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24 - Language, culture, translation

In order to comprehend the activity of translation, we need to clarify what we mean by "language" and by "culture" and to point out the relationships between culture and language. A purely linguistic approach to translation is no longer conceivable but, on the other hand, it is not possible, either, to concentrate exclusively on the interrelation between different cultures. Various studies on translation admit both these extremist conceptions, although they lead to a unilateral vision - as Witherspoon clearly states:

If we look at culture from a linguistic point of view, we get a one-sided view of culture. If we look at language from a cultural point of view, we get a one-sided view of language 1.

  Peeter Torop, chief of the Department of Semiotics at the Tartu University, did extensive work on translation science. In his latest book Total´nyj perevod2 [Total Translation], published in Italian and English by Guaraldi-Logos , he says that "language" can be considered "culture", by resorting to a figure of speech called "synecdoche" that consists in using a part (language) for the whole (culture). Doing that, we can say that the approach is "linguistic", as we observed in JAkobsón, because the concept of "linguistics" extends to many other subjects such as semiotics, cultural anthropology, narratology, and literary theory.

  A second possible view considers "language" not as an object of study as such, but as a metalanguage: a language used as a means to describe another code, the cultural code. In other words, according to this conception, the language is seen as a tool to describe and express the culture to which it belongs.

  Torop suggests a third possible description of "language": to see it as one of the many semiotic systems that can be found in any given culture. By "semiotic system", we mean every sign system, such as music, painting, and, of course, the natural language. In order to examine the translation activity we must consider all these three concepts of language.

  While considering cultural and linguistic differences simultaneously - and speaking of translatability in general terms, without focusing on specific works or cases - it is important to keep in mind that two languages can be more or less translatable into one another according to how they differ in one of these four ways:

i The English version is to be published by 2001.

  • Languages that have neither the culture nor the language in common, such as Eskimo and English, or Chinese and Italian or Greek and German;
  • Languages with similar linguistic structures but different cultural backgrounds, such as Czech and Slovak. They are both Slavic languages, but the territories occupied by Czechia and Slovakia were historically more often divided than united. Bohemia experienced various periods of autonomy or, at times, was absorbed into the German territory, whereas Slovakia was part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire for long periods. Another case which may be assimilated to this category, considering the cultural developments of the past centuries, is that of British English and American English, which - before the advent of the Internet and of globalization - had rather independent linguistic developments;
  • Languages with a completely different linguistic structure but with a similar cultural background, like Hungarian and Slovak; the former belongs to the Ugric-Finnish stem - to which belong few other languages, such as Finnish and Estonian - whereas Slovak is Slavic; the two regions, though, were often administered by the same central government (the Kingdom of Hungary, the Austrian Empire or the Austro-Hungarian Empire);
  • Languages with similar linguistic structure and cultural background, like Spanish and French . In this case, we have two Neo-Latin languages and two peoples that have always had frequent and considerable mutual cultural exchanges.

    When - rather than consider couples of language/cultures - we concentrate on a single text, Torop isolates four different kinds of relationships between culture and language:

  • Monolingual and monocultural texts;
  • Monolingual and multicultural texts (in which within a society more than one culture is found). It is the case of The Blue Flowers by Queneau, where two plots are developed, set in two distant historical periods and social areas;
  • Multilingual and monocultural texts (in which, for instance, when narrating the same events, various languages are used. It is the case of Ortiz Vásquez and other examples we quoted in unit five - Foreign Languages and Linguistic Awareness);
  • Multilingual and multicultural texts (like War and Peace by L. N. Tolstój, in which two languages are used - Russian and French - to represent different aspects and various classes of the Russian society and of Napoleon's personality);

    Whatever approach to the analysis of the translatability of a text into another language/culture, it is important to realize that, even under the least favorable of conditions (cultural and/or linguistic distance, complexity and heterogeneity of the text), the linguistic tool - the natural language, the language of man - is always potentially able to express elements belonging to another language/culture. Therefore, the important prerequisite for a text to be translatable is the translator's awareness: translators must know the differences existing between languages and cultures so that they can work out translation strategies able to cope with the various translatability problems.

    Bibliographical references

    KRUPA V. Some remarks on the translation process, in Asian and African Studies, n. 4, Bratislava 1968 [1969].

    TOROP P. La traduzione totale Ed. by B. Osimo. Modena, Guaraldi Logos, 2000. ISBN 88-8049-195-4. Or. ed. Total´nyj perevod. Tartu, Tartu Ülikooli Kirjastus [Tartu University Press], 1995. ISBN 9985-56-122-8.

    WITHERSPOON G. Language in culture and culture in language, in International Journal of American Linguistics, vol. 46, n. 1, 1980.

    1 Witherspoon 1980, p. 2.
    2 Torop 2000
    3 Krupa 1969, p. 56, quoted in Torop 2000.