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Foreignization / Domestication and Yihua / Guihua: A Contrastive Study

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He XianbinAbstract: The debate on foreignization or domestication is still heated in Chinese translation circles. Analysis reveals that the terms used by Chinese scholars and Venuti look the same, but actually have different origins and meanings and are used in different contexts for different purposes. They are simply not discussing the same thing.

Key words: foreignization, domestication, comparison, terminology

The debate over whether translation should be source- or target-oriented has recurred from Cicero to the 21st century and has again been a focus of discussions in China in the last decade. This paper attempts to make a comparison between 'foreignizing /domesticating' and yihua/guihua, the two most popular pairs of words for describing the translator's divided loyalties in English and Chinese.

1. Different sources for foreignizing/domesticating and yihua/ guihua

Currently, most Chinese scholars use foreignization /domestication as their English renditions for yihua/guihua. Does the Chinese debate originate with Venuti (1995)?

A historical review shows that Lu Xun used the term of guihua (assimilation or domestication) in talking about translation as early as 1935. And the word yihua is already included in Dictionary of Modern Chinese published in 1978 and reprinted in 1991. This means that the two terms are not recent loan words from the West. Then what's the English for yihua/guihua when they are used in Chinese translation discussions?

Our search in the three volumes of An Index to the Articles on Foreign Language Studies (1949-1989), (1990-1994), (1995-1999) demonstrates that the first Chinese translation research paper with the word yihua in the title was Guo Jianzhong (1998)'s "Cultural Factors in Translation: Guihua and Yihua", published in the 2nd issue of Foreign Languages, 3 years after the publication of Venuti (1995)'s The Translator's Invisibility in which he coined the words of foreignizing and domesticating. But Guo's English translations for yihua and guihua are "alienation" and "adaptation", although Guo quoted the concept of 'resistant translation' from Venuti (1991)'s paper "Translation as a Social Action" presented at a conference at the State University of New York, Binghamton.

Search on the Net of Chinese Academic Journals with "yihua" as the key word shows that in 1994, Wang Bingqin (1994:45) used the terms yihua/guihua to comment on the translation of the Bible from Russian to Chinese, though these words did not appear in the title of his paper. Guihua/yihua was also one of the ten translational paradoxes in Sun Zili's (1996:45-6) paper. Sun did not quote any foreign author while Wang, a Russian professor, didn't list any cited work at all.

Since Chinese translation scholars were already talking about guihua/yihua before Venuti (1995) and they used different English terms, we can conclude that, though both assimilation / alienation and domestication / foreignization are employed as the English renderings for the Chinese guihua/yihua and people in recent discussions tend to replace the former with the latter, early Chinese discussions were not under the direct influence of Venuti.

The appearance of the guihua/yihua discussion in Chinese translation circles is the result of several factors. First, China's policy of opening to the outside world and people's changed attitudes towards other cultures aroused intense interest in learning from the West. In translation, this means a demand for the retention of more foreign elements, both linguistic or cultural. Second, 'the enthusiasm in culture' in Chinese academic circles in the 1980s and its introduction into foreign language studies in the early 1990s bring about more concern for cultural elements in translation. The discussion of zhiyi/yiyi (literal/free translation) changed into that of guihua/yihua because, for some people, the latter involve cultural factors. There is an increasing demand for respecting the foreign cultures in translation into Chinese. Third, for some people, scholarly creativity lies partly in the coinage or use of new terms. The heated philosophical debates on alienation (yihua) in the 1980s (Gu Zhengkun, 1998: 20) offer a fashionable term for translation scholars to borrow from. This is evidenced by the fact that in some discussions nothing is new except the terminology.

Venuti said that domesticating strategies have been implemented at least since ancient Rome, when translation was a kind of conquest, and translators into Latin not only deleted culturally specific markers but also added allusions to Roman culture and replaced the names of Greek poets with those of their own, passing the translation off as a text originally written in Latin. A foreignizing strategy in translation was first formulated in the German culture in the early 19th century by Friedrich Schleiermacher. (in Baker, 1998: 240-244) It has recently been revived in the French cultural scene characterized by postmodern developments in philosophy, literary criticism, psychoanalysis, and social theory that have come to be known as 'poststructuralism' (Venuti, 1995: 20)

In short, foreignization and domestication are Venuti's coinages based on his investigation of Western translation history and theories. The Chinese debates over yihua and guihua are the extension of the literal/free discussions in the 1920s-30s. Guihua is a traditional Chinese term, and yihua is borrowed from the Western philosophy. They are not loan words from Lawrence Venuti.

2. Different referents for the two pairs of concepts

Early discussions and a large percentage of present-day talks about yihua/guihua were not very different from those about literal/free translation. Lu Xun (1935), the first one to talk about guihua in translation, did not define the term, but gave the example of a Japanese translator whose translation was close to paraphrase. (in Luo Xinzhang, 1984:301) Liu Yingkai (1987/1994:269-282), the initiator of the Chinese guihua/yihua debate since the 1990s, said that guihua means changing the 'guest' source language into idiomatic 'host' language so that the translations look familiar and sound fluent, without any feeling of strangeness. It is the extreme form of free translation, including the over-use of Chinese idioms and archaic Chinese expressions, of paraphrasing source cultural images, replacement of the source language idioms with Chinese substitutes, and unjustified change of no metaphors into metaphors. To Sun Zili (1996: 45-6), guihua refers to "the change from idiomatic source language to idiomatic target language" while yihua means "adoption of new words and expressions from the foreign works." The definitions of Liu and Sun are not very different from how people understand literal/free translation. And Zhu Zhiyu (2001:4) claims explicitly that "literal translation generally belongs to foreignizing and free translation may be said to be domesticating." In recent discussions, some people say that guihua/yihua involve cultural treatment while, literal/free translation, linguistic factors alone. But it may be difficult to say that translating with the latter methods does not involve cultural problems.

For Venuti (1995:20), the domesticating method is "an ethnocentric reduction of the foreign text to target language cultural values, bringing the author back home." It is closely related to fluent translation, which is written in current, widely used and standard English. It is immediately recognizable and intelligible, "familiarized" and domesticated. In short, standard target language rather than a variation is used.

Foreignizing translation practices entail the choice of a foreign text and the invention of translation discourses. A foreignizing translator can use "a discursive strategy that deviates from the prevailing hierarchy of dominant discourses (e.g. dense archaism), but also by choosing to translate a text that challenges the contemporary canon of foreign literature in the target language". (p148; p310) Venuti cites Pound, Newman and himself as examples of foreignizing translators. Archaism seems to be a major feature of this strategy. (p195).

Venuti's concepts of domestication and fluent translation are similar to the Chinese concept of guihua, but foreignization and strangeness obviously differ widely from yihua.

First, yihua refers to faithfulness through retention of the linguistic and cultural features of the source texts, while for Venuti, unfaithfulness to the source text is also a kind of foreignization. For example, he claimed that his own foreignizing English version of De Angelis's poem has not only challenged the dominant aesthetic in the Anglo-American culture, but has also deviated from the Italian text in decisive ways. Certain features of the syntax in his translation make it stranger than the Italian source text. (pp. 291-2)

Second, yihua involves respect for the source cultures in translation, while Venuti does not advocate indiscriminate valorization of every foreign culture or a metaphysical concept of foreignness as an essential value. To him, the foreign text is privileged in a foreignizing translation only insofar as it enables a disruption of target language cultural codes, so that its value is always strategic, depending on the cultural formation into which it is translated (p.42) "Hence, close translation is foreignizing only because its approximation of the foreign text entails deviating from dominant domestic values"(p.146). This seems to contradict the common Chinese assumption that foreignization is always a means of respecting the cultural others.

Third, guihua / yihua refer to specific translation methods only, whereas domestication / foreignization involve the careful selection of texts to be translated as well. Foreignizing translators choose texts that "challenge the contemporary canon of foreign literature in the target language," and "the choice of a foreign text for translation can be just as foreignizing in its impact on the target language culture as the invention of a discursive strategy (p.186)".

Lastly, yihua means close adherence to the linguistic and cultural features of the source texts alone. Foreignization also involves use of non-standard target language, as is further explained by Venuti in his email1 to a Chinese postgraduate student named Ma Jia (Eddie) on December 2, 2002.

In this letter, Venuti said that foreignization can take a number of different forms. Close adherence to the foreign text is one, and retaining cultural markers is another. The most decisive way, however, may well be producing a variation on the current standard dialect of the receiving language. Variations here mean regional and social dialects, archaism, jargons and technical terminologies, stylistic innovations and neologisms, literary figures like metaphors. It can also be achieved through the choice of a foreign text for translation translated fluently or in the current standard dialect.

In other words, for Venuti, foreignization means selecting a foreign text that is marginal in the target culture, but translating it in a fluent way (similar to guihua); or choosing a foreign text that is canonical in the target culture, but translating it with marginal discourse. Marginal discourse here includes adherence to source language form and retention of source cultural elements (similar to yihua) as well as the use of non-standard target language. The opposite is true of domestication.

The above comparison reveals that domestication/foreignization focuses on whether the translation deviates from and challenges the target culture values, while guihua and yihua concentrate on retention /deletion of the source language/culture features. The former includes the selection of texts to be translated while the latter refers to the translational activity per se. The two pairs of terms overlap, but are not the same.

3. Different contexts in and purposes for using the two pairs of terms

Venuti talks about literary translation into English alone. He opposes the domesticating translation in the Anglo-American cultures. One reason is that this strategy results in transparent, fluent translations, which in turn lead to the invisibility of translators. Transparency effaces the work of translation and contributes to the cultural marginality and economic exploitation that English-language translators have long suffered. Venuti (1995:17) said that the motive of The Translator's Invisibility is "to make the translator more visible so as to resist and change the conditions under which translation is theorized and practiced today, especially in English-speaking countries." This is also the theme of another book by Venuti (1998), The Scandals of Translation.

Another of his reasons has much to do with his respect for cultural others and the struggle for cultural equality. For Venuti (1995:306), translating involves looking for similarities between languages and cultures, only because it means constantly confronting dissimilarities. It can never and should never aim to remove these dissimilarities entirely. A translated text should be the site where a different culture emerges, where the reader gets a glimpse of the cultural other. The prevalence of fluent domestication has supported the developments of British and American cultures that are "aggressively monolingual, unreceptive to the foreign, accustomed to fluent translations that invisibly inscribe foreign texts with English-language values and provide readers with the narcissistic experience of recognizing their own culture in a cultural other" (p15).

Venuti believes that a foreignizing translation is highly desirable, insofar as it seeks to resist the dominant target-language cultural values and signify the linguistic and cultural difference of the foreign text. It is a strategic cultural intervention pitched against the hegemonic English-language nations and the unequal cultural exchanges in which they engage their global others. Foreignizing translation in English can be a form of resistance against ethnocentrism and racism, cultural narcissism and imperialism, in the interests of democratic geopolitical relations. (p.20) Venuti advocates and practices a resistant translation strategy, a term synonymous to foreignization, because it locates the alien in a cultural other, pursues cultural diversity, foregrounds the linguistic and cultural differences of the source language text and transforms the hierarchy of cultural values in the target language. (p309)

The two reasons are interrelated, because "to recognize the translator's invisibility is at once to critique the current situation and to hope for a future more hospitable to the differences that the translator must negotiate." (p313)

In the last decade, the majority of Chinese debaters argued in favor of yihua. However, they are otherwise motivated by their American counterparts. For them, "the significance of yihua lies in three aspects: accelerating cultural communication and increasing the target reader's knowledge of the foreign culture, meeting the aesthetic expectations of the target readers for translated literature, and benefiting the development of the Chinese language (Sun Zili, 2003:49-50)". These reasons are not very different from the arguments for literal translation.

Unlike Venuti, who obviously has the political agendas of challenging the hegemony of the Anglo-American culture and improving the status of translators, Chinese scholars argue for yihua just to show their enthusiasm for learning from other cultures, especially the West.

In China many people advocate that a strategy of "foreignization first and domestication second" should be adopted in English-Chinese translation (Sun Zhili, 2003:48), while in Chinese-English translation, "domestication should be used as much as possible" (Xu Jianping et al, 2002:36).

In recent years, most Chinese scholars use "domesticating" and "foreignizing" for their English translations of guihua / yihua, and some quote from Venuti (1995) in their discussions. What must not be forgotten is that domestication as much as possible in translation into English and the foreignization-first strategy in English-Chinese translation might be exactly what Venuti is against. One should never just take Venuti's terms and forget the contexts in which they are used and the purposes they serve.

Context plays a significant role in the justification and determination of translation strategies. For example, archaism is seen as guihua or domesticating in Chinese discussions but foreignizing in Venuti's. For Venuti, archaism results in historical remoteness but this is not necessarily the case in Chinese translation. Since the classical dialect is actually pure Chinese, while modern Chinese is heavily influenced by European languages, the use of archaism in Chinese translation means return to traditional Chinese values, which is surely domesticating.

"People [in China] tend to understand the new Western translation terms from their own perspective and translate them into traditional Chinese terminology. In consequence, the introduced foreign theories become deformed, are domesticated by traditional Chinese theories and cannot possibly enlarge the views of the Chinese scholars. ...."(Lin Kenan, 2001:14) Equating guihua/yihua with domestication/foreignization is a case in point.

An increasing number of Chinese scholars opt for "domesticating" / "foreignizing" for their English translations of guihua/yihua and quote Venuti to justify their argument for foreignization in English-Chinese translation. But one must not forget that the Chinese discussions of guihua/yihua are similar to the old literal/free debates; guihua/yihua and domesticating/foreignizing have different origins and meanings and are used in different contexts for different purposes. One must never confuse a traditional discussion of translation methods with political translational theory.


Baker, Mona. Routledge Encyclopedia of Translation Studies. London and New York: Routledge, 1998.

Guo, Jianzhong. A cultural approach to translation. Foreign Languages1998(2).

Gu, Zhengkun. Translation of loan words and academic problems in China. Chinese Translators Journal1998(6).

Lin, Kenan. Terminology should be translated correctly. Chinese Translators Journal2001(1).

Liu, Yingkai. Domestication: a wrong track in translation. Modern Foreign Languages1987(2). in Yang, Zijian (eds.). New Essays on Translation 1988-1922.Wuhan:Hubei Education Press 1994.

Luo, Xinzhang (eds.). Essays on Translation. Beijing, The Commercial Press 1984.

Sun, Zili. A dialectical view of translation. Journal of PLA University of Foreign Studies1996(5).

Sun, Zili. More words on the strategy of literary translation. Chinese Translators Journal2003(1).

Venuti, Lawrence. The Translator's Invisibility. London and New York: Routledge, 1995.

Venuti, Lawrence. The Scandals of Translation. London and New York: Routlege, 1998.

Xu, Jianping & Zhang, Rongxi. Foreignization and Domestication in intercultural translation. Chinese Translators Journal 2002(5).

Zhu, Zhiyu. Chinese traditional translation theory: resemblance in sprit and transformation of souls. Chinese Translators Journal2001(2).


1, 2003-11-12


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