English - Greek Translation Services, Greek Dictionaries, Machine Translation
Translatum - The  Greek Translation Vortal
Translatum.gr - Greek Translation
Greek Translation Services
 Ask a terminology question in the forum!
Sitemap | News | Tell a friend | RSS
Translatum Greek Translation Forum
Our page on facebookFollow us on twitterRSS feed

Greek translation Greek dictionaries 

Translatum Journal - Issue 5


Shi Aiwei (石爱伟)
Xinzhou Teachers University, Shanxi, China

Translatability and Poetic Translation - 1
Part 2


The “translator, traitor” is a motto that is believed by many to be true, not mentioning poetic translation, the one area too divine to be touched for literary enthusiasts, or more specifically, poetic enthusiasts. “Poetry is what gets lost in translation,” Robert Frost, American poet and critic, once says. This thesis, starting from a brief account of old ideas of the untranslatability of poetry, proposes instead a hypothesis that poetry is translatable (Chapter One). In the next chapter (Chapter Two) an analysis of why poetry is untranslatable is made in both linguistic and cultural respects. It goes on giving a detailed analysis of translation in general, its various definitions, its multiple functions and the author’s own idea of it (Chapter Three). Then literary translation is discussed, involving its features and main function—aesthetic value which is the very core in poetic translation as well (Chapter Four). Chapter Five deals with features of poetic translation, treating at the beginning the relationship between poetry and aesthetics and then making a comparison of Sino-west poetic theories. What follows is a discussion of the longstanding issue of form vs content and the criteria of poetic translation. At the end of this chapter, the function of poetry is discussed. Chapter Six suggests some strategies in poetic translation, all with a strong consciousness of compensation of possible loss of the source text. The thesis ends with a conclusion—poetry is translatable, if translation is regarded as a purposeful act rather than a sterile irrational pursuit of exact duplication.


Translation used to be considered an inter-language transfer of meaning, which is the point of departure for research and study. Many earlier definitions demonstrate this, using source language and target language as their technical terms. Moreover, translation theories strictly confined themselves within the sphere of linguistics. For many years the popular trend in the translation circles had been perfect faithfulness to the original both in content and in form and it had been regarded as the iron criterion as if from the holy Bible for translators to observe. The godly status and the impossible idealistic belief were not altered until new thoughts arose with the respect of consideration of target readers, the unavoidable translator subjectivity and the purpose and function of translations. This thesis, starting to look from new angles such as the accommodation to target cultural conventions, the translator's consciousness of linguistic and cultural adaptations to make it easy for readers to understand translated works without too much pain and effort, and translation as a purposeful endeavor. Translation is then understood as a much more complicated activity with a much broader scope.

Translation of poetry was, and still is by some, believed as impossibility for any unfaithful elements would have been taken as failure, be it content or form. The arguments include linguistic elements and cultural elements. Most importantly the myth of untranslatability looks upon poetry as beauty itself which is untouchable for once it is touched it is destroyed. But as translation of poetry has never been stagnant though sometimes vigorous and sometimes not, there is strong evidence in both translation history and present day practice that poetic translation, a literary form as distinguished from fiction, drama, and prose, is translatable. Poetry itself serves a purpose, be it an illusive matter, and aesthetics can be reproduced in another language and culture if accommodation is made. It would be highly likely that the target readers would obtain rather similar if not the same aesthetic pleasure reading the translation as would the source readers reading the original poem. And this is, I believe, the only criterion in evaluating and assessing what is a successful piece of translation. Of course there are other functions of poetry like informative, didactic, cognitive, practical and even entertainment functions. The aesthetic function stays at the top of the list, though.

In other words, if a translation fails to perform the aesthetic function it is in my eyes a bad translation, no matter how well the form is preserved. A word-for-word translation may be judged faithful in form, but it is failure in terms of the performance of functions. As aesthetics of one people influences them with different elements from that of another, accommodation in translation is of urgent necessity. Often loss or addition is made to achieve that end and sometimes only some elements are preserved while other elements are neglected. This is inevitable or there will be no translation, which means if one fears any loss or addition, one should learn to read the original always instead of reading the translated version. But how many of us can do that?

The thesis aims at breaking the myth of untranslatability of poetry and argues from the appropriate understanding of translation to the various functions of poetry. And in the end it suggests, with examples taken from well-acknowledged translators of poetry, some strategies for poetic translators so that global talk opens up another channel for human communication. We will understand one another better.

The detailed organization is as follows. This thesis, starting from a brief account of old ideas of the untranslatability of poetry, proposes instead a hypothesis that poetry is translatable (Chapter One). In the next chapter (Chapter Two) an analysis of why poetry is untranslatable is made in both linguistic and cultural respects. It goes on giving a detailed analysis of translation in general, its various definitions, its multiple functions and the author's own idea of it (Chapter Three). Then literary translation is discussed, involving its features and main function--aesthetic value which is the very core in poetic translation as well (Chapter Four). Chapter Five deals with features of poetic translation, treating at the beginning the relationship between poetry and aesthetics and then making a comparison of Sino-west poetic theories. What follows is a discussion of the longstanding issue of form vs content and the criteria of poetic translation. At the end of this chapter, the function of poetry is discussed. Chapter Six suggests some strategies in poetic translation, all with a strong consciousness of compensation of possible loss of the source text. The thesis ends with a conclusion--poetry is translatable.




"Traduttore-traditore." (Translator = traitor.), says the well-known Italian phrase. “ Poetry is what gets lost in translation,” Robert Frost says.

Western tradition and culture is founded on untranslatability. This may sound like a paradox, if one thinks of the long tradition of translatio studii or translatio imperii in the culture, or if you just ponder the very word tradition . Tradition, from Latin tradere (‘hand over'), implies a process of communication, transmission, and transference that necessarily allows for the transformation, whether in terms of “losses” or “gains,” usually associated with what we consensually mean by translation. To translate is not to say the same thing in another tongue, but to make manifest a different thing. This may sound close to what we used to call “the impossibility of translation'.

Croce (quoted in Carravetta, 1997) holds that poets cannot be compared, as each is unique. Translation is impossible; it is only a pedagogical necessity. The responsibility of the interpreter is to capture "the mood or state of being (stato d'animo) of its author."

In modern times some scholars have come to realize that something in a language can not be fully translated into another, in other words, there is an inevitable loss of meaning. Catford (1965), a celebrated translation scholar of the linguistic school, raises the issue of untranslatability with a new perspective. He argues that linguistic untranslaltability is due to the difference in the Source Language (SL) and the Target Language (TL), whereas cultural untranslatability is due to the absence in the TL of relevant situational features. Dabeluet and Viney (quoted in Wilss, 2001), in the fruitful book A comparative French and English Stylistics have analyzed in detail the points of linguistic difference between the two languages, differences that constitute areas where translation is impossible. Popovic (quoted in Wilss, 2001) also has attempted to define untranslatability without making a separation between the linguistic and cultural factors. Nida (1984) presents a rich source of information about the problems of loss in translation, in particular about the difficulties encountered by the translators when facing with terms or concepts in SL that do not exist in TL. Newmark (1982) has also once briefly talked about the deviation in translation.

In Chinese translation history, in contemporary and modern day translation circles, many experts and scholars have also discussed the problem to some extent in their empirical assertions and research papers.

As early as the flourishing period of Buddhist scriptures, the problem of untranslatability was mentioned and a rather strong expression was used to criticize certain versions as ‘feeding others what one has munched in his own mouth'( 嚼饭与人 , my translation), not mentioning translation of poetry.

Zhu guangqian (Zhu, 1987: 113) says that the reason why poetry translation poses more difficulty than prose translation lies in that poetry stress more on its musical quality while prose emphasizes more on meaning. Translating meaning is apparently easier than translating the musical quality (my translation). Chinese, unlike English, uses characters which are all single syllables, namely, one character as one syllable. So phrases and clauses are easily arranged into even number phrases and neat even number couplets, if the need arises for comparison or contrast. However, the western languages have strict grammatical rules, requiring fixed structures that forbids free inversions or disorders. If translating literally according to the Chinese form, confusion emerges. (Ibid: 201) (my translation) Poetry can not only be translated into a foreign language nor can it be translated into another style or another historical period of the same language because the sound and meaning of the language change with the times. Modern syllables and rhythms can not replace those needed in ancient language and modern associated meaning can not replace the ancient associated meaning (Ibid: 223) (my translation).

Chen Shuxin (Chen, 2000) proposes that poetic untranslatability mainly lies in the transference of the beauty of the original sound. If put in order, the transference of sound stays at the top of the list, then form and style, lastly meaning (my translation).

Wen Yiduo (Zhu, 1925: 149) exemplifies untranslatability as follows: “Li Bai stands between the ancient style and contemporary style. His wul ǜ , which consists of five characters in each line and eight lines altogether, has the soul of ancient style and the body of the contemporary which is characterized with abundant embellishment. The embellished style may be translatable but not the poetic power. Nevertheless Li Bai without his tremendous power is no longer himself”. (my translation) For example, the lines 人烟寒橘柚 , 秋色老梧桐 was translated as :


The smoke from the cottages curls

Up around the citron trees,

And the hues of late autumn are

On the green paulownias.

“What is the matter?” Mr Zhu asks, “The glorious beauty of the Chinese poem, once transformed into English should become so barren and mediocre! Such precious lines as these are untranslatable for they are too subtle and too refined. If one has to translate it anyway, it is doomed to be destroyed. Beauty is untouchable. If it is touched, it dies.” ( my translation) (Ibid: 150).

But Zhu later has to admit in another book that translation is not intended for the original author or those who understand the source language. It should not intend to compare with the original. It is impossible and unnecessary to please the reader who understands the source language with one's translation (my translation) (Ibid: 154).

In summary, I find that those who stick to untranslatbility are but two kinds of people. Some strictly believe the holiness of the original text and others the absoluteness of the unity of meaning and form in a certain language. And they, idealistically, do not allow any addition or loss of meaning in the transferring process as in translation, which is actually inevitable and is a rule rather than an exception.


Translation work, in its present form, dates back more than a thousand years in China and in Western countries. The ever-lasting practice of translation itself manifests the translatability of languages. Therefore, it stands to reason that a language can be translated from one language into another. Under the guide of this perception, former scholars usually probe into the problem of translation from an instinctive and empirical point of view.

Not all words need to be translated. Some cannot. Some can be transcribable, but if there is no cultural equivalent, whether it is translatable or not it still needs to be explained, just like a jargon needs to be explained to the non-specialist in a footnote. Words, expressions or interjections that are exclusive to a culture, a religion or a jargon cannot always be translated in a satisfactory way because the same thing does not exist in the other language's culture. In many cases such words with no perfect equivalent are the words that end up being borrowed by the other language, sometimes with a possible spelling adaptation to ease pronunciation in the other language.

Jacobson ( 1966: 238) (quoted in Wolfram Wilss, 2001) comes to the conclusion that poetry by definition is untranslatable. Only creative transposition is possible. With this as a prerequisite, translation of poetry should and must be translatable.

Historically speaking, the activity of poetic translation has always been there, popular at one time and losing momentum at another, though always being practiced. In other words, whenever human communication is necessary, translation will live on and maintain a firm and fast stronghold. The reason is simple but unavoidable—we, as a nation or a country, are not living alone. As long as we do not lock ourselves up, translation will be translatable, be it scientific translation or poetic translation.

Many translators in contemporary and modern China have made and are making outstanding contributions to the literary and poetic exchanges between China and the West through their diligent and painstaking work. Xu Yuanchong, for instance, has translated several books of Chinese ancient poems into English, the most important being the The 300 Hundred Tang Poems . Gu Zhengkun, by rendering into English The Collection of Mao Zedong's Poems , is another example to have introduced Chinese poetry to readers of English. Foreigners include Arthur Waley, Herbert Giles, Witter Bynner, W.J.B. Fletcher, James Legg, Amy Lowell, etc. Translators from English into English are, needless to say, numerous, such as Bian Zhilin, Guo Moruo, Tu Ang, Huang Gaoxin, Jiang Feng, Cao Minglun , and Zhu Chunshen, to name but a few for the present purpose.

All these people do not only support the idea that translation of poetry is possible but provide living proof by their many well-received and highly-acclaimed translated works.



Let's see what specialists say, to begin with, about the nature and essence of translation.

Ebel (1969: 50) (quoted in Wolfram Wilss, 2001) says that indeed, modern translation theory denies the very existence of translation as it has previously been understood, i.e. as the replacement of an utterance in one language by another, so that the two are interchangeable. The dream of “literal” or “close” translation, which culminated in the attempt to computerize translation, has given way in turn to what might be termed a higher subjectivity. Since “there are connections but not correlations or diagnostic correspondences between cultural norms and linguistic patterns”, no language is ever a valid substitute for another; “faithfulness” in translation is thus impossible.

Gipper (1972: 91) (quoted in Wolfram Wilss, 2001: 41) believes that translation is and will continue to be a relative concept. It could be said that every translation represents a transposition from the perspectives of one linguistic view of the world to those of another and that this cannot take place entirely without changes or metamorphoses (change of form or character).

Durbeck (1975: 8) (quoted in Wolfram Wilss, 2001: 42) holds that the world view of one's native tongue is dominant, thus making man a ‘prisoner of his language”.

Wolfram Wilss (Ibid: 49) says, “The translatability of a text can thus be measured in terms of the degree to which it can be re-contextualized in TL, taking into account all linguistic and extra-linguistic factors. …The translatability of a text is thus guaranteed by the existence of universal categories in syntax, semantics, and the (natural) logic of experience. …Linguistic untranslatability occurs when the linguistic form has a function beyond that of conveying factual relationships and is therefore a constituent part of the functional equivalence to be achieved. This, for example, is true of play on words, which can usually be adequately translated semantically but not stylistically.” For instance,


1)-Are you training for a race ?

– No, I'm racing for a train.

2) Just because I am chased don't get the idea I am chaste .

These are examples of linguistic play of words.


1) The problems of the world are easily soluble in wine.

2) Pay your taxes with a smile.

These are instances of cultural play of words.

Catford(1965: 99) believes that Cultural untranslatability is usually less “absolute” than linguistic untranslatability.

Nida (1969: 483) holds that relative adequacy of inter-lingual communication are based on two fundamental factors: 1) semantic similarities between languages, due no doubt in large measure to the common core of human experience; and 2) fundamental similarities in the syntactic structures of languages, especially at the so-called kernel, or core, level.


Levy (1967: 58) (as quoted in Wilss, 2001: 124) thinks that the translator frequently finds himself in a conflict-and-decision-marked situation during the translation process, a situation which becomes all the more difficult to master, the more complex the textual segment to be translated is in terms of syntax, semantics and stylistics.

In recent years the scope of linguistics has widened beyond the confines of the individual sentence. Text linguistics attempts to account for the form of texts in terms of their users. If we accept that meaning is something that is negotiated between producers and receivers to texts, it follows that the translator, as a special kind of text user, intervenes in this process of negotiation, to relay it across linguistic and cultural boundaries. In doing so, the translator is necessarily handling such matters as intended meaning, implied meaning, presupposed meaning, all on the basis of the evidence which the text supplies. The various domains of socio-linguistics, pragmatics and discourse linguistics are all areas of study which are germane (pertinent) to this process ( Hatim & Mason,1990: 133).

The focus of translation studies would be shifted away from the incidental incompatibilities among languages toward the systematic communicative factors shared by languages. Only in light of this new focus can such issues as equivalence and translation evaluation be satisfactorily clarified.

Ke (Ke, 1999) says that the problem of translatability or untranslatability is closely related to man's understanding of the nature of language, meaning and translation. From the socio-semiotic point of view, “untranslatables” are fundamentally cases of language use wherein the three categories of socio-semiotic meaning carried by a source expression do not coincide with those of a comparable expression in the target language. Three types of untranslatability, referential, pragmatic, and intra-lingual may be the carrier of the message. Language-specific norms considered untranslatable by some linguists should be excluded from the realm of untranslatables. And since translation is a communicative event involving the use of verbal signs, the chance of untranslatability in practical translating tasks may be minimized if the communicative situation is taken into account. In a larger sense, the problem of translatability is one of degree: the higher the linguistic levels the source language signs carry meaning(s) at, the higher the degree of translatability these signs may display; the lower the levels they carry meaning(s) at, the lower the degree of translatability they may register.


Translation practice is one of the strategies a culture devises for dealing with what we have learned to call the “Other” (a term borrowed from Lefevere, 2001, meaning a culture different from one's own—my interpretation). The development of a translational strategy therefore also provides good indications of the kind of society one is dealing with. The fact that China, for instance, developed translational strategies only three times in its history, with the translation of the Buddhist scriptures from roughly the second to seventh centuries AD, with the translation of the Christian scriptures starting in the sixteenth century AD, and with the translation of much Western thought and literature starting in nineteenth century AD, says something abut the image of the Other dominant in Chinese civilization, namely that the Other was not considered very important, only as ‘branches or leaves' instead of the ‘trunk'.

Cultures that are relatively homogeneous tend to see their own way of doing things as ‘naturally', the only way, which just as naturally becomes the ‘best' way when confronted with other ways. When such cultures themselves take over elements from outside, they will, once again, naturalize them without too many qualms and too many restrictions. When Chinese translate texts produced by others outside its boundaries, it translates these texts in order to replace them, pure and simple. The translations take the place of the originals. They function as the originals in the culture to the extent that the originals disappear behind the translations. The Chinese were forced to deal with the Other by the spread of Buddhism, which did not threaten the fabric of society, and therefore could be acculturated rather easily on the terms of the receiving, Chinese society. This is apparent not just from the manner of translating, but even more so from the fact that Taoist concepts were used in translations to acculturate Buddhist concepts. ( quoted from Bassnett & Lefevere, 2001: 169)

What are the options the translator faces ? We suggest they are as follows:

Is the element being translated obligatory or optional in the TL text format?

If it is obligatory, is the order in which it occurs appropriate for the TL text format?

If it is obligatory and the order is appropriate, will iteration (repetition), if there is any, be appropriate in the TL text format?

The less evaluative the text is, the less need there will be for its structure to be modified in translation. Conversely, the more evaluative the text is, the more scope there may be for modification. (ibid: 187)

The less culture-bound (treaties, declarations, resolutions, and other similar documents) a text is, the less need there will be for its structure to be modified in translation. Conversely, the more culture-bound a text is, the more scope there may be for modification.


There are numerous examples in both English and Chinese that exhibit historical elements deeply rooted in the languages. Idioms and legends always provide ready support in this respect.

Once an idiom or fixed expressions has been recognized, we need to decide how to translate it into the target language.

Here the question is not whether a given idiom is transparent, opaque, or misleading. Maybe it's easier to translate an opaque expression than a transparent one. The main difficulties in the translation may be summarized as follows.

An idiom or fixed expression may have no equivalent in the target language. One language may express a given meaning by means of a single word, another may express it by means of a transparent fixed expression, a third may express it by means of an idiom, and so on. So it is unrealistic to expect to find equivalent idioms and expressions in the target language in all cases.

The idioms and expressions may be culture-specific which can make it untranslatable or difficult to translate. The expressions such as hot dog (热狗) and Kangaroo Court (非正规法庭) which relate to specific cultural background provide good examples.

An idiom or fixed expression may have a similar counterpart in the target language, but its context of use may be different; the two expressions may have different connotations, they may not be pragmatically transferable. The expression such as make a come-back ( 东山再起,卷土重来 ) , though similar in meaning, the contexts in which the two idioms can be used are obviously different. Make a come-back is usually in positive occasions, but 卷土重来 is usually used in negative occasions.

An idiom may be used in the source text in both its literal and idiomatic senses at the same time. The expression such as kick down the ladder (过河拆桥) is a good example .It means treat with contempt those through whose assistance one has risen to a position of importance . It refers to the rising up politically or socially. But 桥 in Chinese translation refers to the tool or means to overcome difficulties, and is widely and commonly used. They are similar in the point of forget the help, and do harm to (忘恩负义) but different in details.

Legends are of a quite similar character. What is a legendary hero in one language, for example, King Arthur in English may not be known in another language, such as Chinese. Without necessary annotation the target reader would be certainly at a loss. But if a Chinese legendary figure is loaned to serve the purpose of a courageous and brave man, the readers may be wondering if the English people also have such a legend, which may result in misunderstanding. Translation from Chinese into English exhibits the same problem.


Just as the Chinese saying goes that a people of one geographical location is different from that of another, translation of geographical terms is where another problem is encountered. Recognition and familiarity of the geography is of immense help to bring about the readers' association, thus making comprehension easier. On the contrary, without a sense of geography, the readers have only their imagination in their power to employ. Translation of the following Chinese poem is a case in point.



打起黄莺儿 ,

莫教枝上啼 .

啼时惊妾梦 ,

不得到辽西 .

Xu Yuanchong's translation of the geographical location liaoxi becomes ‘frontier', which provides enough space for readers' association even without a note to explain it. Unlike Xu, another translator uses pinyin and has it annotated, saying it is the frontier of the battlefield.

Herbert Giles also translated this poem.


Drive the young orioles away,

Nor let them on the branches play;

Their chirping breaks my slumber through

And keep me from my dreams of you.

In this translation the translator dismisses the geographical location liaoxi altogether, for it would be difficult for English readers to associate the place with the frontier where her husband has been summoned. (Lǚ,, 2002: 255) The reason why the geographical name is omitted is that the translator feels no need to burden the target reader who would know little where that place is while for a Chinese the association is immediate, activating a vivid picture of the harsh environment for the poor soldiers, hungry, cold with knee-deep snow and whipping wind, hopeless of returning safe and sound, and confronted with the deadly barbarian enemy.


Lindbeck in his article The Gospel's Uniqueness: Election and Untranslatability says: “ This essay is an experiment in looking at the uniqueness of Christianity from the perspective of religions as community-forming comprehensive semiotic systems. Uniqueness in this outlook consists formally of untranslatability and materially of the unsubstitutable memories and narratives which shape communities identities”.

The Biblical story is well known. It has two main chapters: chapter one, Babel (Genesis 11: 1-9); chapter two, the Pentecost (Genesis 10: 9-11). In Genesis, the Almighty creates the different human languages to colonize an upstart humanity and thus secure the untranslatability of his own divinity. In the Acts of the Apostles, the miracle of total intelligibility, because it is a miracle and not a first instance of simultaneous translation, transcends language difference, and hence humanity, and thus once again presupposes and guarantees the ungraspable ideal of God's absolute meaning. The Babelic confusion of languages imposed by a jealous God, on the one hand, and the gift of the Holy Ghost in the Pentecostal cloven tongues of fire granted by a proselytizing god, on the other, both tell the same story of imperial identity and subjugated otherness. One single language is good, for it bespeaks the untouchable self-sameness of the deity.

If we follow the argument above, then translation simply becomes ‘mission impossible'. Yet translation of all kinds of religious scriptures are taking place all the time, with either meaning addition or loss of the original. And the ideas are spreading far and wide. Untranslatability of the divinity is only of pedantic research value, not barring the way of the translators practicing translations, much less the way of the common people fervent to learn about divinity.




It is universally agreed that translation means translating meaning. What is meaning, then?

As G. Steiner (1975: 45) points out, and as much research into the reading process has shown, each act of reading a text is in itself an act of translation, i.e. an interpretation. We seek to recover what is ‘meant' in a text from the whole range of possible meanings, in other words, from the meaning potential which Halliday (1978: 109) defines as “the paradigmatic range of semantic choice that is present in the system, and to which the members of a culture have access in their language”. Inevitably, we feed our own beliefs, knowledge, attitudes and so on into our processing of texts, so that any translation will, to some extent, reflect the translator's own mental and cultural outlook, despite the best of impartial intentions. No doubt, the risks are reduced to a minimum in most scientific and technical, legal and administrative translating; but cultural predispositions can creep in where least expected (Hatim & Mason.1990: 11). In literary translating, the process of constant reinterpretation is most apparent. The translator's reading of the source text is but one among infinitely many possible readings, yet it is the one which tends to be imposed upon the readership of the TL version. Since an important feature of poetic discourse is to allow a multiplicity of responses among SL readers, it follows that the translator's task should be to preserve, as far as possible, the range of possible responses; in other words, not to reduce the dynamic role of the reader.

The readers' purposes can be divided into two types: for comparative literary research (intellectual) and foreign literature appreciation (aesthetic). For different purposes the translator may translate differently.

Translation is a matter of choice, but choice is always motivated: omission, additions and alterations may indeed be justified but only in relation to intended meaning (Hatim & Mason.1990: 12).

The translator's motivations are inextricably bound up with the socio-cultural context in which the act of translating takes place. Consequently, it is important to judge translating activity only within a social context. Before there is translation, for example, there has to be a need for translation. In fact, the social context of translating is probably a more important variable than the textual genre, which has imposed such rigid distinctions on types of translating in the past (‘literary translation', ‘scientific and technical translation', ‘religious translation', etc.) Divisions of this kind tend to mask certain fundamental similarities between texts from different fields. There are regularities of discourse procedures which transcend the boundaries between genres and which it is our aim to describe.

Nida (1975) discusses translation from the point of view of semantic componential analysis, which consists in common (shared) components (the overlapping features of the single lexical units of a word field); diagnostic (contrastive) components (features which distinguish the meaning of individual lexical units of a word field or lexical units with more than one meaning); supplementary components (semantically optional secondary features which often have a connotative --in addition to fundamental meaning/denote: be the sign or symbol of --character and can cause metaphorical extensions).

I have done some research from the perspective of hermeneutics which studies meaning in human communication. Modern ideas on hermeneutics hold that the writer may be an editor or a redactor and that he may have used sources. In considering this aspect of discourse one must take into account the writer's purpose in writing as well as his cultural milieu. Secondly, one must consider the narrator in the writing who is usually different from the writer. Sometimes he is a real person, sometimes fictional. One must determine his purpose in speaking and his cultural milieu, taking into consideration the fact that he may be omnipresent and omniscient. One must also take into consideration the narratee within the story and how he hears. But even then one is not finished. One must reckon with the person or persons to whom the writing is addressed; the reader, not always the same as the one to whom the writing is addressed; and later readers. Thirdly, one must consider the setting of writing, the genre (whether poetry, narrative, prophecy, etc.), the figures of speech; the devices used, and, finally, the plot. (Hanko, 1991) Following the above ideas, we realize that understanding and interpreting the meaning of a discourse involves actually three factors: the author (writer), the text (or speech) and the reader. (quoted in Shi, 2004)

Jacobson (1966: 232-239) identifies three types of translation. The first is ‘translation' within the same language, referred to as intralingual translation. We are immersed in this kind of translation whenever we use different words and phrases to communicate similar meanings. Translation within the same language also shares this problem of ‘equivalence' prevalent in translation from one language to another. Jakobson points out that even synonyms do not capture ‘equivalence' of words. Thus when we replace one word by its synonym we are already giving into the mode of translation. In the case of scientific discourse, the problems associated with theory incommensurability arise out of intralingual translation. Although theories may use words and terms in the same language, and in fact carry over the same words into different theories, the incommensurability may arise because of changing historical and differing social contexts in which the words first gained currency.

The second type of translation is interlingual translation. This is what we commonly understand as translation, where translation involves rewriting a text in one language into another. Thus interlingual translation converts a text written in the source language (SL) to one written in the target language (TL). The problems associated with this form of translation are numerous. It is well illustrated in the simple example of translating yes and hello to equivalent words in French, German and Italian. This task, although seemingly simple, is filled with difficulties, even though “all are Indo-European languages, closely related lexically and syntactically, and terms of greeting and assent are common to all three” (Bassnett, 1991: 16). Both ‘yes' and ‘hello' are used in very specific contexts. In languages other than English, they convey very different meanings. For example, in the case of ‘hello,' it is pointed out that English does not distinguish between face to face greeting or that on the phone, whereas the other three languages explicitly make this distinction (Ibid, 17).

The third type of translation is intersemiotic translation, “an interpretation of verbal signs by means of signs of nonverbal sign systems”, although this seems to be of little interest to the practitioners of translation.

If translation does not merely re-express an original text what else does it do? For Benjamin, the position prior to actual translation is important, because it conveys that the text is more than a text—it is a text open to translation. In this sense all texts are not translatable; not all texts can be an original. The original is that which survives, has an ‘afterlife.' It is this survival that beckons the translator and opens the text to translation. To comprehend translation, we have to first understand the original as containing “the law governing the translation: its translatability” (Benjamin, 1992: 71). What does translatability imply? It is seen as an “essential quality of certain works,” supplies a “natural connection” to the original and suggests “that a special significance inherent in the original manifests itself in its translatability” (Ibid: 71). The translatability of a work is defined in terms of the “capacity of the work to live on.” Thus, “a translation issues from the original—not so much from its life as from its afterlife”.


Translation Studies is referred to as "Translatology" by scholars outside the U.S. , particularly in Europe . It is generally defined as the study of the theory and phenomena of translation. It is, according to many researchers in the field, an emerging discipline, yet to gain the status of an independent, distinct, discipline in the academia around the world. James S. Holmes is generally credited for his "founding statement for the field" (Gentzler, 1993:92) in his paper, entitled " The Name and Nature of Translation Studies, " originally presented to the Third International Congress of Applied Linguistics held in Copenhagen in 1972. Since then, research has been conducted with multi-disciplinary approaches in a more systematical fashion toward the formation of contemporary translation theory in its own right. 

Scientific study or artistic endeavor, researchable theory or technical craft, a branch of linguistics or of literature, all have their advocates among translators and those who have sought to characterize its theory and its practice. … here the somewhat sterile debates about translation as process or translation as product give way to fresh opportunities to cohere the semiotic, the linguistic, the social , the cultural and the psychological perspectives on communicating. In short, if offers a broader conception of what it means to understand (Candlin: 1990 as quoted in Hatim & Mason: 1990).

Wilss (2001: 58) holds that in other words, the science of translation, like Janus, has two faces. It is on the one hand the study of a process. As such, it is a prospective science which factors the translation process and studies its underlying transfer strategies. It is on the other hand the study of the results. As such, it is a retrospective science which proceeds from what it finds in the TL and compares the quality if the TLT with that of the original; by so comparing the two, it can begin to identify the formulation processes directing the production the TLT and to determine how adequately they achieve what was intended.

Gerven (1956: 181) believes that the translation process consists essentially of two sets of operations; operations of selection , and operations of a rrangement (quoted in Wilss, 2001: 175).

Schleiermacher thinks that the translator can either leave the writer in peace as much as possible or bring the reader to him, or he can leave the reader in peace as much as possible and bring the writer to him (quoted in Wilss, 2001: 33).

Taking into the consideration of all the above discussions of scholars and specialists we come to this conclusion: Translation lays emphasis on the product while translatology stresses a panoramic view of translation in an abstract sense. Or rather, translation is the application of rules and strategies based on translatology. Here in this thesis apparently, our focus and stress is not in the academic sense of translatology per se, which according to Yang Zijian (1998), mainly involves the study of the thinking process and methodology of translation.


Nida (1965 as quoted in Fan, 1999: 5) says, “translation consists in reproducing in the receptor language the closest natural equivalent of the source language massage, first in terms of meaning and secondly in terms of style.”

According to Lefevere, translations should be re-termed ‘rewritings', in order to both raise the status of the translator and get away from the limitations of the term ‘translation' (Bassnett & Lefevere, 2001.).

Some specialists make use of the following pair of terms literal v. free translation in the hope of shedding light on translation and clarifying certain translation process.

It has been an age-old debate concerning whether translation should be free or literal. Some translation theorists present these two aspects of the translation process as though they were alternatives, one or the other of which is to be opted for at one time, depending on the translator's own brand of theory or the prevailing orthodoxy. But, as Hatim and Mason (1997) make abundantly clear, literalness or freedom are intrinsic properties of the relevant part of the text being translated. That is, it would be misleading to refer to a literal or a free translation of, say, an entire genre such as an editorial or a news report. Instead, it is more appropriate to talk of a less literal translation of a certain part of an editorial, or a more literal translation of a certain part of a news report. Text type, at both the micro- and the macro-levels, is thus the last court of appeal in determining what forms of expression are to be retained or discarded, and how these may be modified to be contextually appropriate.

Eugene Nida (1984) also talks about translation form the perspective of equivalence: formal equivalence (closest possible match of form and content between ST and TT) and dynamic equivalence (principle of equivalence of effect on reader of TT).

Newmark (1982) speaks about translation in the following way: semantic translation (to render, as closely as the semantic and syntactic structures of the second language allow, the exact contextual meaning the original) and communicative translation.

Naturally, actual effects on receivers of texts are difficult to gauge. Consequently, it seems preferable to handle the issue in terms of equivalence of intended effects , thus linking judgments about what the translator seeks to achieve to judgments about the intended meaning of the ST speaker/writer.

Closely related to the literal versus free issue is the debate on the primacy of content over form or vice versa. Form, or style, may be seen as the result of motivated choices made by text producers; thus, we shall distinguish style from idiolect, the unconscious linguistic habits of an individual language user; and the conventional patterns of expressions which characterize particular languages. Stylistic effects are, in this sense, traceable to the intentions of the text producer and these are what the translator seeks to recover. Style, then, in the sense we are retaining, is not a property of the language system as a whole but of particular language users in particular settings. The translator, as a language user in a setting which is generally not that of the ST producer, has to be able to judge the semiotic value which is conveyed when particular stylistic options are selected.

Style is also an ideal for us to maintain in our mind and to endeavor to reach. Style means all kinds of things. Encarta English dictionary lists 11 definitions for it. Its third definition says: way of writing or performing: the way in which something is written or performed as distinct from the content of the writing or performance. This is where we commence our discussion. Lynch (2001) provides us with more or less what is generally understood of style in our school days. He says that at its broadest, it means everything about your way of presenting yourself in words, including grace, clarity, and a thousand undefinable qualities that separate good writing from bad. I also remember huge amount of stress from my teachers is placed on economy, precision and so on, plus clarity as stated by above. In a word, style is used as a term distinguished from content in writing and it stresses form or format. In other words, style means ‘how' whereas content refers to ‘what'.

If style comes only second in priority, it certainly stands very high in importance. It is only natural that good form conveys the content in more sufficient and adequate way. In translation discussion, faithfulness in content has always been emphasized and treated seriously, but faithfulness in style seems to pose more difficulty. In literature, style is the novelist's choice of words and phrases, and how the novelist arranges these words and phrases in sentences and paragraphs. Style allows the author to shape how the reader experiences the work. For example, one writer may use simple words and straightforward sentences, while another may use difficult vocabulary and elaborate sentence structures. Even if the themes of both works are similar, the differences in the authors' styles make the experiences of reading the two works distinct. Without extensive reading the capture of the so-called style is really a tough challenge. (quoted in Shi, 2004)

Is translation more about theory or practice? Hatim & Mason (1997) have this to say, “the gap between theory and practice in translation studies has existed for too long. Now thanks to work being done in several different but related areas, there is an opportunity to narrow that gap. Recent trends in socio-linguistics, discourse studies, pragmatics and semiotics, together with insights from the fields of artificial intelligence and conversation analysis, have advanced our understanding of the way communication works. The relevance to translation studies of all of this is obvious as soon as translation is regarded not as a sterile linguistic exercise but as an act of communication”.

Nida ( as quoted in Fan, 1999: 2) also says in the preface written for Professor Fang Zhongying's course-book of translation that translation practice without an adequate theory produces only haphazard results, while theory without practice is completely sterile.

To sum up, Wikipedia (2004), after integrating the research achievements of modern day translation circles provides the following understanding of translaiton, which is universally acknowledged now. Translation is an activity comprising the interpretation of the sense of a text in one language - the source text - and the production of another, equivalent text in another language - the target text . The goal of translation is to establish a relationship of equivalence between the source and the target texts (that is to say, both texts communicate the same message), while taking into account the various constraints placed on the translator. (These constraints include the rules of grammar of the source language, its writing conventions, its idioms and the like.)The term t ranslation is also used for the product of this procedure. Translation is also the name given to a profession which consists of transferring ideas expressed in writing from one language to another.



Lefevere (quoted in Bassnett & Lefevere, 2001) believes that there are four types of function: the communication of information, transmission of cultural capital (Cultural capital is what makes you acceptable in your society at the end of the socialization process known as education), entertainment, and persuasion.

Talking about the translation of Bible in America , the following purposes are proposed. 1) To determine, after careful linguistic and socio-linguistic research, the specific target audience for the translation and the kind of translation appropriate to that audience. It is recognized that different kinds of translation into a given language may be valid, depending on the local situation, including, for example, both more formal translations and common language translations. 2) To communicate not only the informational content, but also the feelings and attitudes of the original text. The flavor and impact of the original should be re-expressed in forms that are consistent with normal usage in the receptor language. 3) To recognize that it is sometimes necessary to restructure the form of a text in order to achieve accuracy and maximal comprehension. Since grammatical categories and syntactic structure often do not correspond between different languages, it is impossible or misleading to maintain the same form as the source text. Changes of form will also often be necessary when translating figurative language. A translation will employ as many or as few terms as are required to communicate the original meaning as accurately as possible. (quoted in Basic Principles and Procedures for Bible Translation Forum of Bible Agencies ).

What follows are ideas from a text-linguistic point of view. A translation-oriented Model of Text Functions is listed down below:

Referential function: informative; metalinguistic; directive; didactic.

Expressive function: aesthetic; emotive; evaluative; ironic.

Appellative function: appeal to reader's previous experience or knowledge; appeal to their sensitivity/their secret desires; appeal to their real or imagined needs. Direct/Indirect/Poetic function.

Phatic function: aims at establishing, maintaining or ending contact between sender and receiver. The phatic function thus largely depends on the conventionality of its form. The more conventional the linguistic form, the less notice we take of it. (The problem is that a form that is conventional in one culture may be unconventional in another).

Of course, a particular text can be designed to carry out a combination of several functions and sub-functions.

If we can acknowledge the different functions of the original text, then we are solidly grounded to reproduce in the target language at least approximately the identical functions so our translation fulfils its mission.


Nord (1989) puts forward the following pair of terms in talking about the purposes of translation: Documentary ( preserve the original exoticizing setting) vs instrumental translation (adaptation of the setting to the target culture).

Sigrid Kupsch-Losereit (quoted in Wilss, 2001) defines a translation error as an offence against: the function of the translation, the coherence of the text, the text type or text form, linguistic conventions, culture- and situation-specific conventions and conditions and the language system. What is the significance of such an assertion? The function of the translation is put at the top of the list, showing that the most serious error is to fail to convey the original function. To sum up, if the purpose of a translation is to achieve a particular function for the target addressee, anything that obstructs the achievement of this purpose is a translation error.

Next lets move on to study the functional classification of translation errors. Errors may occur in every aspect of translation, as shown in the following:

1) Pragmatic: caused by inadequate solutions to pragmatic translation problems such as a lack of receiver orientation.

2) Cultural: due to an inadequate decision with regard to reproduction or adaptation of culture-specific conventions.

3) Linguistic: caused by an inadequate translation when the focus is on language structures (as in foreign-language classes).

4) Text-specific: which are related to a text-specific translation problem and, like the corresponding translation problem, can usually be evaluated from a functional or pragmatic point of view. (cited in Nord. 2001.)

Let us herein emphasize that translating is an activity. This means that a theory of translation can be embedded in a theory of human action or activity. The parameters of action theory may help to explain some aspects of translation.

Human actions or activities are carried out by ‘agents', individuals playing roles. When playing the role of senders in communication, people have communicative purposes that they try to put into practice by means of texts. Communicative purposes are aimed at other people who are playing the role of receivers. Communication takes place through a medium and in situations that are limited in time and place. Each specific situation determines what and how people communicate, and it is changed by people communicating. Situations are not universal but are embedded in a cultural habitat, which in turn conditions the situation. Language is thus to be regarded as part of culture. And communication is conditioned by the constraints of the situation-in-culture.

In translation, senders and receivers belong to different cultural groups in that they speak different languages. They thus need help from someone who is familiar with both languages (and cultures) and who is willing to play the role of translator or intermediary between them. In professional settings, translators don't normally act on their own account; they are asked to intervene by either the sender or the receiver, or perhaps by a third person. From an observer's point of view, this third party will be playing the role of ‘commissioner' or ‘initiator'; from the translator's point of view, they will be the ‘client' or ‘customer'. Initiators may have communicative purposes of their own or they may share those of either the sender or the receiver. Translating thus involves aiming at a particular communicative purpose that may or may not be identical with the one that other participants have in mind.

Nida (1976: 64) treats this topic too, arguing that: when the question of the superiority of one translation over another is raised, the answer should be looked for in the answer to another question, ‘best for whom?'. The relative adequacy of different translations of the same text can only be determined in terms of the extent to which each translation successfully fulfills the purpose for which it was intended. In other words, the relative validity of each translation is seen in the degree to which the receptors are able to respond to its message (in terms of both form and content) in comparison with (1) what the original author evidently intended would be the response of the original audience and (2) how that audience did, in fact, respond.

The United Bible Societies in New York have come to the conclusion the “Holy Scriptures” must be available, a least in principle, in all languages in three addressee-specific versions, first a commented version for scientific purposes, second a version for the clergy, and third a popular version. In areas with widespread illiteracy there is even a fourth version, a “literacy version”, if necessary (quoted in Wilss, 2001: 133).

All these arguments are strong positive support of the paramount importance of the proper understanding of the original functions as well as the purposes before one sets out doing a piece of translation.


I agree with Benjamin (Benjamin, 1992: 77) that the “task of the translator consists in finding that intended effect [ Intention ] upon the language into which he is translating which produces in it the echo of the original”. It is interesting that Benjamin uses the word ‘echo.' The task of the translator can only produce the echo of the original, not the originality of the original. The idea of the echo is that we hear our own voices sent back to us. The echo is never strictly identical with what has been voiced before. It also suggests something about the space, the topography, of the domain that creates the echo. The voice that comes back to us is similar to what we uttered but is also distorted by the response of what sends back our voice.

In other words, just as Steiner (1975: 47) says, translation, in short, inside or between languages, equals human communication. According Gu (2000), translation is in much the same way as in human activity of information exchanges, which is a fundamental activity throughout our life. In some sense, it can be said that human communication is always done through translation. Translation happens when humans learn to know the world, restoring what we see of the outside world in our mind in visual code. This process actually is a kind of creative translation for the outside world is not exactly equal to the visual code in our brains, but it is a vivid and lively representation of the outside world. In a word, translation is an activity of understanding not only between humans themselves but also between the humans and world.


To begin with, let us cite what Tytler (1907: 9), an authority both in theory and in practice, has to say:

1) That the translation should give a complete transcript of the ideas of the original work.

2) That the style and manner of writing should be of the same character with that of the original.

3) That the translation should have all the ease of original composition.

This is the well-known Tytler's Three Principles. Nida (1964: 164) proposes that translation must:

1) make sense;

2) convey the spirit and manner of the original;

3) have a natural and easy form of expression;

4) produce a similar response.

The fourth requirement is an addition to Tytler's list, reflecting modern concern with reader response.

There have been in history, and even today, three respects of concern in translation: author-centered, text-centered and reader-centered translating. For many translators of religious texts, first loyalty is at all times with the source text. For others in the same field of translating, concern for the reader is paramount. Texts t1,t2 and t 3 in the following are taken from three major translations of the Parable of the Laborers in the Vineyard (Matthew 20,1-16).


T1 (the Authorized Version of 1611)

For the kingdom of heaven is like unto a man that is a householder, which went out early in the morning to hire laborers into his vineyard. And when he had agreed with the laborers for a penny a day, he sent them into his vineyard. And he went out about the third hour, and saw others…

T2 (the Revised Standard Version of 1881 and 1954)

For the kingdom of heaven is like a householder who went out early in the morning to hire laborers for his vineyard. After agreeing with the laborers for a denarius* a day, he sent them into his vineyard. And going out about the third hour he saw others…

* the denarius was worth about seventeen pence.

T3 (New English Bible, 1961)

The kingdom of Heaven is like this. There was once a landowner who went out early one morning to hire laborers for his vineyard; and after agreeing to pay them the usual day's wage he sent them off to work. Going out three hours later he saw some more men… ( Hatim & Mason.1990: 18)

In other words, it is often the difference in function of translation which produces differences of outlook.

Jumpelt (1961 as quoted in Wilss, 2001) when discussing translation equivalence, presents in the following five pairs of principles contradicting each other.

1) A translation must reproduce the words of the SLT.

2) A translation must reproduce the ideas (meaning) of the SLT.

3) A translation should read like an original.

4) A translation should read like a translation.

5) A translation should retain the style of the SLT.

6) A translation should mirror the style of the SLT.

7) A translation should retain the historical stylistic dimension of the SLT.

8) A translation should read as a contemporary piece of literature.

9) In a translation, a translator must never add or leave out anything.

10) In a translation, a translator may, if need be, add or leave out something.

It is remarkably contradictory and, as such, rather, confusing. Nevertheless, all translation principles are, to some extent justifiable within a specific translational frame of reference. (cited from Jumpelt, 1961)

Current equivalence terminology include: total eqivalence(Albrecht 1973); functional equivalence (Jager, 1973); equivalence in difference (Jakobson, 1966); retention (maintenance) of translation invariance on the content level (Kade 1968); equality of textual effect (Koller, 1972)' illusionist vs. anti-illusionist translation (Levy, 1969); closest natural equivalent (Nida, 1964); formal correspondence vs. dynamic equivalence (Nida, 1964 )(one way of defining a DE translation is to describe it as ‘the closest natural equivalent to the source-language message'. This type of definition contains three terms: 1) equivalent, which points toward the source-language message, 2) natural, which points toward the receptor language and 3) closest, which binds the two orientations together on the basis of the highest degree of approximation); stylistic equivalence (Popovic, 1976); functional invariance (Roganova, 1971); communicative equivalence (Reiss, 1976); pragmatic appropriateness of translation (Kopczynski, 1980); text-pragmatic equivalence (all the above citations are quoted from Wilss, 1980).

In analyzing the dilemma of the age-old dispute of free vs literal translatin, we find free translation would be intelligible but may convey no cultural insight while literal translation, on the other hand, superficially preserves the original but would be unintelligible to the reader often. In consequence, Malinowski (1923,1935) opted for translation with commentary.

What the extended commentary did was to ‘situationalise' the text by relating it to its environment, both verbal and non-verbal. Malinowski referred to this as the context of situation, including the totality of the culture surrounding the act of text production and reception. He believed the cultural context to be crucial in the interpretation of the message, taking in a variety of factors ranging from the ritualistic (which assumes great importance in traditional societies), to the most practical aspects of day-to-day existence.

Gu Zhengkun (Gu, 2003) argues in his well-acknowledged paper on translation criteria that there is no one absolute good-for-all criterion, for translation practice is a far more complex process involving many factors. He then introduces a new term-- multi-criterion, criteria complementing one another. To clarify it, with the varying situations criteria must adapt to suit the current needs. Criterion suitable for this kind of style may not be appropriate for another. Criterion that is of fundamental importance in translating this piece may turn out to be improper in guiding the process of translating another piece. Only when depending on various situations and complementing criteria can a perfect piece of translation be produced.


Basic problems faced by translators in their work in broad and general terms (Hatim & Mason,1990: 22):

1) Comprehension of source text:

a. parsing of text (grammar and lexis);

b. access to specialized knowledge;

c. access to intended meaning.

2) Transfer of meaning:

a. relaying lexical meaning;

b. relaying grammatical meaning;

c. relaying rhetorical meaning, including implied or inferable meaning, for potential readers.

3) Assessment of target text:

a. readability;

b. conforming to generic and discoursal TL conventions;

c. judging adequacy of translation for specified purpose.

This is a rather complete and through description of the translation process, without the detailed steps of which there would be no guarantee for the best quality of the translation.


What, then, is involved in this process of mediation? Most obviously, the translator has not only a bilingual ability but also a bi-cultural vision. Translators mediate between cultures (including ideologies, moral systems and socio-political structures), seeking to overcome those incompatibilities which stand in the way of transfer of meaning. What has value as a sign in one cultural community may be devoid of significance in another and it is the translator who is uniquely placed to identify the disparity and seek to resolve it. But there is another sense in which translators are mediators; in a way, they are “privilege readers” of the SL text. Unlike the ordinary ST or TT reader, the translator reads in order to produce, decodes in order to re-encode. In other words, the translator uses as input to the translation process information which would normally be the output, and therefore the end of, the reading process. Consequently, processing is likely to be more thorough, more deliberate than that of the ordinary reader; and interpretation of one portion of text will benefit from evidence forthcoming from the processing of later sections of text. Now, each reading of a text is a unique act, a process subject to the particular contextual constraints of the occasion, just as much as the production of the text is. Inevitably, a translated text reflects the translator's reading and this is yet another factor which defines the translator as a non-ordinary reader: whereas the ordinary reader can involve his or her own beliefs and values in the creative reading process, the translator has to be more guarded. Ideological nuances, cultural predispositions and so on in the source text have to be relayed untainted by the translator's own vision of reality.

Reading is a two-way process. On the one hand, readers bring to texts their own sets of assumptions based on previous experience of the world, so that each successive portion of text is processed in the light of these assumptions, and predictions are made about the likely development of the text. On the other hand, text items are analyzed in themselves and matched against each other, a process of syntactic and lexical decoding which results in the gradual building-up of composite meaning as reading proceeds (Alderson and Urquhart 1985). Two procedures are known: top-down and bottom-up.

The key concept here is interaction. We suggest that interaction is a process which takes place not only between participants (ST author translator, TT reader), but also between the signs which constitute texts and between the participants and those signs.

Armed with this complex structural outline, the translator makes choices at the level of texture in such a way as to guide the TT reader along routes envisaged by the ST producer towards a communicative goal. That is, items selected from the lexico-grammatical resources of the TL will have to reflect the overall rhetorical purpose and discoursal values which have been identified at any particular juncture in the text.


Lye (1996) says that meaning is a difficult issue. What is said here only scratches the surface of a complex and contested area. How do we know what a work of literature is 'supposed' to mean, or what its 'real' meaning is? There are several ways to approach this:

1) that meaning is what is intended by the author ;

2) that meaning is created by and contained in the text itself ;

3) that meaning is created by the reader.

The author

Does a work of literature mean what the author 'intended' it to mean, and if so, how can we tell? If all the evidence we have is the text itself, we can only speculate on what the priorities and ideas of the author were from our set of interpretive practices and values (how we read literature and how we see the world). We can expand this:

1) by reading other works by the same author,

2) by knowing more and more about what sort of meanings seem to be common to works in that particular tradition, time and genre,

3) by knowing how the author and other writers and readers of that time read texts -- what their interpretive practices were (as reading and writing must be part of the same set of activities), and

4) by knowing what the cultural values and symbols of the time were.

Any person or text can only 'mean' within a set of preexisting, socially supported ideas, symbols, images, ways of thinking and values. In a sense there is no such thing as a 'personal' meaning; although we have different experiences in our lives and different temperaments and interests, we will interpret the world according to social norms and cultural meanings -- there's no other way to do it.

We may have as evidence for meaning what the author says or writes about the work, but this is not always reliable. Authorial intention is complicated not only by the fact that an author's ways of meaning and of using literary conventions are cultural, but by the facts that

1) the author's work may very well have taken her in directions she did not originally foresee and have developed meanings which she did not intend and indeed may not recognize (our historical records are full of authors attesting to this),

2) the works may embody cultural or symbolic meanings which are not fully clear to the author herself and may emerge only through historical or other cultural pespectives, and

3) persons may not be conscious of all of the motives that attend their work.

The Text

Does the meaning exist 'in' the text? There is an argument that the formal properties of the text--the grammar, the language, the uses of image and so forth--contain and produce the meaning, so that any educated (competent) reader will inevitably come to essentially the same interpretation as any other. Of course, it becomes almost impossible to know whether the same interpretations are arrived at because the formal properties securely encode the meaning, or because all of the 'competent' readers were taught to read the formal properties of texts in roughly the same way. As a text is in a sense only ink-marks on a page, and as all meanings are culturally created and transferred, the argument that the meaning is 'in' the text is not a particularly persuasive one.

The meaning might be more likely to be in the conventions of meaning, traditions, and cultural codes which have been handed down, so that insofar as we and other readers (and the author) might be said to agree on the meaning of the text, that agreement would be created by common traditions and conventions of usage, practice and interpretation. In different time periods, with different cultural perspectives (including class, gender, ethnicity, belief and world-view), or with different purposes for reading no matter what the distance in time or cultural situation, competent readers can arrive at different readings of texts. As on the one hand a text is a historical document, a material fact, and as on the other meaning is inevitably cultural and contextual, the question of whether the text 'really means' what it means to a particular reader, group or tradition can be a difficult and complex one.

The Reader

Does the meaning then exist in the reader's response, her processing or reception of the text? In a sense this is inescapable: meaning exists only insofar as it means to someone, and art is composed in order to evoke sets of responses in the reader (there is no other reason for it to exist, or for it to have patterns or aesthetic qualities, or for it to use symbols or have cultural codes). But this leads us to three essential issues.

Meaning is 'social', that is, language and conventions work only as shared meaning, and our way of viewing the world can exist only as shared or sharable. When we read a text, we are participating in social, or cultural, meaning. Response is not merely an individual thing, but is part of culture and history.

Meaning is contextual; change the context, you often change the meaning.

Texts constructed as literature, or 'art', have their own codes and practices, and the more we know of them, the more we can 'decode' the text, that is, understand it - consequently, there is in regard to the question of meaning the matter of reader competency, as it is called, the experience and knowledge of decoding literary texts.

You might have been nudged to insist on your having and practicing competency in reading by insisting that any interpretation you have (a) be rooted in (authorized by) the text itself and (b) be responsible to everything in the text -- that is, that your interpretation of any line or action be in the context of the whole of the work. But you may have to learn other competencies too. For instance in reading Mulk Raj Anand's The Untouchables you might have to learn what the social structure of India was like, what traditions of writing about and/or by Untouchables were in effect in India in the early 1930's, what political, cultural, and personal influences Mulk Raj Anand was guided by in constructing the imaginative world of this short novel; you might have to learn, in reading John Donne's poems, about, for instance, the 'platonic' (really, Florentine Neo-Plotinian) theory of love. As another kind of competency, you might have to practice reading certain kinds of literature, whose methods seem alien to you or particularly difficult for you, so that you can understand how that kind of literature works.

You may see that this idea that meaning requires competency in reading can bring us back, as meanings are cultural and as art is artifact, to different conventions and ways of reading and writing, and to the historically situated understandings of the section on the Author, above; at the least, 'meaning' requires a negotiation between cultural meanings across time, culture, gender, class. As readers you have in fact acquired a good deal of competency already; you are about to acquire more. (cited from http://www.brocku.ca/english/jlye/meaning.html)

The point herein is that 'meaning' is a phenomenon that is not easily ascribed or located, that it is historical, social, and derived from the traditions of reading and thinking and understanding the world that you are educated about and socialized in.

Part 2 - Literary Translation

Copyright 2005, Translatum Journal & the Author - Back issues
© Translatum.gr 2001-2016. All rights Reserved