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Review of  Contexts in Translating

Reviewer: Shaoxiang Wang
Book Title: Contexts in Translating
Book Author: Eugene A. Nida
Publisher: John Benjamins
Linguistic Field(s): Translation
Issue Number: 14.1000

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Date: Thu, 3 Apr 2003 19:19:16 +0800
From: Wang Shaoxiang
Subject: Contexts in Translating

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

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

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

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.


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.