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Problems of Rendering Linguistic Devices in Rumi’s poetry

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Mahmoud Ordudary photo Abstract

Translating language-bound terms (LBTs) poses many difficulties to a translator. In the present paper, it will be analyzed how alliteration, assonance, pun, and ambiguous words have been dealt with in the English translation of Rumi's poetry selected from the Divan-e Shams.

The research was carried out to provide a description in order to come to a better understanding of one of the most challenging areas of translation; namely, the translation of LBTs and to put emphasis on the fact that: despite the fact that there are some procedures for translating LBTs, one cannot claim that they lend themselves to translation all the time or in all kinds of texts. 

Key words: Alliteration, Ambiguous words, Assonance, LBT, Pun, ST, TT

1. Introduction

Among the various kinds of translation, literary translation in general, and poetry translation in particular, seem to be the most difficult ones since form and meaning in such texts have a very close relationship. The diversity between a SL and a TL and the differences in their cultures make the process of translating a real challenge. Among the problematic factors involved in translation, such as form, meaning, style, proverbs, idioms, etc., the present study will concentrate mainly on the linguistic issues of translation.

2. What are LBTs?

In poetry the content (meaning) and container (form or style) are claimed to be so intimately connected that, if separated from one another, much of the meaning of the source poetry will disappear. Fortunately, in the translation of puns, as a kind of LBT, no translator is likely to encounter such a problem, since those words recognized as puns are either the same, like two peas in a pod, or similar merely on the surface or form (not meaning).[??]

In the face of LBTs, a competent translator is supposed to do his/her utmost in fulfilling the sensible task of diminishing translation loss. In reality, there seems to be no natural way of avoiding translation loss; neither the avoidance of encountering the predicament, nor its eradication seem to be feasible. Nonetheless, as Hervey & Higgins (1992:24) state, "the challenge to the translator is thus not to eliminate translation loss altogether, but to reduce it by deciding which of the relevant features in the ST is most important to preserve, and which can most legitimately be sacrificed in preserving them". In other words, the experienced translator will make up his/her mind to reduce translation loss by resorting to some specific strategies or, as Hervey & Higgins (1992:24) put it, s/he should make an effort to "minimize difference" in lieu of  endeavoring "to maximizing sameness."

Newmark (1988:217) points out that the translation of puns, as a kind of LBT, "is of marginal importance and of irresistible interest." This, of course, is not to be interpreted as a green light to the incompetent translators who prefer not to make the least effort to resort to an appropriate procedure of translating the LBTs embedded in the SL. To put it in another way, preserving the aesthetic functions of the original text can be considered as a criterion of an ideal translation.

2.1 What is Pun?

Remining us that puns have appeared in literature since the time of Homer (8th century B.C.), Shaw (1905:18) defines this term as "a play on words; the humorous use of a word emphasizing different meanings or applications." However, it does not seem appropriate to consider puns as merely a humor device. According to Nash (1985: 137), "we take punning for a tawdry and facetious thing, one of the less profound forms of humor, but that is the prejudice of our time; a pun may be profoundly serious, or charged with pathos."

2.2 Categorization of Pun in English (TL)

According to Delabastita (1997:130), punsters have at their disposal different linguistic devices such as the structure of phonology and writing, multiple meanings, morphological structure, etc. Puns are divided into different categories based on their formal characteristics, such as:  

(i) Homonymy: According to Richards (1985), homonyms are "words which are written in the same way and sound alike but which have different meanings." He gives the word "lie" as an example and maintains to refer to the fact that "it is a well known problem in SEMANTICS to tell the difference between homonymy... and POLYSEMY (a single word with more than one meaning)" (p.130).

 (ii) Homophony: Richards (1985) refers to homophones as "words which sound alike but are written differently and often have different meanings", such as the words "no" and "know" (p.130).

 (iii) Homography: Homographs, as Richards (1985:130) describes, are "words which are written in the same way but which are pronounced differently and which may have different meanings." For instance, the English words 'lead' /li:d/ in 'does this street lead to city center?' and 'lead' /led/ in 'lead is a metal' are homographs.

(iv) Paronymy: Marjamäki (2001) asserts that paronymic puns "employ phonological similarity of the words and the morphological structure", such as the words faith and face which are different from each other only in their last phoneme (p.23).

2.2 Alliteration and Assonance

Some cases of translation loss, every so often referred to as untranslatability, related to formal features of a text, seems to come about in alliteration, assonance, and ambiguous words. Hervey & Higgins (1992:76) define alliteration as "the recurrence of the same sound/ letter or sound/ letter cluster at the beginning of words (for example, 'many mighty midgets')"; however, when the recurrence of the same sound/ letter or sound/ letter cluster occurs "within words (for example, 'my crafty history master's bathtub')", this is called, according to Hervey & Higgins (1992:76), assonance. (Original emphasis)

3. Method

In general, one of the greatest challenges a translator confronts during the translation process is the problem of preserving aesthetic functions of the original text.

3.1. Material

The present study is an investigation into an English translation of LBTs detected in Rumi's poetry.

Jalal-e Din Mohammad Molavi Rumi was born in 1207 A.D. at Balk in the north eastern provinces of Persia . . . . His major contribution lies in Islamic philosophy and Sufism. This was embodied largely in poetry, especially through his famous Masnavi. . . . Fundamentally, the Masnavi highlights the various hidden aspects of Sufism and their relationship with the worldly life. . . . Apart from the Masnavi, he also wrote Divan (collection of poems) and Fihe-Ma-Fih (a collection of mystical sayings). However, it is the Masnavi itself that has largely transmitted Rumi's message. (Persian language and literature, n.d.)

Being popular masterpieces and occupying a high position in the world's literature in general and in Persian literature in particular, one couplet has been selected from Divan of Shams as the sample since it contains several LBTs

3.2. Procedures

The following steps were taken in order to analyze the collected data:

1. Specifying the LBTs in the original text and their English equivalents.

2. Determining the kind of procedure employed in the translation of the LBTs.

3. Identifying the most effective procedure of translating LBTs.

4. Discussion

Let us now consider one of the most stunning couplets from Rumi:


شکر کند چرخ فلک، از مَلِک و مُلْک و مَلَک/ کز کرم و بخشش او، روشن و بخشنده شدم (Divan-e Shams, n.d.)

/љokr konæd čærx-e fælæk æz mælek-o molk-o mælæk\ kæz kæræm-o bæxљeљ-e ou rouљæn-o bæænde љodæm/

TT: The firmaments are in praise/ Of lords, lands, angelic gaze// Gracefully love and amaze/ Compassionately, wisely, enthrall. (Divan-e Shams, n.d.) 

Pun is a kind of LBT. The pun "محرف" /mohræf/, as Tajlil (1367:43) asserts, occurs when the similar words are different only because of the sounds"َ‌‌‌ِ  ُ " (/æ/ /e/ /o/). Bearing in mind that in the Persian language the phonemes  "َ‌‌‌ ِ ُ "  are not usually signified by letters like "o", "e" and "a," even a competent translator would fail in his attempts to translate this kind of pun into the same kind of pun in English since such a pun does not exist in English. In this case we are justified to claim that preserving the same pun in translation is impossible. The best example of this kind of pun can be found in the aforementioned couplet.

  As is evident, one can detect two kinds of puns: the lexemes مَلِک /mælek/ 'a king', مُلْک /molk/ 'land', and مَلَک /mælæk/ 'angel', which share identical graphological shape, are perceived as having made the most conspicuous pun in the ST, namely "محرف" /mohræf/. The next type of pun, called "لاحق" /lahæq/, which corresponds to the pun called "paronymy" in English, is formed by the words فلک /fælæk/ 'the sky', and مَلَک /mælæk/ since the two words are distinguishable only based on one phoneme.

The amazing couplet makes a great impression on the ST reader in view of the fact that there are plentiful linguistic devices involved. The most eye-catching device stems from the alliterative pattern identifiable in the terms مَلِک, مُلْک and مَلَک based on the recurrence of the phoneme /م/. 

The second type of device has also a graphic and phonological foundation. The deliberate recurrence of the letter cluster لک in مَلِک, مُلْک, مَلَک and فلک exhibits assonance; moreover, it must be acknowledged that the graphic device based on the re-emergence of the grapheme <ک> is reinforced by the concurrent occurrence of the lexemes فلک /fælæk/,شکر  /љokr/ 'thanks', کند /konæd/ 'to do/give', کز /kæz/ 'that from',  کرم /kæræm/ 'generosity'.

As can be seen from the text, the phonological device is not confined to the phoneme /ل/ and /ک/. To put it another way, the terms شکر /љokr/, بخشش /bæxљeљ/ 'forgiveness', روشن /rouљæn/ 'bright', بخشنده /bæxљænde/ 'merciful', and شدم /љodæm/ 'to become' are interpreted through assonance. Needless to say, these phonological interrelations also have their graphic correlates in the text. 

Having set the scene by presenting the aesthetic aspects of the ST, of course, as far as linguistic devices are concerned, we are now in a position to carry out a concise structural analysis of the TT with a view to highlighting the inevitable problems encountered.  As for pun, it simply evaporates in the process of translation given that the translator was unable to found a corresponding pun structure in the TT; consequently, he has lost sight of it altogether.

The putative equivalent of the lexeme مَلِک /mælek/ is king; however, lords was opted for because the translator presumably strived to design an alliterative pattern between lords and lands in order to recapture the alliteration traceable in the original text. Interestingly enough, the graphic link among مَلِک, مُلْک, مَلَک and فلک was also recaptured, to some extent, by means of the adverbials Gracefully, Compassionately, and wisely. All in all, the assonance of the phoneme /ل/ (/l/) in the Persian text was partially recreated with success by means of lords, lands, love, gracefully, angelic, compassionately, wisely, and enthrall.   

5. Conclusion

Conveying any message in any language does not seem to be a very difficult job. Something that really matters on some occasions is the form of message which naturally differs in different languages. As a matter of fact, translatability or untranslatability of aesthetic functions of a text essentially depends on the level of similarity between the linguistic systems of the SL and TL. There are some LBTs in SL which can never be properly translated to the TT. Thus, while it seems possible to translate LBTs in a way satisfactory in the TL, conveying the entire aesthetic characteristics and elegance of the original in the translation seems to be unattainable. 

Omission of the image through resorting to a mere literal translation leaves the TT reader unaware of the concepts underlying the original text. One effective procedure seems to be the 'couplet,' which includes the combination of two procedures: literal translation and footnote.  Through this mixture of procedures the translator can inform the TT reader in cases where the linguistic systems of the SL and the TL are dissimilar. However, some stylists consider a translation "sprinkled with footnotes" undesirable.  

LBTs are more related to the formal aspects of languages; consequently, the closer the TL and the SL systems are, the easier will be the task of the translator in his/her effort appropriately to render the LBTs embedded within the ST. Moreover, in translation of Rumi's poetry, generally, it is the form which is manipulated so that the meaning may be preserved in the process of translation. In other words, the container (form) is sacrificed for the sake of preserving the content (meaning), and this is why something is always lost in the translation of his poetry.   


Delabastita, D. (Ed.). (1997). Traductio: Essays on punning and translation. New York: St Jerome.

Divan-e Shams. (n.d.). Retrieved September 21, 2007 from

Hervey, S., & Higgins, I. (1992). Thinking translation. London & New York: Routledge.

Marjamäki, P. (2001) A study on language-bound humor and its translation. M.A. thesis, Department of English, Helsinki Faculty of Arts.  

Nash, W. (1985). The language of humour: Style and technique in comic discourse. London: Longman.

Newmark, P. (1988). A Textbook of Translation. Hertfordshire: Prentice Hall.

Persian language and literature. (n.d.). Retrieved January 2, 2008 from

Richards, J. (1985). Longman dictionary of applied linguistics. UK: Longman.

Shaw, H. (1905). Dictionary of literary terms. New York: McGraw-Hill, Inc.

Tajlil, J. (1989). Pun in Persian literature. Tehran: The institute of cultural studies.

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