Writing across cultures

Writing across cultures
1. What is writing?
Writing is an attempt to communicate with the reader. A writer has an intention or purpose,
as well as information to convey. Good writing tries to meet the reader's needs to the greatest
possible extent, conducting what Widdowson (1979, 176) calls a "covert dialogue" with the
supposed interlocutor, judging likely reactions and anticipating problems of understanding.
Although there is always a heuristic element to writing and we only discover fully what we want
to say as we write, good writers have a clear sense of what they want to achieve and adapt their
rhetorical approach accordingly; their writing is likely to adhere to the Gricean principles of
informativity, factual correctness, relevance and clarity. Less skilled writers generate content as
they write, they do not have clear goals or plans, they may not even have a clear main idea to
guide their writing; poor writing compels the reader to make too many inferences by failing to
offer enough given information. Put in simple terms, good writing is reader friendly.1
Texts have a hierarchical structure that differs due to purpose, status, author, audience,
information load and genre (Grabe and Kaplan 1996). Beyond surface form text is organized by
the writer's relation to it, the reader's assumed knowledge, the subject matter and the situation.
The writer, consciously or not, takes a particular stance in relation to the text and the reader,
resulting in an interpersonal dimension that can be described along axes such as impersonalpersonal, distance-solidarity, power-politeness, and formal-informal. Texts are thus multi-faceted
and writing can only be understood from the perspective of a social context.
2. Different rhetorical traditions
Literacy skills are determined by the society in which they function – writing is a social
phenomenon. Each language has its own rhetorical conventions and the manner in which texts are
used varies according to cultural group. The acquisition of literacy is central to the individual's
cognitive development, but the way in which this occurs differs from one society to another
(though the skills imparted may be seen as 'universal'). Schooling and instruction play a central
role here: "all writing is strongly anchored in the values of the writing cultures that people get
socialized into as they learn to write" (Mauranen 1992, 239). Schools emphasize and attach value
to certain uses of language in line with current cultural preferences, thus creating a specific
notion of what is 'good writing' and what qualities a well-written text must possess. Thus the
ability to write well is based not only on semantic knowledge and knowledge of text models for
different purposes, but also on knowledge of socio-cultural rules (Connor 1996, 111ff).
In the light of what is said below, the value statements within this paragraph might be qualified by the
proviso 'in the Anglo-Saxon tradition'.
David Limon
If writing in a different language simply meant mastering different vocabulary and rules of
grammar then it would be a straightforward matter. However, there are also wide differences in
terms of rhetorical traditions, writer-reader relationships, composing conventions, text
organization, metatextual features, information structure and cohesive patterns that need to be
addressed. Learning to write means learning to manipulate complex structural and rhetorical
dimensions, but as these vary from one culture to another the writing skills we have acquired in
our own language cannot simply be transferred to the new linguistic environment.
The discipline of Contrastive Rhetoric grew out of attempts to explain the writing problems
experienced by non-native speaker students in an English-speaking academic environment.
Kaplan's (1966) seminal and controversial2 article on cultural thought patterns identifies some of
the composition problems encountered by second language writers and tries to explain them in
terms of interference from the L1. Kaplan's (1987) revised position is that rhetorical modes are
possible in any language, but do not occur with equal frequency or in parallel distribution. The
many ways we have in a language of saying the same thing are not grammatically constrained but
sociolinguistically, and it is hard for the non-native to be aware of these constraints. Let us briefly
consider some examples of intercultural studies involving English.
There are differences between cultures as to whether responsibility for effective
communicative is seen to lie primarily with the writer or the reader. In English there is a tendency
towards the former – if communication fails we do not blame the reader for not making enough
effort, but assume that what was said was insufficiently clear or well-organized. In other
languages it is seen as the reader's responsibility to understand what the writer intended to say
and writers may prefer to offer hints and nuances rather than make direct statements: Japanese is
the example discussed by Hinds (1987) but the same tendency may be seen in Central European
cultures. There are clear parallels with the contrast drawn by Katan (1999, 194ff) between author
and addressee orientation, the former being characterized by expressive language, a high
information load, writer authority, rhetorical skills and a rich style (Italian is given as an
example), while the latter is more factual, has a low information load, is reader friendly, simple
and designed for easy comprehension (English).
Clyne's (1987) study of academic papers by English-speaking and German-speaking
linguists and sociologists indicates that writing by English speakers favours a linear development,
whereas writing in German is more marked by digression, recapitulation and repetition. Clyne
explains the differences by referring to different attitudes towards readability: English-speaking
writers strive for this quality, while German writers emphasize content over form and expect the
reader to make the connection. For this reason, English readers have difficulties with close
translations of German academic works and may regard German writers are 'pretentious', while
English writers may seem 'superficial' to German readers – it all depends what readers are used to
and what their expectations are.
The article contained some simple diagrams that purported to show not only different types of paragraph
organization but also different thought patterns. It has been criticized for its ethnocentricity and for
equating writing patterns with thought patterns (see Connor 1996, 16).
Writing across cultures
Finnish expository texts in general can be characterized as being organized inductively,
with no initial thesis statements, the main point towards the end and with other points being
suggested rather than spelled out, while metatext may be considered as unnecessary (Mauranen
1992; Connor 1996, 51-52). This may contribute to an impression of vagueness and indirectness
in the mind of a reader expecting to know at an earlier stage what a text is about. The possible
effects of such differences are highlighted in an interesting study by Tirkkonen-Condit (2001) of
EU project proposals which notes that the more implicit and impersonal Finnish rhetorical
tradition means that the reader is left to infer the project aims and the qualities of the researchers
from the background information provided, rather than having them stated directly and up-front,
which has led to some sound proposals being unfairly rejected.
We should point out at this juncture that such cross-cultural studies are descriptive rather
than prescriptive in nature. There is no suggestion that Anglo-Saxon rhetorical traditions are
somehow better than those in other cultures or that they should necessarily be adopted. Indeed,
Finnish researchers have pointed out their rhetorical tradition can be viewed in a very positive
way, as 'reader respectful' in assuming an intelligent, knowledgeable and patient reader. A similar
point is made by Čmejrková and Daneš (1997) in relation to Czech and English academic
writing. Characteristic of the former (under the influence of 'Teutonic' style) are said to be
syntactic complexity, delayed purpose and multiplicity of standpoints. Czech writers (and this
surely applies to writers in other languages) may prefer the reader to follow their train of thought
and to lead up to their purpose, rather than stating it at the beginning. However, students of
language and would-be translators should be aware of differing rhetorical norms, and should
possess the knowledge and textual skills to adapt to these in another language if they think it will
help them achieve their communicative goals. More contrastive studies thus need to be carried
out between different language pairs and in relation to a broader range of texts to facilitate this,
but enough evidence exists to make at least a broad awareness of the issue part of higher level
English teaching and translator training. We return to this below, when we have looked more
closely at translation and at the issue of how to categorize texts.
3. What is translating?
Hatim and Mason (1997, 1, my emphasis) define translating as "an act of communication
which attempts to relay, across cultural and linguistic boundaries, another act of
communication". The translator engages in dialogue with both the text producer and the receiver
to communicate across these boundaries. A growing emphasis within translation theory on
cultural rather than linguistic transfer becomes most apparent in the 1980s, particularly among
functional translation scholars writing in German. Translation is conceived of as an act of
communication rather than transcoding, focused on messages rather than words, thus shifting
attention from formal aspects to functional and sociocultural ones, with the text considered as an
integral part of the world. The prevailing metaphor is that of sending a message.
For those involved in translator education, the field of intercultural studies thus becomes of
particular interest. This interest has been stimulated by a recognition that a text's translatability
varies "with the degree to which it is embedded in its own specific culture" (Snell-Hornby 1988,
David Limon
41, emphasis in original) and on the distance between the source and target culture. Cultures have
a tendency to perceive in a particular way – a 'metaprogramme' involving cultural or value
orientations (see Katan 1999, 172ff). Moreover, we view other cultures through the filter of our
own, which means that we can easily misinterpret texts produced by other cultures; we also tend
to interpret texts on the basis of our past experience of similar texts in our own language. The
translator acts as a mediating agent between two cultures and needs to decide how much
information should be given about the context of culture for communication to occur. It is often
assumed that the surface features of languages refer the reader to the same shared semantic base,
but languages categorize reality in different ways, neatly overlapping in some areas, but not in
others and, like all models, languages generalize, distort and make assumptions. The
translator/mediator can reduce distortion by looking for implicit information in both the
immediate and wider context and making it explicit. It is now widely accepted that all translation
involves some degree of manipulation and that, according to the accessibility of the frame of
reference, the translator may need to make additions or, more rarely, deletions in order to
facilitate communication between writer and reader. The translator is not engaged in a simple
process of linguistic transfer but in the writing of an appropriate text in the target language,
taking as the starting point a source language text.
Translation theorists often identify two different types or poles of translation, based on the
function of the target text and its relation to the source text. In the first type (which has been
variously labelled as documentary, overt or direct translation3), the target text is, in effect, a 'text
about a text' and only second-level functional equivalence is achieved – the text is appreciated by
members of the target culture at a distance and the translator's work is clearly visible. This
approach may be required when older or sacred texts are involved,4 or when there is a great
cultural distance between the source text and target text contexts. Although this kind of
translating may receive a great deal of scholarly attention, as it encompasses, for instance,
translations of the Bible and many poetic works, the vast majority of translations fall into the
second category. In what might be labelled instrumental, covert or indirect translation, the
translator takes a more pragmatic approach, striving for functional equivalence, conveying both
what is made explicit and what is implied in the text to an extent judged to be relevant for the
target audience. In manipulating the source text, the translator makes use of a "cultural filter"
(House 2001), which should be based on empirical cross-cultural research into shared
conventions of communication, preferred rhetorical styles, expectation norms and so on. Such a
filter enables cultural compensation, rather than transfer in the strictest sense. Stolze (2001)
questions whether there is transfer from one culture to another in translation, as texts do not
contain stable meanings which can be transported intact. Rather, the translator translates what he
or she has in mind, or what has been understood from reading the text, be this right or wrong.
Source and target texts are thus one and the same thing: "a form of expression of the message's
mental representation in the translator's mind" (Stolze op.cit., 301). Thus the task of translating
By, respectively, Nord (1997) House (2001) and Gutt (1991).
This also happens within a language: outside the academic context, Chaucer is most often read in
'translation' into modern English.
Writing across cultures
can be described as formulating a message understood on the basis of the original text and
writing a new text (the translation), which will then be understood by and meet the needs of
Translators could be described as experts in text formation of a special kind, recreating a
particular message in the target communicative situation.5 The communicative success of the
target text must be judged by the same criteria as for any text with the same function in that
language – the fact that it is a translation is not important from the reader's point of view (the
reader may not even be aware that it is a translation). Indeed, where the source text has incidental
or auxiliary status, such as in the production of a user's manual for a piece of apparatus, which
could be produced, as it were, from scratch, then we may question whether translation is even the
right strategy to use.
In the case of those translating into English as a non-mother tongue, as often happens in
Slovenia (and many other parts of the world, see Campbell 1998), it can be argued that with
regard to certain kinds of discourse, such as scientific and technical texts, accuracy is more
important than felicity of style and a thorough grounding in the subject matter, supported by close
familiarity with such texts in the target language, is more important to the translator than 'nativespeaker' competence6 in the target language. In any case translation competence, like bilingual
competence, is a matter of degree,7 what matters more is the translator's textual competence.
4. Functional differences between texts
In order to equip students of language or translation to cope with textual difference across
languages, we first of all need to decide how to categorize and analyze different kinds of writing
or different kinds of texts. Probably the best way is to focus on genre, defined as "a class of
communicative events, the members of which share some set of communicative purposes"
(Swales 1990, 58). The reasons are largely practical: students find it relatively easy to identify
genres in their mother tongue because of their immediacy in the social environment, but have
problems determining the text type8 focus conveyed through such genres because of the need for
Many influential translation theories, such as Skopostheorie (Vermeer 1989) and Descriptive Translation
Studies (Toury 1995), now downgrade the importance of the source text and instead focus on the target
text and its function, its reception by the reader and its relation to other similar texts in the target
Any reliance within language teaching on the notion of native speaker is surely questionable, not only
because of the extreme difficulty of defining the term satisfactorily, but also because of the growing
status of English as a world language or lingua franca.
Bilinguals do not necessarily make good translators and good translators may not be maximally
bilingual. It is quite normal for bilinguals to associate use of their different languages with different
socio-cultural contexts (e.g. the language of the home vs. the language of formal education) and to keep
them quite separate for this reason. With regard to translators, there are clearly different linguistic
demands involved in understanding the SL text and formulating the TL text.
Confusingly, many writers use the term text type – which refers here to categories such as narration,
description, exposition, argumentation and instruction – when they are talking about texts with a
particular communicative purpose, i.e. genres. For a discussion of the terminological confusion in this
area see Limon (2003).
David Limon
close reading and awareness of the linguistic devices used (Izquierdo 2000). The task is made
more difficult by the multi-functionality of most texts – hybridization is the norm. Where genre
and text type usually coincide (e.g. advertisement and instructive focus) the task may be more
straightforward, otherwise detailed analysis of the text in context is needed before its dominant
focus can be identified.
Asking whether a translation or a text written in the L2 is a communicatively effective one
is a socio-textual question and genre analysis, which looks at socially ratified ways of using
language in connection with a particular type of social activity (Fairclough 1995, 14), offers a
suitable approach to finding the answer. Genre analysis sets out to explain socio-cultural,
institutional and organizational constraints upon communication, as well as to identify
conventionalized regularities in communicative events. In particular, it examines the sui generis
features of particular textual genres, which can range from a white paper, a contract, a letter of
recommendation, a progress report or the minutes of a meeting, to a formal lecture, an inaugural
address or a sermon. The principal feature that turns a collection of communicative events into a
genre is some shared set of communicative purposes or goals. These purposes constitute the
rationale for the genre, shaping the schematic structure of the discourse, influencing and
constraining choice of content and style. A communicative purpose is the privileged property of a
genre; other properties, such as form, structure and audience expectations operate to identify the
extent to which an exemplar is prototypical (Swales op.cit., 52). The rationale behind a genre
establishes constraints on allowable contributions in terms of their content, positioning and form.
A key concept here is that of discourse communities, which are the "sociorhetorical
networks" that form in order to be able to work towards a common set of rhetorical goals (Swales
ibid.). Language is used within a group as part of social behaviour to extend the group's
knowledge and initiate new members.9 Experts in a particular genre can exploit its conventions to
achieve their private intentions within the socially-established framework (for example, a skilled
journalist who can give a particular 'slant' to a story), but members of the discourse community
must be able to accept the text as an example of the genre for it to fulfil its purpose. The genres
most frequently discussed by analysts10 tend to follow an Anglo-Saxon approach and so the way
they organize their overall message through separate rhetorical steps or "moves" (Swales 1981)
varies little between languages. The field of science and technology, for example, in its
"underlying infrastructure now relies upon an English-based sociology of knowledge" (Grabe and
Kaplan op.cit., 156). In contrast to the view generally held by scientists and laymen alike,
scientific reporting is not all that objective, but rather reflects deeply embedded cultural and
rhetorical assumptions about relevance, organization, acceptability and so on. The reality of
scientific reports is constructed out of the social relations within the research community, which
tries to maintain its own coherence and power structure. As we have already noted, individuals
use language either to help them become members of such a discourse community, to cement
For a more detailed definition see Swales (1990, 24-27).
Academic research papers in Swales (ibid.), while Connor (1996, 132ff) discusses cross-linguistic genre
studies in the fields of academic writing (grant proposals), professional writing (CVs and job
applications) business writing (particularly promotional letters) and newspaper editorials.
Writing across cultures
relations with the community, or to determine and define who they are and what they believe
within the community. Publication, then, is not about objective reporting, but about interpreting
and modifying information, citing authoritative literature and imitating appropriate models, with
the aim of becoming, in turn, part of the establishment and its literature. Thus science writing is a
value-laden rhetorical activity and to do it successfully you need a highly sophisticated sense of
audience, as well as an ability to convey rhetorically charged information – to be persuasive
without appearing to be so. Clearly this is important in a whole range of academic and
professional fields if the writer wishes to cross cultural and linguistic borders (particularly if the
language involved is a less widely spoken one).
5. Teaching writing and translating
Even in our own language we need to learn how to successfully produce different written
genres, doing so either through education (e.g. the discursive essay, the laboratory report, the
curriculum vitae), training (e.g. the film script, the business report, the minutes of a meeting),
professional experience (e.g. the promotional text, the manual) or socialization (e.g. the request
for information, the letter of condolence). Learning a genre involves mastering not just a formal
pattern or method of achieving a goal, but also clarifying what are accepted as goals by the
community within which we are operating. When the target audience for our text is outside our
own culture, then this clearly adds another level of difficulty. Mother-tongue writing instruction
often neglects broadly-based functional writing skills in favour of creative writing and comment
on set literary texts; there may also be little attention paid to composing strategies, audienceawareness and text organization.11 One implication of this is that the teaching of English as a
second or foreign language, as well as the training of translators to translate into or from English,
needs to ensure that students acquire the skills and awareness required to be able to achieve their
communicative aims when writing in English.
This should start with the different rhetorical preferences, textual conventions and
communicative tendencies identified by contrastive rhetorical or cross-cultural studies. It should
also include different genre conventions, for specific writing skills cannot simply be transferred
from one genre to another: writing a marketing brief is not the same as writing a scientific paper.
Genre conventions should be derived not only from parallel texts (i.e. texts of the same genre in
the source and target languages, not translations) but also from relevant manuals or writing
guides from the target environment on the genre in question. Writers have a great deal of freedom
with regard to the use of linguistic resources, but need to conform to the conventions that shape
reader expectations if the text is to fulfil its purpose – in other words, if pragmatic success is to be
achieved in the context in which it is used.
In addition to the kind of contrastive studies already mentioned, different aspects of
textuality such as coherence, cohesion and information structure, which do not form part of the
standard description of a language in the same way as do phonetics, morphology, grammar and
syntax, should be addressed. Coherence allows the reader to build a model of comprehension,
See Sešek (2004) on writing instruction in Slovene.
David Limon
while cohesive features provide a framework for coherence. Coherent texts have a stated or
implicit theme and a good degree of fit between rhetorical structure or organizational logic and
surface organization. Metatextual coherence relates to the way that the writer refers to the text
itself, previewing and summarizing, signposting other parts of the text, indicating topic shifts and
digressions, and so on. Explicit intertextual coherence may be indicated in a number of ways –
biographical references, allusions, parody etc. – while the degree of conformity to genre
conventions can be said to represent implicit intertextual coherence. Languages seem to differ
with regard to how implicitly or explicitly coherence is realized and, if explicit, the ways in
which it is expressed (Chesterman 1998, 183). Moreover, preferences and degrees of reader
tolerance for particular features, such as the use of repetition, may vary according to both
language and genre (e.g. a high level of repetition is used in certain legal texts to avoid any
danger of ambiguity). Furthermore, every language has its own repertoire of cohesive devices,
which cannot simply be transferred from L1 to L2 during the writing or translating process.12
The information structure of the text guides the reader as to the writer's intent, showing
what is presupposed or assumed and what thematic information is highlighted. There is a "tacit
linguistic agreement" between writer and reader that the status of information will be marked as
given or new (Enkvist 1987, 30). A text's informativity is constrained by text ordering and how
rapidly and from what perspective the author wants to present information. As with cohesion,
different languages have different ways of signalling information structure, to which the writer or
translator needs to be sensitive (Limon 2004, 214). Offering too much or too little information at
specific junctures affects the coherence of the text, making the reader's task more difficult. In the
Anglo-Saxon tradition, 'poor' writing is often equated with writing that forces readers to make too
many inferences by failing to provide sufficient given information derivable from co-text or
context (Grabe and Kaplan 1996, 54).
Within both language teaching and translator training, a great deal of decontextualized
lexical and grammatical work takes place, partly because of the practicalities of classroom
application and partly because of the washback effects of examinations, which tend to emphasize
grammatical and lexical accuracy. However, students have to be encouraged to think "holistically
in terms of creating coherent texts" (Snell-Hornby 1988, 18), or in terms of messages rather than
linguistic signs. We do not teach students to write in another language by teaching them its
grammar and vocabulary, but rather by increasing their knowledge of different rhetorical
traditions and text conventions, and strengthening their skills with regard to text structuring,
organization, coherence, metatextual and informational cohesion, and so on. They also need
training in audience awareness to stop them taking the reader for granted – in particular assuming
that there is no difference between an L1 reader and an L2 reader other than language.
In some areas this is perhaps more easily recognized than in others. In the case of letter
writing, the need to teach layout conventions, salutations and complementary closes is perhaps
seen as self-evident, whereas the different textual routines or sub-genres that go to make up the
body of the letter, depending on its function, may be seen as part of more general writing skills.
For example, texts in Slovene place more reliance on lexical cohesion, English texts more on
grammatical cohesive devices (Limon 2004, 213ff).
Writing across cultures
However, most formal letter writing is highly formulaic and depends largely on the sequencing of
established routines. In order to write a letter in another language that achieves it
communicational goals we need a sound knowledge of the routines specific to that language – we
should not simply transfer from our own first language. This applies to translating as well as
writing: the translator of a letter needs to transfer the message of the original letter, but the way
that message is expressed should be guided above all by the target language conventions. Indeed,
it is questionable in many contexts whether there is any real point in writing letters specifically
for translation: goals are more likely to be achieved if the translator, as cultural mediator and
expert in cross-linguistic text formation, is briefed about the content of the letter in the L1 and
then composes the letter in the target language. The same surely applies to a wide range of
professional, academic, institutional and even journalistic genres: 13 a satisfactory end result is
more likely if the translator, just like the writer, formulates the text directly in the target language,
bearing in mind all the textual factors we have discussed. Whether we are considering a student
of English or a translator working into English the same principle applies: we are not concerned
with a process of linguistic transfer but rather with the communication of a message in a new
cultural environment.
Writing is particularly important because of its empowering role: it enables us to launch our
ideas into the world, to win membership of discourse communities (which often, rightly or
wrongly, represent influential social elites) and to influence others. We owe it to our students to
provide them with the basic knowledge and skills they need to be able to communicate
effectively in writing in English in any academic, professional or other social context in which
they may (wish to) become involved in the future. The starting point is a detailed awareness of
the way different textual genres work in different cultures and a strong sense of reader
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