Logos Multilingual Portal

17 - Literality - second part

«[...] una reacción lectora demasiado elemental para tratarse de licenciados, en su mayoría filólogos de diversas lenguas»1.

"[...] far too elementary a reaction from readers who were college graduates, most of them students of literature in various languages"2.

Zhang Longxi makes a comparison between the interpreting debate that saw the Hellenistic and Hebraic exegetes as protagonists and the one, in a different setting, between Chinese and Jesuit exegesis regarding ancient Chinese texts. According to Matteo Ricci, a Jesuit sent in the 16th century to China to explore the cultural situation and spread Christianity, Confucianism had reached the perfect state of natural religion, and Chinese culture was therefore ready, from Ricci''s point of view, to accept the light of the revealed religion, Christianity. There was the necessity to teach Chinese people not to interpret their own ancient books literally: in this way they would be able to see traces of a higher teaching.
  The analysis of the Chinese language carried out by Jesuit missionaries created the illusion of a lack of grammatical categories and, consequently, of the absence in their culture of the notion of "existence"; more generally, of the Chinese language''s inability to express abstract concepts and the subsequent interpretation of all concepts as concrete. The presumption that Chinese people were not able to distinguish spiritual from material, abstract from concrete, fictional from literal dictated a reading of Chinese reality in function of the confirmation of such a hypothesis, without seriously considering the elements that could lead to its falsification.
  In the contraposition of literalism and the figurative, some Western scholars argued that there was no reciprocity: the cultures that were able to assign a figurative meaning to the words would be able to grasp the literal meaning as well; by contrast, the cultures able to give only a purely literal meaning to words would be able to grasp just that, and not a figurative one. Hence the impossibility of a peer-to-peer approach between Western and Chinese culture3.

Yet the letter and the spirit, literalism and allegorism, Hebraism and Hellenism, or Chinese immanence and Western transcendence [...] are all cultural constructs rather than representations of the reality of different traditions4.

This approach, implying the projection of one''s own cultural view to other cultures, is colonizing rather than translational, and is diametrically opposed to Berman''s notion of translation:

The very aim of translation - to open, through the written word, a certain rapport with the Other, to enrich what is one''s Own through the mediation on the Foreign meeting head-on the ethnocentric structure of every culture, that types of narcissism by which every society would like to be a pure and unadulterated Whole5.

From what we have seen it is clear that the literal approach - where by "literal" we mean a notion opposite to "allegorical" - can be useful to defend a culture''s peculiarities. But in this case, too, we need to decide whether "literalism" is meant as referring to a word or to the text as a whole. Or, if it refers to the text unit as entity of a larger cultural system, if by "literality" we mean an interpretation of the text ignoring its context and co-text, like for example in the Hebraic Midrash.
  It is very interesting what Munday says about the negative connotation of the word "literal". Among the criteria for assessing candidates in a translation exam in the United Kingdom,

perhaps the most interesting point is the use of the term ''literal translation''. ''Literal'' is used four times - and always as a criticism - concerning, for example, literal translations of false friends. Interestingly enough, however, ''literal'' is used as a relative term. For example, ''too literal a style of translating'' produced TT expressions such as ''transmitting the budget to the '' (rather than ''delivering the budget''), and a ''totally literal translation'' of déjeuner-débat ''produced very unnatural English; presumably, the ''totally literal'' translation was something like ''lunch-debate'' rather than ''lunchtime talk''6.

Here, by "literal", a lexical translation is probably meant, becoming a point to criticize (in the criteria authors'' opinion) only when such a method is pushed to extreme consequences. In other words, when the use of a supposed lexical word-word matching breaks the "naturality" of the translating language, i.e. when the collocation of words - albeit producing a thoroughly understandable text - has a low use frequency of use in the receiving culture.
  The result of a similar abnormal collocation of two or more words, that does not cause misunderstandings, produces, simply, a slow down in the perception of the translated text and an estranging effect on the reader. It is rather easy to understand that a "lunch-debate" is a meal where something is being discussed, but this formulation, compared to the more frequent "work luncheon", forces the reader to think over the reception of such a word combination, not to passively assimilate a common phrase.
  Those who consider this way of translating "wrong" implicitly prefer a quick and easy text assimilation, without such frequent interpretive reflections. From this point of view, literalism is the enemy of pragmatic, fast, functional communication, but is a friend to slow, profound text assimilation.
  Let us close this short reflection on the notion of literalism with a suggestion from another arguable notion very popular in translation theory: the "equivalence" notion, on which we will touch in the next units. Nida, the widely known translator and translation theorist, uses the term "literal" referring not to a translation method, but to a stage in translation, in his dynamic equivalence concept.
  Murray sums up his theory like this: Nida thinks that translation occurs in stages concerning not the translator''s mind, but the degree of elaboration of the text. His view does not focus on the conscious and unconscious interpretive passages made in the interpreter''s mind, but on intermediate texts that would be produced before the draft of the conclusive metatext.
  The first "intermediate text" produced would be the same literal transfer in which word by word the prototext sentence is reproduced without bothering to give the set of words coherence, cohesion, the aspect of a text. Here is the example produced by Munday, from the Gospel of St. John, 1,6:

egeneto anthropos, apestalmenos para theou, onoma auto Ioannes

  Whose English literal version is

became/happened man, sent from God, name to-him John

while the complete version is:

There came a man, sent from God, whose name was John.

  The first version is also called "formal equivalence" by Nida, while the second "dynamic equivalence"7.


Bibliographical references

BERMAN A. L''épreuve de l''étranger: culture et traduction dans l''Allemagne romantique, Paris, Gallimard, 1984.

LONGXI Z. Cultural differences and Cultural Constructs: Reflections on Jewish and Chinese Literalism, in Poetics Today, 19:2, Tel Aviv, the Porter Institute for Poetics and Semiotics, Summer 1998, p. 305-328.

MARÍAS J. Negra espalda del tiempo, Punto de lectura, 2000 (original edition 1998), ISBN 84-663-0007-7.

MARÍAS J. Dark Back of Time, New York, New Directions, 2001 (translated by Esther Allen), ISBN 0-8112-1466-4.

MUNDAY J. Introducing Translation Studies. Theories and Applications, London New York, Routledge, 2001, ISBN 0-415-22927-8.

1 Marías 2000, p. 34.
2 Marías 2001, p. 29.
3 Longxi, p. 323.
4 Longxi, p. 323.
5 Berman 1997, p. 14.
6 Munday 2001, p. 30-31.
7 Munday 2001, p. 40-42.