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

The story of a U.S. Intern in France

By Kimberley Hunt

Paris stamp for Kim postI’m Kimberley, currently living in Paris as an intern at a translation agency. I’m also a French translation student at the Middlebury Institute of International Studies. In Paris, I translate and proofread for the company’s finance division, which means I spend a lot of time reading annual reports and frantically searching glossaries for investment fund terminology with my colleagues. While translation remains my favorite task, it is always fascinating to proofread an excellent translator and see exactly how a tricky turn of phrase was expertly transformed into English.

My roommates, two other Middlebury Institute students, and I have a rule: speak only French. Why? Because at the moment, we are in France, and we can always speak English when we go back to the US. Speaking only French at home has quickly become second nature, and everyone at work is always surprised to learn that we really do speak French with each other. A scribbled list of new words and expressions is tacked up in the kitchen, covered in post-it notes. I do find it difficult to hold a breakfast conversation en français, sleepily sipping coffee and staring into my cereal bowl, but I’m a terrible early morning conversationalist in English, too.

Plus, speaking only French is a wonderful excuse to watch really terrible French reality TV for the sake of “language learning.” For one, we are instantly connected to French people discussing it on the metro, in cafés, and at dinner parties. Integrating into a foreign culture can be a tricky business, but it is made much simpler when I can chime in, “Did you see last night’s episode?” and poke fun at the contestants. We also learn myriads of new vocabulary, including words that don’t come up at work or in a language textbook, and some that maybe shouldn’t be repeated in polite company.

I could write an entire blog about French reality TV, but back to work, where our apartment rules no longer apply. At work, I never know what language I should be speaking. Sometimes I feel like I can’t speak any language anymore – French and English have both flown out the window and into the Seine and the only thing I have left is a whimsical mélange of invented words, ridiculous portmanteaux of French and English. I am constantly applying Helen Eby’s wisdom from her post a few months ago, especially given that once, I invented a fourteen-letter word in French during a sight translation class (récompensation, in case anyone’s curious).

I can say without a doubt that language switching is definitely heightened while working in France. As a member of the team that translates into English, so I speak English with my colleagues every day. This goes beyond shoptalk; we often play the game “Bizarre or British?” to determine whether a word is an unfamiliar but common British English term, or is it just a bad translation?

I am constantly going back and forth between French, American English and British English, and my brain is in overdrive to keep up. But unlike me, all the project managers at my company have no problem juggling many things at once. They are masters at their jobs, expertly balancing deadlines and clients and translators without breaking a sweat. I, however, sweat profusely.

Where I really panic is every time the phone rings at my desk at work. The phone ringing could mean a multitude of things, and all of them challenging.

  1. “For some reason, the translator couldn’t get Trados to work, so you can just figure that out for her, right? Perfect, thanks!” Cue the hour-long battle trying to generate target files and decode error messages written in part English, part French, part long strings of error codes that I Google desperately hoping to find a solution before the deadline.
  2. “The translator said whatever he had trouble understanding, he left in French and marked in red.” Naively, I open the document with optimism, only to be greeted with something far more similar to a Picasso painting—highlights in every color of the rainbow, formatting all over the place—than a translated document.
  3. “Do you have time to translate this teeny tiny text in the next twenty minutes? It’s only a few lines… and by a few I mean a few hundred…”

(Disclaimer: these three scenarios usually happen to me at least once a day, and sometimes all before lunch.)

While I am trying to understand the project manager’s requests and deciding how to respond, things only get worse when I answer in French and they respond in English with “Okay, thanks, bye!” It throws me for a loop every time. Once I spent five minutes trying to figure out why a project manager sent me a one word email— “Nice!” —Fancy city in the south of France? Subject of a new translation? Upcoming vacation destination? Or is that where I’m going to end up if I don’t meet this deadline? Doesn’t seem too terrible to me, unless he’s going to throw me in the Mediterranean… until I realize that he wrote to me in English. Whoops.

Working in an environment where language is fluid and always changing can be a challenge, but the linguistic gymnastics gives me an entirely new perspective on translation. Making judgment calls is much more natural because I make them all day, playing with both languages on an intrinsic level in everyday communication rather than just in translation.  But possibly the most important thing I’ve learned while my brain is humming away in both languages is that meaning and clarity can always be gleaned from even the most linguistically complicated, confusing beginning.

Ramadan: A month of joy, celebration and fasting

By Hicham Zerhouni

Ramadan IftarFor over 1.5 billion Muslims around the world, Ramadan, the ninth month of the Muslim Calendar, is the holiest time of year. For Muslims, it marks the month when the Quran was first revealed to the Prophet Muhammed (PBUH). During Ramadan Muslims fast from sunrise to sunset for 29 or 30 days, depending on the moon sighting of the lunar calendar. This year, the Muslim lunar year is 1436 A.H. and Ramadan started on June 18, 2015.

Muslims observe the fast by abstaining from food, water, smoking, and sexual activity from sunrise to sunset. When Ramadan falls in the summer, depending on their geographical location, Muslims fast anywhere between 12 and 22 hours each day. While most Muslims fast during Ramadan, children and anyone who is sick, traveling, pregnant, or nursing mothers don’t have to fast during Ramadan.

In the Arab and Muslim world Suhoor, a pre-dawn meal eaten before the sunrise Fajr prayer, is marked by a unique tradition: the “Musaharati” a drummer or oboe player, roams the streets to wake people up for their pre-dawn meal by playing music and chanting religious poems. Despite the expansion of cities and the use of alarm clocks, this tradition is still prominent in some parts of Syria, Palestine, Egypt, and Morocco.

During Ramadan, daily life switches into a night celebration. Streets are usually empty in the morning as people stay up until the early morning hours celebrating with family and friends. In the afternoon, markets fill up with people buying treats such as sweets, traditional filled breads, and fruits in preparation for breaking their fast at sunset with an “Iftar” meal. Throughout the Muslim and Arab world seasonal dishes are displayed in shops and restaurants in celebration of the holy month.

At sunset, families gather around Iftar tables to enjoy traditional meals. Depending on the country, Iftars include dates, sweets, fruits, soups, rice, or meat. Each country has a traditional Iftar dish that is always present for Iftars during the holy month. In the United States and many other Western countries, many families celebrate Iftars with their faith communities at mosques. Most places of worship hold community Iftars open to both Muslims and non-Muslims. Many people donate food and the Muslim community engages in mass potlucks to share the blessings of Ramadan.

Since Ramadan is a holy month, Muslims increase their worship activities during the month. Ramadan is not just about fasting, but also includes extra prayers, reciting of the Quran, giving to charity, and many philanthropic events to help the unfortunate around the world. One of the main spiritual purposes of Ramadan is to teach social solidarity by having everyone experience hunger. People then become more understanding and compassionate toward those who are less fortunate. People’s hearts tend to soften and they become more generous towards the less fortunate. Ramadan is a month of purification, not only of the body by fasting and resting the digestive system, but Muslims go beyond the physical aspect to attempt to purify thoughts, motivations, and souls by avoiding anger, gossip, and greed.

Following the Iftars, Muslims head to mosques for night prayers called “Tarawih,” where the Quran is recited each night until the early hours of the morning. Following Tarawih, people gather in cafes and homes with their families and friends until the Suhoor meal. During the last 10 days of Ramadan, many Muslims stay in mosques to increase their blessings for Ramadan. This practice is called Itikaf.

The end of Ramadan is marked by “Eid Al Fitr” (The feast of breakfast). During Eid, Muslims are not permitted to fast. In the morning of Eid Al Fitr, Muslims go to an open field or a large hall for the Eid prayer. After the prayer, Muslims head home for a morning breakfast as life returns to normal. People visit friends and family and share lunch and dinner with each other for three days in celebration of Eid.

While Ramadan could be seen as a harsh form of worship by non-Muslims, Muslims consider it a month of blessing, joy, and celebration. Muslims pray all year round that they will live to experience the following Ramadan, as it is an opportunity to grow in their faith, connect with their family and community, and exhibit the true essence of Islam.

About the author: Hicham Zerhouni, MA is the Managing Principal of TransCultures He was born in Fez, Morocco, he moved to Chicago when he was 19. He has been a professional translator, interpreter and cultural trainer and consultant for the last 15 years. Hicham is fluent in four dialects of Arabic, French, English, and functional in Spanish. He is a voting member of the American Translators Association. He is a 2015 New Leaders Council Fellow . He speaks at conferences on many issues regarding leadership, diversity, cultural and language access issues. Since 2004 he is the Founder and organizer of the Chicago Arabic Language Culture Club.

A tour of celebrations around the world through different time zones!

By The Savvy Newcomer Team and Friends

The Savvy Newcomer is read in many countries, by translators and interpreters who work in many languages. As we consider Christmas and New Year around the world, we decided to explore some of those cultures by asking some of our translator and interpreter colleagues to take us on a selected world tour and see what and how they celebrate in different places. Continue reading