Analyzing the Message: Eugene Nida on language and culture

By Helen and Cynthia Eby

Analyzing the Message Eugene Nida on language and cultureBoth translators and interpreters take a message across from one language and culture to another. They must communicate the message accurately, in order to produce the same effect in the target language as in the source language.

But how can we know if a translation is good? According to the ILR Skill Level Description for Translation Performance, “a successful translation is one that conveys the explicit and implicit meaning of the source language into the target language as fully and accurately as possible.”

Eugene Nida was a founding charter member of Wycliffe Bible Translators, and worked with “the Summer Institute of Linguistics and the American Bible Society … to gather considerable data from the examination of translations of the Bible into various aboriginal languages. These translations were made by both linguistically and non-linguistically trained individuals.” By 1975, when his book Exploring Semantic Structure was published, the Bible had been translated into 1064 languages. (67)

In his book, Nida analyzes the mechanics of message transfer. According to him, these are the basic assumptions underlying all semantic analysis:

“(1) No word (or semantic unit) ever has exactly the same meaning in two different utterances; (2) there are no complete synonyms within a language; [and] (3) there are no exact correspondences between related words in different languages.” (Nida, 120)

Because of these limitations, no two translations by excellent professionals will ever be exactly alike, especially if the translations have any level of nuance. This does not mean we should give up! It means we should consider the issues analytically and see where the challenges lie.

Problems to Consider: Linguistic and cultural

What are the main problems we have to deal with? Language is inevitably linked to culture. To help us understand this, the ILR addresses culture as well. “Competence in intercultural communication is the ability to take part effectively in a given social context,” they say, “by understanding what is being communicated and by employing appropriate language and behavior to convey an intended message.”

Nida says the main problems of equivalence in translation can be summed up in the following categories (cf. 68-78):

  • Ecology. Because languages are spoken in different locations, the language may have developed more elaborate vocabulary for different ecological issues.
  • Material culture. What objects do people handle every day in their country of origin? This can have significant impact on communication. For instance, a doctor will often say to “take one tbsp. of medication.” In some cultures, people reach for a spoon they use for soup, not for a 15 ml measuring spoon, which is what the prescription is calling for.
  • Social culture. How are people addressed? What level of formality is appropriate in the target culture? In the United States, it is common for the top executive to sign off a letter to his employees, “Bob.” In Latin America, a last name is required.
  • Religious culture. The dominant religion of the place where the language is spoken may influence aspects of how people communicate. There could be significant differences between the source and target languages and cultures in this regard.
  • Linguistic culture. Each language uses different syntax, and uses the passive voice with a different relative frequency to communicate different things. Capitalization is used differently. These differences must be respected in the translation.

Practical Application

As I discuss these questions with my clients and with the people I interpret for, I notice that they unanimously need documents that read naturally, that express the original message of the author in a way they can understand with no hesitation.

To do this, we must express ourselves in ways that reflect the actual usage of the language in current publications and speech. We need to immerse ourselves in contemporary language usage, available through online and print sources as well as connecting with the language community.

Of course, some people have a “knack” for translation, but it certainly is a skill that can be taught. By focusing on the issues we have brought up and following a series of steps, a translator can produce an accurate translation. The key is to analyze the message from various points of view: syntactic (structural), semantic (meaning), pragmatic (purpose), and cultural context. This article is not long enough to cover all of them, but we can give a brief outline.

Here are the steps for translation which Nida provides (cf. 156-59). I added steps 1 and 7-8.

  1. Pragmatic analysis. What is the purpose of the original message? What is the purpose of the translation? Without this information in hand, we cannot produce a translation that helps the author communicate with his audience.
  2. Syntactic analysis. This is the study of how each piece fits in the sentence from a structural point of view: subject, direct object, verb, etc.
  3. Semantic classes of each word. This refers to the meaning of each word. What type of meaning is each section of the message trying to communicate?
  4. Add all implied relationals. These are the conjunctions, prepositions, linking verbs, etc.
  5. Decompose the text to its semantically simplest form. In other words, break the message down into units of meaning so we can know what we have to communicate in the language. Once we can outline the meaning, we know what we are dealing with.
  6. Recompose the simplest form of the text in to an appropriate equivalent in the target language. Here we include the necessary connectors in the target language. We can reorganize the units of meaning in a way that fits and make it flow in a natural way. Basically, we rearrange the jigsaw puzzle: How would I say this to my neighbor in Beccar, Buenos Aires?
  7. Analyze the text from a target language point of view. Does the text read naturally from the point of view of a target language reader? Will he be able to read it without referring to the source language or culture? To accomplish this, some semantic units may shift from one grammatical word class to another.
  8. Peer review. Ask another translator, who is at least as qualified as the original translator, to review the translation for accuracy and for language mechanics. Is the meaning transferred accurately? Does it read smoothly from the perspective of a native speaker of the target language with no knowledge of the source language? Remember, in the publishing world nothing hits the print shop unless three people have reviewed it! Having only one person review your translation is going very light on the review process.

Translation is teamwork. Translation is analytical. In his book, Nida says, “One often receives the erroneous impression that translation is almost entirely an art rather than also a science, and a skill.” (67) We have tried to help our readers outline a path to success in this science and skill. At the ATA conference, there will certainly be workshops to address these areas!

Nida, Eugene A. Exploring Semantic Structures. Munich: Wilhelm Fink Verlag, 1975.

Header image credit: Barn Images

Bilingualism – Part I

letters-66953_1920Today we will begin with Part I of a series of three articles about Bilingualism. Our guest author, Ms. M. Eta Trabing, walks us through a truly fascinating description of what being bilingual means, and how to apply this knowledge in the working world. She offers help with the most daunting question we all language people face at some point: “Translator or Interpreter?”, as well as practical aspects of being a language professional. In short, she covers all the basics any Savvy Newcomer should be looking for.

By M. Eta Trabing, Berkana Language LLC – www.eberkana.us

Being bilingual …

  • Is just the first step to becoming a bilingual adult in the working world.
  • Does not mean that you must know every single word in English or in your foreign language (about half a million words in each of the world’s major languages).
  • Does mean that you can communicate in two languages – but at different levels of language proficiency.
  • Think of it this way – you may have two hands, but that does not mean that you are automatically an accomplished pianist. It takes years of training and experience to become a good professional interpreter or translator or pianist.
  • Means you will need to know both your languages at the college graduate level, for most kinds of work. Probably one language will always be stronger/better than the other.
  • There are few truly bilingual people – depends on your home life and education growing up (if you lived in a bilingual household and went to a bilingual school from kindergarten through high school or college – you can be truly bilingual). That doesn’t mean you don’t have a lot more to learn!

How does one know a language?

You may know a language as well as…

  •  A tourist (“Dos cervezas, por favor.”)
  • A 2nd grade school child – who knows about 2,000 words and is learning grammar, reading and writing.
  • A migrant field laborer – who knows about 5,000 words in his language and is trying to learn English so as to fit in better wherever he is living. He probably went to work at 8 or 9 years of age to help his family survive, he barely learned to write, he has no problem with giving change in two currencies, and at 20, has little non-working time to learn words for abstract concepts in either language.
  • A high-school graduate – will know about 80,000 words, if she studied well and came from a home where education is valued – possibly half of that if schooling was sporadic or not emphasized in the home. Sadly, businesses in the U.S. are and have been having trouble hiring employees straight from high school, because a high percentage of them cannot read or spell properly.
  • A college graduate – will have not just four years more living experience, but words for a particular chosen career – around 150,000 words in one language. Although he/she may know another language quite well also. Some colleges are giving up the foreign language requirement – it is deemed unnecessary. What a shame!
  • A college professor – has much experience in his particular field, but not necessarily in fields other than his own, but many more years of living experience – over 200,000 words in one language; unless teaching another language – then probably equal in both.
  • A writer – about the same as a college professor or lawyer or doctor, again in special fields and in one language, although a number of writers can and do write in more than one language.
  • At each level, the vocabulary and the knowledge grows, and it doesn’t matter how or where you obtain that knowledge, as long as you get it.
  • But at whatever level you are (except the tourist example), you still know the language. You just might not know it well enough to be able to work in it. Working in a language requires adult language proficiency.
  • Professional interpreters need and are expected to know two languages at the university postgraduate level, and must learn many subjects superficially, and 3 or 4 in great depth – their specialties.

Translator or Interpreter?

Translators work with the written language, but usually translate only into their dominant language. This means: books, documents, brochures, letters, instruction books, and anything else written that someone needs in another language. Must be able to write correctly in the target language.

Interpreters work with the spoken language so must be able to speak well in both languages at the level of an educated monolingual speaker. This means: in court, in depositions and hearings, in hospitals and clinics, for Child Protective Services, for state/federal/local agencies and in any situation in which two people cannot communicate and need help.

Interpreters and translators must also know local dialects and regionalisms, and the latest terminology in all their chosen fields. People who only speak a local dialect may also need an interpreter occasionally. People who speak the local version of “Spanglish” may also need help reading a book or speaking to someone who does not speak that version of Spanglish.

Few people are both translators and interpreters – most prefer one or the other, and it depends on their skills and their personalities. Interpreters prefer to speak fast and think fast and move fast and be where the action is, and interpreting by its very nature is never absolutely perfect; translators prefer to think more in depth, have the time to do more research, and prefer to be perfectionists; and they don’t mind sitting in front of a computer all day! Many more specifics for translators and interpreters are available on this blog and in the ATA Chronicle.

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Check out Part II and Part III of this series.