Translation and culture [Archives:2006/1007/Community]

December 14 2006

Abdal Jaleel Mohammed Hasan Abdullah
Culture is defined as the way of life and its manifestations that are peculiar to a community using a particular language as its means of expression. More specifically, I distinguish between universal and cultural language. Words like breakfast are universal, whereas “five cats” and “born with a silver spoon in his mouth” are cultural.

A translator has no problem translating universal words, but there will be problems translating cultural words unless there's a cultural overlap between the source and the target language. Universal words like breakfast and embrace often cover the universal function, but not the cultural description of the referent. Because there's a gap between any two cultures, a translator is in trouble. Thus, every people group has their culture and their own language to express it.

Here, the big problem is the cultural gap. It's the same problem my friends and I encountered in college when trying to translate some text from English into Arabic and vice versa.

Therefore, the translator must be both bilingual and bicultural. He must demonstrate a good understanding of the source language's culture. He should have an equal knowledge of at least two languages and cultures. Knowing the source language's culture is essential because what may sound acceptable in one culture may be unacceptable in another. Thus, a translator requires a great knowledge of all factors contributing to a culture's formation, such as religions, customs, values and many other things which, when put together, form what we call culture.

In my opinion, knowing all the factors is based on indulging inside the source language's society in order to compare between its culture and the target language society and culture. This is the best way to the bridge the gap between these two cultures. In this way, we can adhere to the following saying: practice makes perfect.