LINGUIST List 14.1000

Thu Apr 3 2003

Review: Translation: Nida (2002)

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  1. Wang Shaoxiang, Contexts in Translating

Message 1: Contexts in Translating

Date: Thu, 03 Apr 2003 09:57:58 +0000
From: Wang Shaoxiang <imbroyeah.net>
Subject: Contexts in Translating

Nida, Eugene A. (2002) Contexts in Translating. John Benjamins
Publishing Company, Benjamins Translation Library.

Announced at http://linguistlist.org/issues/14/14-118.html


Wang Shaoxiang, Foreign Languages Institute, Fujian Teachers University

''What are the roles of contexts in understanding and translating
texts?'' Hence Nida's _Contexts in Translating_. Having its origin in
a series of presentations in China, this book is but a condensed
monograph compared with the same author's classical text on Bible
translation. But it is by no means less significant in helping
beginning and practicing translators to have a better understanding of
the implications of the roles of contexts in comprehending and
reproducing the meaning of a discourse.

This book is divided into seven chapters. Chapter 1 serves as an
introduction to the volume by posing a time-honored question ''What is
translating? ''Simple as it sounds to be, translation theorists and
translators seldom see eye to eye with each other on this issue. In
their attempt to answer this question, translation theorists have
elaborated numerous theories. Practicing translators, however,
continue to turn a deaf ear to what translation theorists are
prattling about by deeming these theories as ''marginal to their
practical concerns''. (p.10) This incompatibility between theory and
practice, as well as his long years of field work in translating and
the teaching of translating, seems to lead Nida to give his backing to
the latter by claiming that ''creative translating is like portrait
painting and artistic musical performance.'' (p. 4) In fact, Nida is
restating his long-cherished belief that ''effective translators are
born, not made''. This brings us back to the question again ''What is
translating?''

In an attempt to answer the question in a systematic way, Nida devotes
the following four chapters to the discussion of the principal issues
in translating. In Chapter 2, Nida displays an acute awareness of the
relation between language and culture. The similarities, differences,
and interrelations between language and culture are described at
length to show that a language is always a part of a culture and the
meaning of any text is generally culture-bound. According to Nida,
competent translators are always aware that ultimately words only have
meaning in terms of the corresponding culture. (p.13) This sheds
interesting lights on the discussion of contexts in translating in the
following chapters.

Chapter 3 takes up the issue of translating words in context. Nida
begins with his argument that ''The real clues to meaning depend on
contexts.'' (p. 29) because ''the context actually provides more
distinctiveness of meaning than the term analyzed. ''(p. 31) To
further illustrate his point, Nida elaborates on the types and
functions of context in understanding texts, such as syntagmatic
contexts, paradigmatic context, contexts involving cultural values,
contexts that favor radical shifts in meaning so as to attract
attention, the context of a source text, the presumed audience,
different characters and circumstances in a discourse as contexts for
different language registers, the imprecise content of a text as the
context for symbolic language, the content of a text for phonetic
symbolism. Nida also addresses the issue of the range of
vocabulary. He tends to say what matters in translation is not the
size of vocabulary a translator needs, but the contexts and the
intended audience. The relation between meanings of words and their
''contextual assistance''(p.49) is convincingly illustrated through
carefully analyzed examples.

Chapter 4 analyzes the grammatical connections between words. Nida
clearly says that professional translators are usually so concerned
with the meaning of a text that they seldom give much thought to the
grammatical structures of source or receptor languages, because their
task is to understand texts, not to analyze them. In fact, translators
are communicators of texts, not analysts. (p. 58) Although the study
of linguistics is certainly helpful, translators do not need to become
linguists in order to become first-notch translators. But translators
must be sensitive to the broader contexts in which the answer to most
problems of meaning lies. (p.66)

Chapter 5 focuses on the structures and style of discourse and how
these influence the translation of a text on all levels. In this
chapter, Nida highlights the essential task of a translator is to
translate the meaning of a text, and the translator must focus on the
texts, because these are the basic and ultimate units that carry
meaning. By expounding on the major organizational, content and
rhetorical features of texts, Nida is delivering a clear message to
translation learners: If translators can sense these features in the
source text, they are more likely to evaluate these features and
incorporate them into a translation. (p.69) Thus rounds up the
discussion of contexts in translating.

Chapter 6 presents a brief introduction to the representative
treatments of translating. After a rapid glance at 17 works, Nida
concludes that ''despite considerable differences in vocabulary, the
essential elements in translating and interpreting are very much the
same, namely, an accurate understanding of the source text and an
effective representation of the meaning in another language.'' (p.102)
In other words, comprehension and reproduction are singled out as the
two most essential factors in translating. Chapter 7 completes the
volume with the introduction to the three major types of translation
theories in terms of philological, linguistic and sociosemiotic
principles.

In this delightfully written book, instead of elaborating numerous
theories, Nida addresses one of the essentials in translation studies-
context. In fact, contexts are nothing new in translation studies. The
age-old saying of ''No context, no text'' provides a handy example.
Furthermore, many a translation theorist has touched upon the topic
from time to time. The idea put forward in the monumental book After
Babel-Aspects of Language and Translation by George Steiner readily
pops up in my mind: ''No grammar or dictionary is of very much use to
the translator: only context, in the fullest linguistic-cultural
sense, certifies meaning. ''(George Steiner, p.19) Although the
revisit of old themes runs the risk of echoing the cliche, what makes
Eugene Nida different is that this long-time heavyweight in
translation studies makes contexts, language and culture a recurring
theme in his publications. Besides, the taking up of contexts in
translating is an apparent reinforcement of Nida's comeback from the
crusade for a Science of Translation. Ever since the publication of
The Theory and Practice of Translation in 1974, Nida's idea about
translation has changed substantially. He said repeatedly on many
occasions to the effect that, ''translating is far more than a
science'' and ''We should not attempt to make a science out of
translating''. (quoted by Zhang Jinghao, 2000) In this sense, Nida's
contribution to empirical basis in translation studies should never be
neglected.

What I find even more valuable in this book is its readability, due in
large part to the author's clear analysis and engaging tone of voice.
It is presented in the understandable language that readers and
beginning translators can readily grasp. Rather than undermining the
academic strength of the book, the simple language helps Nida's book
to reach a wider audience besides beginning translators: teachers,
translation trainers, graduate students or even the laymen: general
public. This is even more precious in our times when we are bombarded
by jargon-ridden articles almost everyday. If Nida were to produce
articles heavily-loaded with terminology, I believe he can do can do
it as well as anybody else, if not better. But for translation
learners and practicing translators, such deceptively profound works
can only scare them away. Translators need insightful and illustrative
examples that can engage them to venture into the realm of
translation, to inspire them to do their jobs better or even motivate
them to devote their whole lives to what catches their imagination.

One more asset of the book is the illuminating examples and tips
provided for the reader, thanks to Nida's insights and knowledge
gained from his years of experience as a translator about language and
culture. They are presented in highly legible language and carefully
integrated into creative practice. These have proved to be quite
practical in nature. For example, he encourages translation learners
to improve their translation style by ''reading it over out-loud (even
several times for some texts)''. (p. 105) Actually it is not only
applicable to beginning translators but also to seasoned translators.

Outstanding as the book is, I would like to take some minor aspects of
the book into question. One concerns about the range of vocabulary.
Nida says that ''In order to translate efficiently and accurately
translators should not have to look up more than one or two words per
page.'' (p. 42) It may be true of reading, but with a view to coming
up with an accurate rendering, some translators even spend days
pondering about a single word. The other is about the arrangement of
the whole volume. The last two chapters, enlightening as they are,
seem to deviate a little bit from the general thesis.

Despite the minor drawbacks of the book, the book is a pleasure to
read and will prove to be a good starter for beginning translators.

REFERENCES

Steiner, George (1973) After Babel-Aspects of Language and
Translation. Oxford University Press.

Zhang, Jinghao (2000) A Correspondence with Nida about Translation.
Chinese Translators Journal, 5.

ABOUT THE REVIEWER

Wang Shaoxiang is a lecturer and doctoral candidate with the Foreign
Languages Institute, Fujian Teachers University, China. His research
interests include translating, interpreting and cultural studies.
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