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«Cultural Metamorphosis in Translation: Domestication in One Chinese Version of Uncle Tom’s Cabin Lin Yupeng, Hefei University of Technology, China ...»

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Intercultural Communication Studies XVI: 1 2007 Yupeng

Cultural Metamorphosis in Translation:

Domestication in One Chinese Version of Uncle Tom’s Cabin

Lin Yupeng, Hefei University of Technology, China


The present paper presents a case study of the cultural transformations from the

original into one Chinese version of the novel Uncle Tom’s Cabin. First, the paper

makes an analysis of these target language culture-oriented conversions in images, moods and stylistic devices and discusses their different cultural connotations concerning such aspects as religion, ethics, aesthetics and daily life respectively in the two languages and the negative effects of this domestication translation on the reader’s understanding of the source language culture. For instance, the palm leaf, a western-culture-loaded image in one Methodist hymn in the original, is rendered into the bajiao banana leaf, a heavily Chinese culture-charged image in the Chinese version. And then the present study makes an attempt at the causes that may underlie the translator’s domestication approach in his translation. They are: (1) the comparatively conservative political and cultural environment in which the translation was done; (2) the translator’s strong affinity for his own (Chinese) culture and his native-culture-oriented aesthetics; (3) possibly the translator’s mistaken presuppositions of source language culture. Lastly, the paper tries to explore the possible relationship between the translator’s conversion strategies and his life experience.

It is generally thought that the task of the translator is to translate faithfully the work from the source language into the target language and to keep as closely to the original ideas and style as possible in the work of translation. Literary translation is not only the transformation of the language, but also that of culture. But in reality, these requirements are seldom satisfactorily met. Sometimes this failure to fulfill these requirements results from the failure to correctly understand the original; sometimes it comes from the translation strategy the translator adopts and sometimes from both. In his translation of the novel Uncle Tom’s Cabin (Lin, 2005), the author of this paper did some research on some Chinese versions of this novel and he found that of various versions the one translated by the late professor Huang Jizhong is the most noteworthy. First, this translation has some historical significance.

Because though as the second complete translation of this novel in Chinese, it is the first one in modern Chinese (the first one was in classical Chinese translated by Lin Shu in 1901) and also the first one after the Great Cultural Revolution. So it can be regarded as a pioneering work in the then barren field of foreign literature to some extent. Secondly, it still ranks among the best translations of the novel as far as the general quality is concerned and it is highly regarded by scholars of foreign literature (Wu, 2005). But even in this prestigious version, there are some mistranslations, or more precisely, the cases of metamorphosis of cultural objects or concepts out of the translator’s translation strategy or out of his negligence.

–  –  –

This paper makes a case study of the cultural metamorphosis in Huang’s translation and explores the causes that may lie behind his use of domestication strategy. The paper will begin with an analysis of the translation of a major image or motif in the novel.

1. Metamorphosis of Imagery: From the Palm to Bajiao Banana

1.1 Importance of rendering of imagery in translation The rendering of imagery from one language into another in literary translation is very important. First, imagery, as an indispensable element of literature, bears the vein of the style of a particular work, and the writer. The appropriate transplantation of imagery is essential to recreating the original style in the target language. Second, imagery is usually loaded with implications and associations of a certain culture, so the selection of the equivalent images with appropriate cultural associations and implications—insofar as possible—in the target language so that the novel is accepted in the target culture is also important. But sometimes in translation one image in the source language is changed into another in the target language. This change or transformation usually results in the change or loss of cultural connotations.

1.2 Different connotations of the palm and bajiao Let us first give an example to illustrate our point. In Chapter 22 of Uncle Tom’s

Cabin, Tom the hero sang a well-known Methodist hymn:

I see a band of sprits bright, / That tastes the glories there;

They all are robed in spotless white, /And conquering palms they bear.

(Stowe, 1981, p.259) Surprisingly, the Chinese translator Huang Jizhong renders the word “palms” in line 4 of the above hymn into Chinese as 芭蕉 (bajiao, a herbaceous perennial, whose scientific name is Musa basjoo), in stead of the Chinese equivalent 棕榈 (zonglü, meaning palms) (Huang, 1993, p.246). In doing so he changed the original image in the target language.

Let us first compare these two images: the palm and bajiao and see their different connotations in their respective cultural contexts and see how this change of the imagery may affect the communication across cultures. The palm is one of most tropical or subtropical trees, shrubs, or vines of Palmae or the palm family. In Western culture, a leaf (frond) or branch of the palm is used as a symbol of victory or rejoicing or of triumph, which can be traced to the ancient Roman custom of giving the victorious gladiator a branch of the palm tree. Therefore, in the English language the word palm connotes victory, triumph, rejoicing, honor and so on and the collocations with the word palm also bear these connotations.For instance, “to bear the palm” means “to be the best”; other phrases such as “bear or hold off the palm” or “carry off the palm” also have similar meanings; “yield the palm” on the other hand, means “admit that… the other is victorious, of better quality, etc.” Even some derivative words such as palmy also have the same connotation. The phrase “palmy day” means “prosperous or happy days”. This is because of these connotations that in the aforementioned hymn Tom sang the word “palm” is used with “conquering”, meaning that the “band of spirits” will be victorious.

1.3 Connotations of bajiao plant in Chinese culture Then let us move on to examine bajao and the image this word evokes in the reader cultivated in Chinese culture. A herbaceous perennial and quite similar to the plantain, bajiao

–  –  –

(Musa basjoo in Latin) is one of quite different families of plants. Besides, the bajiao does not have the fan-shaped leaves or fronds which characterize the palm tree. More importantly, the connotations associated with the image of bajiao in Chinese culture are poles apart from those associated with its counterpart in Western culture. In Chinese literature, especially in ancient Chinese poems, bajiao is a common image and a recurring motif. It is often associated with rain, wind, the moon, night, autumn,the change of seasons and shades of moods related to this change. It is an image sometimes used to strengthen the quiet and tranquil atmosphere, sometimes lonely or sorrowful mood of the speaker’s, sometimes the atmosphere of ease and leisureliness. It is a vehicle to convey the speaker’s state of mind. There are many ancient Chinese poems which have images of bajiao and the following are only a few examples. In the following examples the Chinese phrase 芭蕉 (bajiao) is rendered into different English words.

1. The rain dips and drips!/The hour strikes and strikes!/ Outside the window the plantain, inside the window the lamp./At such a time the feelings are unbounded.

//Dreams hard to fashion!/ Regrets hard to smooth out!/No wonder a sorrower mislikes to hear:/ In the empty courtyard the dripping lasts till dawn.

Rain by Moqi Yong (a poet in Song Dynasty:960-1279) ;Tran. Unknown

2. All night the west wind cuts the banana leaves;/Through the autumn, wearied eyes have endured the loneliness./ Grudgingly, I give myself up to the unstrained wine./While reading the Li Sao,/My sorrow resembles,/ Day after day, night after night,/The Xiang River tides.

Nalan Singde(1655-1685): Tune: Remembering the Prince Trans. William Golightly

3. With cold and shade the pines and bamboos are verdant as emerald;

With rainwater the fragrance of wet bajiao blooms greets one’s dreams.

Yang Wanli (1127-1206): On the Ceasing of the Autumn Rain (My own translation ) From the above examples we can see that the image of bajio or plantain is heavyloaded with cultural connotations in Chinese culture, especially in ancient Chinese poetry. It recurs very frequently in ancient Chinese literature. It is with a sense of loneliness or a light melancholy that the image of bajiao is usually associated. So it is by no means an equivalent of the palm whether in denotation or connotation. The plantain image seems quite out of place in the context and it is absurd for the original “And conquering palms [the emblem of victory] they bear” to become “They bear the bajiao (plantain)” in the Chinese version.

2. Strategies of Translation: Domestication and Foreignization The change of the image from the palm in the original into bajiao in the translation is not the result of a mistake,nor of negligence. Because elsewhere in the book, for instance, in Chapter Six “Discovery” the word palm or palm-leaf or palm-leaves appear four times (Stowe, pp.42-43), the translator rendered them literally into Chinese as 棕榈 (zonglü) without changing the original image the way as we have discussed above. Then this change of the imagery is not accidental or occasional, but deliberate and systematic. It is the result of the strategy of domestication the translator used in his translating the novel: one of the two basic strategies in translation.

The question of the choice between domestication and foreignization in translation has long been the focus of discussion in the field of translation studies. Domestication is an 165 Intercultural Communication Studies XVI: 1 2007 Yupeng approach in which the original imagery, style of language, and moods are changed to those familiar to the reader in the target language, so as to ensure the greatest degree of acceptance.

For example, roses in English may become peonies in Chinese, and English idiom “grow like mushrooms” may become “grow like bamboos after spring rains” in Chinese. Foreignization, on the other hand, is an approach in which the original imagery and other elements of the form or style are retained in the target language so that the original style can be kept, cultural color or implications will not get lost and the target language can thus be enriched with the fresh expressions. In the case of the above mentioned hymn, the palm in the English language remains the palm in Chinese when the foreignization approach is adopted in translation.

As a pair of binary oppositions, domestication and foreignization are two basic strategies in translation, though sometimes they may be referred to as other terms such as naturalization and barbarization (Liu, 1975, p.60), or assimilation and alienation (qtd. in Liu & Yang, 2002, p.20). The first one in the pair is referred to as TL culture-oriented and the second one SL culture-oriented (qtd.in Guo, 2000 p.276).

The terms domestication and foreignization were first put forward by the American translator Venuti (1995). The advancement of these two terms was based on the theory of German philosopher Schleiermacher. Schleiermacher thinks that there are two kinds of translation: one is that the translator leaves the author in peace as much as possible, and moves the reader toward him; the other is that the translator leaves the reader in peace as much as possible, and moves the author toward him. Foreignization, according to Venuti is a strategy of translation in which a target text is produced which deliberately breaks target conventions by retaining something of the foreignness of the original” (Venuti, 1995, p.43 ).

Venuti regards foreignization as a challenge to domestication and it can “register the linguistic and cultural difference of the foreign text, sending the reader abroad ” (Venuti, 1995, p.20) In next section we will analyze the domesticated translations in this Chinese version of the novel and reveal cultural distortion of the original if domestication method is carried too far. We will come back to the question of foreignization and discuss the value of this strategy in translation.

3. Analysis of Domesticated Translations in the Chinese Version

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