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The Implication of Culture on Translation Theory and Practice

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Language is an expression of culture and individuality of its speakers. It influences the way the speakers perceive the world. This principle has a far-reaching implication fro translation. If language influences thought and culture, it means that ultimate translation is impossible. The opposite point of view, however, gives another perspective. Humboldt’s "inner" and "outer" forms in language and Chomsky’s "deep" and "surface" structures imply that ultimate translation is anyhow possible.

Sugeng HariyantoIn practice, however, the possibility depends on the purpose and how deep the source text is embedded in the culture. The more source-text-oriented a translation is, the more difficult it is to do. Similarly, the deeper a text is embedded in its culture, the more difficult it is to work on.

Related to translation, culture manifests in two ways. First, the concept or reference of the vocabulary items is somehow specific for the given culture. Second, the concept or reference is actually general but expressed in a way specific to the source language culture. In practice, however, it is suggested that a translator should take into account the purpose of the translation in translating the culturally-bound words or expressions. The translation procedures discussed should also be considered.

Key words: culture, language universals, translation purpose, translation procedure, translation possibility

1. Cultural Consideration in Translation

It has been long taken for granted that translation deals only with language. Cultural perspective, however, has never been brought into discussion. This can be seen in most of the following definitions.

The first definition is presented by Catford (1965: 20). He states that translation is the replacement of textual material in one language by equivalent textual material in another language. In this definition, the most important thing is equivalent textual material. Yet, it is still vague in terms of the type of equivalence. Culture is not taken into account.

Very much similar to this definition is that by Savory (1968) who maintains that translation is made possible by an equivalent of thought that lies behind its different verbal expressions.

Next, Nida and Taber (1969) explain the process of translating as follows.

Translating consists of reproducing in the receptor language the closest natural equivalent of the source language message, first in terms of meaning and secondly in terms of style.

In Translation: Applications and Research, Brislin (1976: 1) defines translation as:

"the general term referring to the transfer of thoughts and ideas from one language (source) to another (target), whether the languages are in written or oral form; whether the languages have established orthographies or do not have such standardization or whether one or both languages is based on signs, as with sign languages of the deaf."

Identical with the above definition is the one proposed by Pinhhuck (1977: 38). He maintains that "Translation is a process of finding a TL equivalent for an SL utterance".

In the definitions appearing in 1960s-1970s, some similarities have been found: (1) there is a change of expression from one language to the other, (2) the meaning and message are rendered in the TL, and (3) the translator has an obligation to seek for the closest equivalent in the TL. Yet, there is no indication that culture is taken into account except in that of Nida and Taber.

Actually Nida and Taber themselves do not mention this matter very explicitly. Following their explanation on "closest natural equivalent", however, we can infer that cultural consideration is considered. They maintain that the equivalent sought after in every effort of translating is the one that is so close that the meaning/message can be transferred well.

The concept of closest natural equivalent is rooted in Nida's concept of dynamic equivalent. His celebrated example is taken from the Bible, that is the translation of "Lamb of God" into the Eskimo language. Here "lamb" symbolizes innocence, especially in the context of sacrifice. As a matter of fact, Eskimo culture does not know "lamb". Thus, the word does not symbolize anything. Instead of "Lamb of God", he prefers "Seal of God" to transfer the message. Here he considers cultural aspects.

The inclusion of cultural perspective in the definition of translation unfortunately does not continue. The later ones keep on not touching this matter. See the following definition.

"Translation involves the rendering of a source language (SL) text into the target language (TL) so as to ensure that (1) the surface meaning of the two will be approximately similar and (2) the structure of the SL will be preserved as closely as possible, but not so closely that the TL structure will be seriously distorted (McGuire, 1980: 2).

In the following definition, Newmark does not state anything about culture.

"Translation is a craft consisting in the attempt to replace a written message and/or statement in one language by the same message and/or statement in another language" (Newmark, 1981: 7).

Finally, Wills defines translation more or less similarly as follows.

"Translation is a transfer process which aims at the transformation of a written SL text into an optimally equivalent TL text, and which requires the syntactic, the semantic and the pragmatic understanding and analytical processing of the SL" (Wills in Noss, 1982: 3).

It is known that out of 8 definitions above only one takes cultural aspects into account, the one by Nida and Taber. This definition is actually a specific one, rooted from the practice of the Bible translation. By nature, it is understood that the translation should be done to every language. As the content addresses all walks of life and culture plays an important role in human life, culture, therefore, should be considered.

The other definitions, however, are meant to explain the experts' view on translation theory to be applied in the translation of all types of material, including scientific or technical texts which are not deeply embedded in any culture. Thus, it can be momentarily hypothesized that cultural consideration must be taken if the material to translate is related to culture. For material that is not very much embedded into a specific culture, cultural consideration may not be necessary.

According to Snell-Hornby (1988: 39), however, this exclusion of cultural aspect from the discussion of translation theory is due to the view of the traditional approach in linguistics which draws a sharp dividing-line between language and "extralinguistic reality" (culture, situation, etc.). The contemporary approach, according to her, sees language as an integral part of culture. This view can be seen in Hymes (1964) and Halliday and Hasan (1985), for example.

2. Language and Culture

Culture in this discussion should be seen in a broad sense, as in anthropological studies. Culture is not only understood as the advanced intellectual development of mankind as reflected in the arts, but it refers to all socially conditioned aspects of human life (cf. Snell-Hornby, 1988: Hymes, 1964). In practical wordings, Goodenough (1964: 36) puts:

"As I see it, a society's culture consists of whatever it is one has to know or believe in order to operate in a manner acceptable to its members, and do so in any role that they accept for any one of themselves. Culture, being what people have to learn as distinct from their biological heritage, must consist of the end product of learning: knowledge, in a most general, if relative, sense of the term. By definition, we should note that culture is not material phenomenon; it does not consist of things, people, behavior, or emotions. It is rather an organization of these things. It is the forms of things that people have in mind, their models of perceiving and dealing with their circumstances. To one who knows their culture, these things and events are also signs signifying the cultural forms or models of which they are material representation."

It can be summarized that this definition suggests three things: (a) culture seen as a totality of knowledge and model for perceiving things, (b) immediate connection between culture and behavior and events, and (c) culture's dependence on norms. It should be noted also that some other definitions claim that both knowledge and material things are parts of culture. See, for example, Koentjaraningrat (1996: 80-81) and Hoijer (1967: 106)

According to Snell-Hornby (1988: 40), the connection between language and culture was first formally formulated by Wilhelm Von Humboldt. For this German philosopher, language was something dynamic: it was an activity (energia) rather than a static inventory of items as the product of activity (ergon). At the same time language is an expression of culture and individuality of the speakers, who perceive the world through language. Related to Goodenough's idea on culture as the totality of knowledge, this present idea may see language as the knowledge representation in the mind.

In 1973, Humboldt's view was echoed by Edward Sapir and Benjamin Lee Whorf in their Sapir-Whorf hypothesis. This principle states that thought does not "precede" language, but on the contrary thought is conditioned by it. The system of honorific style used in Javanese, for example, affects the speakers' concepts of social status.

Halliday (in Halliday and Hasan (1985: 5) states that there was the theory of context before the theory of text. In other words, context precedes text. Context here means context of situation and culture (Halliday and Hasan, 1985: 7). This context is necessary for adequate understanding of the text, which becomes the first requirement for translating. Thus, translating without understanding text is non-sense, and understanding text without understanding its culture is impossible.

Humboldt's idea, Sapir-Whorf hypothesis, and Halliday's idea have a far-reaching implications for translation. In its extreme, the notion that language conditions thought and that language and thought is bound up with the individual culture of the given community would mean that translation is impossible. We cannot translate one's thought which is affected by and stated in language specific for a certain community to another different language because the system of thought in the two languages (cultures) must be different. Each language is unique. If it influences the thought and, therefore, the culture, it would mean that ultimate translation is impossible.

Another point of view, however, asserts the opposite. Ironically this also goes back to Humboldt's idea bout inner and outer forms of language. Later it is developed into the concepts of deep structure and surface structure by Chomsky. Inner form and deep structure is what generally known as idea. Following this concepts, all ideas are universal. What is different is only the surface structure, the outer from. If it is so, translation is only a change of surface structure to represent the universal deep structure. Accordingly, translation is theoretically always possible.

All in all, we are faced with two extremes. Which one is right? The answer, according to Snell-Hornby (1988: 41) lies not in choosing any of the two. If the extremes are put at the ends of a cline, the answer lies between the two. In brief, theoretically the degree of probability for perfect translation depends on how far the source language text (SLT) is embedded in its culture and the greater the distance between the culture between SLT and target language text (TLT), the higher is the degree of impossibility. See the following excerpts for illustration. The source language (SL) is Indonesian and the target language (TL) is English.


(1.) SL: Sebuah lembaga penelitian mengadakan penelitian tentang jumlah tabungan perbulan dari para buruh sebuah perusahaan negara di ibukota. Penelitian tersebut menggunakan sampel yang terdiri dari 100 keluarga dan hasilnya dinyatakan sebagai persentasi dari jumlah pendapatan per bulan. (Anto Dajan, 1974: 18)

TL: A research institution conducted a research on the amount of saving deposited by workers of a company located in a capital city. The research took 100 family as a sample and the result was presented in percentage of their monthly wages.

(2) SL: Dalam masyarakat Jawa bila seseorang wanita atau istri sedang hamil, menurut tradisi perlu diadakan bermacam-macam selamatan dan upacara-upacara lainnya. Hal ini perlu dilaksanakan dengan maksud agar bayi yang dikandung akan lahir dengan mudah dan selamat sehingga si anak akan mendapat kebahagiaan hidup dikemudian hari. (Bratawidjaja, 1996: 11).

TL: In a Javanese community, based on traditions, a pregnant woman or wife should be celebrated with various kinds of selamatan (traditional fiest?) and rituals. These should be done so that she can give a birth to a child easily and safely and the newly-born will get happy life later.

(3) SL: Upacara siraman dilakukan pada pagi hari sekitar pukul 09.00. Upacara siraman dilakukan oleh ibu dari anak yang diruwat dengan air kembang setaman. Setelah dibersihkan anak itu mengenakan busana adat Jawa yang secara khusus dibuat. Anak yang diruwat diajak oleh Ki Dalang serta didampingi oleh para pisisepuh (neneknya, budenya, dan lain sebagainya) untuk bersujud di hadapan ayah dan ibunya (Bratawidjaja, 1996: 49)

TL: Siraman (showering?) ceremony is held in the morning around 09:00 o’clock. This ritual is led by the mother of the child being "ruwat" (cleansed?) by showering him with "kembang setaman" (flower??) water. After being cleansed, the child is dresed in Javanese traditional clothes specially designed for him. The ("ruwat") child is then guided by Ki Dalang (the puppeteer??) and accompnied by the elders (the grandmother, aunts, etc.) to pay a homage to by bowing down to earth in front of the father and mother.

Reading the texts, we can imagine that translating the first text is easier than the second, and the second is easier than the last. The difficulty is caused by the culturally-bound words (concepts) found in each text.

Practically, however, the depth of embededness of a text into its culture is not the first consideration. The purpose of translating is the first determinant. If the purpose of translating text (2) and (3), for example, is to give general introduction of a certain type of text or culture, the TL should not carry all the meaning possessed by the SLT. The words underlined and put in the brackets will do. In this case there are a lot of possibilities for the TL.

However, if the purpose is to present the Javanese culture before the English readership, the italicized words should be used and accompanied with a lot of explanation. Supposed the two paragraphs are parts of a novel, and the translator wants to keep the local color, only the italicized words should be used. These different purposes govern the choice of translation procedures. Yet, if the purpose of translating text (2) and (3) is to present all the meaning, beauty, and style contained in it, then, translation is impossible.

3. Translation Procedures to Translate Culturally-bound Words or Expressions

From the previous discussion, it is known that perfect translation of culturally-bound text is impossible. The translation focusing on the purpose of the SL text writing is, however, always possible. This can be proven with the translation of so many literary works into other languages. One of them is the translation of Mangunwijaya's Burung-burung Manyar into English by Thomas M. Hunter. Hariyanto (1997) surveys both groups of SL and TL readers and comes up with the result saying that the readers get the same impressions in terms of the meaning, message and style.

Based on the result, Hariyanto (1999) studied further the appropriate procedures used to translate culturally-bound sentences, words, and expressions which are embedded in Javanese culture into English using the same novel translation as a case. The result shows that to translate culturally-bound words or expressions, the translator used addition, componential analysis, cultural equivalent, descriptive equivalent, literal translation, modulation, recognized translation, reduction, synonymy, transference, deletion, and combination. Some, however, are typically appropriate for certain classification of cultural words. For detailed description about the translation procedures, see Newmark (1988) or Hariyanto (1999). The brief description on the procedures can be seen in Appendix 1.

On the appropriateness of the procedures to translate culturally-bound words and expressions, these conclusions are taken.

Recognized translation is best used to translate institutional terms whose translation are already recognized, such as TNI, kabupaten, kecamatan, and Kowilhan. The use of new translation with whatever procedure will make the readers may misinterpret, especially if they already have some degree of knowledge of the source language. The establishment of this recognized translation by the Indonesian Language Center or the people themselves has, of course, undergone a certain process of creation and acceptance. When something about language has been accepted, it means it is a convention: that is the heart of language or vocabulary.

Professions are appropriately translated with cultural equivalents as they exist in both Javanese and English cultures. There are some differences between the two, but they are so minute. The examples can be seen in the following quotations. The SL is Indonesian and the TL is English.

SL: Dan Nah, tentu saja tak mau ketinggalan si gelatik cantik tetapi pencuri-pencuri padi yang nakal itu, dengan pipinya putih dan picinya biru hitam. (p. 17)

TL: And not to be left out were the Java finches. With their white cheeks and their velvet-like caps of deep blue, they were lovely to look at, but as rice thieves they were a troublesome bunch. (p. 27)

The other professions and the translation found in the novel are the following.

The SL words

The translation

(4/1) babu-babu


(8/1) sepandri


(22/4) jongos


(24/1) sepandri atau serdadu krocuk

corporals or privates

(36/2) abdi dalem

maid servants

(85/2) abdi


(101/2) pencuri- pencuri padi

rice thieves

(103/2) penjahit


(106/1) pemburu angkatan                      udara

air force fighter

(122/1) tukang kebun


(124/1) garong, perampok

thieves and robbers

(135/5) Pak Lurah

village chief

(145/2) jongos


(157/1) carik


(157/2) ulu-ulu

the waterworks overseer

(178/1) Pak Bupati

the regent

(178/2) bupati penjabat

acting regent

(191/2) maling


Descriptive equivalents are appropriate to translate culturally-bound words or expressions that are not found in the English culture but considered important enough in the text. When they are not, synonyms will do. See this example.

SL: Langsung ia berbahasa ngoko kepadanya, seperti kepada jongos (Mangunwijaya, 1989: 106-107)

TL: He rudely ordered Karjo about, using language that one might use with a servant. (Mangunwijaya, 1993: 136)

The example of this case is berbahasa ngoko which is translated into with language that one might use with a servant. If this expression was not considered very important, the synonym with hostile language could be used.

Literal translation can be used to translate a Javanese word that refers to a general meaning such as sinyo Londo, which is translated into a Dutch boy. This procedure, however, should not be used to translate proper name.

Expansion is found not very significant. It means that without it, the translation was still acceptable. See the following quotation.

SL: Mana Si Karjo. Dikunjungi malah lari. Mandi barangkali. Atau menggodog teh barangkali (p. 156)

TL: Where was Karjo? A person comes to visit and he disappears. May be he was taking a bath, or boiling water for tea?

In the above example, instead of translating menggodog teh into boiling water for tea, the translator actually could translates it into preparing for tea, which is more idiomatic.

Reduction is found to be useful to translate traditional address + proper name constructions as the terms of address are not found in the TL and an explanation is not possible. The examples are the translation of Kang Glati into Glati. See the following excerpt.

SL: Pelpolisi Belanda dan resisir mantri polisi dengan cepat melacak Si Bajingan dan Kang Glati masuk bui. (p. 111)

TL: ... the Dutch detectives and constables had tracked him down and thrown Glati into Jail. (p. 141)

Transference is very useful to translate tradition title, terms of address, and proper name. In the context, a reduction of the title or term of address would naturally distort the meaning or message. Few of the examples can be seen below:

The SL words

The translation

(37/1) Gusti Nurul

Gusti Nurul

(43/2) Den Ayu

Den Ayu

(53/3) Mbok Naya

Mbok Naya

(57/1) Mbok Ranu

Mbok Ranu

(119/1) Meener Antana

Meener Antana

(123/1) Mbok Nem

Mbok Nem

Next, modulation can be used best to handle a word that has no exact equivalent in the TL and the context demands the translator to emphasize the economy and smoothness of the sentence flow. This situation usually happens in a direct quotation where cultural notes are impossible. In addition, with this procedure the translator can still recreate the smooth flow and beauty of the text. The example is the translation of mbak ayu into you and kakangmu into I.

SL: Mbakayu itu macam-macam saja usulnya. (p. 15)

TL: You do come up with some strange suggestions sometimes," Mbok Ranu commented.

SL: Maka Kakangmu pikir: ah, tidak baik membebani orang dengan perkara-perkara yang lebih memberatkan (p. 160)

TL: So I thought to myself that it wouldn't be right to do something that might make even more trouble. (p. 196)


In the following example the translator also employs modulation and the combination of modulation and addition. Read it closely.

SL: Bila mereka berkomentar ayam itu gemuk dan bertanya apa betul itu ayam Kedu sungguh, maka petang harinya seorang anak disuruh ayahnya mempersembahkan ayam itu kepada mereka. Tetapi bagaimana bila mereka memuji Si Tinem atau Piyah cantik? (p. 109)

TL: Or if one said that a certain hen looked plump and ready for the pot, that same evening the owner would order his son or daughter to offer the chicken to the soldiers. And, because it hadn't been possible to evacuate all the young women of the village, what about when the soldiers began to praise one of the marriage-age girls? (p. 139)


Ayam Kedu in the SLT which means a type of chicken renown for its tasty meat is replaced with ready for the pot. One sense is replaced with another; this is an example of modulation. In the following sentence, the modulation is combined with addition. The reason for the action is added in. Si Tinem or Si Piyah are general names which are here used to refer to grown-up single women. The translator replaces them with the referent marriage-age girls.

Some other modulations are of different types. See the following example.

SL: Mereka meminta Mbok Rukem, janda nakal yang biasanya mereka gerutui untuk menampung lahar birahi tentara itu. (p. 109)

TL: They went to Mbok Rukem, a divorcee whose rumored or real dalliances had so often been the target of their complaints, and asked her assistance in soothing the soldiers' passion. (p. 139)


In the example above, the phrase mereka gerutui is an action, a cause. In the translation the translator gives the effect, the consequence of the action, i.e. the target of their complaints. This is also a modulation.

Finally, there are some culturally-bound words deleted or dropped during the translation process. The translator seems to take this strategy if the word's meaning is not found in the TL culture and the importance is minor. Anyhow, he should try to transfer to meaning or message, especially if it is not merely terms of address. Such words or expressions that have been deleted are:

The SL words

(160/4) ngono ya ngono, ning aja ngono

(168/3) lamat-lamat

(179/1) kepangrehannya

(213/1) basa-basi

(213/2) jiwa raga

(223/4) akal trenggiling

(235/1) berambut ijuk

(236/2) bermata bandeng


4. Conclusions

Finally, it can be concluded that theoretically a text which is embedded in its culture is both possible and impossible to translate into other languages. If practicality is considered first, however, every translation is possible. The degree of its closeness to its source culture and the extent to which the meaning of its source text to be retained is very much determined by the purpose of the translation. To close, it is suggested that in the translator considered the procedures explained above to translate culturally-bound words or expressions.



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Translation procedures defined below do not have a clear-cut division from one another. A particular procedure may contain in some degrees the characteristics of other procedures. The procedure is named based on its dominant characteristics. When more than one procedures, through their characteristics, equally dominate the translation of a word or expression, the procedure is called combination procedure.

1. Transference

-The SL word is brought into the target language text (TLT).

2. Naturalization

-The SL word is brought into the TLT and the writing is adjusted to the TLT writing system.

3. Using cultural equivalent

-The SL word is replaced with the TL cultural word.

4. Using synonym

-The SL word is translated into neutral TL word.

5. Using descriptive equivalent

The translator explains the description and/or function of the idea embodied in the SL word. Usually it results in long wording.

6. Using recognized translation

The SL word is replaced with previously recognized translation of the SL word in the TL.

7. Using componential analysis

SL word is replaced with a more general TL word plus one or more TL sense components to complete the meaning which is not embodied within the first TL word. At a glance it is like descriptive equivalent, but much shorter and does not involve the function of the idea of the SL word.

8. Reduction

SL word or phrase, as a translation unit, is replaced with a TL word or phrase which does not embrace part of the SL word meaning.

9. Expansion

Sl word or phrase as a translation unit, is replaced with a TL word or phrase which covers the SL word meaning plus something else.

10. Addition and note

An addition or note is added after the translation of the TL word or phrase. This addition is clearly not a part of the translation.

11. Deletion

SL word or phrase, as a translation unit, is dropped in the TLT.

12. Modulation

The SL word or phrase, as a translation unit, is translated into a TL word or phrase; and this involves change in the point of view.

The translator sees the phrase from different point of view, perspective or very often category of thought in translating it.

The general types:

(a) abstract for concrete (‘sleep in the open’ for ‘tidur beratap langit’)

(b) cause for effect (‘you are a stranger’ for ‘saya tak mengenal Anda’)

(c) one part for another (‘from cover to cover’ for ‘dari halaman pertama sampai halaman terakhir’)

(d) reversal of term (the French ‘assurance-maladie’ for English ‘health insurance’).

13. Literal translation

If a SL word or phrase, as a translation unit, is translated into a TL word or phrase, without breaking the TL syntactic rules.

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