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Narrowing the Gap between Theory and Practice of Translation

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Salawu Adewuni photo Abstract

Since its inception, translation has not ceased to play its indispensable role of transferring messages across languages and cultural barriers. By so doing it continuously weakens the fences between languages, exposing their similarities, getting a consensus on their differences and easing interactions that will assist in developing cross-cultural integrative skills useful in an interdependent world. Several theories have been suggested to explain the concept of translation. In view of the dichotomy between theory and practice of translation, an attempt is being made to narrowing the gap. A portion of Tal'ópa ọmọọba, a book written in Yoruba by Kola Akinlade was translated into French applying one theory or the other where applicable. The translation work was carried out to ascertain the flexibility of the theories and transplant the behavioral status of a tonal language and its rich culture into a non-tonal language. This study employed archival materials for investigation. Works of linguists, translatologists, professional translators, language experts, Africanists, anthropologists and literary scholars served as useful sources of information. It was found that each school of thought on translation has its peculiarity and none should be neglected. This study underscores the need for a consensus between practical and theoretical translation in guessing right the mind of the author by making efforts to minimize the gap between original text and its translation.

Keywords: Translation, practice, theories, Yoruba, tonal languages


Translation whose beginning can be traced back to the Tower of Babel (Finlay, 1971:17) is a reality despite the complications and doubt attached to it based on the nature of the elements involved, the languages, the cultures, and the translator. There is still a difference between a document and its translated version even if the translation is handled by the author of the document. By using here the author as the translator, one hopes for a perfect translation whereby the translated version may be equivalent to the original text. If given a second opportunity, the author will produce a second translated version, which may again be slightly different from the original and the first translated version. Also, the continuous formulation of translation theories implies that human beings have still not yet satisfied their desire of perfection in translation thus leaving room for further research. To be more practical than theoretical, translation should be seen as an attempt to guess the mind of an author correctly. In translation, it is question of satisfaction rather than perfection. Satisfaction in translation lies in the ability to minimize the gap between theory and practice. The complications are more pronounced when a tonal and a non-tonal language are involved. Yet despite the dichotomy between theory and practice of translation, an attempt is been made to reduce the gap. To achieve our aims, a portion of "Tal'ópa ọmọọba" by Kola Akinlade into French is translated using the different theories and techniques of translation, which will be concluded by a consensus theory on translating.

In search for a consensus definition of translation

The practical translation in this work involves a tonal language, Yoruba and a non-tonal language, French which is an international language. The book "Tal'ópa ọmọọba" of Kola Akinlade is written in Yoruba for a Yoruba public. Yoruba, one of the Kwa languages (Ihenacho,1979:61; Le Courrier, 1990:49) is spoken in sub-Saharan Africa by almost 25 million people mostly in Nigeria, Benin Republic, Togo, Brazil and Cuba (Atlas of World's Languages, 1994). The Youruba language, like many other African languages, is a tonal language, a system unknown to Europe, and is acompanied by drumbeat for long-distance communication in Africa (Le Courrier, 1990:48-49). Tone is indispensable in the pronunciation of Yoruba words and for the grammatical structure of a sentence. There are three tones: low, medium, and high. It plays an important role in understanding a Yoruba text (Delano, 1965).

Translation should be seen as an attempt to guess the mind of an author correctly.
The choice of a book written in Yoruba to carry out this study was intentional, knowing well that Babalola (quoted by Ekundayo Simpson) has cautioned of the difficulties encountered when translating a poem from Yoruba to a non-tonal language like English. He further advised that the subject matter could be delivered, but the Yoruba rhythm of a tonal language is elusive in a non-tonal language (Simpson, 1979:77). Also Finch sees that languages have different ways of expressing the emotions and ideas of those who use them. For him an African language, highly versatile in naming elements close to nature, may not possess the words to translate the technological concepts of the West. Yet in practice people find ways to cross the language barriers (Finch, 1969:5). The difference between France and the Yoruba-speaking regions is limited not only to languages, but also to habits, psychology, prejudices, and culture. The techniques used here for translation vary depending on the obstacles or the nature of the text. It is not different from the approach of Ian F. Finlay who suggests the use of special techniques or combination of skills to tackle the challenges in translating (Finlay, 1971:67).

The translated portion of "Tal'ópa ọmọọba" of Kola Akinlade, consists of two parts, the narrative and the poetic. Both parts are culturally oriented even if they have a single subject matter. The poetic part was a translation from the talking-sounds of a drum by the singer-interpreter always accompanied by the drummer. The first observation is that the melody of the drumming has disappeared leaving only the tone and the cultural elements which dominate the entire passage and make the whole translation exercise difficult. Thriveni is very clear on the obstacles that cultural elements could bring into a translation. She sees the linguistic elements in translation as not enough to make a good translator (Thriveni, 2002) while Zaky complements her argument by giving a low ranking to words in translation, but stressing the great role of the style and the tone (Zaky, 2001). A culture is attached to every language and it is now left to the translator to get the most appropriate equivalence for both the language and the culture of the source language in the target language (Nida, 1964:130 quoted by James, 2002:3). Ahmadou Kourouma confirms my statement that cultural elements are difficult to translate.

"Outrages, defies, mépris, injures, humiliations, colère rageuse, tous ces mots à la fois sans qu'aucun le traduise véritablement", répondit le Toubab qui ajouta: "En vérité, il n'y a pas chez nous, Europeans, une parole rendant totalement le monnè malinké." (Quoted by Jacob, 2002:9).

The theory of the sixteen century Greek translator, Boèce, was tried to tackle the challenges of translation. The result was a confusion of sentences with no correct grammatical structure or meaning. In fact, the theory says that to avoid deviation from the original, the translation should be word-for-word. Not only was not the Boèce's theory applicable here, but it has been the object of furious criticism (Madjira, 2001:2). Out of two pages of translation, at least there is one sentence that satisfied the theory of Boèce.

Tunde ati Lafinhan bọ ara wọn lọwọ, nwọn si ki ara wọn. (p.43).

Tundé et Lafinhan se sont serrés les mains, et se son salués.

The most applicable and convenient methods of translation used in this portion of Yoruba text were the techniques of the early Roman translators Livius Andronicus, the great orator Marcus Tullius Cicero, Quintus Horatius Flaccus known as Horace, and Gaius Valerius Catullus. They were not in favor of word-for-word translation, but were placing more emphasis on the meaning. Quoting Cicero, Nassima El Madjina cautioned against word-for-word translation, but encouraged the transfer of ideas (meaning) (Madjina, 2001:2). Most other translation theorists follow the Cicero's footsteps with some further refinements and specialization.

"Ayandele" used in "Tal'ópa ọmọọba" is a professional drummer and the name is used for all drummers in Yorubaland. He is specialized in drumming and talking accompanied by the drum. He is paid for drumming and is assisted by a praise-singer. The poetic part found in pages 44-45 of "Tal'ópa ọmọọba" is just a transcription by the praise-singer of what "Ayandele" says in beating his drum. In the process of transcribing into words the sound of drum, there is some loss of information because the main characteristic of the drum, which is the sound, is not transferred. But whether the sense is correctly transcribed into words by the praise-singer lies in the abilities and expertise of the latter. The transcription is often in parable, proverbs, and poetic forms. The introduction of the drum sound made the study more difficult. In addition to the word, the style, and the tone, it appears important to take into account the sound of the drum that conveys the message. While the aesthetic aspect of the drummed message is poorly conveyed, translating into French causes further loss of some aspects. The praise-singer is no longer functionally part of the French culture. Most tonal languages like the Yoruba language are still very esoteric to nature and they interpret natural phenomena spiritually, often referring to the past. Non-tonal languages are languages of most developed countries where calculative reason takes over the intuitive and emotional approach, which characterized the tonal languages. Tonal languages are loaded with musical words while non-tonal languages tend to be more experimental, scientific, and experimental. Borrowing from the write-up of Shi Aiwei (Translatum Journal, Issue 5) any translation that fails to perform the aesthetic function is a poor translation, no matter how well it is presented. All efforts to use the method of 'unité de traduction' as suggested by the comparative stylistic and contrastive linguistic approach (Lavault-Olléon, 2004:17) produces a meaningless translation.

Ojúbániré kò dé ' nu
T'aja-teran ni nfe 'ni loju eni
Eluuluu nfa 'jo
Ori ara re ni nfa á si

Applying the linguistic approach to translate the above piece of poem may result in a chain of words that has no structural meaning in French. In an attempt to find a more practical way of transferring the message from Yoruba to French, some other theories were tried. The principles of language kernel sentences (abstract kernels) of Nida et al. or Bell's non language-specific semantic representation, or George Steiner's de-verbalization process, which had a lot to do with Chomsky's language universals. The Paris school of translation represented by Danica Seleskovitch and known as the interpretative theory appeared to be easily applicable with its three-stage process of comprehension, de-verbalization and reformulation (Xianbin, 2003:107-108). The second stage of de-verbalization in the Paris school of translation brings an important contribution to understanding translation. This stage that de-verbalizes the ideas, the concepts, or the information affirms that meaning can exist independently of language (Ukoyen, 2001:226; Xianbin, 2003:110). But 'Waja', 'Ayandele', 'Gongo', 'Ojubanire', 'T'aja-t'eran', 'Eluuluu', 'Eepa' are more complicated than other words in the passage and called for more adequate theories which could take care of the cultural aspect of the text. For example, 'Eluuluu' is a small multicolor black and pink bird. It is believed in Yorubaland that the bird has the power to cause rain to fall. 'Eluuluu' has no equivalent word in French capable of conveying the mythology behind the word. Describing 'Eluuluu' by its function according to the Yoruba mythology may take at least half of a page. 'Eepa' is a worm usually found in the stomach of a dog and detrimental to the health of the animal. The combination of 'Eluuluu' and 'Eepa' having being punished for their actions of invoking the rain and feeding from the belly of a dog is a lesson for humans, telling them that who ever does evil will be rewarded with evil. Neither the interpretative theory of the translation nor the theory of the meaning (Lavault-Olléon, 2004:7) was properly conveying the cultural aspect of some words such as 'Eluuluu', 'Ojubanire', 'Eepa' thus calling for an appropriate approach which could be more flexible and accommodative, taking into account the socio-economic and socio-cultural factors beyond the linguistic rules. The polysystem theory is applicable and welcome for it sees translation as quoted by Lavault-Olléon:

Translation is no longer a phenomenon whose nature and borders are given once and for all, but an activity dependent on the relations within a certain cultural system (Lavault-Olléon, 2004:19 quoting Even-Zohar, 1990).

The polysystem theory of translation is reinforced, and complimented by the skopos theory that treat pragmatic texts (Lavault-Olléon, 2004:18). With these theories, translation has taken care of the cultural aspect, yet leaving room for improvement.

The political and diplomatic approach

The translation of a Yoruba text into French was somewhat more difficult because of the nature of the Yoruba language, which is a tonal language. Translating from English to French is easier than moving from tonal to non-tonal languages. The work becomes more intensive and complicated when cultural elements are involved. At this level, despite the expertise of the translator, not only are there no available equivalent words and expressions, but the realities or concepts of life differ when going from tonal to non-tonal languages. Theories on translation are yet to give adequate solutions to these problems. The frequent interactions between French and English languages and other international languages were useful in removing some linguistic and cultural barriers between France and United Kingdom. Contacts favored loanwords and strengthened cultural understanding. These frequent contacts and interactions between nations and cultural groups are possible solutions. It is imperative that the advantages enjoyed by French, English, and other international languages be extended to other languages such Yoruba, a tonal language. The elevation of tonal languages to international status may adapt them to the technological innovations thus facilitating cross-language transfers. Exposure makes a language more flexible during communicative transactions. It also facilitates the natural enrichment of a language by elimination and loan words. The natural enrichment process could be aided by the promotion of policies and laws, which will encourage contacts and place languages at the same level.

Sample text and translation

Tal'ópa ọmọọba by Kola Akinlade


Ni ọjọ keji osu keji, Akin wa ni ibi ti nwon nse ase oku Adejọju, ọba ti o sèsè wàjà. Awọn enia joko ni ọwọọwọ gẹgẹ bi ọjọ-ori wọn. Akin náà si joko laarin awọn ọwọ ọjọ-ori rẹ. Onjẹ npe onjẹ ransẹ. Oti mbe nibe bi omi. Awọn onilu nlu, awọn olorin nkorin. Elomiran njo, elomiran njeun; elomiran nmu oti, elomiran nje obi ati nkan ipanu gbogbo. Gbogbo ile ase naa nho fun enia, nkan gbogbo si nlọ déédéé.................................


Ikà á k'onikà.
Ire á b'ẹni rere.
Elùúlùú nfà jò
Ori ara rẹ ni nfà a si
Eèpà npa 'ra rẹ,
Ajá nikansoso kọ ni nipa.


Qui a tué le fils du roi

Le 2 février, Akin était au lieu des ceremonies de funérailles de Adepoju, le roi qui venait de mourir [the word waja reflects the Yoruba culture. It is used in connection with kings, because in the Yoruba country a king does not die—he waja]. Les gens étaient assis en groupe d'âge. Akin était aussi parmi les leurs. Il y avait une variété de nourriture et suffisamment à boire. Des gens dansaient au rythme des tapements de tambours et des chansons, et alors que d'aucuns mangeaient, d'autres buvaient de la boisson et d'autres encore mangeaient de la cola et autres.


Le mal est pour celui qui fait du mal
Le bien suivra celui qui fait du bien
'Eluuluu' attire la pluie
Qui tombera sur lui
Eepa se tue
Car le chien n'est pas le seul tué


From Cicero, Greek translator, St. Jérôme, known as the father of translators, other famous translators like Boèce, heavily criticized, Joachim du Bellay and Jacques Amyot of the sixteen century, Nicolas Perrot d'Ablancourt, G. Mounin, Ortega Y. Gasset, Walter Benjamin, Valery Larbaud, J. C. Catford, Gerardo Vasquez Ayora, Maurice Pergnier and J. C. Margot, we have moved to the Paris School of translation or the interpretative theory based on equivalence. The preceding theories were linked to either comparative stylistics or linguistics. All the above-mentioned theories were tried in an attempt to translate the portion of "Tal'ópa ọmọọba" of Akinlade. The polysystem and skopos theories were also complementary in finding solutions to culture-bound terms. However, the problems arising in translating from a tonal to non-tonal language call for a diplomatic approach in facilitating the interaction between cultures.


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Atlas of world Languages, 1994.

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Xianbin, H. "Foreignization/Domestication and Yihua/Guihua: A contrastive study." Translation Journal,, contrastive vol. 9, No.2, April 2005.

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