The Cultural Drift in Translating

Can translations be produced outside the political or cultural vacuum?
Language is an interpretation of culture and personality of its speakers. It has an impact on the way the speakers regard and understand the world. This assumption has a far-reaching meaning for the latest research on cultural mediation. It has been long taken for granted that translation deals only with language.

Translation is more than an interlinguistic process.  It is not just the replacement of the source text with target language text. In practice the translation includes cultural and educational nuances that can harmonize the preferences and mindsets of recipients.

While bilingualism transfers information and ideas from culture to culture, the translator is the mediator of cultures whose duty is to systematize and generalize the whole process. The translation practice itself is an intercultural activity. From an intercultural perspective the role of the translator is being the intercultural expert able to mediate between cultures.

Peter Newmark said in Approaches to Translation that „Translation is a craft consisting in the attempt to replace a written message and/or statement in one language by the same message and/or statement in another language”.

According to the Merriam-Webster dictionary, the verb to mediate means  “to work with opposing sides in an argument or dispute in order to get an agreement (US)”, “to get (something, such as a settlement or agreement) by working with opposing sides in a dispute”, or “to have an effect or influence in causing (something) to happen”. If we apply all these meanings to the conception of the current duty of the translator we can notice that maybe his most important role is to be an agent that intermediates between two cultures by trying to reconcile all the differences that can stand as barriers in communication.

The notion of “culture” is defined by Samovar and Porter (1997) as “the deposit of knowledge, experience, beliefs, values, attitudes, meanings, hierarchies, religion, notions of time, roles, spatial relations, concepts of the universe, and material objects and possessions acquired by a group of people in the course of generations through individual and group striving” (“Intercultural Communication”). The term ‘culture’ refers to values, customs, beliefs, and social life. A real fact is that each community has its own culture; one can be more materialistic, another can be just living on daily hunting.

This definition of culture is a good starting point in analyzing the relationship between culture and translation practice. One of the challenges that a translator faces is that he should avoid being influenced by a particular cultural background, including the impact of subjectivity while translating.  Several connections to what a specific culture is are made when translating; this is known as the cross-cultural side of translations.  Nida enunciated that “it is almost inevitable that translators be affected by their own personal set of values”. The total impartiality and objectivity is very difficult to achieve. In the era of unsettling globalizing forces, this can happen also among the different groups or subcultures of the same society, not only between two different societies. An example about the cross-cultural misunderstanding is to address people by names. Some people prefer to be addressed by the first name, while others feel offended. Nida presented Chomsky and TT figure of the translation process.

There are also some aspects on cultural mediation and translation, which could certainly be valid for interpreting as well. It is important for translators and interpreters to have background knowledge about the cultures they are mediating for, including traditions, customs, geography, history, popular culture, and even behavior patterns.
In its philosophical meaning, subjectivity refers to the essential quality of the subject, the peculiar features displayed in his definite activities. In other words, subjectivity is the externalization of the subject’s innate capacity in his definite activities, the distinctive ability that the subject possesses to change, influence and control his objects actively and to enable the objects to serve the subject.  The connotation of subjectivity includes three basic aspects: firstly, starting from the subject and making the object serve the subject; secondly, an objectified function, that is the subject’s distinctive characteristic in the objectified liaison between the subject and the object; and thirdly, the externalization of the subject’s elemental capacity. Norms are social and cultural restraints in nature. All of them represent instructions necessary to be followed; they impose constraints on the translator establishing the “translational behavior”.  In a social-cultural context, the translator’s decision-making is unavoidably constrained by these criteria. Therefore, on the basis of the analysis of the term subjectivity in its philosophical sense, it can be said that the translator’s subjectivity can be summarized as the translator’s subjective enterprise manifested in the translation process on the prerequisite of being appropriately aware of the socio-cultural criteria to attain the target of translation.

As an answer to the extent of subjectivity in translation, it can be said that humans do not live in the world’s manifestations of objectivity; they are not alone in their social activity. It is quite a fantasy to imagine that one adjusts to reality essentially without the use of language.

Cultural and social knowledge shapes meaning in communication besides role relationships and expectations. In communication in general, as well as in translating and interpreting, transmission of messages has a possibility to flourish if the receiver shares that cultural and social knowledge. A series of specific socio-cultural norms are imposed on the translator, and – through the translation strategies adopted by the translator – the subjectivity of the translator is shown. These socio-cultural norms consist of politics, morality, religion, ideology, ethics, etc.

Politics, as a socially active and politically crucial element, is one of the very important pressures on the translator’s behavior. It cannot be denied that the political factors govern the context in which translations occur. There is no doubt that politics limits the translator’s ideological arena, and translators strive to have a little freedom in their dealing with politics, in case they do want to have their translations accepted by the public.

Politics makes it quite clear what topics can be translated from foreign cultures at a given historical time to meet the needs of social development and political stability of the target culture. Therefore, a form of power should not be underestimated, the power of the political influence on the shaping of the translator’s activity. The question that appears here is to what extent should the freedom of speech be a guaranteed right?

1. Anuradha Dingwaney and Carol Maier(eds.) Between Languages and Cultures: Translation and Cross Cultural Texts. Pittsburgh: University of Pittsburgh Press, 1995, p. 3
2. Newmark, P. (1981) Approaches to Translation. Oxford: Pergamon Press, p. 7
3. Samovar, L. A., & Porter, R. E. (eds.). (1997). Intercultural Communication. New York: Wadsworth / Peter Lang.
4. Nida, E. A. (1964). Toward a Science of Translating. With Special Reference to Principles and Procedures Involved in Bible Translating. Leiden: Brill, p. 33

Merriam-Webster Dictionary,

prof. Carmen-Lidia Nistor

Școala Gimnazială Mihai Eminescu, Brăila (Brăila) , România
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