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

Our “Mother Tongue”: Keeping it Fresh in a Foreign Land

By Helen Eby

Estemed friends,

Old LettersIt seems to make much time that I don’t write to you.—Ramón, in “Ramón Writes,” an Argentine column published by the Buenos Aires Herald every two weeks, as a humorous take on Argentine Spanglish. Ramón had trouble saying such simple things as “It’s been a long time since I’ve written to you.” Today, we laugh at Google Translate instead.

Keeping our mother tongue fresh is a complex issue. My mother is Argentine and spoke Spanish to me as a child. Then, I moved to Argentina when I was eight. Even in Argentina, when I was graduating from college, my teachers sometimes told me that my English had a subtle effect on my Spanish writing!

Those of us who speak more than one language live in an intertidal zone where languages meet. We live where languages are constantly in contact. Sometimes new terms are created because we can’t find a term for something that is hard to say in the other language. When that happens, how do we avoid becoming “Ramón”?

Everyone grows up with a mother tongue. It is an accident of birth. We love it. We speak it at home. We read it, go to school in it, study it, sing in it, live in it. Some people pick up a second language. Then we move. Sometimes our moves are planned, and sometimes they are for reasons beyond our control.. Regardless, we are uprooted and transplanted into another culture. We move into the land of our second language.

I have two mother tongues, and as a translator and interpreter I use them both constantly. With two languages in constant contact, how do I keep them from “corrupting” each other?

Reading

If you are uprooted from the land of your mother tongue, take your books! I have met so many people who miss their books! My favorite? Don Segundo Sombra, by Ricardo Güiraldes. It takes me right back to my uncle’s estancia, where I learned how to ride a horse.

Read the newspaper: The paper talks about all kinds of things: politics, science, life, the comics, letters to the editors. In Argentina, it even includes foul language. But I’m using too much Argentine Spanish for a Mexican audience, so I’d better start reading a Mexican paper! Excelsior is on my list.

Read literature: Novels, short stories, poems. Every time I travel I load a small suitcase with books. I can’t find them in the US, so I buy them wherever I go. Literature talks about life. Reading keeps me using the language well. It spills into my conversation and my writing.

Read about the language: There are articles about language in the newspaper. Read them, think about them. Share and discuss them with colleagues. Argue about the use of certain words. Fight about it! It’s OK, it’s a topic about which you both care! And right now, I’m reading grammar books! Gramática didáctica del español, by Leonardo Gómez Torrego. You can’t find my favorites on Amazon. I shop on Iberlibro.com.

Interpreting

I love interpreting! I get to experience both my languages in action! As a medical interpreter who also translates documents for a local hospital, I interpret for patients who read the same documents I translate! This helps me know exactly who my audience is and what will help them understand the material better. The words they are confused by in an interpreting session will confuse them in a translation. It makes my translations come alive in many ways.

Working with a colleague

I work with a partner and we review each other’s work. Just recently I learned that “reintegro,” which I thought meant “reimbursement”, actually has a different meaning in Mexico: it is a “lottery payment for the exact money you paid for your ticket!” My word for reimbursement is now “reembolso.”

I am an interpreter and a translator. I can’t afford to lose my edge on the spoken or the written front in either of my two languages. Then again, these languages are too close to my soul to be able to bear it.

As interpreters and translators, we are expressing a message. We can be like mechanical musicians, like the ones who get all the notes just right, with the right rhythm, and the right intonation, but somehow are just boring. As my daughter’s viola teacher would sometimes tell her, while she played a scale, “You couldn’t pay me enough to listen to that!”

Our goal, however, is to be “real” musicians, like the orchestras people line up to hear because their ensemble is so amazing that they can play the most difficult pieces in a way that speaks to our souls. These orchestras, as they play, transport you to a place of joy, of rest, of discord, of whatever the music is.

What makes these musicians special? They certainly work on their technique! However, they haven’t lost their love for music. They listen to other people’s performances, they play with friends for fun. We should be this way with languages. We should be very particular about our technique, without losing our love for our languages. So, here are my closing tips:

  • Write letters to your friends in both languages.
  • Call your friends on the phone, and just chat with them in both languages.
  • Join a book club. You don’t all have to read the same book. You can even start one!
  • Join a Toastmasters club in the language you don’t get to speak every day.
  • Start a local “language sharpening group” where you critique each other’s writing in each language.

As Ramón might say, “Until Miami, I salute you, hoping always that the things will go well with you.”

“I look forward to seeing you at the ATA conference in November, and trust that all will be well with you.” Translated from “Ramón” to English by David Eby, whose English is uninfluenced by any other language.

Helen’s summer reading topic: Spanish linguistics

By Helen Eby

book-254048_1280I plan to teach a class on the formal aspects of Spanish for Hispanics who speak Spanish well and have a solid level of literacy in English and Spanish. I started thinking of this when I taught my first Medical Interpreter training program here in Oregon starting in January of this year.

There is a significant number of people who can be great interpreters but have not had access to formal teaching of Spanish. They are the linguistic equivalent of musicians who learn how to play by ear. So, I’m reading some books to help me think about these issues more deeply, so I can answer some of the questions that will come my way.

Why would I do this? I’m a practical person, not generally a theory-oriented person!

First of all: it’s fun. Really, languages are fun! I remember the grammar and phonetics classes in high school and college. I aced that stuff! The grammar was remarkably similar to what these books cover under “linguistics.” And I loved the phonetics class in college! Dealing with the IPA and all that was just cool.

Studying these aspects of the language helps us understand the messages we read a whole lot better, which makes us better translators and interpreters.

Languages naturally influence each other. As a culture develops a concept and other cultures come in contact with this particularly helpful concept, the word used is influenced many times by the original word. Think about “tomato” and “maíz” (maize) and “kindergarten”. Have some fun with the Online Etymology Dictionary!

Many English-to-Spanish translators have to translate new concepts, and inevitably new terms are coined. Those terms become used and accepted points of reference. The Microsoft Language Portal (aka the Microsoft Glossary) comes to mind… Coining terms too freely gets us in trouble (“She’s using Spanglish!”). Not using apparent “Anglicisms” that have become standard terms creates unnecessary complication in our writing.

As a Spanish medical and court interpreter, I need to be able to use some of these new terms appropriately in an interpreting session. I need to be able to use the same terms that the person for whom I interpret uses so I will avoid unnecessary distractions. In an interpreting session, I’m not there to teach the Spanish speaker how to speak Spanish. I’m there to help him or her communicate and solve a problem such as a health issue, a judicial issue, or an issue with a child’s education. (Now, here’s a topic for another polemic post!)

In biology, there is an equivalent for this: the intertidal zone. In this area, creatures are exposed to salt water and to the air and rain water. As interpreters and translators, we live in the “tidal zone” of languages, where we help people who are in contact with each other but who communicate in different languages to solve problems, learn from each other, serve each other, and even develop friendships. Living in what I would call the “language and culture intertidal zone” means we have to understand both languages at significant depth so the product of our work can stand on its own outside of the “intertidal zone”. We follow a long tradition, probably older than the Rosetta Stone (196 BC).

Here are two books that will help me refresh the basics and have a quick reference guide for a class on the written aspects of Spanish:

Nueva gramática básica de la lengua española: A 270-page or so compendium of the basics of Spanish grammar from a Spanish perspective – tremendously different from how it is taught in Spanish textbooks used in the United States. A great alternative to the two-volume (3885 page) set!

Ortografía escolar de la lengua española:  A 65-page book for students that covers Spanish spelling, capitalization and punctuation. It reminds me of the spelling rules I learned in elementary school in Argentina and I have since formally forgotten, but incorporated into my writing. The alternative: a 730 page tome. I use the tome for more in-depth research on specific topics.

Additionally, here are two books that will help me deal with the constant issues of language change:

Introducción a la lingüística hispánica: An overview of Spanish. This covers the sounds of the language, the structure of the words, the structure of the sentence, the history of the language, the study of meaning, and linguistic variation in Spanish. We studied a lot of this in school and just called it “grammar”. I’m particularly interested in chapter 7, since it deals with linguistic variation.

El español en contacto con otras lenguas: This digs right into the issue of languages in contact issue. It deals with the theory of languages influencing each other, and how some changes happen anyway and then digs into specific languages in contact with Spanish, starting in Spain and going through all the continents.

These books are helping me with Spanish language issues. What references do you use for your languages? It would be great to get a list of useful books in the comments!