Vörös Eszter Is Translation Culture-Specific? Some linguists claim

Vörös Eszter
Is Translation Culture-Specific?
Some linguists claim that word-by-word translation is the best method for making a
text available to a wider readership. However, making connections between two languages
does not only mean comparing their words and grammatical structures, but also their cultural
backgrounds. Since languages are the products of different cultures, we need to declare that
translation is a culture-specific process.
Some of the main supporters of this thesis are Peter Newmark, Malcolm Harvey and
Dr. László Budai. They say that the differences between source and target languages always
appear not just on grammatical - structural but also on cultural level.
What does it mean? In order to make it clear I will try to illustrate my point with examples.
The history of a nation always contributes to its word stock. Just think about the Turkish loan
words that were borrowed during the time of the Turkish occupation and were used by Géza
Gárdonyi in his work Eclipse of the Crescent Moon (Egri csillagok). Or we can also set the
example of The Witness (A tanú), the film that takes place during the Soviet times in
Hungary. The expressions: magyar narancs, elvtárs and Szocialista Szellem Vasútja cannot be
translated properly into a foreign language, just like the ironic phrases of the film. Those
nations that have not lived under Soviet pressure cannot understand the atmosphere of the
film, even if it is translated perfectly. So what can a translator do in these cases? Newmark
says that one can either make footnotes or use modulation (“the process of reproducing the
message of the original text”) (Ordudari, 2007, no pag).
There are other cultural factors that can play a huge role in the interference between
two languages. One of them is the nation’s state of development. A translator cannot translate
words that do not appear in the target language. For example, how would you say bread and
breakfast or fish and chips in Hungarian? You can cover their meaning, you can paraphrase it,
but you will never be able to translate them word-by-word. Likewise, foreigners will never
understand the essence of Hungarian gulyásleves because they use the word goulash for all
kinds of stew. The same phenomenon also classifies many words of economy (szürkemarha),
technology (Rubik- kocka), medicine, information technology, fashion (Scottish kilt), lifestyle
and many other areas of life.
Another factor is religion. Roman Catholics will never understand the basis of Hindu
or Muslim. Therefore those translators who want to interpret a Muslim book have to do some
researches before starting their work to be able to identify themselves with Muslim culture.
The last factor I need to mention here is politics. It is always a tender spot, because a
writer or a translator cannot be politically incorrect, and cannot express his own opinion,
regardless of public affairs. But how can a translator remain neutral? Should he communicate
only the writer’s point of view or should he add some personal opinion to it?
Many linguists assert that word-by-word or literal translations (“in which the second
language grammatical constructions are converted to their nearest target language equivalents,
Vörös Eszter
but the lexical words are again translated singly, out of context”) (Ordudari, 2007, no pag) are
the best methods. However, is it not just self-defence? If they make a translation word by
word, they can eliminate political incorrectness and religious differences, so they do not have
to take the responsibility. Does it worth doing so? What is more, how could one translate
those words that do not appear in each and every culture with the help of literal translation?
All in all, we can say that translating is a very complex task. Translators have to
consider not just the grammatical and structural differences between two languages, but also
the historical, economical, social context in which the text was written in order to make a
proper translation. Therefore it is definitely high time we get rid of old-fashioned methods and
have an open mind on innovative translation techniques, as well.
Works Cited:
Ordudari, M. “Translation Journal”. Translation procedures, strategies and methods
11.3 (July, 2007). 3 October 2011.