". In: Speil, 8, (1989), H.2, pp. 233-254.
  18. Cohen, M.J. & Cohen, J. M. The Penguin Dictionary of Modern Quotations. Penguin Books, 1983, p. 263.
  19. Fisher, H.A.L. A History of Europe. Edward Arnold Pubs. LTD. 1957, p. 1164.
  20. Quoted in The Word and Fable Dictionary.
  21. See for instance: Durer's Adoration of the Magi, Yeats' The Magi, and T.S. Elliot's The Journey of the Magi.
  22. In the Bible the following text describes the Magi: "When they had heard the King, they departed and Lo, the star, which they saw in the East, went before them, till it came and stood over where the young child was". Matthew 2. 1-16.
  23. Clark, Kenneth. Civilization. BBC Pubs. 1980, p. 118.
  24. Palgrave, F. T. The Golden Treasury. Collins, 1963, p. 90.
  25. Ibid., p. 218.
  26. Ibid., p. 425.
  27. Pickering, J. H. & Hoeper, J. D. Ibid., p. 736.
  28. From "Pornography and Obscenity" In: The Oxford Anthology of English Literature. Frank Kermode et al, Vol. II, OUP, 1973, p. 1965.
  29. Cohen, M. J. Ibid., p. 202.
  30. Ibid., p. 329.
  31. "Nowicki & Strickland Locus of Control Scale". In: Journal of Consulting and Clinical Psychology. 1973, Vol. 40, No. 1, pp. 148-154.
  32. Webster's Ninth New Collegiate Dictionary. 1987, p. 798.
  33. Adams, Hazard. The Interests of Criticism. Harcourt-Brace and World, Inc. 1969, p. 87.
  34. Pickering, J.H. and Hoeper, J.D. Ibid., p. 882.
  35. Shakespeare, W. Histories. Ed. Peter Alexander, Collins, London,1969, p. 201.
  36. The second one occurs at the beginning of the last stanza which awakes the poet from a waking dream;
    Forlorn ! the very word is like a bell
    To toll me back from thee to my sole self !
  37. Pickering, J.H. and Hoeper, J.D. Ibid., pp. 763-74 ; Chapman, Raymond. Linguistics and Literature. Edward Arnold, 1974, p. 48.
  38. Pickering, J.H. and Hoeper, J.D. Ibid., p. 829.
  39. Ibid., p. 93.
  40. Qur'an is an exception since denotative meaning entails legislative
    and ritualistic applications. So connotation, in this case, would only
    distort these applications. However, there exists a connotational
    interpretation of the Qur'an which provides a completely bizarre
    representation of numerous verses of the Holy Book, see Goldizeher,
    I. "Shicit Interpretation of the Qur'an". In: Arabica, 91965), Nos. 16.
  41. Wilde, Oscar. Salome: portable Oscar Wilde. ed. Richard Arlington, New York, Viking Press, 1969, p. 404.
  42. Kermode, Frank et al eds. The Oxford Anthology of English Literature. Vol. II, OUP, 1973, p. 1965.
  43. Lawrence had first-hand experience with the red-tape regulations.
    His novels had been prosecuted and withdrawn from circulation:
    The Rainbow in 1915, Lady Chatterley's was censored and was not
    published for open circulation until 1959. His paintings were seized
    by the police the moment they were shown in London. So that some
    little compromise Lawrence might have felt necessary for the
    publication and circulation of this poem.
  44. A reference to Keats' Ode to Autumn.