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.