Volume 14, No. 1 
January 2010


Front Page

Sepideh Firoozkoohi

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Index 1997-2009

TJ Interactive: Translation Journal Blog

  Translator Profiles
Twenty Years of Steady Workload
by Andrei Gerasimov

  The Profession
The Bottom Line

by Fire Ant & Worker Bee

  Translators Around the World
Where Can I Find a Chinese Sworn Translator in Rio de Janeiro?
by Danilo Nogueira and Kelli Semolini

  Cultural Aspects of Translation
Culture-Specific Items in Literary Translations
by Sepideh Firoozkoohi

  Medical Translation
How Many Varieties of Medical Practice Are There?
by Rafael A. Rivera, M.D., FACP

  Science & Technology
Translating a Patent: Translator's Templates
by Kriemhild (Karen) Zerling

  Translators and the Computer
Automatic Web Translators as Part of a Multilingual Question-Answering (QA) System: Translation of Questions
by Lola García-Santiago and María-Dolores Olvera-Lobo
The Efficacy of Round-trip Translation for MT Evaluation
by Milam Aiken and Mina Park

  Arts & Entertainment
Empirical Study of Subtitled Movies
by Maria Bernschütz, Ph.D.

  Literary Translation
La influencia de Voltaire en el primer Hamlet español
Laura Campillo Arnaiz

  Translators' Education
English Language Teaching Through the Translation Method (A Practical Approach to Teaching Mongolian CPAs)
by Dr. Naveen K. Mehta

  Translators' Tools
Pondering and Wondering
by Jost Zetzsche
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

Call for Papers and Editorial Policies
  Translation Journal

Cultural Aspects of Translation

Culture-Specific Items in Literary Translations

by Dr. Esmail Zare-Behtash (Associate Professor of Chabahar Maritime University), Sepideh Firoozkoohi
Chabahar Maritime University, 
Chabahar, Iran



In most societies literary translation seems to have become so important that the very concept of translation tends to be restricted to literary translation in comparison with other types of translation and other texts. Furthermore, translating culture-specific items in literary translations seems to be one of the most challenging tasks to be performed by a translator. In the present paper attempts were made to explore the concept of literary translation. Finally, the discussion was restricted to culture-specific items in literary translation which argued about the different kinds of culture specific items in literary translation.

Keywords: literary translation, culture-specific items, invisibility of translator, source language, target language

1. Introduction

ranslation as a phenomenon is such an incredibly broad idea that it can be understood in many different ways. Therefore, not surprisingly, many different definitions have been offered, each reflecting a particular underlying theoretical model. The American theorist Lawrence Venuti, for example, defines translation as " a process by which the chain of signifiers that constitutes the source-language text is replaced by a chain of signifiers in the target language which the translator provides on the strength of an interpretation" (Venuti 1995: 17). Venuti sees the aim of translation is:

To bring back a cultural other as the same, the recognizable, even the familiar; and this aim always risks a wholesale domestication of the foreign text, often in highly self conscious projects, where translation serves an appropriation of foreign cultures for domestic agendas, cultural, economic, and political.
     (Venuti 1995: 18)

In Venuti's view, the viability of a translation is established by its relationship to the cultural and social conditions under which the translation is produced and read. He believes that a foreign text is the site of many different semantic possibilities that are fixed, only provisionally, in any one translation on the basis of varying cultural assumptions and interpretive choices in specific social situations and during different historical periods.

2. Literary Translation

It is actually believed that, of all the types of translation, literary translation lets one consistently share in the creative process of translation (Landers 2001: 4-5). According to Bush, literary translation is "an original subjective activity at the center of a complex network of social and cultural practices"
    (Bush 1998: 127).

Translating culture-specific items in literary translations seems to be one of the most challenging tasks to be performed by a translator.
Lambert, who is also concerned with the literary translator, asserts that "a published translation is the fruit of a substantial creative effort by the translator, who is the key agent in the subjective activity and social practice of translation." He notes that whatever the restrains of the network of social and cultural factors, this is, in fact, the literary translator who reaches the thousands of decisions and gives the literary translation its existence (Lambert 1998: 130). Lander also adds that "literary translation entails an unending skein of choices." In other words, the literary translator must make a choice, and from a sequence of such choices the translation comes into existence (Landers 2001: 9). Different strategies might be necessary to approach a poem or a fiction. A translator of fiction, as Bush quotes from Levine (Levine 1991 cited in Bush 1998: 129), has to engage with the different rhythms, the images and symbols an author may use in the course of hundreds of pages. He argues that:

Repeated reading and research enable the translator to identify such patterns, though some will be translated subconsciously as part of the process of imaginative rewriting.... The literary translator creates a new pattern in a different language, based on personal reading, research, and activity. This new creation in turn becomes the basis for multiple readings and interpretations, which will go beyond any intentions of either original author or translator.
    (Bush 1998: 128-9)

The process of translation differs slightly from translator to translator and is influenced by the particular work translated. Newmark concedes that it usually happens that the literary translator first has to deal with words set on the page by an author "who may be dead physically or metaphorically and now lives in the variegated readings by a host of readers of the source language" (Newmark 1998: 117). Then, the literary translator should overcome the conflict between accuracy and elegance by weighing the linguistic individuality of the SL author against the particular features of normal usage in the TL. Since literary translators translate those works which are selected for translation and which now exist where otherwise there would be silence, they are involved at "a keen point of cultural convergence":

They often play a key role by suggesting works for translation regularly writing readers' reports for their publishers on books sent by foreign authors and their agents. The eventual selection implies the work is representative- even if it is anticanonical- of a particular quintessential use of language and feeling in the source culture. It also implies that the publishers believe there is a market for that literary translation.
    (Newmark 1998: 127-8)

Newmark believes in closely translating the well-written literary language. He writes that literary language must remain aesthetically pleasing in translation and there should be a constant tension between the informative and the aesthetic function of language. The more serious the text, morally and aesthetically, the more accurately and economically it should be translated, reflecting the thought, style, emphasis, and as far as possible, particularly in poetry, the rhythm and sound of original (Newmark 1998: 201). He states:

Particular care has to be taken to bring out the connotations of polysemous words and expressions, and to preserve repeated words, which are often keywords. There is sometimes a case for adapting cultural metaphors and for transforming fictional proper names so that their meaning is translated and their source language morphology retained.
    (Newmark 1998: 103)

Undoubtedly, the essence of the type of event that is casually referred to in Translation Studies as literary translation, as Lambert points out, "makes it incumbent on scholars to define the conditions under which this type of event takes place, as well as to investigate the conditions under which it does not occur." Now considering the ambiguous state of translated literature particularly with regard to the concept of 'visibility and invisibility' of literary translation, the act of translation is not an easy task. Lambert then, acknowledges that "a translation may be presented explicitly as a translation, in which case it is visible, or it may be disguised as an original, which explains why the majority of readers remain unaware of the foreign origins of some literary texts" (Lambert 1998: 130). He argues that both pseudotranslations and invisible translations offer interesting indicators of the value position of imported literature in a given culture. He asserts that such translated texts "deserve to be studied systematically as central issues in the development of literatures" (Lambert 1998: 131).

Then, Landers involves himself in translation problems. He asserts that translation problems are not like math problems that have only one or at most a strictly limited number of right answers. As a subfield of literature, translation is subjective in essence. He maintains that "reasonable people may well disagree about which of several proposed alternatives to a particular translation problem best addresses it" (Landers 2001: x). However, in any other branches of translation this problem would not arise, that is, the information would be conveyed irrespective of considerations of style (Landers 2001: 10). Landers remarks that:

The goal of literary translation is publication. Translation for pleasure or as intellectual exercise is well and good, but the dedicated literary translator aims at sharing the final result with TL readers for whom the work would otherwise forever remain inaccessible. A portion of this guide is devoted to the question of how to go about finding an outlet for one's translations.
    Landers 2001: ix)

Lambert then asserts that since literary translation is generally a goal-oriented activity designed to fulfill a need in the target literary culture, "an analysis of these needs and the strategies employed to address them may help us explain the dynamics of literary relationships and traditions, and hence of literary translation." He also asserts the necessity of taking into account the influence of translated literature on shaping the dynamics of discourse, communication and culture. He argues that the need for serious, descriptive research in this area cannot be overestimated (Lambert 1998:132-3).

Any translation activity and any utterance about translation is part of the data that can be used to elaborate a "profile of a given translation environment and to establish the position that literary translation occupies on the cultural maps of the world" (Lambert 1993 cited in Lambert 1998: 132). In this respect, he concedes that statements of translators and their critics or readers are interesting not so much in themselves but as objects of research. Lambert notes that "most cultures have only a limited tradition of translation criticism and theory but there is generally an obvious systematic in their implicit discourse on translation." He points out the entire network of relationships between translated texts, translators, their critics and readers become more intelligible "when considered as a complex tradition or system" (Lambert 1998: 132). He points that:

Within this functional research paradigm then, it is assumed that all translation activity (whether it involves producing, using or commenting on translations) is guided and shaped by such things as the norms, value scales and the models which are prevalent in a given society at a given moment in time. The study of literary translation therefore consists of the study of translation norms, models and traditions.
    (Lambert 1998: 132)

Considering literature as being the product of the dominant ideology, it is obvious that sign systems cannot be taken on as understood by everyone, for language is dynamic and apt to change quite rapidly. "Language is dynamic, so is literature and from time to time and ideology to ideology old signs are substituted by new ones" (Abbasi 2005: 33). Indeed, the period and culture of the time have direct influence on the language, and any literary work is, no doubt, the production of its era. It is so significant that Bassnett states "all these elements can be missed if the reading does not take into full account the overall structuring of the work and its relation to the time and place of its production" (Bassnet 1992: 79).


3. Culture-Specific Items in Literary Translation

Since the concept of culture is essential to understanding the implications for literary translation and culture-specific items in translation, many translation theorists have dealt with the definition of culture. In 1984 Larson defines culture as "a complex of beliefs, attitudes, values, and rules which a group of people share" (Larson 1984: 431). He notes that the translator needs to understand beliefs, attitudes, values, and the rules of the SL audience in order to adequately understand the ST and adequately translate it for people who have a different set of beliefs, attitudes, values, and rules. In 1998, Newmark remarks that culture is "the way of life and its manifestations that are peculiar to a community that uses a particular language as its means of expression" (Newmark 1998: 94). Here, he asserts that each language group has its own culturally specific features.

Schmitt in 1999 maintains that culture is composed of "everything that a person should know, be able to feel and to do, in order to succeed in behaving and acting in an environment like somebody from this environment" (Schmitt 1999: 157 cited in Gambier, 2004: 33-4). The process of transmitting cultural elements through literary translation is a complicated and vital task. Culture is a complex collection of experiences which condition daily life. It includes history, social structure, religion, traditional customs and everyday usage. This is difficult to comprehend completely. In 1997, Shuttleworth argues that cultural translation is a term used to refer to those types of translation which act as a tool for cross-cultural or anthropological research. He believes that cultural translation is sensitive to cultural and linguistic factors and takes different forms:

Such sensitivity might take the form either of presenting TL recipients with a transparent text which informs them about elements of the source culture, or of finding target items which may in some way be considered to be culturally "equivalent" to the ST items they are translating.
     (Shuttleworth & Cowie 1997: 35)

According to Nida and Taber, cultural translation is "a translation in which the content of the message is changed to conform to the receptor culture in some way, and/or in which information is introduced which is not linguistically implicit in the original" (Nida and Taber 1969/1982: 199). In the context of Bible translation, Nida and Taber state that a cultural translation is one in which additions are made which cannot be directly derived from the original ST wording. Thus, these additions might take the form of ideas culturally foreign to ST or elements which are simply included to provide necessary background information (Shuttleworth & Cowie 1997: 35).

In 1964, Nida lists four basic factors which make communication possible and, therefore, make possible the translation of a message from one language and culture to another. These are: 1) the similarity of mental processes of all people, 2) similarity of somatic reactions (similar physical responses to emotional stimulus), 3) the range of common cultural experience, and 4) the capacity for adjustment to the behavioral patterns of others (Nida 1964a 53-5). In addition to Nida, Larson observes that all meaning is culturally conditioned and the response to a given text is also culturally conditioned. Therefore, each society will interpret a message in terms of its own culture:

The receptor audience will decode the translation in terms of his own culture and experience, not in terms of the culture and experience of the author and audience of the original document. The translator then must help the receptor audience understand the content and intent of the source document by translating with both cultures in mind.
     (Larson 1984: 436-7)

Indeed, one of the most difficult problems in translating literary texts is found in the differences between cultures. People of a given culture look at things from their own perspective. Larson notes that "different cultures have different focuses. Some societies are more technical and others less technical." This difference is reflected in the amount of vocabulary which is available to talk about a particular topic (Larson 1984: 95). Larson adds that there may also be both "technical and non-technical" vocabulary to talk about the same thing within a given society. Therefore, if the SL text originates from a highly technical society it may be much more difficult to translate it into the language of a nontechnical society. However, in the case of similar cultures the conditions are not the same:

When the cultures are similar, there is less difficulty in translating. This is because both languages will probably have terms that are more or less equivalent for the various aspects of the culture. When the cultures are very different, it is often difficult to find equivalent lexical items.
     (Larson 1984: 95-6)

Thus, a translator who uses a cultural approach is simply recognizing that each language contains elements which are derived from its culture, that every text is anchored in a specific culture, and that conventions of text production and reception vary from culture to culture. Awareness of such issues can at times make it more appropriate to think of translation as a process which occurs between cultures rather than simply between languages. Most 'cultural words', according to Newmark, are easy to detect since they are associated with a particular language and cannot be literally translated. However, many cultural customs are described in ordinary language, where literal translation would distort the meaning and thus the translation "may include an appropriate descriptive-functional equivalent" (Newmark 1988: 95).

Newmark also introduced 'cultural word' which the readership is unlikely to understand and the translation strategies for this kind of concept depend on the particular text-type, requirements of the readership and client and importance of the cultural word in the text (Newmark 1988: 96). Baker refers to such cultural words and concedes that the SL words may express a concept which is totally unknown in the target culture. She points out that the concept in question may be "abstract or concrete, it may relate to a religious belief, a social custom, or even a type of food." Baker then, calls such concepts 'culture-specific items' (Baker 1992: 21). Nord uses the term 'cultureme' to refer to these culture specific items. He defines cultureme as "a cultural phenomenon that is present in culture X but not present (in the same way) in culture Y" (Nord 1997: 34). Gambier also refers to such concepts as 'culture-specific references' and asserts that they connote different aspects of life:

Culture-specific references connoting different aspects of everyday life such as education, politics, history, art, institutions, legal systems, units of measurement, place names, foods and drinks, sports and national pastimes, as experienced in different countries and nations of the world.
     (Gambier 2004: 159)

Gambier acknowledges that the culture-specific category "contains sixty clips divided into six sub-groups" which included examples of references to the system, food and measurements, sport, institutions, famous people and events, and finally the legal system (Gambier 2004: 160). Newmark asserts that a few general considerations govern the translation of all cultural words. First, the ultimate consideration should be recognition of the cultural achievements referred to in the SL text, and respect for all foreign countries and their cultures. Two translation procedures which are at opposite ends of the scale are normally available; transference, which usually in literary texts, offers local color and atmosphere, and in specialist texts enables the readership to identify the referent in other texts without difficulty. However, transference, though it is brief and concise, blocks comprehension, it emphasizes the culture and excludes the message, does not communicate; some would say it is not a translation procedure at all.

At the other end, there is componential analysis, the most accurate translation procedure, which excludes the culture and highlights the message. Componential analysis is based on a component common to the SL and TL to which one can add the extra contextual distinguishing components. Inevitably, a componential analysis is not as economical and has not the pragmatic impact of the original. Lastly, the translator of a cultural word, which is always less context-bound than ordinary language, has to bear in mind both the motivation and the cultural specialist and linguistic level of readership (Newmark 1988: 96). The point in regard to the systematic way of translating a literary text is that "in each period of time the degree of loyalty with regard to interpretation and translation of literary texts varies regarding the three points of author, reader, and the text." Therefore, the literary translator has to know well the critical approaches as well as their underlying structure (Abassi 2005: 32).

4. Conclusion

Considering literature as being the product of the dominant ideology, it is obvious that sign systems cannot be assumed to be understood by everyone, for language is dynamic and apt to change quite rapidly. Furthermore, in most societies literary translation seems to have become so prominent that the very concept of translation tends to be restricted to literary translation in comparison with other types of translation and other texts.

One of the most difficult problems in translating literary texts is found in the differences between cultures. People of a given culture look at things from their own perspective. Indeed, one of the most difficult problems in translating literary texts is found in the differences between cultures. A translator who uses a cultural approach is simply recognizing that each language contains elements which are derived from its culture that every text is anchored in a specific culture, and that conventions of text production and reception vary from culture to culture.


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Bassnett, S. (1992) Translation Studies. London: Routledge.

Bush, P. (1998) "Literary Translation." In: M. Baker, ed. Routledge Encyclopedia of Translation Studies, London: Routledge, 127-130.

Gambier, Y. (2007) Doubts and Directions in Translation Studies, The Netherlands: John Benjamins.

Lambert, J. (1998)"Literary Translation."In: M. Baker, ed. Routledge Encyclopedia of Translation Studies. London: Routledge, 130-134.

Landers, Clifford E. (2001) Literary Translation: A practical Guide, New Jersey University Press: Multilingual Maters.

Larson, Mildred L. (1984) Meaning-Based Translation: A Guide to Cross-Language Equivalence. Lanham and New York: University Press of America, Inc.

Newmark, P. (1988) A Textbook of Translation. New York and London Prentice- Hall.

Newmark, P. (1998) More Paragraphs on Translation. New Jersey University Press: Multilingual Maters.

Nida, E.A. and C. R. Taber (1969) The Theory and Practice of Translation. Leiden: E.J. Brill.

Nord, C. (1997) Translating as a Purposeful Activity: Functionalist Approaches Explained. Manchester: St. Jerome.

Shuttleworth, M. and M. Cowie, Eds. (1997) Dictionary of Translation Studies. Manchester: St Jerome.

Venuti, L. (1995) The Translator's Invisibility. A history of translation, London and New York: Routledge.