Posts in cultureme

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

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