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Cultural status and language selection

in translation

He Xianbin
Guangdong Polytechnic Normal University, China, 510665

This paper is an attempt to testify with Chinese historical data that the cul-
tural status of a language (or dialect) directly aects the translation ow, legal
power of parallel texts, orientations of translators, selection of a TL temporal
dialect, etc. It has been discovered that when the actual power of a language
and its acknowledgement by translators contradict, the cultural position-
ing of translators seems more decisive. A distinction must be made between
translators as a cultural collectivity and as individuals. Ideology may also
interfere with language selection in translation.
TL choice is often inuenced by the power of a temporal dialect and its us-
ers. Varying with the context, translation for the elites may involve selection
of the classical dialect or highly literal and modernizing forms. A language
becomes dominant when it is considered the vehicle for advanced technol-
ogy and thought. Its interaction to translation is hence dynamic.

Keywords: power, language selection, translation, Chinese


As an inter-lingual transfer and cross-cultural communication, translation in-

volves language selection: to translate into or out of what language, the language
orientation, legal status of a language in parallel texts, selection of a particular
TL dialect, etc. Choice of a specic language or linguistic variety is aected
by a number of factors, of which the cultural status is one of the most impor-
tant. This paper is a manifestation of how power aects linguistic choice in the
Chinese translation context in the hope of testing some of the assumptions in
translation studies and providing a Chinese perspective on translation.
The article consists of three main components. Part one attempts to dis-
play the specic ways in which cultural status inuences language priority in

Journal of Language and Politics 5:3 (2006), 45426.

issn 15692159 / e-issn 15699862 John Benjamins Publishing Company
46 He Xianbin

translation. Part two and three investigate the power of temporal dialects and
its eect on TL use.

. Cultural power and linguistic priority in translation

Translation is a negotiation between languages and cultures, and this commu-

nication is seldom equal. This inequality aects the priority of linguistic choice
in translation.
First of all, power disparity often leads to imbalance in the translation trade.
More translations take place from a prestigious language into a less prestigious
language, from the language of a wealthy and powerful nation into the language
of a less wealthy or powerful one (Barbe 1996: 328). Tan Ruqians statistics
showed that in the 300 years before the Sino-Japanese War (18941895), 129
Chinese books were translated into Japanese, while only 12 Japanese books were
translated into Chinese, of which nine were produced by Japanese translators.
The Japanese victory in the war greatly harmed the dignity of the Chinese
and enhanced that of the Japanese. In consequence, the translation imbalance
reversed after the war. In the 15 years, from 1896 to 1911, 958 Japanese books
got rendered into Chinese whereas only 16 Chinese works were translated into
Japanese. (in Wang Kefei 1997: 222225) In 1997, the Chinese publishers paid
the Americans for the copyrights of 984 books, while the Americans paid for
less than 100 Chinese works. The proportion is 10: 1. (Xu Shigu 2002: 5604)
Similar gures are provided by Zhao Qizheng, head of the News Oce of the
State Council of China in 2002, who said that in the last few years, China bought
the copyrights of 70008000 foreign [mostly Western] works every year, while
those of less than 600 Chinese works were sold (in Chinese Translators Journal,
issue No 2, 2002) . These gures give partial evidence of the eect of power
dierential on the international cultural trade.
Cultural status may also aect the power of a language in parallel texts.
Rather than enjoy equal legal position, dominated language texts were often
considered translations and subject to the validity of the dominating language
originals in many historical periods.
From 1842 on, the Qing Dynasty signed a series of treaties with the West-
ern powers. To avoid dierent interpretations of certain clauses, the negotia-
tors decided to take some texts as authentic. Article L of the Treaty of Tiensin
(1858) stipulated that
Cultural status and language selection in translation 47

All ocial communications addressed by the Diplomatic and Consular

Agents of Her Majesty the Queen to the Chinese Authorities shall, henceforth,
be written in English. They will for the present be accompanied by a Chinese
version, but it is understood that, in the event of there being any dierence of
meaning between the English text and the Chinese text, the English Govern-
ment will hold the sense as expressed in the English text to be the correct
sense. This provision is to apply to the Treaty now negotiated, the Chinese text
of which has been carefully corrected by the English original. (1917, vol.1:
418; quoted from Wang Kefei et al. 1999)

In colonial Hong Kong, English was the sole ocial language in the begin-
ning. Later on, Chinese became a second legal language and the government
of Hong Kong had to oer Chinese translations for governmental papers and
documents. But for a long time, behind the Chinese versions was an additional
statement to the eect that in case there is a disparity, the English originals
shall be resorted to as the only valid interpretation. (Wang Hongzhi 1999: 64)
In addition, the power of a language aects the degree to which source
language features are kept. If the original appears in an SL that is revered due
to a variety of reasons, the translation will likely stay close to the language.
The initial norms of translators are often the result of the power imbalance
between languages and cultures.
In the Chinese translation context, English is much better respected. In
translation into English, people tend to restructure the idiomatic Chinese ex-
pressions to meet the reading expectations of the English readers. In trans-
lation into Chinese, however, translators take little care of the readers. The
English structure is hardly changed, or translators risk a blame of being un-
faithful. In other words, it is always English that is respected, whether as a
source or target language. The two languages are not equal in the minds of
Chinese translators and critics. (Gao Jian 1994: 5) The same is true of the
translation discourse. Since the start of the 1990s, Chinese scholars have
once again been debating over whether translation should be foreignizing or
domesticating, and the majority are in favor of a foreignization-rst strategy
in English-Chinese translation. For them, this is signicant in three aspects:
accelerating cultural communication and increasing the target readers
knowledge of the foreign cultures, meeting the aesthetic expectations of the
target readers for translated literature, and beneting the development of the
Chinese language (Sun Zili 2003: 4950). The interesting part of the debate is
that many prescribe that in Chinese-English translation, domestication should
be used as much as possible (Xu Jianping et al. 2002: 36; Yang Liu 2001), for
this can facilitate communication between cultures (Xu Jianping et al. 2002:
48 He Xianbin

3638) and represents our pursuit of standard English in translations. It

is a purely linguistic treatment, has nothing to do with politics, economy, or
the power imbalance between English and Chinese, and does not mean the
Chinese culture should bow to the English culture (in Yang Liu 2001: 4). But
one may ask: supposing we intend to produce standard translational English
by domesticating the Chinese-English translation, why dont we pursue pure
Chinese by the same strategy in English-Chinese translation? Evidently, these
scholars are unconsciously inuenced by the unequal power relations between
the two cultures.
Cultural power is signicant, but we cannot ignore the attitudes of transla-
tors, which occasionally contradict the actual power dierence between lan-
guages. One instance is that between 1898 and 1919, when China had suered
successive defeats in the wars against the invasion of the Western powers, the
Chinese translators rendered the Western literary works very freely, and paid
little attention to the SL structures. An important reason for this is that many
readers and translators believed that despite their superiority in weapons, the
Westerners were inferior in culture and had nothing comparable to the clas-
sical Chinese literary works. It was not until the May 4th Movement in 1919,
when Chinese youths started to re-evaluate their own culture and tradition,
that Western works began to be fully respected in the subsequent large-scale
Ideology may also interfere. For instance, in the rst half of the 20th cen-
tury, when North American and West European literature was amply rendered,
such writers as Lu Xun, Mao Dun, Bing Xing, Zhou Zuoren, and many oth-
ers translated via English or Japanese a large amount of literature produced
in such minor countries as Poland, Greece, Hungary, Finland, India, Ireland,
Turkey, Romania, and so on. Like China, these countries once had brilliant
civilizations but became weaker in modern times. These people translated in
vague opposition to the Western hegemony. (Wang Yougui 2003: 125) And
during the Proletariat Cultural Revolution (19661976), of the 34 kinds of
openly published translated literature, only ve (progressive or revolutionary
novels) came from capitalist countries Japan and France, and not one was
from the UK or U.S. The remaining works were all translated out of the Third
World countries, like Vietnam, Laos, Cambodia, Mozambique, Palestine, and
North Korea. This is because China considered herself shouldering the task of
supporting the ght against imperialist aggression and colonization, and the
struggle for state independence and liberation. Literary translation at the time
served this purpose. (Ma Shikui 2003: 6566)
Cultural status and language selection in translation 49

These examples suggest that the position of a language and culture may be
a fact, but its acceptance needs the acknowledgement of translators. Most of
the time, they match each other quite well. But when the two contradict, the
translators attitude can be very decisive. And while the mainstream translation
ows like a river, from the high to the low, or from the strong to the weak, the
specic strategies of individual translators are unpredictable. Ideology is also
an intervening factor not to be neglected.

2. Historicizing and modernizing translations

Language expresses, embodies and symbolizes culture, and is also part of cul-
ture. Cultures can be classied, by dierent yardsticks, into classical and modern,
and elite and popular. Cultures vary widely in conceptions of time, or the value
placed on the past, present, and future, and how each inuences interaction.
Samovar et al. (2000: 77) divides cultures into three types: past-oriented,
present-oriented and future-oriented. Past-oriented cultures believe in the sig-
nicance of prior events. History, established religions, and tradition are ex-
tremely important to these cultures, so there is a strong belief that the past
should be the guide for making decisions and determining truth. The future is
unknown and enjoyment comes in the present. Future-oriented cultures em-
phasize the future and expect it to be grander and nicer than the present.
Scollon et al. (2000: 147), however, divide cultures into two arrows of
time. The Utopian arrow of progress points toward a better and better future.
People believe in progress in human life and human culture. The arrow of the
Golden Age points toward the past and considers the present time to be a de-
generate time. It was felt that the present time was worse than the times of the
past, in which human society was reasonably ordered, justice and benevolence
prevailed. Changes in society were justied from the point of view of restoring
the better conditions of the past, not with moving toward new conditions in
the future.
Culture in the same language and nation can be divided into subcultures by
the same chronological criterion. Some people prefer the ancient culture and
language while others give the modern ones a higher priority. In translation,
this is reected in the translators choice of a linguistic variety the classical
or modern dialect, especially when the two are competitive. The translators
temporal orientation is not just a matter of taste, but is greatly aected by the
power of each temporal dialect in her/his mind. It inuences the methods ad-
opted and has great eect on the choice of a target language dialect.
420 He Xianbin

In ancient China, two linguistic systems existed side by side: the classical
dialect (wenyan) and the vernacular (baihua). Classical Chinese was a written
language restricted to use by the ruling classes and the scholars, and adequate-
ly reected the ancient mode of thinking. It served both communication and
thinking. The vernacular was used mostly for communication by all people in
the daily life. It represented the thinking of the low classes in the society. (Gao
Yu 2000: 49) The status dierence between the two dialects was obvious.
At the beginning of the 20th century, an increasing number of people used
the vernacular. Some translators, like Lu Xun, changed from the use of the
classical dialect to that of the vernacular. Some alternated between the two, ac-
cording to the character of the originals and the preferences of the publishers.
Hybrids that combined both spoken and written language forms were not un-
common. In Tourys (1995: 62) terms, three types of competing norms existed
side by side: the mainstream norms, the remnants of previous sets of norms,
and the rudiments of new ones.
Yan Fu (18541921) was the rst and most inuential translator of West-
ern social works. He published over 10 translations, eight of which were well
known, including Evolution and Ethics, The Wealth of Nations, The Spirit of
Law, The Study of Sociology, System of Logic, The Primer of Logic, and On Lib-
erty. Lin Shu (18521924), a monolingual contemporary of Yan Fu and the
best known translator of Western literary works, translated more than anybody
else, in collaboration with dierent interpreters, and had around 180 transla-
tions to his credit. The two started to translate in the late 1890s. Their use of
the classical dialect was no surprise. What is special is their common view of
the classical dialect.
In the self-preface to his translation of T.H. Huxleys Evolution and Ethics,
Yan Fu said that subtle thoughts are better expressed in the vocabulary and
syntax of the pre-Han prose [the language of two thousand years before him];
the dialect of his own time [the vernacular] is vulgar and its use in transla-
tion often leads to misunderstandings (in Luo Xinzhang 1984: 136). Wu Yulun,
who wrote the preface for Yans translation, and He Lin, a great philosopher in
the 20th century, commented that Yans language reminded them of the works
of such great scholars as Zhuang Zi (369 B.C.286 B.C.), two thousand years
before Yan. Archaism was a feature of Yans translations.
Toward the end of the 1920s, there was growing consensus among main-
stream scholars, either that the vernacular should replace the classical dialect
as the standard written language or that the written language should include a
large number of vernacular elements. In 1917, a decision was reached to dis-
Cultural status and language selection in translation 42

continue the centuries-old practice of writing in the classical style. In 1920, the
institutionalization of vernacular writing was mandated in schools.
This vernacular movement met with erce opposition from the conserva-
tive camp of the literate elite, Lin Shu being a leader. He continued to use clas-
sical Chinese in translation up to his death in 1924. In the same way, scholars
of the Xueheng Literary School, like Wu Mi, Mei Guangdi, Hu Xianxiao, and
others went on translating European and American works in the downright
pass norm of classical dialect. To these people, the modern dialect and culture
are nothing comparable to the classical.

3. Translation for the elites vs. the masses

Since classical Chinese and the vernacular were the discourse modes of two
dierent subcultures, the temporal orientations of the translators were inu-
enced by the status of each dialect as well as the power of the readers they
intended to serve the elites or the masses.
Chinese translators in the late 1890s and early 1990s were mostly ideologi-
cally motivated. They saw translation as a tool of saving and empowering Chi-
na, but diered in the specic agendas and the kind of people they could rely
on. Yan Fu believed education was the sole strategy and he could only count
on the Qing Dynasty ocials and scholars. These people were very unreceptive
to foreign ideas, but well versed in Chinese classics. Some even considered the
mastery of classical Chinese a yardstick of scholarship. In this circumstance,
elegant and archaic language oered a ready strategy for Yan so that his transla-
tions impressed these people.
Ordinary people, however, found Yans renditions much too dicult. Liang
Qichao, a well-known political reformer and translator, wrote and complained
to Yan about this, adding that we translated to be read rather than produce
masterpieces for libraries. Yan replied in 1902 that his translations were all
highly theoretical, and targeted at those who had read a lot of classics, rather
than school children. If readers could not understand them for not being good
at the classical language, it was their fault, not his. (in Wang Shi 1986: 5167)
Similarly, when young teachers in Beijing (Peking) University advocated
the abolition of the classical dialect, Lin Shu wrote to Cai Yuanpei, president
of the University, and denounced the modern vernacular as the language of
those pulling passenger carts or selling soy bean milk in the street. (in Xue Sui-
zhi 1982: 88) Lin meant to insult the president, for those happened to be what
422 He Xianbin

the latters father used to be doing. Obviously, people in the low classes could
not have been Lin Shus target readers.
Translation for the elite cultures involves not just the use of historicizing
language and a liberal strategy. In some contexts, modernizing forms and the
literal method are also resorted to. Lu Xun (18811936), a great writer and
translator, may be a case in point. He adopted a highly literal (sometimes word-
for-word) approach to translation and borrowed heavily from English and
German. His were nicknamed dead translations by Liang Shiqiu (19021987),
translator of the complete works of Shakespeare. In his 1929 essay On Lu Xuns
Sti Translation, Liang quoted sentences from Lus recent translation of Lu-
nacharsky, whose meanings were hardly decipherable. To Liang, Lun Xun had
followed the original too closely and ended up with syntax much too convo-
luted to be understood. Reading Lus translations is like locating a place on a
map with ones nger, he commented.
Lu Xun based his strategy on two premises. Firstly, readers could be di-
vided into three types: well-educated, literate, and hardly-literate. He said the
third type could never be his target and the only means to enlighten them were
pictures, lms, plays and lectures. The best materials for the second type were
Chinese writings, or rewritings of foreign works at most. Translations qualify
only for the rst kind. And to translate for these readers, he insists on being
faithful rather than smooth (in Luo Xinzhang 1984: 2757). In his 1930 essay,
Lu Xun added that it was a special class of readers that his translations were
intended for the proletariat literary critics who had special class interests
to advance. Extreme faithfulness to the original was a way of ensuring that
true Marxist literary thought be presented to those who wanted the facts as
they were. Lu Xuns second reason was he believed the modern vernacular, as
a replacement of the classical dialect for literary language, should and could
be improved by borrowing. This might be a painstaking process and readers
had to tolerate his clumsy new syntax, which would, after some time, become
idiomatic and acceptable (ibid).
Lu Xuns prediction turned out to be right. Wang Li (1945: 256350) com-
pared a corpus of creative literary works in the 1920s and 1930s with Dream
of Red Mansion, a classic novel written in the late 18th century, in standard
vernacular safely assumed not yet aected by English. He was alarmed to dis-
cover that in the twenty years from the founding of the Republic of China to
the time of his research, the changes in Chinese grammar had by far surpassed
all that had occurred from the Han Dynasty to the Qing Dynasty (2nd century
B.C. to the start of the 20th century). Wang identied over thirty European-
ized constructions in seven aspects, like creation of polysyllabic words (e.g.,
Cultural status and language selection in translation 423

kuining/quinine, kafei/coee, gali/ curry, mote-er/ model); increasing use

of subjects and copula verb shi (to be); lengthening of sentences resulting
from use of relative pronouns or adverbials, conjunctions, absolute construc-
tions, or plenty of modiers; extended use of modal auxiliaries showing pos-
sibility and the passive construction, etc. Some borrowings were so literal and
unusual that the linguist said they were not Chinese at all (buchenghua). One
example was the use of de (-ly) in words like bennengde (instinctively), lishide
(historically), and shehuide (socially). They did not sound like Chinese because
nouns (i.e. instinct, history, society) were not connected to adverbs (i.e. de) in
traditional Chinese grammar.
Today, the noun + -ly structures have become so natural that the Chinese
do not even realize they are borrowed. Nor are many conscious of the fact that
the systematic use of punctuation marks, the left to right horizontal arrange-
ment of characters, the use of double negatives, etc. are also loaned from the
West. Jia-ling Hsus (1994) study of the recent developments of ten morpholog-
ical and syntactic Englishized features indicates that most of the Europeanized
features in Chinese grammar identied by Wang Li (1945) are in wide use in
journalistic register, professional jargon, and creative literary texts.
Lu Xun excluded the majority of Chinese from his readership and asked
people to tolerate his transliterations and clumsy syntax until they became ac-
ceptable. He focused on the well-educated and future readers. In this sense, his
view of translation was in some way similar to that of Yan Fu. That is, past-ori-
ented Yan Fu and future-oriented Lu Xun both served the elites.
Translation strategies are often determined by the reader types. Highly lit-
eral translations are accessible only to a very small number of highly educated
people, and for ordinary readers, intelligibility counts much more. Goethe once
said, If you want to inuence the masses, a simple translation is always the
best. (in Lefevere 1992: 6) While Liang Shiqiu attacked Lu Xun mainly because
he had translated revolutionary works from Russia, we cannot deny that few of
Lu Xuns translations had great or lasting impact. They were never popular or
widely known. And the strategy he advocated had few followers.
To translate for the popular culture, the language must be neither too ar-
chaic nor too foreign. That explains why Qu Qiubai (1931: 268270) wrote
to Lu Xun that the language for translation must be absolute vernacular, a
dialect which can be easily spoken by the Chinese people (in Luo Xinzhang
1984). Qu was an earlier leader of the Chinese Communist Party. He intended
the translated Russian works to be well received by the masses so that more
people could understand and accept Marxism. In fact, from the 1930s on, the
view of using the peoples language was widely practiced in political publicity
424 He Xianbin

and literary works. Pure vernacular and intelligibility were prioritized, and
writers and translators were asked to use the national language for the greatest
number of Chinese. This policy of all literary work for the masses lasted until
the 1980s and proved successful in spreading the Marxist thought in China.
Likewise, modern religious translators tend to attach greater importance
to intelligibility. Like Martin Luther (14831546), who knew the language of
the educated elite (Latin), but translated in the language of the people in or-
der to make his translation reach the mothers in their homes, children in the
streets, and the average men in the market, the Chinese translators of the Bud-
dhist Scriptures from the 1st to the 10th century had used the spoken dialect
(baihua) when the classical dialect (wenyan) was the written language. It partly
accounted for why Buddhism developed so quickly in China. These were suc-
cess stories of translation for the popular culture rather than the elites.


The Chinese data testify that the cultural status of a language directly aects
the translation ow, the legal power of parallel texts, and the orientations of
translators. But this power relations approach does not have full explanatory
power at all times. For instance, when the actual power of a language and its
acknowledgement by translators contradict, the cultural positioning of transla-
tors seems more decisive. Ideology may also interfere. But above all, the power
of a language is a very signicant inuence.
Translation is aected not only by the power of a particular language, but
also by the status of a specic dialect. Subcultures dier in the values placed
on the past, present and future, and this has clear eect on the translators tem-
poral orientation and choice of a temporal dialect, as is most obvious in the
periods of cultural transition.
Selection of a TL temporal dialect is also connected with the power of the
target readers in the minds of translators. The classical dialect is the discourse
mode of the elites. Translation for the cultural elites may involve very elegant
classical language or highly literal modernizing forms, depending on the con-
text. To translate for the popular culture, the language of the people is always
the best.
A language or dialect becomes dominant not because it is intrinsically su-
perior, but is due to the economic, political, military, and cultural power of
its users. And people tend to take the dominating languages and dialects as
vehicles in which advanced technology and thought are conveyed and as the
Cultural status and language selection in translation 425

road to power and wealth. The relation between language (and dialectal) power
and translation is always dynamic.


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426 He Xianbin

Authors address
He Xianbin
English Department,
Guangdong Polytechnic Normal University,
293 ZhongShan DaDao, Guangzhou, China, 510665
Email: binxianhe@126.com

About the author

He Xianbin, Ph.D, is an associate professor in Guangdong Polytechnic Normal University,
China. He worked, from March 2005 and for a year, as an academic visitor in the University
of Manchester.