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«Factors Influencing the Process of Translating Dongfeng Wong et Dan Shen Meta : journal des traducteurs / Meta: Translators' Journal, vol. 44, n° ...»

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"Factors Influencing the Process of Translating"

Dongfeng Wong et Dan Shen

Meta : journal des traducteurs / Meta: Translators' Journal, vol. 44, n° 1, 1999, p. 78-100.

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Pour communiquer avec les responsables d'Érudit : info@erudit.org Document téléchargé le 25 November 2016 09:10 78 Meta, XLIV, 1, 1999 Factors Influencing the Process of Translating dongfeng wong and dan shen South China University of Technology, Guangzhou and Peking University at Beijing, China RÉSUMÉ La traduction est un processus complexe, influencé par des facteurs linguistiques, cultu- rels et personnels. Cet article essaie de démontrer que des différences de toutes sortes entre langue et langue, culture et culture et personne et personne constituent la source principale des difficultés de traduction. Une étude systématique de ces facteurs sera sans aucun doute utile pour établir des stratégies efficaces contre leurs influences négatives dans la traduction.


Translation is a complex process, involving linguistic, cultural and personal factors. This article seeks to show how these factors constitute the main source of translation difficul- ties. The authors suggest that a systematic discussion of these factors would be useful in establishing effective strategies for avoiding pitfalls in translation between English and Chinese.

Translating, as I. A. Richards claims, “is probably the most complex type of event in the history of the cosmos” (Nida 1993: 1). Many factors are crucial to the process of translating and no explanation of translating can claim to be comprehensive if these factors are not systematically considered. Owing to the great subtlety and complexity of the factors in question, this short paper will not be able to cover all of them exhaustively, so we will focus our attention on key factors in the three most impor- tant areas: language, culture and the translator’s personal conditions. The following discussion will be primarily concerned with translating between English and Chinese.

1. LINGUISTIC FACTORS Linguistic factors exert a direct and crucial influence upon the process of translating.

Each of the linguistic factors, phonological, lexical, syntactic and textual, can interfere with translation. It can safely be assumed that interlingual differences constitute a main source of translation difficulties.

1.1. Phonological Factors At the phonological level, there is no correspondence between English and Chinese.

Yet literary translators sometimes do try to create a certain kind of equivalence when

they encounter poetic or rhetorical phonological features, for example:

Henhao, buyong danxin le. Wo haiyou weiyuan de fufen ne.

(He gave me very good news. We need not look for trouble. I have the possibility of being a member of the committee!) Meta, XLIV, 1, 1999 factors influencing the process of translating 79 titre du chapitre “Moshi de guiyuan?” qizi mei ting qingchu tade hua.

(“What’s a common tea?” asked the wife, who only vaguely caught the sound.) (Tr. Qian Gechuan) Here the Chinese word weiyuan (member of a committee) sounds quite like guiyuan (longan, a kind of tropical fruit). In the conversation, the “wife” does not quite catch the word and mistakes guiyuan for weiyuan. If the two words are translated literally, the readers will find the wife’s mistake incomprehensible since there is no phonological similarity in English between the two items. The translator therefore resorts to a functional approach, turning longan (guiyuan) into common tea. Now the form is changed, but the function or effect is preserved: common tea is phonologically related to committee. When we admire the translator’s creative rendering in this particular instance we have to admit that, in most cases, such homophonic or near-homophonic expressions are untranslatable. A more common practice is to explain the rhetorical significance of such a usage in a footnote.

Chinese is generally referred to as a tonal language because there are FOUR TONES for its characters. Each Chinese character or morpheme phonologically consists of one syllable and one of the four tones. The four tones are illustrated in Figure 1.

Figure 1

–  –  –

Here yinping and yangping are termed as PING, and shangsheng and qusheng as ZE. In classical Chinese poetry the four tones are indispensable in forming poetic melody.

According to the rule, the patterned sequence of the tones of one line, especially the second, fourth and sixth characters, must be distinctive from that of the next line

basically in terms of PING (indicated as “–”) and ZE (indicated as “|”):

–– – | |– – Qinshi mingyue Hanshi guan, || – – – | – Wanli changzheng ren wei huan.

(The age-old moon still shines over the ancient Great Wall, But our frontier guardsmen have not come back at all.) (Tr. Xu Yuanchong) Organized this way, the poem reads rhythmically with a unique musical flavour. This poetic feature, however, can not be transferred into English, because English words, instead of four corresponding tones, have what we call STRESS. Thus classical English poems are characterized by stress-timed rhythms made up by a patterned combination of stressed and unstressed syllables. A poem created according to English phonological patterns that make it read well would widely be considered untranslatable into Chinese because of its stress-based meter.

Some translators, however, have been trying to build acoustic equivalences in translating poetry between English and Chinese, despite the lack of correspondence 80 Meta, XLIV, 1, 1999 between the two languages in this respect. One solution is to employ English metric patterns when translating a Chinese classical poem and vice versa in translating an English poem. In the latter type of translation, another well-known strategy sees the Chinese dun (sense group) used to substitute an English foot with the original rhyme preserved.

All these efforts aim at endowing the translation with a regular metric or poetic pattern that makes the poem read like a poem. But it is doubtful that poems transformed in this way really succeed in bridging the gap between the source language (SL) and the target language (TL) in terms of the sound effect conveyed by rhythm.

Another important phonological feature is rhyme, an indispensable element in most metric poetry for which a translated equivalent is not easy to find. The reason is obvious: each rhyming unit has a dual function: (1) expressing semantic content;

(2) creating poetic effect through phonological repetition. Since it is very rare that an SL item and a TL item possess identical semantic and phonological values, the translator generally has no choice but to reconstruct the rhyming pattern with sounds different from those in the original. If the translator tries hard to convey the rhyming pattern in terms of sound effects, semantic or aesthetic distortions are often unavoidable. For example,

I was angry with my friend:

I told my wrath, my wrath did end.

I was angry with my foe:

I told it not, my wrath did grow. (W. Blake: A Poison Tree)

A Chinese version goes like this:

Wode pengyou jiaowo qinao, Wo yishuochulai, wodeqi jiuxiao;

Wode diren jiaowo qifen, Wo bushuo, wodeqi yuezhang yuemaosheng. (Tr. Bian Zhiling) Here the SL rhyming units friend and end, and foe and grow are substituted by qinao (angry) and jiuxiao (got lost), and qifen (irritated) and maosheng (lush). The translator has obviously done his utmost to convey the SL rhyming effect by constructing a new sound combination. But he succeeds in doing so only at the expense of the TL text’s coherence; in Chinese, maoshen (lush) and qi (anger) are incongrous, just as in English we would not say my anger became more and more lush. While grow in English can collocate with both plant and anger, zhang (grow) in Chinese can only predicate plant when it goes with maosheng.

Since English and Chinese have almost nothing in common at the phonological level, phonological factors are an inevitable and in most cases unconquerable difficulty in translation between the two languages.

1.2. Lexical Factors The most problematic and time-consuming aspect of translation is achieving an accurate lexical rendering. The marked differences between English and Chinese in this respect present significant difficulties for translators.

Modern English and Chinese have undergone completely different lexical evolutions. English has seen a snowballing of meaning expansion, the tendency to endow factors influencing the process of translating 81 titre du chapitre an old word with a new meaning by means of extension or metaphor. The Chinese lexicon, on the other hand, has expanded primarily through double-syllabling, the tendency to combine two characters or morphemes into one word with a set meaning. These distinct modes of lexical development have given rise to different degrees of contextual dependence. The snowballing mode naturally makes many English words polysemous and hence more context-dependent, while the practice of doublesyllabling makes Chinese words monosemantic and hence much less context-dependent. Seen in this light, it is not surprising that a “familiar” English word can express a totally unexpected meaning when used in a particular context. An English word can vary in meaning drastically according to context, verbal relation, time, place, participants, topic, mode, media, etc. For example, in Chaucerian times, wife meant “woman,” and not specifically “married woman in relation to her husband;” similarly in Shakespearean times, deer refered to an animal of any kind, while in modern English it refers specifically to “a kind of fast four-footed animal, of which the males usually have wide branching horns;” likewise, the mouse spoken of by a housewife means something entirely different from the mouse mentioned by a computer user;

travellers in an airport and soldiers in a military camp will react very differently to the word Attention!; an Englishman’s interpretation of the verb table differs from that of an American; etc. These semantic shifts demand different treatments depending on the target language of translation. If the translator fails to recognize the specific meaning afforded by a particular context, he or she will probably fail to render the passage correctly.

The difference in lexical context-dependence between English and Chinese doubtless present difficulties for translators. Common sense dictates that the more polysemous a word is, the more ambiguous, indeterminate, and hence context-dependent its meaning. Therefore, when translating from English into Chinese, the translator must attach great importance to context and try to make the polysemous words unambiguous with the help of the contextual clues. Many mistranslations are the result of neglecting, ignoring or misjudging the context in which a word is used.

Another closely related problem is the difference in semantic range between English and Chinese. Predictably, the semantic range of a “snowballed” English word is much wider than that of a “double-syllabled” Chinese word composed of two or more semantically independent morphemes, the interaction of which largely stabilizes the meaning and makes it less context-dependent.

Differences and similarities in semantic range can be viewed as a series of semantic relations between the two languages, such as correspondence, inclusion, intersection, parallel, conflict and nil (cf. Liu 1991: 418-420; Tan 1990: 128-139; Nida 1979:

15-20). Strictly speaking, there are almost no synonyms between any two languages, but it is not impossible to build interlingual equivalences or correspondences between specific items in specific contexts.

For example, the meaning of the English uncle INCLUDES the meaning of such Chinese words as shufu (father’s younger brother), bofu (father’s elder brother), jiujiu or jiufu (mother’s brother), gufu (father’s sister’s husband), yifu (mother’s sister’s husband), and shushu (father’s younger brother or a friend or acquaintance about the same age as a young person’s parent). But when uncle is used in a particular text, its specific meaning is clarified by the context, enabling the translator to select one of the words listed above. It would be considered a terrible mistake in Chinese culture to 82 Meta, XLIV, 1, 1999 refer to the father’s brother as jiujiu or jiufu. The translator must be bilingually and biculturally competent enough to establish a context-dependent correspondence between English and Chinese in cases of semantic inclusion.

Similar skill is required to deal with INTERSECTION, where the meaning of an SL lexeme partially corresponds to that of the TL. But in particular contexts, CORRESPONDENCE can be established between the SL and the TL.

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