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How to Face Challenging Symbols: Translating Symbols from Persian to English

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Mahmoud Ordudary photoTranslation suffers from many limitations, one of which is the difficulty of translating symbols meaningfully in another language. In the present paper, it will be analyzed how symbols have been dealt with in the two languages: Persian and English. A brief analysis of the procedures employed in rendering symbols is presented. Symbols are deeply rooted in the SL culture; consequently, translators should exercise care in handling such cultural items. We conducted a study to highlight the fact that there are some procedures for translating symbols effectively from Persian to English omission being the most frequently employed one. However, this is by no means the most effective procedure. Trying not to prescribe a specific rule or procedure for rendering all kinds of symbols, the researcher carried out such a descriptive study in the hope of helping translation students or translators get much more familiar with the most appropriate procedures for dealing with symbols.

Key words: Culture, Omission, SL, Symbol, Translation Procedures

1. Introduction

All languages are composed of symbols. All words are symbols for concrete entities. Being deeply rooted in a culture, figurative language is a language which is not employed in its literal meaning; therefore, its translation poses many problems for translators. Figurative language or speech, such as similes, metaphors, personifications, symbols, etc. contains images.

In order to come to a relatively full comprehension of metaphors and similes, one should be acquainted with the symbolic system of the corresponding language. This study aims at highlighting some problems of translating speech figures, narrowing its domain down to the translation of symbols in The Divan of Hafez. The present paper is divided into four sections: first, a brief explanation of the key concept of speech figures and its branches, such as symbols, similes, metaphors, and personifications; second, the description of some procedures of translating symbols; third, a concise analysis of both the SL and the TL texts in order to highlight some inevitable problems encountered and to propose some other potential procedures of translating symbols; and forth, the conclusions of the study.

2. Figurative Language (FL)

Figurative language (FL) is a language which does not mean what it says. Tajalli (2000:100) refers to three main features of FL, namely, "clarity, force, and beauty" and states that "This is exactly the purpose FL is meant to serve." FL is not intended to be interpreted in a literal sense.

Claiming that all figures of speech are comparisons, Tajalli (2000) points out that they are legion in both English and Persian. Metaphor and simile are "the most basic" forms of speech figures "in all languages" (p.101). In the same line, Richards et al. (1989) notify that "the two most common figures of speech are the simile and metaphor but there are many other less common ones" (p. 105).

2.1. The FL Translation

Perrine (1970:584) points out that the use of any kind of FL involves a risk of "misinterpretation"; however, he affirms that "the risk is well worth taking." He maintains:

For the person who can translate the figure, the dividends are immense. Fortunately all people have imagination to some degree, and imagination can be cultivated. By practice one's ability to interpret figures of speech can be increased (p.584).

Larson (1984) asserts that the most challenging task of translators who want to make a good idiomatic translation is to deal with speech figures which are often based on "stories or historical incidents" (p.21). In order to translate figures of speech properly, the translator should always make some adjustments. Sometimes, as Larson (1984) believes, "a non-figurative equivalent will be needed in the receptor language; sometimes a different figure of speech with the same meaning may be found" (p.159).

2.2. What is a Symbol?

Etymologically, symbol is derived " from the Late Latin symbolum -- baptismal creed, and from the Late Greek symbolon, literally, token, sign," (Merriam-Webster). In general, symbols are thought to be "objects, characters, or other concrete representations of ideas, concepts, or other abstractions" (Idem, ibidem).

Shaw (1881:367) presents the following definition for symbol:

[Symbol is] something used for, or regarded as, representing something else. More specifically, a symbol is a word, phrase, or other expression having a complex of associated meanings; in this sense, a symbol is vied as having values different from those of whatever is being symbolized . . . . Many poets have used the rose as a symbol of youth and beauty (a flag is a piece of cloth which stands for or is a symbol of a nation".

Being an "arbitrary sign (written or printed) that has acquired a conventional significance," a symbol is "something visible that by association or convention represents something else that is invisible" (Word Reference). Michelson (2005:176) considers a figure of speech "an image transferred by something that stands for or represents something else, like flag for country, or autumn for maturity." Symbols can represent ideas embodied in the image without stating them. Symbols can be subject to a diversity of connotations; therefore, both the poet and the reader must exercise sensible discretion to avoid misinterpretation. (Michelson, 2005:176)

Symbol is defined in the online Encyclopedia Britannica as "a communication element intended to simply represent or stand for a complex of person, object, group, or idea." The preceding definition seems to consider socio-cultural issues much more than other ones. In this regard, Banks and McGee (1989) assert that most social scientists today view culture as consisting primarily of the symbolic, ideational, and intangible aspects of human societies. To them, the essence of a culture is the values, symbols, interpretations, and perspectives that distinguish one people from another in modern societies (p.76). It does not seem to be confined to material objects and other tangible aspects of human societies. People within the SL culture usually interpret the meaning of symbols, artifacts, and behaviors in the same or in similar ways which may appear quite different from (or unrelated to) the ways people within the TL culture do.

3. Discussion

3.1. Metaphor, Simile and Symbol

The relationship between symbol and the two speech figures, namely, metaphor and simile, will become much more tangible and highlighted in the translation process than on any other occasions. In the translation of speech figures in general, and the translation of symbols in particular, we can refer to three states: (i) where the SL entity stands for something which completely contradicts with what the TL entity stands for, (ii) where the SL entity and its equivalent in the TL stand for unrelated (not contradictory) things or concepts, and (iii) where an entity symbolizes the same (or at least similar) things or concepts. Consider the following couplet extracted from the introduction of Sa'adi's the Gulestan:

ST: (Anvari, 2000:11) " گربه شیر است در گرفتن موش/ لیک موش است در مصاف پلنگ"
/gorbe šir æst dær gereftæn-e muš/ lik muš æst dær mæsaf-e pælæng/

TT: A cat is a lion in catching mice/ But a mouse in combat with a tiger. (Rehatsek, 1956:7)

In English we have "As timid as a mouse" and "As brave as a lion" (Tajalli, 2000:104). In both Persian and English, symbols of bravery and timidity are 'lion' and 'mouse,' respectively; consequently, a merely literal translation is actually sufficient for the TT.

However, there are some cases in which we do not witness such a happy coincidence in the cultural concepts and linguistic systems of the SL and the TL. For instance, in: " او مثل گاو غذا می خورد" /ou meθl-e gav gζza mixorad/ (i.e. He eats like a cow). In Persian cow is the symbol of a person who eats with a great appetite. In such a case, in English the person's appetite is compared to that of a horse: He eats like a horse. On a similar base, in Persian the resemblance of two persons is compared to that of two halves of an apple: " مثل سیبی که از وسط دو نیم شده باشد" / meθl-e sibi ke ζz væsæt do nim šode bašæd/ (e.g. Like an apple cut in half); however, in English we have: Like two peas in a pod.

Let's consider the following instance extracted from Sa'adi's the Gulestan:

ST: (Anvari, 2000:212) "اگر از مه رویان به سلامت ماند از بدگوی"
/ægær æz mæh ruan be sælamæt manæd æz bæd guyan næmanæd /

TT: If he remains in safety from the moon-faced one, he will not remain safe from evil speakers. (Rehatsek, 1956:422)

In this instance, 'moon' is the symbol of beauty in Persian (not in English); therefore, the expression "the moon-faced one" conveys the wrong impression in the TL and will be misunderstood. Putting it in another way, when reading the phrase, the TT reader may not think of beauty since in English the correspondent symbol is 'picture': As pretty as a picture. In such cases, literal translation does not suffice--and it is a footnote that can fill the cultural gap between the two symbolic systems.

There are other cases in which environmental conditions determine the creation of specific symbols. For example, in a tropical country where people have never experienced seen snow; therefore, snow will be used as the symbol of whiteness; consequently, it is improbable to find any simile like 'White as snow' in the nation's literature. Under such circumstances, the translator may render the simile as 'White as an egret's feathers'.

These cases should not actually be considered as a challenge. A real challenge occurs when the symbolic systems of the two languages are contradictory in some cases. Put in another way, while X symbolizes something 'good' or positive in the SL culture, Y (the equivalent of X) stands for something 'bad' or negative in the TL culture. As an example, consider the title of the renowned Persian novella " بوف کور" /buf-e kur/ (i.e. The Blind Owl). The word "بوف" /buf/ in Persian symbolizes the concept of 'being ominous'; accordingly, the SL reader, who has not yet read the novella, at the first glace would guess that he is going to read a story in which a 'bad' event is going to occur. On the other hand, the English reader never feels like the ST ones since 'owl' in their language stands for 'wise.' At this point, a competent translator may opt for different procedures, such as, employing a footnote or substituting the symbols.

3.2. Possible Procedures of Translating Symbols

We may use various procedures for translating symbols from English to Persian and vice versa, like the following ones:

  1. Domestication: reproducing the identical image in the TL;

    1.1 Descriptive procedure: by adding a modifier (mostly an adjective) to the SL entity the translator can prevent the reader from adding some specific connotations to the SL entity or creating different (unrelated or, even worse, contradictory) images from what the original author intended to convey. For instance, translating a literary text from English to Persian, the translator comes across the word owl for which he simply chooses the equivalent "جغد" /joqd/. The big problem arises here is that the word owl connotatively means something different to the SL reader from what the word "جغد" /joqd/ means to the TL reader. The problem can be solved by adding a proper modifier which contains the SL connotation to the chosen equivalent: "جغد" /joqd-e dana/ (i.e. the wise owl).

    1.2. Replacement: by replacing the SL entity with a TL entity which creates the same image, for example, replacing ""ماه" /mah/ (i.e. the moon) in the phrase "او مثل ماه است" (i.e. she is as pretty as the moon) with the word picture: she is as pretty as a picture.

    1.3 Changing the symbol to sense, for instance, instead of "ماه رو" /mah ru/ (i.e. moon-faced one) the translator refers only to the sense: the beautiful or gorgeous one.

  2. Foreignization:

    2.1 Providing the reader with a literal translation and a footnote explaining the symbol

    2.2 Omitting the SL image by presenting a mere literal translation

In cases where the SL entity and its equivalent in the TL symbolizes the same or similar thing or concept in the two engaged cultures, the task of the translator is easy--he just needs to resort to literary translation. However, there are some cases where the SL entity bears both negative and positive connotations while its TL equivalent symbolizes something purely positive (or merely negative). Consider the word dog which symbolizes loyalty in the Persian and English cultures; however, in the former, because of the predominance of religious beliefs, dog bears a negative connotation--which can never be detected in the latter. In such cases, it seems quite essential for the translator to recognize which connotative (positive or negative) the SL author intended to transfer to the SL audience. For instance, when a Persian to English translator comes across the sentence "او مثل سگ دروغ می گوید" /ou meθl-e sæg doruq miguæ/ (i.e. he tells lies like a dog), he should be aware of the fact that here only the negative connotation is intended and dog symbolizes something very loathsome, nasty and cunning. Under the circumstances it seems better to replace dog (which only symbolizes loyalty and bears mostly positive connotations in English culture) with an animal which symbolizes cunning and shrewdness--like fox.

In other cases, the translator may observe that one entity in the two cultures symbolizes quite different things or concepts, as in the case of pig and owl, where these two bear negative connotations in the Persian culture, based on religious and mythological beliefs respectively, they symbolizes intelligence and wisdom in the English culture. Although it may be claimed that they also have some minor negative connotations, but what about these strong concepts for which they stand? Can we ignore them all? Does the TL reader merely grasp the positive connotations or the negative ones? Here the role of the translator is important. After finding out whether the author desired to emphasize either positive or negative connotations, the translator can resort to different procedure like 'description' or 'footnote.' The advantage of the former is that it prevent interruptions in the flow of the text; however, footnotes can provide the TT readers with a more comprehensive SL cultural-symbolic knowledge. Any of these procedures can lead the TT reader to an accurate understanding of the real intention of the use of the symbols by the original author.

Therefore, where Persian readers, as TL readers, encounter with " جغد دانا" /joqd-e dana/ (i.e. the wise owl), they are less likely to consider the negative connotations attached to " جغد /joqd/ (i.e. owl) in their own culture. On the other hand, English readers; in the position of TL readers, when come across the noun phrase "the ominous owl" instead of the noun "owl", they will no longer attach positive connotations to owl--as is natural and usual in their own culture.

4. Conclusion

Although considerable research has been done on figurative language, its translation seems to have been much less investigated. A particularly neglected aspect has been the study of symbol translation. The results of the study reveal that the procedure's frequency is not inevitably interrelated with its efficacy. Put in another way, literal translation, being the most recurrently exploited procedure of translating symbols, is not particularly functional and useful in revealing all the concepts underlying such speech figures.

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 '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 symbolic systems of the SL and the TL are dissimilar or even contradictory; however, some stylists consider translation "sprinkled with footnotes" undesirable. Therefore the two options of foreignization do not seem quite effective since they are likely to lead to 'translation loss.'

Using the procedure of replacement, moreover, does not seem desirable since it prevents some TT readers interested in being familiar with the SL culture and its symbolic system from enhancing their knowledge on the subject. The criterion of 'fidelity' to the ST seems to be violated through the utilization of this procedure; therefore, we would be reluctant to choose it as the best procedure of translating symbols. The descriptive procedure can be considered the best procedure since not only does it preserve the original image, but also it never violates the fidelity to the ST. furthermore, the TT reader can comprehend the symbol as fast as the ST reader does, and he can also expand his cultural knowledge which is very significant since, in the future, he may no longer remain as the a reader of translation but become a translator himself.


Anvari, H. (2000). The Gulestan of Sa'di. Tehran: Qatreh Publications.

Banks, J. A. & McGee, C. A. (Eds.). (1989). Multicultural education: Issues and perspectives. London and New York: Routledge.

Britannica. (n.d.). Retrieved November 11, 2006 from

Larson, M. L. (1984). Meaning-based translation: A guide to cross-language equivalence. Lanham, MD: University Press of America.

Merriam. (n.d.). Retrieved November 11, 2006 from

Michelson, R. (2005). Dictionary of rhetoric. New Delhi: IVY Publishing House.

Perrine, L. (1970). Literature: Structure, sound and sense. New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, INC.

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

Shaw, H. (1881). Dictionary of literary terms. New York: McGraw-Hill, Inc.

Symbol. (n.d.). Retrieved November 11, 2006 from

Tajalli, G. (2000). Idioms and metaphorical expressions in translation. Tehran: SAMT.

Word Reference. (n.d.). Retrieved November 11, 2006 from

Published - December 2008

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