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Cultural context crucial to translation

CAO JIN | 2017-08-03
(Chinese Social Sciences Today)

Cultural context will dictate how to eat properly and with respect.

Cultural context is crucial to understanding languages, and it also greatly influences translation. Subtle difference in the culture of the source language and target can lead to different methods of understanding and translating a text. During intercultural translation, whether a translator can properly grasp and construct a cultural context often depends on whether he or she possesses a strong consciousness of cultural context, which in turn depends on their perception of different cultural knowledge and habits as well as their adaptation to different emotions and behaviors.

Scholars believe that in addition to textual context and the context associated with the language activity, other contextual information can include the social environment, culture, beliefs, as well as the social status and experience of speakers and their relationships. In intercultural communication, context is required for listeners to understand discourse. If the context itself is beyond the cognition of the communicating parties, then there will be inevitable obstacles in communication and the communication process will not function properly.

Cultural disparities can be as big as different nationalities and political regimes, or as small as different genders, ages, occupations, social classes, educational background, and even habits within a culture.

Therefore, to understand a text, the translator needs to firstly be familiar with the culture of the source language. They should be aware that they are dealing with two cultures and then study differences between cultures of the source language and the target language. In particular, they should comprehend the cultural connotation of specific words and then choose appropriate translations, trying to avoid cultural shock or misunderstanding. 

Based on an accurate understanding of the source language, the translator then should endeavor to create a cultural context in the translated text for the target audience to better comprehend the text. Usually, cultural differences can lead to different understandings and interpretations of a subject or concept.

Therefore, the translator not only needs to interpret the linguistic signs and symbols in a text, but also need to dig into the non-linguistic signs, and then construct a cultural context that can be communicable between the writer of the source text, the translator and the target audience. To achieve this, in addition to linguistic competence, the translator must understand cultural differences.

The consciousness of creating a cultural context can be taken as a theory and a guideline for translating methods. In this way, translating is both a communicative behavior and an essence of culture. To avoid misunderstandings in cultural exchanges, the translator must realize the following aspects.

First, a translator should not only be adroit at both languages, but also be proficient in recognizing words with cultural connotations in the source language and then choose corresponding ones in the target language.

Second, the translator must also realize that every culture has its own concept of inclusiveness, which enables intercultural communication. One responsibility of the translator is to enhance the inclusiveness of cultures.


Third, the translator must apply different translation methods to different texts. For example, domestication and foreignization should complement each other.

Fourth, as a medium for cultural exchange, the translator should increase the acceptability of the translated text among the target audience and culture by studying their habits, such as their habitual manners and logic of expression and customs.


Cao Jin is from the College of Foreign Languages and Literature at Northwest Normal University.