Posts in culture

The adventure of culturemes: are there two sides for just one and the same coin? (2/2)

febrero 8th, 2012 Posted by blog, culture, cultureme, Sudden reviews No Comment yet

The post published last week is focused on the advantages of the notion of cultureme, according to Lucía Luque Nadal (2009). In this post, I’m going to review an article written by David Marín Hernández (2005), in which the dark side of the coin is shown. Marín (2005) raises the question of the need of changing the approach usually adopted in Translation Studies research, and suggests that, rather than as an intercultural activity, translation should be envisioned as an interpersonal activity, in order to enable a better analysis of the characteristic features of texts (see also Muñoz 2010:176).


On the dark side…

According to Marín (2005:74), the recent cultural interest in our discipline can be traced back not only to anthropology, but also to a “light” version of culture springing from the fields of Postcolonial Criticism and Cultural Studies. This version is a far cry from breaking old schemas and proposing new ideas, for it prefers to ‘hide’ behind the wall of political correctness whereby it even identifies anthropology with radical ethnocentrism.

Metaphors used by translation scholars are not neutral, contends Marín, and they all belong to a way of thinking that is practically useless: culture as a closed container (see this previous post). As a consequence, the predominant model defines translation as a transfer process between containers (source culture and target culture) and the translator is seen as an intercultural mediator who can –read should– adopt the most adequate strategies to adapt translated texts to the basic ‘functions’ of source texts.

For Marín (2005:76), conceptualizing a given translation problem as cultureme amounts to ‘hiding’ its intrinsic value. Culturemes can be extremely easy to use by translation and language teachers: by reifying a given textual characteristic as a cultural difference, any discussion about semiotic functions of a text may come to an end. In this view, any translation problem may be interpreted as the product of its cultural essence: it is just an attribute that belongs to a culture.

If Nord’s (1997:34) definition of cultureme is deemed correct, then we are accepting that culture is included in the deepest sense of human beings, and each culture constitutes the starting point for all individuals’ identities. In other words, an unnecessary equivalence in between culture and people is made. On top of that, delimiting two very specific variables (culture X and culture Y) is the result of understanding such a complex and abstract concept as a systemic ‘whole’ where all elements are deeply interrelated within some kind of material entity. But culture is much more than a group of people and their tools to survive.

According to Marín (2005:76), culturemes lack a very important facet: society. Nord’s definition presupposes a harmonic relationship between two entities, as two sides of one and the same coin. Each society has a culture that links all its members together. Consequently, without culture, there would be no society. This approach has become so popular and strong that it has directly influenced Postcolonial Studies, which often base translation models on the notion of translating the “Other”.

In view of the fact that translation is not a mere cultural transfer, Marín (2005:78) suggests using other conceptual tools, such as the space-time frame. In sociology, interaction is often interpreted as “space-time frames that vary according to action systems or else as symbolical forms, because their limits fluctuate, they are discontinuous and mercurial” (Ariño 1997; my own translation). Applying this perspective to translation studies would contribute to set aside the belief that translation takes place between two closed systems, with interrelated and organic, coherent and unifying ways of thinking common to the identity of each person. The slogan “The heart of the mediator’s task is not to translate texts but to translate cultures” (Katan 1999:241) is one example of perceiving culture as frame where the translator (or cultural mediator) interprets and filters the cultural differences.

There is, according to Marín (2005:79), a need for giving much more importance to the nature of the translation process by itself: it’s just a matter of forgetting the foreign essence of texts and start reading accordingly, as if we were native speakers of the language we deal with in the translation task.

In the final section of his article, Marín (2005:80-82), underscores some serious methodological mistakes in Postcolonial Criticism. In this post, I can only briefly hint at his main criticism of Translation Studies: the excessive simplification of many terms frequently used in scholarship—such as those in the dichotomies homogenizing/homogenized culture, the Same/the Other, exotic/domestic translation, etc. (see also Muñoz 1995).

Contrary to Luque (2009), Marín sees no potential application of culturemes in translation studies. No doubt, we all conceive of and interpret reality in different ways and we experience different socialization processes that influence our worldviews. The concept of culture is no more than a possible way of conceptualizing these conflicts, so it should not be used in such simplistic ways as those expressed by the dichotomies above. The idea of translation as a contact between two cultures explains nothing about its difficulties; what is more, it is just a label that hides them. Marín (2005:83) concludes by saying that these are not pre-existing entities to the translation process, they are just the retroactive effect of a biased way of dealing with theory and practice of translation activities.

And now, what? What can a PhD student (like me) say about all this?

Well, that is a very difficult question. As everything in life, and fiercely argued against by (neo-) positivists, different perspectives in research are sometimes a matter of belief.

A concept of culture adequate to the goals of an empiric, coherent translatology might try to embrace both perspectives, although I very much doubt it would work. There is no empirical support for the concept of cultureme. Selecting arbitrarily certain segments from texts and then highlight them as ‘cultural’ phenomena does not seem good enough (again, as I wrote here). Perhaps a way out might be to adopt an approach based on situated cognition. That would let us come to terms with the obvious fact that culture is not a set of competences, and that there are no limits between the individual and the social, the inner and the outer (Martín 2005:148). Culture seems rather like a web of meanings that expands itself while we live. That is why I think it is a mistake to view individuals and their ‘cultures’ as developing separately. Furthermore, the whole issue has nothing to do with identity, as deeply implied in the idea of cultureme.

I hope that this quick review of just two research articles may provide readers with a clue about how difficult it can be to confront the task of writing a PhD dissertation on culture in Translation Studies. Everything seems to have been already said, already done. The truth is, there are lots of views, concepts, frameworks and notions that need to be systematized, plenty of questions to be redefined, a lot of mysteries to unravel…

“…but that is another story and shall be told another time.”

(Michael Ende, The Neverending Story)


Ariño, J. 1997. Sociología de la cultura: la constitución simbólica de la sociedad.Barcelona: Ariel.

Katan, David. 2004. Translating Cultures: An Introduction for Translators, Interpreters and Mediators. Manchester: St. Jerome.

Luque Nadal, Lucía. 2009. Los culturemas: ¿unidades lingüísticas, ideológicas o culturales @ Language Design 11: 93-120.

Marín Hernández, David. 2005. La esencialización de la cultura y sus consecuencias en los estudios de traducción@ Trans 9: 73-84.

Martín de León, Celia. 2005. Contenedores, recorridos y metas. Metáforas en la traductología funcionalista. Frankfurt: Peter Lang.

Muñoz Martín, Ricardo. 1995. La «visibilidad», al trasluz. @ Sendebar 5: 5-21.

Muñoz Martín, Ricardo. 2010. On Paradigms and Cognitive Translatology. @ G. Shreve & E. Angelone, eds.Translation & Cognition. Amsterdam: John Benjamins, pp. 169­–187.

Nord, Christiane. 1997. Translating as a Purposeful Activity. Functionalist Approaches Explained. Manchester: St. Jerome.


by J.J.Amigo

The adventure of culturemes: are there two sides for just one and the same coin? (1/2)

enero 31st, 2012 Posted by blog, culture, cultureme, Sudden reviews No Comment yet

“Two half-truths do not make a truth, and two half-cultures do not make a culture.”  (Arthur Koestler)

The concept of culture
is a cornerstone in the research and development of Translation Studies and lexicography, among other fields. The two articles reviewed in this two post series show very different ways to approach culture: two sides of the same coin that are not mutually exclusive and may seem complementary. Both give an answer to thecultural turn currently experienced in Linguistics and also in Translation Studies.

In this first post we will be looking at the sunny side of the coin; the dark side will need to wait for the next post.

Luque (2009) offers suggestive insights on the notion of culturemes, a relatively recent concept that is yet to be precisely defined and distinguished from others such as phraseme, idiom, symbol, cultural word, etc. Luque provides culturemes with a multidimensional space that includes some basic requirements and a limited number of functions.

On the other hand, Marín (2005) highlights that categorizing people into cultures with clearly established national borders is artificial, and a consequence of applying thecontainer metaphor (Martín 2008) to the notion of culture. Marín reasonably argues that culturemes cannot be applied: if we stop considering the translation process as a contact between two pre-existing cultures, we will be able to achieve a more detailed description of the source text features.

On the bright side…

Luque (2009:94) defines culturemes as ‘specific-cultural notions of a country or cultural field’ (my own translation). Many of them have a complex semantic and pragmatic structure and that is why they should be taken into account so-calledlinguistic-cultural dictionaries. This kind of dictionaries might fill an important gap in most dictionaries used in our everyday lives: the lack of ‘cultural contents’. It must be admitted that –at least in the British case, I would add– cultural elements found in lexicographical works have been rather incidental, unsystematic and unplanned (Sánchez 2010:121). In this sense, building a linguistic-cultural dictionary turns into a very complex, awesome task.

Culturemes are perceived as semiotic units containing ‘cultural ideas’ that help the writer to decorate a text or to illustrate a given argument. This is –I think– a very intelligent expansion of the famous definition of cultureme by Nord (1997:34):

A cultureme is a social phenomenon of a culture X that is regarded as relevant by members of this culture and, when compared with a corresponding social phenomenon in a culture Y, is found to be specific to culture X.

(Nord 1997:34)

For Luque, culturemes are not a matter of hermetic groups of linguistic elements transmitted through generations, but rather ‘comparison units’ emerging from a sort of ‘cultural comparison’, for example: names of politicians and actors, fiction characters, songs, political facts, books and works of art… they all increase the meaning of other pre-existing culturemes with a long existing tradition in a language. Consequently, anysymbolical element that may be used in the communication process is susceptible of becoming a ‘cultureme’.

These culturemes do not exist without their respective contexts: they are merely the result of a ‘cultural transference’ between two cultures (now implicitly understood as two languages from two different countries). Every country has its mythology, its examples of Good and Evil: from Judas Iscariot to Mother Teresa, from eating habits to business behaviors, etc. Beyond phraseology, culturemes represent archetypal situations and common stereotypes. In order to obtain a consensus about the concept, Luque (2009:105–107) suggests four basic requirements:

  1. Vitality, figurative sense and motivation. Culturemes should be ‘alive’ in a language, they should not make any reference to outdated metaphors; quite on the contrary, they should exist in the common linguistic cannon. Saint Peter as the Guardian of Heaven is an example of a ‘live’ cultureme.
  2. Phraseological productivity. A cultureme is ‘productive’ if it can be used in different contexts, for example, shriveled apple, rotten apple and all its derivative expressions in figurative language.
  3. Frequency. This requirement is related to productivity. Luque argues that there are some culturemes that are not necessarily associated to language itself, for example: the Scottish skirt, Aladdin’s genie, etc.
  4. Structural and symbolical complexity. A cultureme is thought to be a word or expression based on a known story or situation referring to reality. It thus allows people to establish mental links between real, unique situations, but also between transitory states and stereotypes. As opposed to sayings and proverbs, the value of a cultureme is determined by a unique situational context.

Luque (2009:108-109) distinguishes three functions for culturemes: aesthetic (writers can use them as illustrative examples), argumentative (they may be used to support an argument) and cognitive-hermeneutical (as warnings on the consequences of a given fact, i.e., they work as maps of behavioral patterns). In acting as referential frameworks for explanations of whatever issue, culturemes may bestow a richer value on literary and journalistic texts, so they are ‘dynamic models’. The author selects some culturemes from journalistic texts to illustrate this point (Luque 2009:110-116). An interesting example is the cultureme [hydra], the mythological serpent-like water beast with many heads that has been used to refer to the armed organization E.T.A. in many newspaper articles in Spain.

The final, key point of the article is that culturemes contribute deeply to create a vision of the world. Their interpretations are ample, and difficult to define, because they are no more than models, guides to behavioral patterns that warn us on the use of a given linguistic expression. Some of them are permanent, some others are situational. But they are, in the lesser case, fundamental to analyze the language from a wide metaphorical perspective.


Luque Nadal, Lucía. 2009. Los culturemas: ¿unidades lingüísticas, ideológicas o culturales @ Language Design 11: 93-120.

Marín Hernández, David. 2005. La esencialización de la cultura y sus consecuencias en los estudios de traducción @ Trans 9: 73-84.

Martín de León, Celia. 2008. Translation in the Wild: Traductología y cognición situada. @ Pegenaute, Luis; DeCesaris, Janet; Tricás, Mercè y Elisenda Bernal (eds.). La traducción del futuro: mediación lingüística y cultural en el siglo XXI. Vol II. La traducción y su entorno. Barcelona: PPU, 55-64

Nord, Christiane. 1997. Translating as a Purposeful Activity. Functionalist Approaches Explained. Manchester: St. Jerome.

Sánchez, Aquilino. 2010. The Treatment of Cultural and/or Encyclopaedic Items in Specialised Dictionaries for Learners @ P. A. Fuertes Olivera, ed. Specialized dictionaries for learners. Berlin: De Gruyter.


by J.J. Amigo

Can we teach “culture” in Translation and Interpreting Studies? (2/2)

diciembre 6th, 2011 Posted by blog, culture, The sorcerer's apprentice, training No Comment yet

In my previous post I wrote about my first experience in teaching 'US culture' and the possibility of focusing course sessions on what Agar (1992:231) called rich pointsand/or what Seelye (1993:74-75) labeled culture capsules. This option, however interesting and widely used in ELF teaching, could pose some problems that I will address at the end of this post. Now I would like to focus on the second option I sketched in my first post on the issue:

(b) Focusing sessions on trying to reach a “right” definition of 'US culture'

I strongly believe that contributions to translation should start by defining the concepts they use. The word culture in itself is one of the little family secrets in the field of Translation & Interpreting studies: we all use it, we overuse it, and yet no one seems to know quite exactly what it means. We are often referred to definitions by the founding fathers of American anthropology such as Tylor (1871) and Kroeber and Kluckhohn (1952), to name but a few – a strategy that guarantees loads of philosophical nightmares because of their intricate analyses.

So, how could we define 'US culture'? This tiny noun, with no clarifying adjective, is one of the two or three most complicated words in the English language. This may be due to its historical development through different world regions, but perhaps mainly because it is normally used in several different disciplines and in several distinct systems of thought. For instance, definitions used in cultural anthropology do not necessarily matcht the views held and/or needed in cognitive translatology.

So, in order to get things right in our teaching methods, let's consider that culture is asemiotic concept (Geertz 1973:27). According to this Geertz, culture should be understood as interacting systems with interpretable signs (symbols). They are not tangible, indivisible entities to which social events, conduct patterns, institutions or social processes can be attributed. They are much more than that: they are contextswhere all these phenomena may be described in an intelligible way.

This should have been good enough to plan my lessons – I could have started with something such as 'Folks, 'US culture' in itself does not exist any longer. It is not about talking about stereotypes, foreign policies or different ways of conceiving reality. Of course, it has something to do with all these topics, but it is just a label for the context where that people live, act, and assume (or not) the consequences of their actions'.That might have been a beautiful philosophical starter, of course. But still I didn't find it good enough.

The idea of culture as a frame may not be useful when trying to make operationalize it for our research purposes in cognitive translatology. The reason is that we are still considering it as something that is "out there". The container metaphor survives, although it is now more flexible and open. For this reason, I'd rather try to depart from the notion of scaffolding (Martín 2005:147) as an alternative. Cultural scaffoldings are not containers of people and/or their cognitive capacities, but models established socially to support action and cooperation. Culture is thus envisioned as an inner process, a mental activity aimed at creating meanings and make their interaction possible for all people involved in the communicative process.

Consequently, there are no cultural frontiers or cultural barriers. Social groups are not closed entities and culture is no longer a Pandora's box where everything can be dropped. Cultural models are built thanks to traces and signs that are constantly re-elaborated while we live and interact with each other. This active role in the creation of meaning changes and gets corrected nearly on its own, thanks to our experience.

Some readers might feel that I am walking around the bush, that I'm doing exactly what I was not supposed to do. So, let's go to the main point: How can we reach to a "right" definition of 'US culture'? I am afraid that this question has no answer. As I wrote above, “US culture” does not exist as an entity, in the same way than there is not a 'Spanish culture' or a 'Polish culture'. A culture is not a state with neat borders – rather, it has to do with individuals and the way they construct meanings.

When planning “culture” lessons, we may implicitly mean cultural literacy, that is, a complete set of encyclopedic knowledge that is considered a property of a certain country. Any manual included in the reference section of any course syllabus on similar subjects may be taken as an evidence of this claim. In fact, one of the most successful bestsellers of last century in US is Cultural Literacy: What every American needs to know (Hirsch JR. 1988). This book includes some 5,000 "essential" names, phrases, dates, and concepts from 'American diversity' to 'Romanticism'. Both are used to teachculture – but ironically enough, culture is nothing that can be learnt in a formal educative context. Paraphrasing to Lakoff & Johnson (1980): culture is what we live by.

So... what did I do at the end? And what is my proposal about?

After thoroughly considering both options, I chose an eclectic approach. Students did not expect brow raising dissertations about the concept of culture in Translation & Interpreting Studies and their interests were far removed from this option. Basically, everybody expected the traditional teacher-centred methodology, i.e., I was expected to sit down in front of the class and start reading my notes about George Washington, Lincoln, etc.

But the two options helped me a lot at designing a sketch of a successful methodology that I hope to improve in the near future.

Option (a) was problematic because of a single reason: Who decides what is culturaland what is not? The teacher may select some traditional stereotypes (for example, 'Americans are very practical' or 'Americans believe that effort can make your dreams come true') but conclusions might be a bit risky. We all have a picture of the US, and making over-generalizations is as easy as it is dangerous. We are paddling through the troubled waters of very relative terms, and that may sink our boat in the lake of Manichaeism. Realities cannot be compared, only our impressions can be contrasted in a discussion. I believe this kind of activities can be carried out successfully when teaching foreign languages, where the main purpose is to practice oral skills in an active discussion. But that is another story discussed here.

Option (b) is obviously "optimal". Leading the students by the hand into different discussions about the concept of culture to show them that there is not a single 'US culture' seems the perfect option to me. But the contents of the subject are different and I had to summarize this as much as possible to make just this point: talking about a specific culture is useless, for there are as many cultures as individuals. And that was my point of departure.

In my view, teaching culture to would-be translators and interpreters needs to adapt to professional demands. By the end of their programmes, graduates are expected to know how to make business with their customers. So, perhaps a brief approach to the status of money and work in the US should be part of the syllabus. For example, I enjoyed an excellent session about attitudes towards work. For Americans, work is said to be a social concept –it is mainly what you are, the basis of your identity. For Spaniards, though, work is important but it is counter-balanced with other aspects that have the same or even higher relevance. From this "cultural difference" (option a), we can teach students how finances are being handled in the US (encyclopedic knowledge) and, most importantly, we can present them with relevant communication strategies for dealing with US customers. This would also lead us to the study of translation and revision markets there and to the possibility of getting a job there, as translator or interpreter of Spanish/English.

Other circumstances that are not worth mentioning here just led me to work with (b) first as an introductory session and with option (a) later, with some professional-orientation. But, at least, I was happy to see that most students seemed to think it made sense.

I know, rather than providing answers, my arguments in these couple of posts raise more questions. I am pretty sure that there are much more intelligent and pedagogic options out there. I reckon that mine was a partial success ant that the course on 'US culture' could have been far better. At the end of the day, everything seems to depend precisely on the arbitrary choices of the teacher.

But, if we are training future professionals... why don't we just professionalize our teaching programmes?


Agar, M. 1994. The intercultural frame @ International Journal of Intercultural Relations 18, 2: 221- 237.

Geertz, Clifford. 1973. La interpretación de las culturas. Barcelona: Gedisa Editorial.

Hirsch, JR., E.D. 1988. Cultural Literacy: What every American needs to know. New York: Vintage Books.

Martín de León, Celia. 2005. Contenedores, recorridos y metas. Metáforas en la traductología funcionalista. Frankfurt: Peter Lang.

Seelye, H. Ned. 1993. Teaching Culture. Strategies for Intercultural Communication. Lincolnwood: National Textbook Company Publishing book.


by J.J. Amigo

Can we teach “culture” in Translation and Interpreting Studies? (1/2)

noviembre 21st, 2011 Posted by blog, culture, The sorcerer's apprentice, training No Comment yet


A few months ago, I was required to teach a subject called “Culture and History of English-speaking countries”, a sophomore seminar from the current BA in Translation and Interpreting at the University of Córdoba, Spain. As I am quite new in teaching, I was entrusted with the “United States’ side” of the subject, i.e., I was expected to teach the whole culture and history of the USA in around thirty hours. No more, no less.

Of course, it was a huge challenge. I was at odds about how to face it, but there was one issue I was extremely sure of: I did not want to follow the “traditional” approach. I did not want forty students to learn by heart thousands of facts and dates and then make them spit as much as they could onto some white pages in an infernal exam.That would have been awful for everyone.

However, I did not not know how to unbiasedly talk about “US culture”. First of all, the word culture was included in the name of the subject, but there was not mention whatsoever about this concept in the course syllabus. I felt I had become one of those beautiful still-life paintings that grandmas have in their living rooms: yeap, they are there, we all are used to them, but everybody ignores them. In view of these pitfalls, I found myself hesitating in between two options: (a) involve students in the study of cultural differences between USA and Spain and (b) help them to look for a “right” definition of “US culture”. This post is focused on the first issue and sets the basis for the second one.

(a) Involve students in the study of rich points (USA and Spain)

This seems a good choice, I concluded. The fact that the seminar was not a hands-on “translation subject” does not mean it is useless for future practitioners. Besides, it is not very time-consuming: I could just pick-up some rich points (Agar 1994:231) from the States and then organize class discussions and debates. Rich points carry an intricate web of associations and connotations, webs that have no corresponding echoes in our own language, I learned. This notion implies viewing a culture as acontainer full of different items of knowledge, behaviors, customs, traditions and the like (see, for example, Göhring 1978). Then, as if we were analysts of the impossible, we could empty two different containers and start playing to find differences among every object, one by one. When you find a notion with no exact equivalent, then, right there, a rich point is born. In brief, although linguistic differences were out of the scope of this seminar, I could apply the idea of rich point by expanding the specific point to issues beyond language (society, economy, traditions, etc.).

By following this line of reasoning, we could speak about the possession of guns in the USA, watch scenes from Bowling for Columbine and ask for opinions. Then, we could compare our conclusions with the guns’ regulations in Spain (where all guns are strictly forbidden). Or we could organize a session around the apple pie—is there anything more typical from the States than an apple pie cooling off on a kitchen’s windowsill? Well, my next question was, which Spanish typical product could apple pies be compared to? What conclusions would we reach? That Spaniards love turrónand people in the States love apple pies? Now, is this relevant for the learning of a future translator or interpreter?

What I am trying to suggest here is that, although it may seem logical and convenient, it is not proven (nor clear) that splitting cultures into levels, culture bumps or culturemes is effective. In the field of intercultural communication, the notion of culture capsules has been proposed which basically consist of abstractions from reality where students select a specific ‘cross-cultural’ difference:

Briefly, a culture capsule consists of a paragraph or so of explanation of one minimal difference between American and a target custom, along with several illustrative photos or relevant realia […] in culture capsules the explanation of the cross-cultural difference is presented to the student in both the textual description and in the accompanying multimedia razzle-dizzle.

(Seelye 1993:74-75)

But this just seems a remake of the old movie I described above. The only difference is that with culture capsules the active role of choosing rich points is the students’ responsibility. They are the ones who have to talk about any difference related to the behaviour of people in two countries. This gives the teacher a great number of tools to assess their performance: selection of the topic, organization of the speech, etc.

But… will students use all this in their future careers? Who decides what a rich pointis? Are we talking about realities that can be objectively compared?

All these questions (and some more) will hopefully be answered in my next post. Please don’t change the channel…


Agar, M. 1994. The intercultural frame @ International Journal of Intercultural Relations 18, 2: 221- 237.

Göhring, Heinz. 1978. Interkulturelle Kommunkation: Die Überwindung der Trennung von Fremd- sprachen- und Landeskundeunterricht durch einen integrierten Fremdverhaltensunterricht. @ Matthias HARTIG & Henning WODE, eds. Kongressberichte der 8. Jahrestagung der Gesellschaft für Angewandte Linguistik GAL e. V. Mainz 1977, Vol. 4: Soziolinguistik, Psycholinguistik. Stuttgart: Hochschulverlag.

Seelye, H. Ned. 1993. Teaching Culture. Strategies for Intercultural Communication. Lincolnwood: National Textbook Company Publishing Book.


by J.J. Amigo

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