present-day socio-political and cultural circumstances offer the
individual of the 21st century a new perspective on the concepts
which used to be given straightforward definitions in the past.
Communication has reached a level man could not even dream of two
or three decades ago. The frantic and continuous development of
technology has caused nations, cultures and languages to gather
together in a sort of a melting pot. Scientists often refer to the
product of this process as “multiculturalism”, “globalisation,
etc., concepts which probably belong to a new international paradigm.
However, they have failed to identify its by-products, which might
prove even more significant for the human society of the centuries
to come. The concepts of translation and culture seem to acquire
new dimensions due to the fact that they are key elements of this
One of the most meaningful definitions of the first concept this
approach is dealing with is that given by G. Toury in 1978: “Translation
is a kind of activity which inevitably involves at least two languages
and two cultural traditions."1 Thus, translators always face
the most interesting and perhaps the most challenging aspect of
their activity, namely the problem of finding the best expression
of the source-language text into the target language. The severity
of this problem depends on the cultural gap between the two languages
and on the translator’s skills of finding the best way to
transfer the cultural meanings of the source-language text into
the target-language text. The problems which every translator has
to face, particularly in the case of literary translation are lexical,
syntactical, and last but not least, ideological. Therefore, the
translator finds himself/herself in the position of a “go-between”
bridging the differences and still preserving the original meaning
and atmosphere into the target-language text.
Translation is usually viewed as the transfer of meaning from one
language, termed as source language, to another, termed as target
language. Translation takes place in writing, and interpreting is
its oral counterpart. The two terms are often confused. At its best,
a successful translation should read as if it were originally written
in the new language.
Recent academic research has shown that translating from one language
to another is one of the most complex higher order activities of
the human brain. The translation method is dictated by the purpose
of the translation. While the best translations will always be performed
primarily by a human being, in some (limited) situations, machine
translation can be a useful technique, and this is likely to increase
in importance over time as this technology evolves.
The word translation has three different meanings. It refers to
- an abstract concept which includes translation as both a process
and a product, namely it refers to both the activity of translating
and to translation as a distinct entity;
- a product of the process of translating, namely the translated
- a process, namely the activity of the translator.
Several definitions of translation have been given so far, but they
are omitted in many linguistic dictionaries. Roger T. Bell, in his
book Translation and Translating: Theory and Practice, selected
some of these definitions, which he labels “typical”:
“Traduire c’est énoncer dans un autre language
(ou langue cible) ce qui a été enoncé dans
un autre langue source, en conservant les équivalences sémantiques
et stilistiques.” (Dubois, J., et. al., Dictionnaire de linguistique,
Larousse, Paris, 1973)2, or “Translation is the expression
in another language (or target language) of what has been expressed
in another, source language, preserving semantic and stylistic equivalences.”
Stating, “equivalence is directional and subjectless”,
the Spanish scholar Anthony Pym suggests a number of fairly representative
equivalence-based definitions of translation3: "Interlingual
translation can be defined as the replacement of elements of one
language, the domain of translation, by equivalent elements of another
language, the range [of translation]." 4 John Cunnison Catford,
maintained in 1965 that "Translation may be defined as follows:
the replacement of textual material in one language (SL) by equivalent
material in another language (TL)."5 "Translating consists
in reproducing in the receptor language the closest natural equivalent
of the source-language message."6 And finally, Wilss refers
to the target text should become: "[Translation] leads from
a source-language text to a target-language text which is as close
an equivalent as possible and presupposes an understanding of the
content and style of the original."7
As regards the possible translation theories derived from the meaning
of the word itself, Andrei Bantas, taking into account Bell’s
theories (translation as a process, translation as a product and
translation as a concept), formulates a fourth theory: the interpretative
theory of translation, which, besides focusing on translation as
a product and a process, analyses the process of interpretation,
comprising wide fields of linguistics, psycho-linguistics, semantics,
pragmatics, cultural context, communicative competence, within the
framework of “translation-oriented text analysis”. This
is in fact a multilateral approach on the phenomenon of translation-oriented
interpretation. Bantas mentions that the translation difficulties
can be overcome by interpretation and analysis.8
Culture is a far more complex concept and thus should be given a
definition that captures its core elements which are not subject
to change. Encyclopaedia Britannica 2002 defines culture as the
integrated pattern of human knowledge, belief, and behaviour (behaviour
peculiar to Homo sapiens, together with material objects used as
an integral part of this behaviour). Thus it consists of language,
ideas, beliefs, customs, taboos, codes, institutions, tools, techniques,
works of art, rituals, ceremonies, and other related components.
The Longman Dictionary of Contemporary English defines culture from
a social (“the ideas, beliefs and customs that are shared
and accepted by people in a society; the attitudes and beliefs about
something that are shared by a particular group of people or in
a particular organisation”), artistic (“activities that
are related to art, music, literature, etc.”) and scientific
point of view (“the process of growing bacteria for scientific
use, or the bacteria produced by this”). The Webster’s
Universal Dictionary defines culture as: artistic and intellectual
pursuits and products; a quality of enlightenment or refinement
arising from an acquaintance with and concern for what is regarded
as excellent in arts, letters, manners, etc.; development or improvement
of the mind by education and training; the sum total of ways of
living built up by a group of human beings and transmitted from
one generation to another; a particular form or stage of civilisation
as that of a nation or period; the behaviours and beliefs characteristic
of a particular social, ethnic, or age group; the cultivation of
micro-organisms, as bacteria, or of tissues, for scientific study,
medicinal use, etc.; the product or growth resulting from such cultivation;
the act or practice of cultivating the soil; tillage; the raising
of plants, animals, especially with a view to their improvement.
There is nothing new or special in these definitions. The most interesting
aspect is the fact that all the aforementioned dictionaries (chosen
almost fortuitously) define culture as referring to a particular
group, to what the members of a certain group have in common. This
statement does not exclude the possibility that two or more groups
share several identical elements belonging to their culture. Therefore
culture could be defined as the set of elements that belong to a
certain group of any kind and defines that group. That is why one
can speak of Greek, German etc. culture. What they fail to present
is the holistic aspect of individual cultures, i.e. the fact that
all cultures have something in common, their origin, certain aspects,
etc., and they should be considered as a whole.
Newmark defines culture as "the way of life and its manifestations
that are peculiar to a community that uses a particular language
as its means of expression"9, underlying the fact that every
group has its own characteristics. Furthermore, Newmark does not
consider “language as a component or feature of culture”10,
while Vermeer states, "language is part of a culture"11.
According to Newmark, Vermeer's position is similar to admitting
untranslatability as ultimate thesis. But Vermeer explains his attitude
towards the relation between language and culture with a view to
translation, by stating that the translator’s role is to find
an appropriate form of the source-language text in the target language.
A holistic approach to both culture and translation would solve
the problem of “incompatibility”.
Newmark speaks of several categories (material culture, gestures
and habits, cultural references, lexical feature) of "foreign
cultural words"12. Componential analysis in translation is
"a flexible but orderly method of bridging the numerous lexical
gaps, both linguistic and cultural, between one language and another"13.
The two orientations in translation analysed by Nida (formal or
dynamic equivalence) should also be taken into account when speaking
of cultural implications for translation of the elements in these
Translation and culture are two deeply interconnected notions. E.
Nida asserts that both linguistic and cultural differences between
the two (target and source) languages are equally important as the
"differences between cultures may cause more severe complications
for the translator than do differences in language structure"14.
Nida’s opinion is that parallels in culture often provide
a common understanding despite significant formal shifts in translation.
Therefore, cultural implications are just as important for the translator
as lexical aspects and his/her approach should be equally focused
on both areas.
Language, "the heart within the body of culture," (S.
Bassnett), roughly defined as the distinctive form of speech of
a particular community, most or all of which is unintelligible to
outsiders, is one of the most important cultural elements. Be it
isolating (each element is an independent word without inflections:
Chinese and Vietnamese), agglutinating (elements combine without
changing their form to express compound ideas: Japanese, German),
inflectional (the boundaries between morphemes are fuzzy, and morphemes
can express more than one grammatical meaning at a time: Latin,
Russian) or polysynthetic: several morphemes are put together to
form complex words which can function as a whole sentence: Chukchi),
language is a channel that makes communication between cultures
and within the same culture, possible. The same language can make
communication possible within the particular group it belongs to,
but when communication implies crossing borders another agent is
necessary: translation. Translation must mediate the communication
process between the two groups, decoding the messages and ensuring
Therefore, what translation and culture have in common is their
most important element (if we were to contradict Newman), i.e. language.
This element does not hinder translation, but makes it possible.
What might obstruct translation (and thus communication) is the
translator’s attempt to impose upon the target culture certain
elements belonging exclusively to the source culture, above all
in the case of literary translation, specifically poetry translation,
where cultural individuality is most prominent. Translation thus
becomes a transcultural activity, bridging the gap between two or
This gap between cultures, and thus between languages, can be bridged
and the concept of untranslatability proved erroneous by applying
the principles of the Gestalt theory to translation. The word Gestalt
is used in modern German to mean the way a thing has been gestellt;
i.e., “placed,” or “put together.” An exact
equivalent in English is rather difficult to find. The word is usually
translated as “form”, “shape” or “pattern”,
“configuration”, in psychology. The originator of the
Gestalt theory is the Czech-born psychologist, Max Wertheimer (1880-1943),
who published in 1912 the paper considered to mark the founding
of the Gestalt school. In it he reported the result of an experimental
study done at Frankfurt with two colleagues, Wolfgang Köhler
and Kurt Koffka. Later on, in his Über Gestalttheorie (an address
before the Kant Society, Berlin, on December 7, 1924), Max Wertheimer
presented the principles of the Gestalt theory in detail and its
relevance to all sectors of human culture. However, he did not specifically
refer to translation.
Translation implies the transposition of thoughts expressed in one
language by one social group into the appropriate expression of
another group and requires a process of cultural de-coding, re-coding
and en-coding. Cultures establish more and more links between one
another and so we should start thinking of multicultural elements
and stop considering cultures as individual parts limited to a certain
environment. What the 21st century-translator has to face is not
merely a text taken from a particular literary work and, as translation
theorists might argue, which is perfectly translatable or untranslatable.
In the so-called “process of translation,” translators
are primarily dealing with the entire culture the text belongs to.
The target reader expects the translator to offer a product which
contains all those elements that make it identifiable among the
translations from other cultures along with those elements which
establish a connection with his/her own culture.
Therefore, the translator’s job is to perform a cross-cultural
translation whose success ultimately depends on his/her understanding
of the culture he/she is working with, and his/her ability of preserving
those cultural elements living in the original text and embed them
in the final product. This final product should not appear unfamiliar
to the target reader but a vivid and perfect link between the two
cultures. Such enterprise implies several sine qua non requirements:
the translator must be both bi-lingual and bi-cultural aiming at
becoming multi-lingual and multi-cultural. Wertheimer would say
that this ideal, and it appears as such in the eyes of most translators,
is perfectly attainable by observing the principles of the Gestalt
theory, which clearly state, if applied to translation and translators,
that bi- is not enough and certainly not a finality, but it urgently
calls for multi-. To go further, the translators’ main task
is to initiate a ‘Gestalt (cultural) group-therapy’
addressing all cultures, process which will be completed when the
primary cultural unity is reached.
The fundamental formula of Gestalt theory may be perfectly applied
to the processes translation involves, as these processes are first
and foremost intellectual. Language should be actually, not only
in theory, considered part of a whole (a particular culture), and
that whole should be viewed as part of greater whole (the entire
human culture). Similarly, a literary work is part of a national
literature and that national literature is part of the whole world
literature. The ideal translator should be fully aware of these
facts and try to produce a cross-cultural translation. The behaviour
of these wholes is not determined by that of individual parts they
consist of; these part-processes are determined by the intrinsic
nature of the whole. A translation, as part of a literature, and
consequently of a culture, must be viewed and analysed according
to its dynamic functional relationship to the whole from which it
was lifted or one can never understand and value it properly. However,
the nature of these wholes falls within the range of contemporary
Gestalt theorists and philosophers.
One of the examples that Max Wertheimer uses to demonstrate the
credibility of his theory may as well be applied to translation.
The target-language text is just like a melody whose form is deliberately
altered. The listener/reader is able to recognize the melody/text
despite the new elements it contains. The changed melody/text must
contain a factor or an element which enables the listener/reader
to recognize in it the original. This is the form-quality, or the
Gestaltqualität, as Wertheimer would put it, of the original
piece. This element (be it the rhythm, the rhyme, the general atmosphere
etc.) of the original text is essential and must be preserved in
the target-language text; it is part of the original form and must
survive all changes that occur in the process of translation, according
to the holistic theory Wertheimer proposes. There must be also a
special type of metaphysical element that transcends the basic processes
of translation, a “higher process” that “produces”
the unity between the source and the target-language text, between
the source and the target culture and between those and the human
culture as a whole.
Sceptics might argue that it is quite impossible for a person to
possess the sum of the elements human culture consists of, and thus
the ideal translator is a myth. This is a truism. But what if every
source-language text is a part which is determined by the character
of the entire whole, and the translator must preserve this link
between part and whole? What if the ideal translator, the ideal
multi-cultural and multi-lingual person is precisely that person
who manages to grasp the “musicality” of an entire “symphony”
from a short “melody”, and thus multi- is just a question
of generating that “higher process” of the mind and
not one of time and volume of knowledge? The ideal translator is
that person who perceives what takes place in each single part of
the source culture and understands that this depends upon what the
whole is and manages to render that single part, in a different
form/language belonging to a different, but not totally alien, culture.
However, the new text the translator produces should not seem totally
alien to the target culture.
Another example the Gestalt theorists frequently employ is that
of the two colours and the way they are perceived. It also applies
perfectly to the relation between the translator and the source-language
text he/she approaches and the target-language text he/she produces.
Wertheimer asks those who raised against such an analogy two questions
and provides an answer as well:
it really true that a specific stimulus always gives rise to the
same sensation? Perhaps the prevailing. whole-conditions will themselves
determine the effect of stimulation? This kind of formulation leads
to experimentation, and experiments show, for example, that when
I see two colours the sensations I have are determined by the whole-conditions
of the entire stimulus situation. Thus, also, the same local physical
stimulus pattern can give rise to either a unitary and homogeneous
figure, or to an articulated figure with different parts, all depending
upon the whole-conditions which may favour either unity or articulation.
Obviously the task, then, is to investigate these "whole-conditions"
and discover what influences they exert upon experience.15
the sensations that the two source and target-language texts produce
must be in conformity with the whole-conditions of the two cultures,
respectively. The translator’s role is then to explore these
“whole-conditions” and discover their influences upon
the reader of the source and that of the target-language text. The
readers do not react to sensations but to something that is “coloured”
and “exciting”, “gay”, “strong”,
“affecting”, i.e. they do not react to the text itself
but to the feelings, emotions it conveys. This emotional component
of the original text is another element that the translator should
preserve in an ideal translation.
Last but not least, the translator who preserves the core elements
of source-language texts, and manages to generate target-language
texts which produce the same emotions and reactions, is not only
a part of a whole but he/she is also one among other translators.
In fact, he/she is an Ego among others and this Ego is a functional
element of the entire field. The translator is not just an element,
a single Ego who works within a sum of other similar Egos but each
of them functions as a part of a whole, the community of all translators.
The whole is what matters and not the single parts it consists of.
That is the reason why an isolated “bad” translation
brings little damage to the whole it belongs to. In other words,
a holistic approach to translation made by a bi-/multi-lingual/cultural
translator is the ideal translators must pursue, engaging themselves
in an aggregate and not a piecewise thinking process.
An attempt to describe and demonstrate the ‘whole’ Gestalt
theory applied to translation in a short essay would be suicidal,
due to its intricate implications and the complex terminology to
be explained. However, this approach presents another self-destructive
perspective on translation and translators, a holistic one, which
fails to consider all technical details but engages in a more difficult
enterprise, namely that of portraying an ideal translator, working
as part of a whole, who produces and ideal translation, which functions
itself as part of a whole. Yet, nothing is new. All principles mentioned
above are widely known and applied. What a Gestalt theory of translation
would propose is a new type of translator for a new world, a bi-,
aiming to become a multi-lingual translator performing a bi-cultural,
moving ideally towards a multi-cultural activity. Its ultimate purpose
is what the Gestalt theorists described in the early 1920s as a
type of psychological therapy, i.e. a Gestalt cultural-therapy for
the human society of our time.
1 G. Toury, “The Nature and Role of Norms in Translation”,
in Venuti, L. The Translation Studies Reader. (London: Routledge.
1978, revised 1995.)
2 Roger T Bell,., Teoria si practica traducerii, transl. by Catalina
Gazi, (Bucharest: Polirom, 2000), 23.
3 Anthony Pym, , Translation and Text Transfer. An Essay on the
Principles of Intercultural Communication,(Frankfurt am Main, Berlin,
Bern, New York, Paris, Wien: Peter Lang, 1992,) 22.
4 Anthony G. Oettinger, Automatic Language Translation: Lexical
and Technical Aspects, With Particular Reference to Russian. (Cambridge
Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1960), 110.
5 John Cunnison Catford, A Linguistic Theory of Translation: An
Essay in Applied Linguistics (London: Oxford University Press, 1965),
6 Eugene Nida, "Principles of Translating as Exemplified by
Bible Translating". In Anwar S. Dil (ed.), Language Structure
and Thought. Essays by Eugene A. Nida (Stanford: Stanford University
Press, 1975), 33.
7 Wolfram Wilss, Übersetzungswissenschaft. Probleme und Methoden
(Stuttgart: Ernst Klett Verlag. Trans. Wolfram Wilss, The Science
of Translation: Problems and Methods. Tübingen: Gunter Narr
Verlag, 1982), 62.
8 A. Bantas, E. Croitoru, Didactica traducerii, (Bucharest: Teora,
9 P. Newmark, A Textbook of Translation (New York: Prentice Hall,
10 ibid., 95.
11 H. Vermeer, “Skopos and Commission in Translational Activity”,
in Venuti, L. The Translation Studies Reader. (London: Routledge),
12 P. Newmark, op. cit., 95-102.
13 ibid., 123.
14 Nida, E. 1964, “Principles of Correspondence”, in
Venuti, L. The Translation Studies Reader, (London: Routledge),
15 Wertheimer, Max, “Über Gestalttheorie” in Willis
D. Ellis Source Book of Gestalt Psychology, (New York: Gestalt Journal
Press, 1997), 37.