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«TRANSLATING PHATIC EXPRESSIONS Jamal B.S. al-Qinai1 Abstract Any conversational exchange can be informational or phatic. Occasional exchanges are of ...»

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Pragmatics 21:1.23-39 (2011)

International Pragmatics Association


Jamal B.S. al-Qinai1


Any conversational exchange can be informational or phatic. Occasional exchanges are of no lesser

importance than the informative content of dialogue. One needs to establish the channel of

communication by setting up a social environment conducive to the exchange of ideas among the

participants. Such a strategy of showing politeness is intended to avoid face-threatening acts through the use of compliments and non-verbal gestures. Mistranslating the function of a given phatic communion expression might lead to problems ranging from the disruption of mundane daily small talk such as the break up of a courtship dialogue to grave consequences as the failure of crucial peace talks among belligerent nations. The paper explores the effect of misinterpreting culturally divergent phatic communion formulae in an English-Arabic context. Other sociolinguistic parameters such as topic, setting, age, sex and social status will be considered.

Keywords: Translating; Phatic; Polite.

1. Introduction The notion that language is not merely referential but serves a communicative purpose with a definitive goal has led to the development of the study of 'language in use' or 'discourse'. The 'performative function' of language has thus taken central stage under the sociopragmatic approach. Additional notions such as 'face' and the concept of 'politeness' have shifted the focus to what interactants 'do' with discourse instead of what they 'mean' by a given utterance (Sanchez 2001: 591).

Conversation can be said to contain two elements, the informational and the phatic. The latter is part and parcel of the sociolinguistic repertoire of any society whereby some conventional formulaic expressions are used as a gambit to open or direct a conversation or to establish our distance from and express our feelings towards the other. The anthropologist Malinowski (1884-1942) coined the phrase 'phatic communion' to refer to this social function of language which arises in order to maintain rapport between people in line with the maxims of politeness. In other words, phatic communication is used to establish social relationships rather than impart factual information. In 1960, Jackobson, used the term "phatic function" to refer to the channel of communication that is established to maintain communication. Robins (1964: 30) used the term 'relevance and idle chatter' to refer to this aspect of human communication that reflects a courteous approach towards the other interlocutors and reflects one's 1 This research was sponsored by Kuwait University Grant AE02/08 24 Jamal B.S. al-Qinai ethnic background, kinship and social hierarchy. Coulmas (1979: 6) refers to phatic expressions as standard links between what people actually say and what sort of communicative functions their utterances serve to perform. Schneider (1988) introduced another term 'small talk' and developed grammars which characterize small talk in particular domains. Laver (1975) further analyzed small talk by describing the contexts in which it occurs while Cheepen (1988) studied topics typically used in such contexts.

Holmes (1995), however, tackled the topic from a different angle; she concluded that Americans' responses to compliments are usually perceived as face-threatening acts, because the recipients, especially women, are obliged by social norms to appreciate them and at the same time show modesty.

The analysis of requests by Ervin-Tripp and Wolfson's study of compliments in American English as well as the contrastive investigation by Blum-Kulka, House and Kasper all point to a burgeoning interest in the field (Sanchez 2001: 594). Nevertheless, the majority of these early studies was ethnocentric in approach and remained heavily language-centered. In 1985, Wierzbicka carried out a contrastive analysis of requests in English and Polish in an attempt to detect culturally differentiated ways of speaking.

She claims that different pragmatic norms reflect different cultural values. For instance, she associates the interrogative form of requests in English with the Anglo-Saxon tradition of individual freedom that guarantees the right to accept or reject a request (Wierzbicka 1985: 150). Similarly, Oleksy conducted an ethnographic study of compliment response in American English and South African English. He found out that American English speakers show a higher frequency of compliment response while South Africans prefer acceptance. Along the Whorfian hypothesis, he establishes a link between linguistic structural modes and the sociocultural patterns of the speaking community (Oleksy 1989: 220).

Within the same ethnocentric approach, several Arab researchers investigated the function of phaticity in certain regional dialects of Arabic. Nelson, el-Bakary and Al-Batal (1993) compared Egyptian and American Compliments while Al-Khasawneh explored the translatability of Jordanian phatic expressions into English. Mughazy (2000), on the other hand, conducted an oral discourse completion test to study the pragmatics of the evil eye formulaic compliments and the recipient's response strategies in the form of evasion, humor, complaint and confrontation.

The study of phatic communion is inherently part of discourse research which sets out “to make sense of or to interpret phenomena in terms of the meanings people bring to them” (Denzin & Lincoln 2000: 3). Part of what the analyst has to do is to reimagine (i.e., interpret) the actual discourse of which the text-as-record is a very impoverished trace. While the semantic component of the text is relatively discernible by textual clues, the interpretation of the expressive-emotional aspect of phatic expressions requires extralinguistic and sociolinguistic references. Otherwise, the pragmatic core of the source language (SL) text may be lost and, therefore, ambivalence in the target language (TL) text may arise for the recipient reader. The misinterpretation and in effect the mistranslation of phatic expressions may misrepresent the author's communicative intention, the social context of the situation as well as the disposition or relationships of the participants in a given communicative act.

Translating phatics 25

2. The constitution of phatic expressions

The acts of greeting, leave-taking, thanking, apologizing and so on constitute a universal phenomenon. However, the linguistic realization of these acts, the content and rules of their performance may exhibit variations from one language to another depending on the particular values and beliefs of their users. Phatic expressions vary in their forms according to constitution and place of occurrence in a discourse. The conventional form of phatic communion requires the presence of interlocutors (an addressor and an addressee) a place, time and an occasion. The latter can be a simple casual chat or a special occasion such as birthdays, anniversaries, Christmas, graduation and many more. The forms of phatic interaction range from simple greetings and compliments, suggestions and advice, requests and appeals, promises and reminders to indirect warnings and threats. The goals, on the other hand, vary between achieving a sense of familiarity and group integration to realizing the outcome a given speech act.

Setting plays a decisive role in the volume and frequency of phatic communion.

Kendon (1992: 329) discusses the correlation between phatic communion and the participants' arrangements. He postulates that participants arrange themselves into a particular spatial-orientational pattern and they cooperate to maintain such an arrangement throughout the conversational act. However, it should be pointed out that phatic communication is not constrained by the immediate spatial and temporal environment. Postcards, e-cards, e-mail, voice-mail and text messages provide convenient alternatives to face-to-face conversation.

Parent (2001: 600-1) considers some non-conventional phatic gambits. He cites the case of repetition as a positive politeness strategy. When an addressee repeats an utterance he has already heard, this is considered an overture of emotional agreement with the utterance and stresses interest. Sometimes, the speaker repeats certain parts of the request or elaborates with reasons for the request even after the addressee gives a positive response. This is done in order to soften the conversation by pulling the addressee to see the reasonableness of the request. Likewise, when the addressee interrupts the speaker's utterance only to complement it, this shows that the addressee is aware of the speaker's needs and both are in full agreement. Using ellipsis, on the other hand, indicates that the speaker and addressee share mutual knowledge. For example, a speaker may use a given number (e.g. SP 25) to refer to a watch being repaired at a clocksmith on the assumption that it is interpretable within a shared understanding between both interactants. Finally, diminutive forms are sometimes used to minimize the intensity of a face threatening act as they appear to have an element of selfhumbling and persuasion. Parent (2001: 601) cites the example of offering a carrier bag to a customer in Catalan by using the diminutive una bosseta 'a small carrier bag' in order to persuade the addressee that 'it's only a little carrier bag so you can't say no'.

Prior to, or at the beginning of, a conversation, participants often frame the event. That is, they make clear to each other the intended nature of the conversation-tobe. For the most part, the purpose of this small talk is to establish rapport and trust among the interlocutors and provide time for them to evaluate each other. According to Miller (1999: 2), all conversations contain phatic communion since one needs to set the tenor of the conversation and establish an attitude towards the speaker in order to take part in the communicative exchange. Yet, this does not undermine the fact that opening conversations are also purposeful in that they help the participants define their goal, whether to negotiate or be resolute, show positive feelings like affability and courtesy or 26 Jamal B.S. al-Qinai take a negative hostile posture. It should also be made clear that the degree of phatic frequency varies according to topic and setting. Thus, business-oriented interviews and

emergency calls have the lowest level of phatic clichés. For example, Gonzales (2001:

605) reports that emergency calls consist of disjunctive, fact-seeking sequence whose aim is to elucidate the location and nature of the emergency and dispatch the required remedy. In such settings, time is of the essence and there is no point in wasting the precious seconds in establishing unsolicited solidarity.

Conversational phatic expressions including honorifics and greetings constitute the most common type of spoken discourse that is intended to convey emotions, initiate a talk and sustain it. Rather than imparting information, they function to share feelings, create goodwill (or hostility), or set a pleasant (or offensive) social mood. In other words, they establish the tenor and attitudinal setting for a possible dialogue. Holmes (1995: 5) postulates that this strategy is used by polite people to "avoid obvious face threatening acts" and denote "non-imposing distancing behaviour". Indeed, without softening tactics like indirectness in the request (e.g. I wonder if you could…) or the use of politeness markers such as 'please', requests are intrinsically face-threatening since they involve the placement of an imposition on the addressee and an intrusion into his/her territory.

Since phatic communion is part and parcel of the cultural etiquette and the communicative framework of any given language, Crystal (1987: 10-11) remarks that cultures vary greatly in the topics which they permit as phatic communion. For example, the weather is not a universal conversation filler as one may find in traditional conversational routines in English. Likewise, in some cultures, utter silence performs the function of courteous formulaic expressions in others. In this regard, Darwish (2003) notes that translation interventionism is required to make the translation of [phatic expressions] conform to target language conventions and norms in terms of politeness, social distance and honorifics. He cites the example of the word "wife" which has several Arabic synonyms each indicating a different level of politeness and formality (‫ ﺑﻌﻠﺔ‬ba‘lah / ‫ زوﺟﺔ‬zawğah / ‫ ﻗﺮﻳﻨﺔ‬qarīnah / ‫‘ ﻋﻘﻴﻠﺔ‬aqīlah / ‫ ﺣﺮم‬ḥaram). The choice of any of the Arabic equivalents will determine the degree of deference shown to the addressee. On the other hand, Dickens (Dickens et al 2005: 30) finds that sometimes it is virtually impossible to mediate conversational routines as they constitute an integral part of cultural exoticism. He cites a sample of repetitive Arabic conversational salutations which can only be functionally rendered as 'hello' and 'how are you'.

–  –  –

A non-vernacular translator of an SL text may not thoroughly understand the paralinguistic information of SL phatics, misinterpret the pragmatic meaning of a lexical unit and fails to reproduce an equivalent SL lexical function in the TL text.

Within the lines of phatic expressions, Beridze identifies word-realies that are not translatable. Many of these exotic foreign honorifics turn into borrowings which, in general, are transcribed in translation. For example, effendi is a Turkish honorific suffix of the first name of the addressee which bears national colouring and thus it is transcribed or transliterated with the ensuing sense of foreignism. But should an average English reader be culture-sensitive enough to identify 'Turkish' honorifics without a footnote definition? If not, it is unlikely that the TL reader would be able to realize the socio-cultural value of effendi as an authentic source honorific. Even more inadequate it would be to transpose a marker of distance with a marker of solidarity. For example, while the address titles 'sir' and 'mister' express distance, respect and formality in English, their direct lexical equivalent Batono in the Georgian language community stand as markers of intimate phatic communion (Beridze: translationdirectory.com/article1200).

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