The process of translation goes far beyond conversion at a linguistic level; linguists must appreciate the importance of culture in translation. The famous American translation theorist Eugene A. Nida once said: “Translation is an exchange between two cultures. For a truly successful translation, knowing two cultures is more important than grasping two languages, because only words with an effective cultural background become meaningful. ” Nida’s words have been proven through the history of translation and can be seen in numerous examples.
Examples of culture in translation: Chinese to English
In Chinese and English languages, national idioms are usually formed with a strong influence from their respective historical cultures. For example, due to the agricultural society in Chinese history, dogs play a lesser role in Chinese society than in Western society. In China, a dogs’ function was primarily to guard the home and even in modern day, the practice of eating dog meat is normal in many regions of China. This historical background has led to many of the idioms surrounding dogs being fairly negative, and they can be referred to as “ungrateful and heartless” (狼心狗肺), snobbish” (狗眼看人低), or even “evil associates” (狐朋狗友). However, in ancient European culture, people survived by hunting, fishing, and through livestock. Dogs acted as an important labor tool for all of these acts and as Western countries developed further, dogs became much closer to being a member of a family than a tool. This has resulted in many of the idioms surrounding dogs having very positive meanings in English, such as “a lucky dog” (幸运儿), “a top dog” (优胜者，左右全局的人), “as faithful as a dog” (像狗一样忠诚), “every dog has his day” (人皆有得意日), and now dogs are often referred to as “man’s best friend” (人类最好的朋友). This highlights the importance that culture plays in translation and shows that a lack of cultural understanding can often result in the translation being unrealistic or even wrong.
As another example, fishery is very important in Britain; therefore, British people often use fish to represent different kinds of people, such as “big fish”, “poor fish”, and “strange fish”. If these expressions are translated into Chinese literally, the meaning behind the words is unclear, and the reader cannot understand.
Dragons in China represent supreme power and unmatched ability, but in the West, Dragons are associated with evil and greed. Therefore, the “Asian Four Dragons”, familiar to Chinese people, is translated as “Asian Four Tigers” in Western languages. Because of the cultural difference between the source language and the target language, the translation requires the conversion of cultural signs to convey the same information.
Because of the differences in how people think, the Chinese people used to explain reason first and then results in a large to small order. Western society orders this exactly opposite, from small to large and results before reason. One example of this can be seen in how addresses are read. Chinese addresses read from large to small, like “中国北京市朝阳区东三环 1 号”. When translated into English, this reads from the smallest point to the largest point: “No.1, East 3rd Ring Road, Chaoyang District, Beijing, China”.
British translation theorist S. Bassnett likens language to “the heart within the body of culture,” pointing out that “a surgeon operating on the heart cannot neglect the body that surrounds it, so the translator treats the text in isolation from the culture at his peril”. Because of the inalienable nature of language and culture, understanding the social and cultural background of the related countries before translation will help linguists to easily cross the barriers between languages.
Learn more about CSOFT’s emphasis on culture in translation at csoftintl.com!