A language is much more than an arbitrary combination of symbols and grammatical structures. It is a dynamic system sustained by the needs of a group of people. The relationship between culture and language is irrefutable. Let us, for the sake of convenience, call the original language an item is written in as L1 and the language it is to be translated into as L2. Clearly, a sound knowledge of the structures of L1 and L2 alone is far too inadequate to tackle a task as complex as translation. Gone are the days in which ‘master races’ could, with extreme nonchalance, translate ‘native work’. Disregarding cultures of L1 and L2 often leads to incomprehensible translations. In extreme cases, it could lead to a conflict between the two groups using the two languages or the author himself could become a target of a fatwa.
Let me illustrate my point with examples taken from my own experience. After completing a diploma in translation studies conducted by the Centre for Policy Alternatives, I thought it would be a good idea to translate some of my favourite English short stories into Sinhala. The works I selected were Chee’s Daughter by Juanita Platero, Civil Peace by Chinua Achabe and Everyday Use by Alice Walker. The trials and tribulations I had to undergo while attempting this seemingly easy task cultivated in me a healthy respect for those who have succeeded where I have failed rather miserably.
Chee’s Daughter was about a Navajo father who wanted to get back his daughter who, according to their customs, belonged to her mother’s family. The short story, written in English, contained numerous pitfalls for an unsuspecting translator. Let me point out four problems I faced while attempting to translate a single sentence: “Chee urged the buckskin towards the family compound where, secure in the overhanging rock, was his mother’s dome-shaped hogan (24).”
1. Am I going to call the man ‘Chee’? In Sinhala, it is a sound that is made to show negative feelings like disgust and displeasure. Would that create a negative impression of the man?
2. What is a buckskin? Am I going to call it a mare or light brown mare? Would my readers comprehend the significance of his horse to the desert dwelling Navajo man in this story?
3. ‘his mother’s dome-shaped hogan’ – Am I going to explain that Navajo practiced matrilocal residences and matrilineal descent?
4. ‘dome-shaped hogan’- What is a hogan? Am I going to call it a daub and wattle hut, a familiar sight to all Sri Lankans; whereas hogans are unique to Navajo and Pueblo?
Ideally, considering the syntagmatic and paradigmatic relationships of the words of L1and L2 should be enough, but as we have identified in the examples above, the task is not that simple. The unique flavour added to a word by the associated culture is essential to a good translation.
Let us look at some more examples. In Civil Peace, Jonathan Iwegbu commenting on the ‘ex gratia’ payments for the rebel money says, “They call it (since few could manage its proper official name) egg rasher (41).”
5. What am I to do with ‘egg rasher’? Am I to call it ‘wandi’ in Sinhala or keep ‘egg rasher’? Either way, the effortless satirical humour in the original would be lost.
Maria, Jonathan’s wife, terrified when a group of armed thieves come to rob them of their ‘egg rasher’ screams, “Police-o! Thieves-o! Neighbours-o! Police-o! (42)”
6. The writers by adding a final /o/ to the words adds an unmistakable Nigerian English twist to them. If I were to translate this as, “Polissieng-o! Horu-o! Asalwesio-o! Polossieng-o!”, that is where the reader snaps the book shut with the intention of making use of the paper for some other purpose better left unsaid. No one in his/her right mind calls out for help like that in Sri Lanka!
The mother in Alice Walker’s Everyday Use says, “There I meet a smiling, grey, sporty man like Johnny Carson who shakes my hand and tells me what a fine girl I have (8).”
7. Who is this Johnny Carson? What makes his opinion important? Being born much later, even many of my urban readers addicted to TV would not know that Carson was the host of The Tonight Show, a popular late-night talk-show from 1962 to 1992 – a beloved part of the popular culture in the USA. Am I to explain to my reader the significance of being invited to such a show to a poor African American widow living in the rural USA?
Next, the daughter from the city “jumped up from the table and went over to the corner where the churn stood, the milk in it clabber by now (15).”
8. The writer is referring to butter making, which is not a part of Sri Lankan culture. Therefore, terms like ‘churn’ and ‘clabber’ do not have their equivalents in Sinhalese.
9. A quilt made from clothes of many people in the family is a central motif in the short story. The word ‘quilt’ does not have an equivalent in Sinhalese. As the majority of Sri Lankans are not quite used to quilts and culture associated with quilting, how should that issue of ‘quilt’ be handled?
In sheer relief that it was finally over, the translation was submitted to a competition held annually by the National Library Board. Needless to say that the manuscript was returned with a properly worded rejection. Having read the manuscript just a little while ago, I do agree wholeheartedly with those who refused funds to publish it. The cultural gaps among the different versions of English language as well as those versions and my own are often unbridgeable. Translating from a language to another focussing on the structure alone is a mammoth task; when culture enters into the equation, the task becomes nearly impossible even to veterans let alone to an armature like me. A ‘good’ translator makes a series of choices so as to form a link between two systems, each with its unique taboos, kinship terms, puns, slang, etc
To sum up, let us attempt to translate the following Sinhala sentence to English, “Gamahaamine kamathata ambula genawa.”
10. “Farmer’s wife brought lunch to the threshing ground.” Anyone with even a rudimentary knowledge of Sri Lankan culture would say that there is a great difference between ‘farmer’s wife’ and ‘gamahaamine’. The same applies to ‘ambula’ and ‘kamatha’; they cannot be satisfactorily replaced by ‘lunch’ and ‘the threshing ground’ due to the cultural connotations attached to them.
Achebe, Chinua. Girls at War and Other Stories. London: Random House, 1972.
Platero, Juanita. Chee’s Daughter. New York: Glencoe, 2005.
Walker, Alice. In Love and Trouble: Stories of Black Women. London: Harcourt Brace, 1973.