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Cultural and Linguistic Equivalence in Translation

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See also: "Equivalence in Translation" by Lotfollah Karimi

Cultural Equivalence and Linguistic Equivalence

Javad Heidary photoAbstract

This study is to find those factors which determine the equivalence in translation.

The ideas of the prominent and distinguished scholars will be defined and elaborated. On the basis of those ideas, the final conclusion will be made.

Key words: Linguistic Equivalence, Cultural Equivalence.


Translation peers always encounter with different changes in equivalence within different language levels range from physical forms into meanings. Catford (1988) defined translation as the replacement of textual material in one language (SL) by equivalent textual material in other language (TL). Generally, almost all translation scholars emphasize the role of equivalence in the process or product of translation directly or indirectly. Therefore, it is in the center of the translation studies. It must be said that some scholars do not seem to refer to role of equivalence directly, however, if some one looks at their studies s/he will easily find out that equivalence would shed light on his/her studies. As a consequence, the nature of equivalence and its contribution and taxonomy will be defined in the following lines.

Equivalence, inevitably, is involved in any theory of translation which can be understood by the comparison of various texts cross linguistically. Catford (1988) considers different shifts within languages and contends that there are various shifts when any of translation is carried out by translators. He, heavily, focused on the different linguistic elements as crucial variables in equivalence definition and equivalence finding. Accordingly, he divided the shifts across languages into level and category shifts. Level shifts include studies like morphology , graphology…… etc. and category shifts consist of structural, class, unit and intra-system shifts.

There are other notions and assumptions described, explained and interpreted by translators and translation scholars. The work of Nida and Taber, Vinay and Darbenet, House and Baker are specifically dedicated to the equivalence, Baker (1992) regarded some different equivalents in his effort toward the notion and practice of translatics. She distinguished between grammatical, textual, pragmatic equivalents, and several others. Vinay and Darbelnet (1995) regarded translation as equivalence-oriented study. They said that equivalence is the ideal method in many practical problems of translatics.

Nida and Taber (1964) focused on formal and dynamic equivalence; their flexible binary oppositions were revised several times. House (1977) contended that equivalence is either overt or covert; hence, she derived here theory of translation based on this taxonomy.

Translatics or translation like many disciplines of science was scientifically developed in the second half of the century. Because of the fact that all theories of translation refer to equivalence as the most crucial factor centrally or peripherally. Dealing with the process of finding equivalence is the most significant issue existing among translaticists. Although finding equivalence is subjective, this subjectivity must be based on the taxonomies defined by translation scholars.

Studying of factors effecting in the process of selecting equivalence started under the classifications of translation theoretician. Generally, all translators cope with finding equivalence in order to convey the translation units better. During this study and finding, any translation scholar contemplate about the possible factors which appear to affect it. Some scholars define a borderline between the equivalence which is related to form and the equivalence that is relevant to meaning, however, all of them have something in common that is the approval of some problems which impede finding equivalence. One of the most important theories of equivalence is the Catford's theory. Catford (1988) defined his theory based on different levels of equivalence. Afterwards, he explained the conditions in which all translators deal with the equivalence finding. He divided factors affecting equivalence finding into two different branches. The first one was the linguistic factors and the second one was the cultural factors. These two variables impress the equivalence finding process in various kind of translation.

To sum up, translation is defined by Catford (1988) as the replacement of textual material in one language (SL) by equivalent textual material in another language (TL). Accordingly, Catford like many translation scholars defined an equivalence oriented theory. Later on, he went on details and described all kinds of possible equivalents in his theory. He also said that during the process of selecting, finding and creating equivalence, any translator should consider at least two factors, namely, linguistic and cultural factors. He said linguistic factors are those factors which exist at the levels of concrete form and abstract meaning of any chunk of language. In addition, cultural factors are those factors that can not be seen at the level of form or meaning of language, however, they exist among the background of mind of speakers and writers of source language, Catford (1988) said that any translator have to consider both cultural and linguistic elements and translate based on these two factors. It seems he meant to covey both cultural and linguistic elements of source language.

As it was mentioned before, there are many definitions on the notion of translation. Almost all translation scholars in their theories somehow refer to the equivalence as the most significant part or at least one of the most crucial parts of translation. Accordingly, various equivalents were described by translators from different points of view. Scholars found out that the process of finding, selecting creating equivalence is not always as easy as it seems. In fact, there are many factors that affect the process of finding and replacing equivalence. Catford (1988) not only defined the translation and translation equivalence but also described the factors that put influence on the process of finding equivalence. He contended that there are at least two different variables that effect finding equivalence in translation. They are linguistic and cultural variables.

In terms of details, it must be said that Catford (1988) defined translation as the replacement of textual material of target language by equivalent textual material of source language. Moreover, he described linguistic factors affecting equivalence as those element which exist at the level of concrete form or abstract meaning of any chunk of language and defined cultural factors as those elements that exist among the background of mind of speakers and writers and can not be seen at linguistic levels.

Accordingly, the problem of this study is as follows:

This study aims at discovering the accuracy and effectiveness of cultural and linguistic factors in finding equivalence. In other words, the writers want to find the existence and effectiveness of affecting factors in finding equivalence (cultural and linguistic factors).

Equivalence is the central and integral part of Catford's theory of translation. His cultural and linguistic factors which put influence on the equivalent appear to exist cross linguistically. Based on the definition of these elements, this study posits the crucial factors affecting finding equivalence.

The following graph will clarify this current study

The following graph will clarify this current study

This study focuses on the bi-dimensional aspects which are very significant in the transference of equivalence from source text or language into target text or language. Linguistic elements of source and target languages vary; however, it does not mean that the translation is impossible. In addition, Most of structures or language levels shared among languages. On the other hand, Cultural elements are unique and effective in selecting equivalence.

As long as translation exists, equivalence is its integral part. No matter the theory is from-based or meaning-based or source oriented or target-oriented, it always consists of some kind of exchange of equivalence in different levels of a language. The probable affecting factors are linguistic and cultural ones. If the existence, accuracy, and effectiveness of above-mentioned factors proved to be true, it will pave the path for carrying out the translation very correctly and effectively.

Review of Literature

Theories of Equivalence

Translation defined by many scholars from different notions of view. Some of translation scholars defined their theories a source-oriented theory, others regarded the target-oriented theories. There are also theorists who chose a place in between; however, all translation theories are related to the notion of equivalence in one way or another. Hence, equivalence plays a crucial role in translation. In fact, both source and target languages include ranges of equivalents from the least meaningful level of a language, namely, morpheme to the big levels like sentence. In the process of translation these levels of language appear to be equivalence levels between source language and target language. For example, if there is a word in the S.L, it must be translated into T.L at the word level usually. Accordingly, translation is the matter of establishing equivalence between S.L and T.L.

Translation developed mainly in the second half of the 20th century. Therefore, theory of equivalence has been studied scientifically from the beginning of the second half of the 20th century up to now.

Jakobson and Equivalence in Difference

Jakobson (1959) made a contribution to the theoretical analysis of translation. He introduced the concept of equivalence in difference. He suggested three kinds of equivalence known as:

-Intralingual (within one language, i.e. rewording or paraphrase)
-Interlingual (between two languages)
-Intersemiotic (between sign systems)

Nida: Formal Equivalence vs. Dynamic Equivalence

Nida (1964) argued that there are two different types of equivalence. Namely formal equivalence- which in the second edition by Nida is referred to as formal correspondence and dynamic equivalence. Formal correspondence focuses attention on the message itself, in both form and content, unlike dynamic equivalence which is based upon the principle of equivalent effect.

Formal correspondence consists of a TL item which represents the closest equivalent of a SL word or phrase. Nida makes it clear that there are not always formal equivalents between language pairs he therefore suggest that these formal equivalents should be used wherever possible if the translation aims at achieving formal rather than dynamic equivalence. The use of formal equivalents might at times have serious implications in the TT since the translation will not be easily understood by the target audience.

Dynamic equivalence is defined as a translation principle according to which a translator seeks to translate the meaning of the original in such a way that the TL wording will trigger the same impact on the original wording did upon the ST audience.

House and Overt and Covert Translation and Equivalence

House (1977) discussed the concept of overt and covert translations. In an overt translation the TT audience is not directly addressed and there is therefore no need at all to attempt to recreate a second original since an overt translation must overtly be a translation. By covert translation, on the other hand, is meant the production of a text which is functionally equivalent to the ST.  House also argues that in this type of translation the ST is not specifically addressed to a TC audience.

Baker's Approach towards Equivalence

Baker (1992) defined four kinds of equivalents as follows:

-Equivalence that can appear at word level and above word level, when translating from one language into another.

-Grammatical equivalence, when referring to the diversity of grammatical categories across languages.

-Textual equivalence when referring to the equivalence between a SL text and a TL text in terms of information and cohesion.

-Pragmatic equivalence, when referring to imprimaturs and strategies of avoidance during the translation process.

Vinay and Darbelnet and Their Equivalence Definition

Vinay and Darbelnet (1995) view equivalence-oriented translation as a procedure which replicates the same situation as in the original, whilst using completely different wording. They also suggest that, if this procedure is applied during the translation process, it can maintain the stylistic impact of the SL text in the TL text.

Catford and Translation Shift and Equivalence

Catford (1996) in the revision of his book introduced a very perfect taxonomy towards translation.

Cartford's approach to translation equivalence clearly differs from that adopted by Nida since Catford had a preference for a more linguistic-based approach to translation and this approach is based on the linguistic work of Firth and Halliday. His main contribution in the field of translation theory is the introduction of the concepts of types and shifts translation. Catfrod proposed very broad types translation in terms of three criteria:

1. The extent of translation (full translation vs partial translation).

2. The grammatical rank at which the translation equivalence is established (rank bound translation vs. unbounded translation).

3. The levels of language involved in translation (total translation vs. restricted translation).

He also defined the shifts which exist within different languages.

His category is as follows:

Shifts will be divided into two parts level shifts: (morphology, graphology,….) and category shift which include structural shift (order of words in a sentence) and class shifts (part of speech) and unit shifts (sentence, clause, phrase, word) and intra-system shifts (structure of parts of speech)

Catford (1996) described his latest category of equivalence (his notable contribution in the field of translation). It is the binary taxonomy which sheds light on the translation studies. In fact, Catford (1996) studied the equivalence and found out that there are two factors which affected the equivalence. They are linguistic and cultural factors. These two factors brought two equivalents. They are linguistic and cultural equivalents. This finding of Caford is very significant because it consists of both important approaches toward equivalence, namely, linguistic and cultural approaches. In fact, what other translation scholars defined separately and one by one, Catford described and explained in one binary opposition (cultural and linguistic factors or equivalents).


Prior to the Catford's theory, five other studies were defined. By deeply looking at these studies, Catford understood that the prior 5 studies (Jakobson, Nida, House, Baker, and Vinay & Darbelnet) could be divided into two groups. The first group included jakobson's, and Vinay & Darbelnet's that mainly defined and focused on linguistic aspects of equivalence. The second group consisted of Nida's, House's, and Baker's that emphasized on the cultural dimensions of equivalence. Therefore, Catfrod (1988) introduced a new taxonomy included both linguistic and cultural aspects, in fact; he utilized the others' ideas and put them in his categorization. What Catford and the others theorized is illustrated as follows:

What Catford and the others theorized is illustrated as follows


Baker, M. (1992). A Coursebook on Translation. London:


Catford,J.C.(1996). A Linguistic Theory of Translation. London:

 Oxford University press.

House, J.(1977). A Model for Translation Quality Assesment.

 Tubingen: Gunter Narr.

Jakobson, R.(1959). Linguistics Aspects of Translation. New

 York: Harvard University Press.

Nida, E.A.(1964). Toward a Science of Translating. Leiden:


Vinay, J.P. and Darbelent, J.(1995). A Methodology for

 Translation. Amterdam/ Philadelphia: John Benjamins.


Published - May 2009

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