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Mutual encouragement: contrastive linguistics and translation studies serve as complimentary disciplines

By Liu Lifen | 2013-08-30
Chinese Social Sciences Today

Pan Wenguo and Tan Huimin’s book Contrastive Linguistics: Historical and Philosophical Thought (2006)

Contrastive linguistics focuses on similarities and differences between languages, theories of the comparison of languages and methods for studying languages. Translation studies observes the act of altering language in the process of translation and other related issues. It is only natural that these two disciplines would be related. After all, contrastive analysis is impossible without translation, and translation is inseverable from contrastive analysis.

Universality and individuality

Contrastive linguistics and translation studies, though separate disciplines, have many comparable and even interchangeable components. Both disciplines involve analyzing similarities and differences between two (or more) languages.  While on the surface contrastive linguistics seeks difference, scholars of contrastive linguistics use the process of establishing areas of contrast to better understand what is universal between languages. Translation studies is similarly oriented, in that its practitioners look for norms in the similarities and differences between languages and the ways languages change. This is accomplished by using specific case studies to summarize a general rule of variations in languages.   

At the same time, contrastive linguistics and translation studies have areas of departure, not the least of which is that each is concerned with a subject: contrastive linguistics mainly studies linguistic systems, while translation studies focuses on speech (parole) and utterance. To study linguistic systems, contrastive linguistics compares the functional units of different languages (while obviously there is no basis from which to compare two completely unrelated items, semantic identicalness is not necessary to compare functionality), aiming to reveal similarities and differences in pronunciation, vocabulary, rhetorical value, grammar and textual passages. By contrast, translation studies more exclusively contrasts texts in the source and target language (and can only make comparisons between exact synonyms) in attempt to reveal changing rules or trends in a pair of languages.

Contrastive linguistics: a basis for translation

The term “contrastive linguistics” was coined by the American linguist Benjamin Lee Whorf in 1941. As early as 1927, the Chinese scholar Jiang Yizhen proposed the concept of translation studies as an independent academic discipline. Such a discipline was later consolidated and systematized by the Dutch scholar James S. Holmes in 1972. However, since their inception, translation and translation studies have been inseverable from the very rudimentary task of contrast. Contrast is a fundamental method for recognizing and studying objects and a powerful supplement in the translator’s toolkit; all translation methods and techniques are based on comparisons and contrasts between two languages. Contrastive linguistics focuses on correspondence and transformations (syntactic conventions for moving elements from one position to another in a sentence) in a pair of languages to identify and interpret how language transfer (also called linguistic interference)—the process in which speakers and writers transfer items and concepts from their mother tongue into a second language (both in and not in accord with the conventions of the second language, although transfer in accord often goes unnoticed)—occurs in the process of transformations. As a subfield of applied linguistics, contrastive linguistics provides practical guidelines on how translators may achieve extreme similarity to the source text throughout their entire translation into the target language, and how different variations in particular translations can impart special connotations; in short it addresses  the basis of translation practice. Lü Shuxiang, a famous Chinese linguist, always advocated the application of translation methods in order to contrast items and concepts in two languages.

In elucidating similarities and differences among languages, the fruits of contrastive linguistics have laid the foundation for translation. Translation studies is interdisciplinary in nature. In the process of using knowledge from adjacent disciplines to establish its own theoretical system, contrastive linguistics has become the most incisive, direct and fundamental "mother discipline". Leonid Barkhudarov, a Soviet translation theorist, elaborated that the “linguistic theory of translation” is the contrastive study of spoken and written language comparative text linguistics. More specifically, he clarified that it is the comparison and study of semantically identical words in different languages.

Pan Wenguo and Tan Huimin’s Contrastive Linguistics: Historical and Philosophical Thought (2006) states that contrastive linguistics studies simultaneously employs the perspectives of structural linguistics, sociolinguistics and cognitive linguistics. From the perspective of structural linguistics, contrastive linguistics examines the natural attributes of two languages as though they are static systems in order to explore their structural differences. Pan and Tan indicate that this foundation is prescriptive for translation methodology and research in that it enables translators and researchers to draw systematic conclusions. At the same time, contrastive linguistics studies the dynamic conditions of each linguistic system by employing the perspective of sociolinguistics to examine expression in each language. An immensely practical perspective for translators, Pan and Tan assert that this perspective is descriptive, in that it helps them discover variations of meaning—and patterns of variation in meaning—across different languages. Emphasizing the human element of cultural exchange, contrastive linguistics engages the perspective of cognitive linguistics in order to explore how cultural cognition factors into the underpinnings of each language. Affirming the interpretive potential of this perspective, Pan and Tan suggest that cognitive linguistics can benefit research on cultural translation. Combined, these three perspectives provide strong and powerful support for the contemporary development of translation studies.

Translation studies enriches contrastive linguistics

A core, widely used method in contrastive linguistics is translation itself. In Communication Across Cultures: Translation Theory and Contrastive Text (1997) Basil Hatim indicates translation is an effective aid to understand more clearly how contrastive linguistics works. A main method to compare and contrast two or more languages is simply to translate language A into language B or to inter-translate both A and B.

Translation equips contrastive analysis with abundant resources. The main research field for contrastive linguistics is to compare pairs of dissimilar languages. Linguistic comparison never excludes discourse, that is, the use a language. The translated material can be regarded as contrast with the original material—it is a contrast between synonyms in two different languages. Observing the similarities between translations and source materials from the perspectives of morphology, semantics and pragmatics will reveal differences between a two languages much clearly. Additionally, translating the source language word by word and comparing word-by-word-translations with translations which paraphrase more loosely enables translators and researchers to discover similarities and differences between the source and target languages.

Additionally, translation can enrich contrastive linguistics. By drawing a theoretical foundation from translation studies, contrastive linguistics can extend the breadth and depth of its research. An important theory in translation studies, complete translation theory focuses on the art of converting words and phrases from one language into another in such a way that preserves the content of the source language, but irons out rough patches. Variation translation theory, another key theory in translation studies, focuses on the art of altering sentences and passages in a way that largely alters the content and syntax of the source language in order to appeal to a specific audience. Taken together, these two theories of translation cover both the very large and evident alterations, as well as the finite and barely discernable alterations that are made in the process of translation. Through studying and incorporating them, scholars of contrastive linguistics can deepen their level of research on many fields, from pronunciation to discourse.

Contrastive linguistics and translation studies will find mutually encouraging forces in their complementary relationship.          


Liu Lifen is from the Center for Russian Language Literature and Culture Studies at Heilongjiang University.


The Chinese version appeared in Chinese Social Sciences Today, No. 478, July 22, 2013

                                                                                                                       Translated by Zhang Mengying

                                                                                                                        Revised by Charles Horne

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