Volume 12, No. 2 
April 2008


Salawu Adewuni


Front Page

Select one of the previous 42 issues.


Index 1997-2008

TJ Interactive: Translation Journal Blog

  Translator Profiles
Doing a Hard Job Right
by Kirk Anderson

  The Profession
The Bottom Line
by Fire Ant & Worker Bee
Do We Really Need Translation Standards After All? A Comparison of US and European Standards for Translation Services
by Gérard de Angéli
Ethical Implications of Translation Technologies
by Érika Nogueira de Andrade Stupiello

  Translators Around the World
American Translators Association Surpasses 10,000 Members
by Joshua Rosenblum

  In Memoriam
In Memoriam: Rosa Codina
by Verónica Albin
In Memoriam: Dr. William Macfarlane Park
by Andrew Park and Ann Sherwin
In Memoriam: William J. Grimes
by Isabel Leonard
In Memoriam: Leslie Willson

  TJ Cartoon
Great Moments in Languages — The Punctuation War
by Ted Crump

  Translation Theory
Good Translation: Art, Craft, or Science?
by Mahmoud Ordudary
¿Es la traducción una ciencia o una tecnología?
Macarena Molina Gutiérrez

  Translation Nuts and Bolts
Übersetzung elliptischer Strukturen aus dem Französischen und Portugiesischen
Katrin Herget, Holger Proschwitz

  Translation of Advertising
New Zealand in Translation: Presenting a Country's Image in a Government Website
by Zhao Ning

  Arts and Entertainment
The Contact Between Cultures and the Role of Translation and the Mass Media
by Juan José Martínez-Sierra, Ph.D.

  Book Review
Double the Pleasure: The Complete Fables of Jean de La Fontaine Translated by Norman Shapiro
by Robert Paquin, Ph.D.
Review of "The Book of Psalms: A Translation with Commentary" by Robert Alter
by Alexandra Glynn

An Integrated Approach to the Translation of Special Terms with Special Reference to Chinese term lüse shipin (green food)
by Zhu Yubin

  Cultural Aspects of Translation
Hindrances in Arabic-English Intercultural Translation
by Adel Salem Bahameed, Ph.D.
Unique Korean Cultural Concepts in Interpersonal Relations
by D. Bannon

  Literary Translation
Chinese Translation of Literary Black Dialect and Translation Strategy Reconsidered: The Case of Alice Walker's The Color Purple
by Yi-ping Wu and Yu-ching Chang
A Study of Persian Translations of Narrative Style: A case study of Virginia Woolf's The Waves
by Somaye Delzendehrooy

  Translators' Tools
Technology and the Fine Arts
by Jost Zetzsche
Generating a Corpus-Based Metalanguage: The Igbo Language Example
by Enoch Ajunwa
Translators’ Emporium

  Caught in the Web
Web Surfing for Fun and Profit
by Cathy Flick, Ph.D.
Translators’ On-Line Resources
by Gabe Bokor
Translators’ Best Websites
by Gabe Bokor

Translators' Events

Call for Papers and Editorial Policies
  Translation Journal

Translation Theory

Linguists and Culture Experts at a Crossroad:

Limitations in Formulating an Experimental Translation Theory

Salawu Adewuni, Ph.D.


Theories of translation linked to linguistics and cultures have been proposed to take care of an adequate mediation in translating. These theories attempt differently to remove cultural and linguistic barriers between languages and communicate appropriately the intended message of the source text. In view of the differences and similarities between the linguistically and culturally oriented approaches, we shall attempt to study the limitations of these theories to help translation and the emergence of alternative theories. This study employed archival materials for investigation. Works of linguists, translatologists, sociologists, translators, language experts, anthropologists and literary scholars served as reference documents. An analytical, deductive, and synthetic approach is used. It is discovered that the equivalence approach of linguists is not consistent and is problematic and controversial. The culturally linked theory of translation, which is not exhaustive, is an approach that evaluates a text in its cultural dimension. This study concludes that the shortcomings of the two models has encouraged translators to look for alternatives, which led them to the textual, situational, and relevance theories. The study suggests that theories of translation be called approaches or models of translation until an experimental or scientific approach is formulated. Also, the main task of translating should be entrusted to the professional translator who decides on the approach to be used. Encouraging intercultural and cross-cultural understanding will be a good tool for reducing distance among people and cultures.

Key words: Culture, linguistics, theory, translation, mediation, limitation, languages.



he studies of language and culture have led researchers to formulate useful theories; their application in the field of translation calls for more adjustments because of the variability of the elements involved. The popular theories of translation proposed so far are based on either linguistics or culture. The changing nature of the two most important factors in translation, language and culture, makes a theory of translation not always practicable. This change has not yet been calibrated. While culture is linked to people's behavior and perceptions of life, which is learned and transmitted from generation to generation, language embodies the related culture. Several factors have contributed to and influenced the changes in culture and language in the world. They may be distinguished as exogenous and endogenous. Louis Muñoz calls them heterogenetic and orthogenetic (Munoz, 2003). The distinction is based on whether changes are the logical evolution of a cultural trait or are affected by external influences. Both factors go often together (Shils, 1981). Both language and culture remain fundamental parameters for linguists, cultural experts, and translators. This study attempts to re-direct translators in the absence of an experimental theory linked to linguistics and culture and suitable for their function as mediators.

Limitation of linguists in helping translators

Linguistics is the scientific study of a language. It is a system divided into subsystems with narrowing scopes. From thought through speech to written words, including the meaning, scientists and linguists have been busy looking for a scientific explanation of the uses of language in its oral or written forms. While semantics is a part of linguistics that concentrates most on the study of the meaning of the language, pragmatics is rather centered on its uses. Neurolinguistics, lexicology, historical linguistics, etymology, linguistic geography, and computational linguistics are parts of linguistic fields that have recently shed light to the uses of language. Other subsystems are sociolinguistics, structural linguistics, descriptive linguistics, morphology, phonetics, syntax, stylistics, psycholinguistics, generative linguistics, derivative linguistics, and many others such as the systemic linguistics of M. A. Halliday (McElhanon, 2005), which is an approach that classifies language as a system. Ferdinand de Saussure has modernized linguistics since the publication of his Cours de linguistique générale (1916) with its element of speech circuit circuit de la parole which McElhanon (2005) calls 'a circulating, closed loop that transmits concepts-sound composites between a speaker and a hearer'. With Saussure, linguistics is the study of language (langue) as a system instead of speech (parole) (Poythress, 2004). But Avram Noam Chomsky was more revolutionary with his creation of a theory on generative grammar. Chomskyan linguistic theory spread widely and was accepted in the 1960s by most other linguists. It put aside the idea of linguistic relativity of Benjamin Lee Whorf known as the 'Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis' that is the 'Whorffian hypothesis,' but the school of thought of linguistic relativity, earlier suppressed by Chomskyans, resurfaced in the 1990s with John A. Lucy and Stephen C. Levinson (Marlowe, 2004). Chomsky strongly influenced a number of translators, such as Eugene Nida and Wolfram Wilss, who welcomed the syntactic study of the sentence, the deep structure augmented by transformations, and deep versus surface structure (McElhanon, 2005). Roger Bell and George Steiner also borrowed from Chomsky's discoveries in linguistics (Xianbin, 2003). Chomsky's theories led to the science of translating supported by the German School of Übersetzungswissenchaft, which adopted translation studies as a branch of applied linguistics, attempting to make translation a science (Aveling, 2004) a position opposed to Azizinezhad (2005)'s view. But he agrees that translation could use scientific data but it is not yet proven to be experimental; therefore it cannot be called a science. The explosion in linguistics in the 1980s was a welcome development that shed more light to the practice of translation. These discoveries reduced the influence of Chomsky's theory as commented on by Lavault-Olléon:

Les recherches en linguistique explosaient, la psycholinguistique, la sociolinguistique, les sciences cognitives, les theories de l'énonciation et la pragmatique bousculaient les approches chomskiennes et devenaient beaucoup plus intéressantes pour éclairer les traducteurs sur leur pratique (Lavault-Olléon, 2004).

Several theories were proposed, one after the other, and several are being formulated. Linguistic approaches to meaning are a vital field that has dominated the reactions of translators who in turn have derived theories useful and applicable in translation studies. The persistent search for an appropriate approach to translation is explained not by simple curiosity but by the need for easy handling of translation or a search for an experimental method. The most innovative among linguists that are also translators such as J. P. Vinay and J. Darbelnet, Roman Jakobson, Eugene A. Nida , C. R. Taber, John C. Catford, Juliane House, Mona Baker (Leonardi, 2000), Katharina Reiss, and many others. Paraphrasing Vanessa Leonardi, Nassima El Medjira wrote as follows:

Les adeptes de la théorie linguistique de la traduction (J. C. Catford) pensent que bien traduire c'est remplacer des unités lexicales d'une langue de depart par des unités lexicales d'une langue d'arrivée. J. C. Catford a écrit que la traduction est « The replacement of any textual material by equivalent textual material) (El Medjira, 2002) ».

In early translation, the linguistic-related theories of translation used a word (McElhanon, 2005), sentence or phrase (Lavault-Olleon, 2004) as the smallest unit of translation to evaluate two different linguistic systems. From equivalence in words to equivalence in sentences and then beyond sentences, the translatologist or translator was trying to search for a suitable approach to handle translation. McElhanon was of the same point of view when he wrote that:

From decompositional analyses of word-level semantics through sentential, discourse and textual semantics, translators have been drawing upon linguistic theories that emphasize discovering elemental cores of meaning which may be augmented with semantic features of one kind or another to achieve a TL (Target Language) message that is equivalence with the SL (Source Language) message (McElhanon, 2005:34-35).

But the definition of equivalence is not consistent in translation because its links to linguistic equivalence are known not to be exhaustive. Leonardi says the same thing in these words:

The notion of equivalence is undoubtedly one of the most problematic and controversial areas in the field of translation theory. The term has caused, and it seems quite probable that it will continue to cause heated debates within the field of translation studies. This term has been analyzed, evaluated and extensively discussed from different points of view and has been approached from many different perspectives. The first discussions of the notion of equivalence in translation initiated the further elaboration of the term by contemporary theorists. Even the brief outline of the issue given above indicates its importance within the framework of the theoretical reflection on translation. The difficulty in defining equivalence seems to result in the impossibility of having a universal approach to this notion (Leonardi, 2000).

Lotfollah Karimi in his article 'Equivalence in translation' admitted that finding equivalence in linguistics is the most problematic stage in translation (Karimi, 2006). Having been so influenced by linguistic theories, Nida and Taber suggested formal equivalence and dynamic equivalence in translating. While formal equivalence is more attached to the format of the original text, the choice of neglecting the form in dynamic equivalence makes the approach preferable to contemporary linguists who, on the contrary, might face the challenge of being precisely wrong, despite being natural (Gordon, 1985). Despite of the volume of researches undertaken by linguists and translators and the successes so far achieved, much more remains untouched because language is an uncompromisingly and exceedingly rich and complex gift to mankind. The unlimited richness of language makes translation a challenging operation, forcing the translator to put aside the naïve word-for-word approach and rather to opt for the theoretically-informed approach that uses a linguistic system (Poythress and Grudem, 2000). But whatever system we use, T. David Gordon in his Translation theory, reminds us of the fact that the fundamental communicative unit is the sentence, not the word (Gordon, 1985). But some translators are no longer comfortable with the linguistic-linked theories of translation and efforts are being made in some places to come up with some other theories which are text-linked or culturally oriented or situational. El Medjira (2001) has this to say:

Nous remarquons que les traducteurs s'attachent de moins en moins à l'aspect purement linguistique des texts à traduire.

The Paris School of translation comes here to support the remarks of El Medjira that confirms that translation is always possible with less focus on language and more on le sens non verbal or the abstract kernels and on the mental activity in translating. Danica Seleskovitch suggests for the Paris's School of translation, three steps to be taken in the information theory-based approach, that is, comprehension, de-verbalization, and reformation (Lavault-Olléon, 2004). This is how Lavault-Olléon presented the interpretative theory of the Paris School of translation:

On peut dire que la formation des traducteurs et interprètes en France a fait un gigantesque bond en avant grace à cette théorie qui s'inscrivait contre toutes les recherches linguistiques de l'époque, encore très tournées vers la linguistique chomskienne...(Lavault-Olléon, 2004).

The criticism of the linguistic theory of translation of Catford came from Snell-Hornby who thinks that the concept of equivalence is an illusion because, for her, reducing translation to a linguistic exercise is undermining the textual, cultural and situational factors (Leonardi, 2000). This is also the view of McElhanon, who defines translation in relation to culture rather than interaction between languages (McElhanon, 2005: 35). For Roman Jakobson, equivalence is a problem yet to be solved by linguists and it remains an unanswered question in the study of language. Eugen Nida, supporting Jakobson, spoke in terms of the grammatical and semantical incomparability of two languages. Mona Baker agrees that there is no equivalence. The terminology, said Baker, is used for the sake of convenience and it is relative (Banerjee, 2004:47). The conclusion of Vygotsky, the soviet psychologist on the continuous changing status of word, meaning, and thought and the way one influences the other, reduces the support for the linguistically associated approach in translating. Even in the era of Cicero, St. Jérôme, Léonardo Bruni, Etienne Dolet, Joachin du Bellay (El Medjira, 2001), Horace, Pliny, Quintilian, and the reformers and humanists of the 14th to 17th centuries (Aveling, 2004), translation was guided by theories which Harry Aveling called traditional translation theories. These theories encouraged authors to create dynamic and non-literal versions rather than a literal equivalence of the original work thus distancing them to the linguistically based theories of translation. To support his position of traditional translation theory as not being linguistically linked, Aveling cited Lefevere who commented on the social connection of the theory, stressing the pedagogical and cultural appropriation of the source text. In the 14th century, Léonardo Bruni, quoted by El Medjira, did not hide his feelings regarding linguistically based translation theories when he declared:

'...le respect de la grammaire et la linguistique n'aboutissaient pas toujours au sens' (El Medjira, 2001).

However, regardless of the shortcomings of the linguistics related theories of translation, the work of translating cannot be carried out successfully without reference to linguistics.

Limitation of cultural approaches in translation

Based on the assertion that language is scientifically studied, and is related to culture, can language's status as a science be transferred to culture? Whether or not culture is considered a science, theories on culture have been formulated; the only problem is their applicability as Herbert Landar conclusively put it:

The beating heart of a theory is in its application, its truthfulness to reality. In terms of such requirements, no theory comprehending all learned sign behavior, that is, all of culture, may at present be deemed to be scientific (Landar, 1966:34).

Language is a social institution that clothes the culture (Karamanain, 2002). Its importance cannot be overemphasized when Threveni (2002) disclosed that thinking in a different language influences the speaker. Michael Marlowe confirms this point and put it this way:

...and that most of the research which has been done in recent years suggests that language does influence thought in various ways. Judging by the treatment of the question in journals of the past 30 years it seems to me that linguists who have been opposed in principle to the idea that thought is shaped by language are on the defensive (Marlowe, 2004).

Marlowe was speaking in favor of the 'linguistic relativity' of Benjamin Lee Whorf and Edward Sapir, a theory credited later to the German Wilhelm von Humbold. This position was against the view of Carson and some other linguists that call 'linguistic relativity' a fallacy and advocate paraphrastic translations (Marlowe, 2004) which, of course, caused some objections to be raised such as that of Gerardo Vásquez Ayora who says that adaptation, commentary, and paraphrase are not translation (El Medjira, 2001).

It has been established that language influences our thinking, therefore, we think culturally. A text could be viewed from the cultural perspective. The coming on board of the cultural approach to translation is a result of the inadequacy of the linguistic theories to solve the equivalence question raised over the years. Cultures may look alike sometimes but often differ, thesee differences being transposable across cultural borders. Harry Aveling's opinion in his authoritative article A Short History of Western Translation Theory summarizes this view by saying that strictly linguistic theories have been superseded to give way to the cultural, historical, and sociological context of translation (Aveling, 2004). The soviet psychologist Lee Vygotsky, agrees when he writes about human activities being supported within a cultural context by language and symbol systems in their historical perspective (Vygotsky, 1962). Even-Zohar, the Israeli scholar on the one hand, with the Polysystem theory and on the other, Christiane Nord with the Skopos theory brought a change to the handling of translation, by emphasizing the role of the actors involved in translating than the texts. By so doing, they move away from the linguistic theories with high consideration to socio-economic and socio-cultural factors. The Polysystem involves the author as the creator of the text and the reading public as the consumer. The introduction of a third parameter, the initiator, gives the theory the name of Skopos. The translator here is the intercultural mediator that favors the exchanges (Lavault-Olléon, 2004; Aveling, 2004). This appears very clearly in the light of the quotation from Even-Zohar's Polysystem Studies, which Lavault-Olléon recalls:

Translation is no longer a phenomenon whose nature and borders are given once and for all, but an activity dependent on the relations within a certain cultural system (Even-Zohar, 1990:51).

Thriveni (2002) cautions on the complicated and vital task awaiting a translator who attempts to cross cultural barriers in translating. For her, culture is complex and comprises history, social structure, religion, traditional customs, and ways of thinking and perceiving life. She also adds that what you think is right in one culture may be wrong according to the systems of another culture, and colors have different connotation depending on the culture. People's beliefs, feelings, customs, traditions, myths, legends, habits, dress code, and ornaments look alike but are often different.

The challenge is left for the translator who is supposed to be well equipped academically to tackle the work of translating. As a matter of fact, Karamanian advises translators to be not only bilingual but also, and most importantly, bicultural or multicultural (Karamanian, 2002: 3). For example, in a cultural translation, the color white in culture A could be translated by black in culture B if black transmits the same message as in A to the reading public of culture B. This style of translation requires extra care if one does not intend to confuse the target public or not to have 'any readership at all, as the specific reality being portrayed is not quite familiar to the reader' (Thriveni, 2002: 2).

The cultural approach, however, did not solve the problem of translation as expected because the model is not experimental and is limited in scope. New models are being proposed to complement the shortcomings of the linguistic and cultural approaches with better attention to text or situation. For example, Suneetha Rani in translating Australian Aborginal women's writings remarked that the work is crucial and difficult because not just the text but also the situation is being translated (Rani, 2004: 163), a new parameter that constitutes the central point of Juliane House, that functional equivalence depends on the situational features of the source text and target text. In the words of Leonardi (2000:5):

House suggests that it is possible to characterize the function of a text by determining the situational dimensions of the ST (Soruce Text).....if the ST and the TT (Target Text) differ substantially in situational features, then they are not functionally equivalent, and the translation is not of a high quality.

Rani (2004:164) goes further and believes that the translator may need some historical facts to be able to tackle the text being translated if the text is a product of political, cultural, social and economic conditions.

The postcolonial and feminist approaches to translation are not to be underestimated for they are models, which have nothing to do with equality between the source text and the target text but are rather based on the power imbalance between different languages (Aveling, 2004). In Emst-August Gutt's relevance theory, there is a monumental shift from 'translational behavior,' competence, and descriptive-classificatory to the relevance theory of communication. The theory takes care of concepts of past theories and adds more (McElhanon, 2005:37-38). The theories of translation were also greatly influenced by the theory of communication with its three dimensions, that is, the speaker or author, the message, and the audience (Gordon, 1985). The only theory, which could put an end to the continuous search of translatologists and translators is the scientific or experimental theory of translation. This may not be possible now because of the parameters involved in translation, which are not innate. The only hope lies in the abilities, experience and expertise of the translator who is expected to use his know-how in languages and related cultures to solve the translation problems. The translator should also bear in mind the sociological, textual, situational, historical, postcolonial, and feminism aspect of the text in all translation transactions.


The theories related to linguistics or culture or to any other field of research stand to help the translator in his task as a mediator. In the absence of a theory, translators are still expected to do their job consciously. The theory appears only as a helping hand but not an automatic key to the answer. The experimental theory applicable to translation worldwide is yet to be formulated. Perhaps that is the reason why Giridhar thinks that laws or theories of translation are not available and we have, in general, 'explanation of translative acts that are language-specific and culture-bound' (Giridhar, 2004:172). Having consciously analyzed the available theories on translation, and knowing well that these theories have some advantages and some shortcomings, it is imperative to redefine some basic concepts, such as theory of translation and translator. Because of their failure to satisfy the rules of a theory because of the inconsistency of the parameters involved in translating, the proposed approaches of translation that look science-based are not experimental enough and cannot be called scientific. What is regarded as theories of translation should be called approaches to or guides for translation. In this way, the translator becomes the mediator trained to choose the appropriate approach to be used for a work of translation. The most important factor is the translator who is not an ordinary bilingual, but who must have undergone general and specialized training. He must be well-equipped, be trustworthy, honest, and conscientious in his professional work. During the work of translation, the mediator is left alone with his skills and conscience for the rules and policies of the theories learnt are forgotten. We would also like to conclude that the linguistics-based approaches to translation cannot be waived in translating because of the simple fact that words, sentences, and phrases in the texts are purely linguistic concepts and structured linguistically, even if they are culturally or situationally loaded.


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