African Cultural and Literary Specificity in the Broad Translation Quality Debate | July 2015 | Translation Journal

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African Cultural and Literary Specificity in the Broad Translation Quality Debate

African literary cultural specificity in the translation quality


Beyond revisiting the byzantine and seemingly inconclusive debate on translation quality assurance and assessment, this article qualitatively investigates the extent of an across-the-board applicability of existing quality assessment frameworks against a strong backdrop of culture-specificity to the broad translation quality debate. It, first and foremost, exemplifies cultural and literary specificity through linguistically open-ended African creative writing, examines the variegated concept of translation, the volatile concept of translation quality assurance and assessment, outlines constraints to the assurance and assessment of this translation quality, and importantly portrays the preponderant place of metrics, rubrics and models in quality assurance and assessment. Secondly and finally, it then qualitatively demonstrates from existing evidence that quality assurance with its acquiesced formulae will continue to be at the mercy of incontestable contextualised cultural specificity – quality assessment is of necessity a ‘provincialised’ and ‘balkanised’ activity.


Key concepts:

Cultural specificity; translation as variegated concept; translation quality; quality assurance and assessment; metrics, rubrics and models; creative writing; translation quality provincialisation/balkanisation.

1. African literary and cultural specificity

In Translation Studies, it is also an inviolate fact that cultural specificity influences how translation quality is constructed. The issue of African cultural and literary specificity has been stated and discussed by scholars both from within and out of African. This is exemplified in African literary works, for instance, in the few outstanding traits bolow:

  • First and foremost, there is specificity on account of its orality: Okara (1973:137-138) posits that  African ideas, philosophy, folklore and imagery  help to keep as close as possible to vernacular expressions, and thus adequately express African ideas and thoughts (and not those of the other – European).  Kourouma (in Koné, 1992:83) declares while  thinking first in his native Malinke before writing in French, he exercises boundless liberty, “cassant le français pour trouver et restituer le rythme africain”, [breaking up the French language in order to recreate an African rhythm]. Okpewho (1992: 70-104) outlines the unique stylistic qualities of African literary works to include repetition, parallelism, piling and association, tonality, ideophones, digression, imagery, allusions, and symbolisms which are all akin to oral tradition. With specific reference to Cameroon, Ndzana (1988:147-151), (just like Ndzié (1985:344, in Fofié (2007:54) adds that «la culture camerounaise semble privilégier la langue parlée, vivante, orale au détriment de la langue écrite, classique, normativement bonne » [Cameroonian culture seems to prefer spoken, living, oral language to the detriment of written, classical and normatively good language], (my translation). Finally, Bandia 1993:55) avers that

It is generally agreed that African creative writing in European languages has been greatly influenced by African oral tradition (Obiechina, 1975; Chinweizu et al, 1980; Gérard, 1986; Bandia, 1993).  

  • Secondly, peculiarity of spontaneity: Spontaneity refers to behaviour that is natural and unconstrained and is the result of impulse and not planning (Microsoft Encarta 2009). In Africa, spontaneity is a common literary hallmark. With respect to popular performances, Okpewho (1992:33) opines thatsometimes, composition and performance happen simultaneously” and the artist has the outstanding job of

bestowing, totally unrehearsed, a traditional pattern of imagery and diction on a brand-new subject, showing rather impressively how in African … the acts of composition and performance can take place simultaneously (Okpewho1992:34).

  • Thirdly, peculiarity of creativity: Creativity refers to the“use of skill and the imagination to produce something new or a work of art” (Oxford Advanced Learner’s Compass) (Microsoft Encarta 2009). Despite the fact that African art in general is a communal activity, creative ‘idiosyncratism’ is still very present. Darah (1982:91, in Okpewho 1992:32) asserts that

A gifted Ororile creates by deft of allusions and analogy. As the song progresses, metaphors are introduced. Once a metaphorical remark or proverbial allusion is made and explained logically later in the song, then that piece is acclaimed a successful one.

Okpewho buttresses Dara’s idea by stating that:

The principal stylistic tools of this job are metaphor, allusion, analogy, and other kinds of oblique imagery designed to make it reasonably clear who the subjects are even when fake names are used (Okpewho 1992:32).

  • Fourthly, peculiarity of paralinguisticartistry:Paralinguistic artistry refers to theaccompanying resources variously described as

nonverbal, extraverbal, paraverbal, paratextual, or paralinguistic, in the sense that they occur side by side with the text or the words of the literature…..One of these resources is the histrionics of the performance, that is, movements made with the face, hands, or any other part of the body as a way of dramatically demonstrating an action contained in the text (Okpewho1992:46).

  • Fifthly, peculiarity of punning/wordplay (and tongue-twisters):Delabastita posits that:

Wordplay is the general name for the various textual phenomena in which structural features of the language(s) used are exploited in order to bring about a communicatively significant confrontation of two (or more) linguistic structures with more or less similar forms and more or less different meanings (Delabastita 1996:128).

Though considered a global phenomenon, unique puns and wordplay abound in African literary art. In Cameroon, for instance, Bjornson (in Newell, 2002:74) and Fofié (2007) point to the abundant use of this creative literary trait.

  • In sixth position, there is peculiarity of linguistic hybridisation/assortment: Vakunta (2008:942) posits that African creative art consists of “texts couched in indigenized and hybridized linguistic forms, namely creoles, pidgins, camfranglais, and other forms of hybrid languages”. For him, it is an all-African phenomenon in that

Africans of all backgrounds use blended languages such as Camfranglais, Pidgin, Moussa and Nouchis as a means of ensuring group solidarity within a community of practice. Creative writers use these mixed varieties to translate the socio-cultural contexts that inform and structure their narratives (Vaktuna (2008: 946).

Gyasi (1999, in Vakunta, 2008: 946), describes them as “a creative translation process that leads to the production …. of an authentic African discourse” (a third hybrid code) that requires non-speakers to refer to the writer’s native language and culture for signification.  Evembe (1988) as well as Ndzana (1988:153) further signal an even more complex phenomenon of language assortment/medleying on the continent, which Suh (2005) qualifies as an ambivalent situation of the use of “double language”.

  • Finally, peculiarity of humour: Humour, as a meaning effect with incontestable exteriorised manifestation like laughter or smiling, is one of Africa’s major literary aesthetic tenets. Humour abounds in the works of Afana, Kouokam  (Fofié 2007) and a host of other African and Cameroonian artists (Bjornson, in Newell, 2002).

    Vandaele (2002:150) particularly opines that from a practice perspective the appreciation of humour varies with  individuals – what is humorous for  one person, for instance, may just be a comic/‘bad joke’ and therefore not really funny enough for another. This is extrapolatable to the broader cultural group, for after all culture is both individual and societal. This is particularly problematic to translation (Attardo 1994:173-193, Antonopoulou 2002:195-220 and Vandaele 2002).

The translation of these traits calls for special attention at a time when the concept of translation itself remains very brain-bugging.

2. Translation: variegated difficult-to-define concept

Conceptualizing translation has been long, ink-spilling, and ostensibly inconclusive. But far beyond the platitude of reciting the entire gamut of scholarly definitions of translation responsible for the difficulty of having a common definition, this article rather attempts to appraise how far varied perspectives contribute to the translation quality assessment debate.

Vinay & Darbelnet (1959:20),  Catford (1965:4), Tweney & Hoeman (1976:138),  Brislin (1976),  Ladmiral (1979:I), Crystal (1987:344), Newmark (1981:7),  Hewson & Martin (1991), Steiner (1992:253), and Snell-Hornby (1994:4-5)reveal that the different perceptions about what translation really is have largely been a function of whether scholars perceive it  as an art, discipline, process, product or profession. Translation’s complexity is better expressed thus:

  • the purposes of translation are so diverse and the texts so different and the receptors are so varied that one can readily understand how and why many distinct formulations of principles of translation have been proposed (Nida, 1977:67);
  • despite the numerous works on the subject, translation remains a complete obfuscation, something that requires the empirical rigour of the linguist, the perspicacity of the literary critic and voraciousness of  the philosopher all in combination in a single proposed solution to the problem of  translation  (Frawley, 1984:11); or again
  • translation is a widely diverging and frustratingly empirical issue, given that “theoretical reflection…appears plethoric, repetitive, and generally unproductive”. (Hewson & Martin 1991:2).  These scholars further question if there are “any specific reasons for this confusion and for the breach between theory and practice?”

Beyond and above all controversies,Ali Darwish (1999/2001:13) thinks the fundamental issue in conceptualising translation remains the quest for quality and the desire to “preserve original meaning” when it is conveyed or converted into the target language’s verbal expression”. Yet, it is still common knowledge that preserving and keeping control of original meaning that ensures the integrity of information is intrinsically difficult given that in the transformations of the translation process, there is inherent loss of information.  How then can quality be preserved when the tendency to lose control of original meaning is so real?

3. The issue of translation quality

The immense difficulty in defining translation undoubtedly directly impinges on the task of assuring and assessing quality.ISO 8402 (1994 3.1), amongst many stakeholders, avers that quality is “the totality of features and characteristics of a product or service that bear on its ability to satisfy stated or implied needs”. Muzii (2006) also sees quality as “an integration of the features and characteristics that determine the extent to which output satisfies the customer’s needs”. Quality therefore implies the existence of “defects”, defined by  ISO (1994, 3.1) as the “non-fulfilment of intended usage requirements”. Defects can be minimised if little attention is paid to the translation process itself.

4. The translation process and  translation quality

Whereas Bell (1987) deplores the tendency to ignore the process involved in the act of translating, most translation scholars still erroneously treat the translator’s competence, the translation process and the resultant quality, as disconnected entities. In the same light, Ali Darwish (1999) laments that no study so far has really tackled the issue of process in a more pragmatic fashion. Reason why despite the perplexity and intertwining between aspects of the translation process, Bell again concedes that

If we treat texts merely as a self-contained and self-generating entity, instead of as a decision-making procedure, and an instance of communication between language users, our understanding of the nature of translating will be impaired…(Bell 1987:403-415).

Notwithstanding the important work done on the translation process - which constitutes i) evidence of a transaction,  ii) a means of retracing the pathways of the translator’s decision-making, and iii) an instance of communication between language users, the process has unfortunately remained in dire want of delineation (Ali Darwish 2001:8). This, undoubtedly, affects discussions on what quality assurance and assessment ought to be.

5. Translation quality assurance and assessment


After perceiving quality assurance (QA) as “the act of maintaining translation services to ensure conformance to customer requirements or other specifications”, Gerasimov (2005:1) posits thatit is implemented by the translation service provider. He continues that “QC (quality control) is implemented by your customer after the translation is completed and delivered”. According to Muzii (2006), quality control (QC) is “an integration of the features and characteristics that determine the extent to which output satisfies the customer’s needs”. 

Because  translation quality today remains “marred by impressionistic and often paradoxical judgments based on elusive aesthetics” (Al-Qinai 2000:497), Ali Darwish (2001:2) then clearly cautions that without well-defined assessment and evaluation standards and processes, qualityassessment and assurance “will always be haphazard and subject to the personal preferences and whims of the individual assessor or the interpretive frameworks, bureaucratic perspectives and draconian measures of educators and evaluators alike”. This is true, because translation is a highly constraint-ridden hermeneutic exercise!

6. Constraints to translation quality assurance and assessment

Ali Darwish (1999) asserts that the ultimate goal of any translation strategy is to manage to remove possible general and specific constraints to translatability, and that appreciating not only how these constraints function but equally how they can be managed and ideally removed within a model or framework of constraint management is of benefit to translation quality stakeholders.

  • General theoretical translatability constraints: Bassnett opines that translation is very obstacle-ridden, irrespective of whether it is the professional or amateur translator concerned. She  further avers that

all kinds of different criteria come into play during the  translation  process  and all necessarily involve shifts of expression as the translator struggles to combine his  own pragmatic  reading with the dictates of  the  TL cultural system (Bassnett 1991:104).

From the perspective of pre-translation quality quest, Hatim & Mason (1994:3-20) outline general theoretical constraints reflected by the following inexhaustive categories that must be seriously metered by the translator (the vital communicative “problem-solver”), if s/he intends to attain acceptable quality. They include the process vs. product (Bell 1987, Hatim & Mason 1994:4); objectivity vs. subjectivity (Reiss 1971/77, House 1976, Wilss 1982); ‘literal’ vs. ‘free’ translation (Hatim & Mason 1994:5, Newmark 1988:68-69); formal vs. dynamic equivalence (Nida 1964:160);  form and style vs. content (Meschonnic 1973:349, Hatim & Mason 1994:8,  Nida 1964:169); redefining ‘style (Hatim & Mason 1994:9); meaning potential (Halliday 1978:109, Beaugrande 1978); ‘empathy’ and intent; translator’s motivation; translating ‘centre’; and conditions of production ( all in Hatim & Mason 1994).

  • Specific translatability constraintsIn addition to the above general theoretical considerations against which the translator’s purpose, priorities, and output are judged, other specific constraints have also been identified. According to Boase-Beier & Holman (1988) they include conceptual (1988:2); external (1988:10 & 72); phonological (1988:5-6);literary (1988:5);  political and ideological (1988:5),  as well as  syntactic and stylistic (1988:6) and personal:

Upbringing, education, knowledge, sensibilities, predilections and beliefs also contribute to the formation of the individual personality of the translator, limiting, defining, and also facilitating the translation process, from the initial selection of the  SL text  right the way through to the final release  into the world of  its  TL progeny” [1988:8-9]);

Other scholars add the contextual and socio-cultural (Hatim & Mason 1990:37); textual (Kress 1985:12), Hatim & Mason 1998); linguistic and formal (Hatim & Mason 1990:192, Saussure 1916); and conventional (Bassnett 1991:104).

In the face of all these constraints, metrics, rubrics and models have been fashioned in guise of frameworks to enhance quality attainment.

7. Translation quality assurance frameworks

For Muzii (2006), the best way to assess quality is to measure the number and magnitude of defects whose features and scope must be specified by metrics, rubrics and models.

When you can measure what you are speaking about,  and express  it in  numbers, you  know something about it; but  when you cannot  express it in numbers, your knowledge is of a meagre and unsatisfactory kind; it  may be the  beginning of  knowledge, but you have  scarcely in your thoughts advanced  to  the state of science.

In this same vein, and with respect to translation, Muzii (2006:22) opines that 

The best way to assess quality remains that of measuring the number and magnitude of defects; and when defects cannot be physically removed, their features and scope must be specified.[... ] The first step, then, is to establish a model of definition of quality, and translate it into a set of metrics that measure each of the elements of quality in it.

Despite the above viewpoints, there has been lack of any serious definition of quality or provision of any real metrics. However, from the early 90s Baker (1992), Zlateva (1993), House (1997) and Schäffner (1998) veritably started talking invariably of components, aspects and factors of quality such as accuracy, precision, correctness, faithfulness, etc. But metrics were certainly judged inadequate, so came the turn of rubrics!

  • Translation quality rubrics: Another attempt at resolving the problem of translation quality assurance and assessment has been from the perspective of rubrics which Riazi (2003, in Khanmohammad & Osanloo 2009:131-153) describes as an attempt to delineate consistent assessment criteria. He emphasizes that it allows teachers and students alike to assess criteria which are complex and subjective and also provide grounds for self-evaluation, reflection, and peer review. Today, four existing rubrics include those by Farahzad (1992), Waddington (2001), Sainz (1992), Beeby (2000), and Goff-kfouri (2005). From these, a detailed component-centred rubric that takes into account different aspects of translation (comprehension, conveyance of sense and style, inter alia) has seen the light of day,  highlighting  accuracy (30%); suitable word equivalencein target text (25%); target text’s genre, target language culture (20%); grammar and style (15%); shifts (8%); and addition, omission and inventing equivalents (7%). For Khanmohammad & Osanloo (2009:149) this is

an empirical rubric for translation quality assessment based on objective parameters of textual typology, formal correspondence, thematic coherence, reference cohesion, pragmatic equivalence, and lexico-syntactic properties […and] can serve translation instructors in order to come up with a more objective assessment of students’ translation works. Students majoring in translation can also benefit from the findings of this study too since they would certainly be able to improve their translations if they were aware of the comprehensive criteria used to evaluate their translations.

  • Translation quality models: Only those of House (1976-2001), Al-Qinai (2000), and Ali Darwish (2001) - amongst many are visited.

- House, 1976 - 2001: House is credited with the first effort to examine translation quality in depth through a model, inspired by Nida (1964), Toury (1995), Venuti (1995), Catford (1965), Reiss (1971), Wills (1974), Baker (1992), Hatim & Mason (1997), and Hickey (1998). House’s model (1997) is, properly speaking, Hallidayan systemic-functional theory-based, drawing much from the Praque School, speech act theory, pragmatics, discourse analysis and corpus-based distinction between spoken and written language. House (1997:251) posits that

Translation criticism therefore “has two basic functions, an ideational function and an interpersonal function. These two functions have their counterpart in two different methodological steps. The first and in my estimation, the primary one, refers to linguistic-textual analysis, description explanation, and comparison, and it is based on empirical research and professional knowledge of linguistic structures and norms of language use. The second step refers to value judgements, social, interpersonal and ethical questions of socio-political and socio-psychological relevance, ideological stance or individual persuasion. Without the  first, the second is useless… we have to make explicit the grounds for our judgement basing it on a theoretically sound and  argued  set of  intersubjectively verifiable set of procedures.

However, despite the above intense intellectual exercise, House fails to pointedly name the “verifiable sets of procedures”. And she is aware of this when she avers that “it seems unlikely that translation quality assessment can ever be objectified in the manner of natural science”. This is why other models are necessary!

- Ali Darwish, 1999-2001:  Ali Darwish considers translation and translation quality as a

rational objective-driven, result-focused process that yields a product meeting a set of specifications, implicit or explicit. If translation is a haphazard activity, it falls outside the scope of quality assurance principles that are based on rationality of process and consciousness of decision-making (Ali Darwish 2001:5).

- Al-Qinai 2000: For his part,Al-Qinai (2000:499) embarked on the search for a model of quality assurance and assessment based on objective parameters of textual typology, formal correspondence, thematic coherence, reference cohesion, pragmatic equivalence and lexico-syntactic properties. This eclectic practical model targets

textual/functional or pragmatic compatibility” (i.e. quality of linguistic conversion) rather than the logistics of management and presentation (i.e. quality of service). After all, the ultimate end-users are interested in the quality of the product and not the means sought to serve its creation (Al-Qinai 2000:499).

If one agrees with Muzii (2006)that “a comprehensive set of metrics must measure quality from several points during the production process regardless of the model”, then the standpoints of House, Ali Darwish and Al-Qinai should be considered as being more complementary than antagonistic. But with all said and done, the applicability of these metrics, rubrics and models to translation quality assessment, especially against the backdrop of culture specificity, remains a matter of immense import to this article.

8. Translation quality and African cultural and literary specificity

A major problem faced by translators is how to deal with cultural specificity, given that translation is generally viewed both as an act of interlingual communication and as a process of cultural transfer (Dayan Liu, 2012:39).The cultural and literary peculiarity of African expression has been investigated and confirmed. Okpewho (1992:367) for instance states that “on the basis of fieldwork done in Liberia…literacy has made no appreciable difference in the modes of oral thinking in a traditional [African] society”.

Mindful of cultural and literary specificity, scholarship has proposed two major approaches to translating them, namely foreignisation and domestication. Whereas, it is known that the West employs both the domestication (target text-oriented) and foreignisation (source text-oriented) macro-strategies (Morávková 1993; Ladouceur 1995; Merino 2000; Aaltonen 1993 & 2000:4; Upton 2000; Kruger 2000; Espasa 2000), justifying what Snell-Hornby (1988:112/1995) for instance calls situation of source text and function of the translation, the African translation ‘province’ has tenaciously opted for a clearly foreignisingmacro-strategy.

African creative writing, characterised by linguistic open-endedness (see Wanchia, 2013) calls for a specific African translation perspective that defeats a blind and generalised application of acquiesced frameworks as testified below:

  • Okpewho (1992:182-294) transcription of African creative writing that strives “to reproduce with a degree of faithfulness….the peculiar circumstances…”, and wisely retain “the narrator’s exploitation of the geographical setting of the place” as well as the “idiom of the time”, for “the narrative text is the product of the genius of the artist or artists working within a particular context” (Okpewho 1992:300), else it will become typically  un-African and engender the questioning of “the authenticity of the translation”.
  • For Bandia (1993:57), the translator of African works, ought to "preserve the original function of the source text in its culture”, as “the translator of African works is mainly concerned with preserving the "situation of the source text". He (1993:57)terms  this “a carry-over of African sociolinguistic and sociocultural values into the European Language”, and further insistently states that

Translating African creative works is a source-text oriented translation process in which the target language, the European language, is modified to accommodate the African world-view. This process goes far beyond merely substituting linguistic and cultural equivalents. It is a negotiating process in the sense that two divergent sociocultural systems that are in contact attempt to arrive at a happy solution in expressing the African world-view in the European language. This negotiating process is made possible through translation techniques such as calques, semantic and collocational shifts (Bandia 1993:74).

  • Still from the African ‘province’, Suh (2005:201) posits that African post-colonial writers make a conscious attempt to sustain an authentic African discourse, albeit in a foreign language. It emanates from their own cultural and intellectual background, passed through the matrix of their own cultural background. Suh (2008:116-117) then concludes that foreignisation is more suitable for the translation of African creative writing.
  • Summer-Paulin (1995:519-719) joins African scholars like Ade Ojo (1986), and Kourouma  (in Koné 1992)  to posit that translators working with languages of remote cultures such as African traditions should preferably be source-text oriented (literal translation) since that constitutes a reflection of both a cultural system and social organization of a specific community that recreates a particular atmosphere and way of thinking.
  • Finally, Berman (1985:59, in Bandia 1993:57).)  proposes "l'adhérence obstinée du sens à sa lettre [obstinate adherence of meaning to the letter] " which allows translators of African literature, for the most part, to

translate African thought literally into European languages, since they understand the significance of the rapport between "sens" and "forme." As noted by Berman (1985, p. 36), "littéralité" is not necessarily "mot à mot," neither is it "calque." Literal translation, as practised by translators of African creative writing, is an example of what Berman means when he asserts that meaning and form are inseparable.

From the above, it is clear that African creative writing has a clear preference for semantic, overt and "literal" translation (foreignisation) in which formal equivalence takes priority over dynamic equivalence (domestication). That is the reason why this article concludes with the pertinent question that follows.


From the above discussion, one is wont to ask the question “whose translation quality then?This is appropriate because both translation and translation quality are first and foremost very volatile concepts. A few scholars can be summoned to back this opinion. House (1976:64), for instance, opines that translation “quality assessment can never be completely objectified in the manner of the results of natural science subjects”. In like manner, Pym (1998) asserts that the scenario will continue to be intriguing given that there is no “perfect” translation or intended purpose (skopos).  Finally, Muzii (2006) states that even if “features and scope must be specified”, the attempt to strive for a single “all-encompassing metric is not only troublesome”,  but can “also be useless as a simple metric would not reveal all problems”. Hence, the widespread concept of quality assessment will continue to be a relative one (due to cultural specificity) despite the laborious enterprise of having crafted and used metrics, rubrics and models. In other words, there is, and shall continue to be incontestable translation quality assessment provincialisation/balkanisation, mindful of the strong concept of culture-specificity. That makes it germane to make an apologia for a cautious and contextualised application of metrics, rubrics and models to translation quality assessment.



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