Cultural Foreignization in Chinese Idioms Translation icon

Cultural Foreignization in Chinese Idioms Translation

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Cultural Foreignization in Chinese Idioms Translation


Language is the carrier of the culture. For one thing, language is a part of culture and plays an important role in it. Thus it reflects culture. For another, as a mirror of culture, language is strongly influenced and shaped by culture. Idioms include metaphorical phrases, slang, colloquialism, proverbs and so on. As an essential part of the language and culture of a society, idioms are involving geography, history, religious belief, living conventions and so on. They are usually highly specialized in meaning and closely tied to distinctive cultural features and cultural attitudes. It is believed that idioms are the most culturally loaded elements in any language’s vocabulary. Thus, if used properly, idioms will add life as well as vividness to one’s expression or illustration. On the contrary, without idioms language may become boring or even lifeless. The understanding of idioms can lead people to a better understanding about a certain culture.

Despite the fact that idioms are commonly used in everyday life, their meanings are not always self-evident, for the meaning can not be deduced from the meaning of their individual constituents. They are sometimes difficult to understand even for the native people. What’s more, because idioms are stable in structure, unpredictable in meaning, and rich in cultural factors, they are often major barriers in inter-cultural communications, and idiom translation may be considered as the most difficult in translation. Generally, the most difficult thing in idioms translation centers on dealing with the cultural factors. There mainly involve two ways used in translation, foreignization and domestication. Domestication demands a closeness of the translation to the reader’s language. A domestication translation reads as if the original text was written in the local language. Foreignization requires the translators to express the author’s idea in a way that is similar to the usage and expression in the author’s language. Personally, the strategy of foreignization has made a far greater contribution to Chinese idioms translation, because it can keep the translation script faithful to the original and getting the target readers well acquainted with Chinese culture.

^ II. Culture and translation

A. The definition of culture

There are many definitions of the culture. One of the oldest and widely-accepted definitions of culture was formulated by the English anthropologist Edward Burnett Tylor in 1871. It is used by the Encyclopedia Britannica (1983,vol.4:657) to introduce the topic, and Edward Sapir quoted it widely: “ culture is that complex whole which includes knowledge, belief, art, morals, law, customs and any other capabilities and habits acquired by man as a member of society.” By 1952, American anthropologists Alfred Louis Kroeber and Kluckhohn (1961:181) had compiled a list of 164 definitions. Their lengthy (165th) contribution was as follows: culture consists of patterns, explicit and implicit of and for behavior acquired and transmitted by symbols, constituting and distinctive achievement of human groups, including their embodiment in artefacts; the essential core of culture consists of traditional (i.e., historically derived and selected) ideas and especially their attached values. Culture systems may, on the one hand, be considered as products of action, on the other hand, as conditioning elements of future action.

^ B. The relationship between culture and translation

Language is a part of culture. It plays an important role in culture. Idioms are heavily culturally loaded phrases and sentences. Idioms are the essence of language as they carry distinctive cultural features. Language is inseparable from culture so that translation is inseparable from culture. Translation is not only word-to-word process, but also the culture-to-culture process. American translator, E.A Nida holds: “translation is the communication of two cultures.” To these successful translators, understanding about the difference of the two cultures is more important than the mastering of the two languages. Idiom has its own meaning in a certain cultural backgrounds. In the process of translating, we often come across some idioms with distinctive cultural characteristics. So it is a very important and complicated thing for us to understand and use these idioms correctly. It is necessary for us to study the cultural differences in some fields between China and Western countries.

  1. ^ The cultural elements in Chinese idioms translation

A. Different religions and beliefs

As a cultural phenomenon, religion, which is the manifestation of different cultures, is the vital part of human thought. China is a multi-religious country. Buddhism has a greatest influence on Chinese people. Chinese people have been deeply influenced by Buddhism, in which “佛” is worshiped. There are numerous heavily culturally loaded idioms in Chinese, such as 放下屠刀,立地成佛 (A butcher becomes a Buddha the moment he drops his cleaver), 救人一命胜造七级浮屠( To save a human life is better than building a seven-storeyed pagoda ),借花献佛 (To present Buddha with borrowed flowers), 五体投地 (To throw oneself down at somebody’s feet in admiration), 平时不烧香,临时抱佛脚 (Neglect to burn one’s joss stick before an idol in terms of peace, then embrace the Buddha’s feet in a crisis). Here the words with emphasized symbols, such as “出家”,“成佛”etc. belong to those derived from the activities of Buddhism in China. Besides, to the ordinary Chinese, Heaven is the supreme ruler of the world. All happenings on the earth are believed to be controlled and arranged by Heaven, hence it gives the following idioms: 生死由命,富贵在天 (Life and death are decreed by fate, rank and riches determined by heaven), 天理不容 (Heaven will not tolerate injustice), 天生我才必有用 (There must be some use for the talent Heaven granted me). In contrast to the Chinese, most of the westerners are Christians, who believe that the world was created by God, and everything in the world is arranged and disposed of according to God’s will. For example: 自助者天助 (God helps those help themselves), because the different religions and beliefs lead to the different idioms translation.

^ B. Different traditions and customs

Culture is long aquired from customs and habits. These customs and habits are representative of the way of living of a certain speech community and they are mirrored in the habitual speaking of the language. In China, most of the area especially the south grow rice, so many idioms have to do with rice :巧妇难为无米之炊 (Even the cleverest housewife can not cook a meal without rice), 茶余饭后 (Over a cup of tea or after dinner---at one’s leisure).China has a long history of cooking. There are many idioms about cooking, such as 家常便饭 (daily food preparation), 粗茶淡饭 (coarse tea and brown rice), 画饼充饥 (to draw cakes to allay hunger). The idiom 吃人的嘴软 (Once you have accepted somebody’s invitation to a meal, you will find it difficult to say anything against him) reflect the philosophy of the Chinese.

^ C. Different historical allusion

Different countries possess different history culture, which mainly comprises allusion, myths, poems, etc. Among them, allusion is the most important; it reflects the national characteristic. Idioms out of history culture are the gems of human heritage. It is worthwhile for us to learn them well. It can enlarge our scope of knowledge, widen our field of vision and it is useful us to learn about the origin and development of Chinese and English language. Many Chinese idioms are derived from their own historical events which are well-known by Chinese people. For instance, the following idioms are from historical events in Ancient China: 风声鹤唳,草木皆兵 (be in an extremely nervous state in which one is frightened by the slightest sound) is from the defeat of FuJian’s (苻坚) army during the East Jin Dynasty; 卧薪尝胆 (to sleep on brushwood and taste gall); 沉鱼落雁之容,闭月羞花之貌 concerns great beauties in ancient times. This idiom come from Dai Shanfu’s Academician Tao writes Good Landscape when Drunken (戴善夫《陶学士醉写风光好》) :”To my mind, this woman is so beautiful that she will make the fish sink and the birds alight, or she will put the flowers to shame and outshine the moon.”; 知己知彼,百战不殆 (know the enemy and know yourself, and you can fight a hundred battles with no danger of defeat); 临阵磨枪 (to sharp one’s spear only before going into battle). Besides, most of the Chinese idioms are from Chinese historical works and fables and fairy tales. They are vivid with profound meanings. For example: 拔苗助长 (try to help seeding grow by pulling them); 囫囵吞枣 (swallow a date wholly without chewing or tasting it); 画龙点睛 (draw the eyes when paining a dragon). Such allusions not only make the language richer and more vivid. Generally speaking, the more the target reader knows, the more deeply he will understand the implications between the lines.

  1. ^ Domestication and Foreignization

A. Definitions of Domestication and Foreignization

Domestication demands a closeness of the translation to the reader’s language. A domestication translation reads as if the original text was written in the local language. Nida advocates domestication,“the translator must be a person who can draw aside the curtains of the linguistic and cultural differences so that people may see clearly the relevance of the original message” (Nida & de Waard 1986:14). Accurate translation is one that can generate equivalent effect; the target reader’s understanding of the translated version should be substantially the same as the source text readers’ understanding of the original. In China, domestication has been prevailing in the circle of translation since the May Fourth Movement in 1919, advocating transparent and smooth translation. Hence, “the goal of translation is to make the target reader who dose not know about the source text understand the contexts as much as possible. The task of the translator is to objectively reflect the original, to have the original contents reappear in the form of the normative target language” (Luo Xingzhang 1984:619). In 1995, an American translation theorist Venuti, animadverts on domestication and advocates foreignization. That is, foreignization requires the translators to express the author’s idea in a way that is similar to the usage and expression in the author’s language. Translation is a culture communication, which introduce one nation’s language and culture to another. Luxun (鲁迅) who is very famous person, emphasized that the translation should keep the source language’s culture. The value of foreignization : keeping the “taste” of the original work, bringing freshness to readers, leading readers to a better understanding about other cultures, promoting the communication between different cultures, enriching the source language ,facilitating a language to absorb nutrient from another. Thus, the essence of foreignization is to convey the “foreignness” to the greatest extent.

^ B. Comparing Domestication and Foreignization in Idioms Translation

a. The Culture of Dragon

From the analysis of the cultural elements in Chinese idioms translation, we know that Chinese idioms reflect the differences of Chinese and Western cultures in various aspects. The most important is that foreignization translation makes the Chinese culture reappear in the form of the normative target language. We can see the following examples: Chinese people admire and worship the “Dragon”. It is the symbol of the Chinese nation; and it is the symbol of authority, strength and good fortune. Even feudal emperors were called “真龙天子”, and Chinese people call themselves “龙的传人”. In Chinese idioms, such as:

龙飞凤舞 like dragons flying and phoenixes----lively and vigorous flourishes in calligraphy

龙马精神 the spirit of a dragon horse----usually said in praise of a vigorous old age

These idioms express Chinese people’s appreciation and love to dragon. In English, though dragon is not symbolic of pleasant thing. It is in legend a three-headed monster guarding treasures for spirits, always blowing fire. “The old dragon” refers to the notorious devil “Satan” himself. However, English people admire the “Tiger”, in translating “亚洲四小龙”(four Asian countries that have an upsurge in economy), it was domesticated into “Four Asian Tigers” instead of “Four Asian Dragons”. This is because dragon is a devil monster in the eyes of westerners. This domestication from dragon to tiger may be familiar to the westerners and can be easily understood by them. However, it has effaced the national features of the Chinese language. Western people may never get to know the unique status of dragon in Chinese culture, in which the Chinese view it as a symbol of power and authority. They may also never understand why Chinese people like to call themselves “the descendants of the dragon”. Some scholars insist that “亚洲四小龙” be foreignized into “Four Asian Dragons”. Some scholars even go so far to suggest that “龙” should be foreignized into “Long”.

b. The culture of religion

The religion culture is the important part of the culture. Different religion reflects different cultural features. For example: “The Story of the Stone” by a British professor named David Hawks. When he translated the idiom “ 谋事在人,成事在天”, into “ Man proposes, God disposes”, Grammy Liu , who said it, will be misunderstood that she is a Christian. The translator, Yang Xianyi(杨显益) translated the idiom into “Man proposes, Heaven disposes”. He changed “God” into “Heaven”, because “菩萨” (Buddha) was mentioned in the “The Story of the Stone”, which come from Buddhism. But “God” come from Christian. So the translation of David Hawks neglected different religious background. We suggested that “God” was replaced by “Heaven” to stress Chinese Buddhist culture tradition. In the foreignized version, Yang kept the elements of the source language to advocate the Chinese culture.

c. Other elements in Foreignization

There are many foreignization examples in the “The Story of the Stone”, for instance:

  1. 癞蛤蟆想吃天鹅肉 (曹165)

Foreignization: A toad hankering for a taste of swan (Yang 165)

Domestication: A case of “the toad on the ground wanting to eat the goose in the sky” (Hawkes 242)

To make western people understanding the idioms meaning well Hawakes used the goose replacing the swan. In the culture of English, “swan” and “goose” have different associative meaning. Obviously this translation for the foreigner is more “natural”, but far away from the Chinese culture. However, Yang’s translation keeps the source language culture.

  1. 大锅饭

Foreignization : The big pot system

“Da guo fan”(大锅饭) is a typical Chinese expression rich in the Chinese political cultures and used to analogize the steadiness of the group life and production. Definitely, foreignization, to such culture specific words with distinctive Chinese color, retains the image of the source language as well as introduces the distinctive Chinese society culture to the western readers.

  1. ^ The Purpose and Significance of Foreignization

From the analysis of Chinese idioms translation between two different cultural backgrounds, we learn that there are two strategies adopted in idiom translation, traditionally, domestication and foreignization .But we get to know that the foreignization translation is more fit for translating Chinese idioms. Idioms are heavily culturally loaded phrases and sentences. Idioms are the essence of language as they distinctive and cultural features. China is a country that has a long historical culture. In the process of the translating, we could not overlook the cultural features and backgrounds. Foreignization has made a great contribution to idioms translation, making the script smooth and the meaning easy to be understood by the target readers. It plays an active role in promoting cultural communication. Besides, foreignization translation can make the foreigners understanding the Chinese culture deeply. With the developing of the society, people live in a better life, everything is changing faster and faster, foreignization translation can communicate different cultures each other.

  1. Conclusion

Culture is a kind of social behavior. Idioms are deeply embedded in culture and thus rich in cultural factors. There are numerous heavily culturally loaded idioms in Chinese. With the advancement of the society, we have the feeling that the world is becoming “smaller” and that we are now living in the “global village”. People’s lives are inevitably affected by globalization. Our cultures also face the impact of globalization. In the 21st century, economical globalization is inevitable. This new era is “the information age”. We have to let more and more foreigners understand Chinese culture. Foreignization will be applied more and more, which also will be reflected in Chinese idioms translation. It is a way to introduce native culture to foreigners as well as to bring the freshness of foreign culture to native people.

I have analyzed the influence of different cultural customs and backgrounds with many examples. Translators should not only improve the ability of their mother language, but also reinforce the comparative research of philosophy and historical background of Chinese and western countries. Foreignization is a good way to make foreign readers to understand Chinese culture. It doesn’t mean that domestication can be ignored. Actually, domestication has made great contribution to idioms translation. So they are complementary in the process of translating idioms.

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