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(Un)translatability and cross-cultural
readability
Yifeng Sun
a
a
Department of Translation , Lingnan University , Hong Kong
Published online: 21 Feb 2012.
To cite this article: Yifeng Sun (2012) (Un)translatability and cross-cultural readability,
Perspectives: Studies in Translatology, 20:2, 231-247, DOI: 10.1080/0907676X.2012.659746
To link to this article: http://dx.doi.org/10.1080/0907676X.2012.659746
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(Un)translatability and cross-cultural readability
Yifeng Sun*
Department of Translation, Lingnan University, Hong Kong
(Received 19 June 2011; nal version received 17 January 2012)
This article revisits the issues of untranslatability in the context of cross-cultural
communication, with a special emphasis on how an inevitable concern with
readability complicates the issue of (un)translatability. The anxiety over un-
translatability underpins an interminable drive for readability, along with the
desire for relevant cultural, or better still, cross-cultural, articulation and
representation in the target text. This is particularly apparent in literary
translation, which is expected to manifest its literariness, a subject that is of
clear relevance to the readability of translation. Literary translation is primarily
about translating the untranslatable or the seemingly untranslatable. To create
and increase translatability the variability of translational situations are directly
confronted. It is thus necessary to examine the different types and degrees of
untranslatability constraining and shaping translation. Further, readability is
rarely possible without some kind of adaptation and familiarization so as to
produce some degree of artificial fluency and naturalness in translation.
Keywords: (un)translatability; foreign otherness; readability; cross-cultural com-
munication; Chinese literary translation; literariness
Introduction
It is a truism and a paradox to state that despite prevalent untranslatability in the
global context of cross-cultural communication, there always seems to be a way to
translate the supposedly or theoretically untranslatable. Despite widespread acknowl-
edgment of untranslatability, translation activity has never been impeded. Along with
the recognition of the impossibility of translation is the necessity of translating
foreign otherness. Out of necessity, the translator attempts the impossible.
1
Translation ultimately depends on the possibility of the impossible, and untranslat-
ability is exacerbated by the possible lack of readability, which is inextricably related
to acceptability. It is no exaggeration to say that readability is no less important than
accuracy. Moreover, translation is aimed at resolving the underlying incommensur-
ability that divides source and target cultures and gives rise to untranslatability.
Ineffable linguistic properties and alien cultural concepts accentuate the limits of
translatability and also augur inimitability and non-substitutability. However,
untranslatability prompts respect for difference and uniqueness, providing a powerful
reminder of the reality of difference and diversity, thus calling for both conceptual
and empirical inquiry for the general possibility of cross-cultural communication.
Meanwhile, as the nucleus of cross-cultural communication, readability is directly
*Email: sunyf@ln.edu.hk
Perspectives: Studies in Translatology
Vol. 20, No. 2, June 2012, 231247
ISSN 0907-676X print/ISSN 1747-6623 online
# 2012 Taylor & Francis
http://dx.doi.org/10.1080/0907676X.2012.659746
http://www.tandfonline.com
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related to the issue of literary value, which can be seriously compromised or
undermined by untranslatability. Thus readability from a cross-cultural perspective
resides in the anxiety over untranslatability, since the power of literariness must be
reproduced and displayed in translation.
The nature of untranslatability has long been shrouded in mystery, and the
ubiquity of translation raises questions about how meaning is produced and
reproduced in cross-cultural communication. While there is no denying that at the
fore of globalization, translation has helped reduce uniqueness or singularity, the
concept of untranslatability remains not only relevant but also central to translation
studies and beyond. The necessity of translation, or rather, of translating the
untranslatable, can be taken to mean that despite unresolved or less than
satisfactorily resolved translation problems, even problematic translations are still
accepted, albeit not without reservations. It also pertains explicitly to the necessity
for retranslations in numerous cases. All this makes the task of translating the
untranslatable both challenging and fascinating, because it is in no case a simple task
of transferring a foreign form or style to the target language without some form or
degree of mediation or negotiation, which requires a heightened awareness of and
sensitivity to cross-cultural differences and complexities.
The possibility of translatability
Untranslatability has been a perennial issue for debate for a considerable period of
time. While the debate is no longer confined to technical accuracy or literal
foreignness, uniqueness or singularity inherent in the original are still essentially
irreducible. Such irreducibility deeply rooted in foreign otherness renders literary
translation virtually impossible, which indicates that many translation problems
spawned by untranslatability are left to exist. At least the impossibility of exact or
full translation is widely acknowledged, hence the not so markedly expressed
tolerance of partial translation.
2
The assumed impossibility of translation is not
something that is absolute, and very often the possibility of translating the
untranslatable, which is akin to the possibility of doing the impossible, is
unswervingly explored, sometimes against high odds, in order to communicate to
the target reader what is otherwise untranslatable. To be sure, the practice of
translation is inherently and necessarily marked by varying degrees of translatability
or untranslatability, depending on the particular situation, and requires varying
degrees of intervention and adjustment, accordingly, to address the paramount
concern of accessibility in relation to untranslatability.
It can be said that untranslatability is deeply rooted in the requirement for, in
Tourys words, both adequacy in relation to the original (source-oriented) on the one
hand, and acceptability on the other (target-oriented) (Toury, 1995, pp. 5657). It is
easy to see the axiomatic dichotomy between adequacy and acceptability. Very often,
a translation is made acceptable at the expense of adequacy. An acceptable
translation leans inevitably on adaptation in order to suit a different linguistic and
cultural context. However, if modifications involved are too extensive, adequacy, or
rather accuracy, is compromised. In China at the moment, for instance, a general
preference for readable translation is shaken by a noticeable lack of accuracy, which
has been a particular cause for concern when the book market has been deluged by
readable yet unreliable translated works. So this makes acceptable translation
somewhat problematic. An unavoidable question is: Acceptable to whom? For a
232 Y. Sun
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perfectly acceptable translation may well be a mistranslation or misleading
translation. For professional critics, an unreliable yet seemingly acceptable transla-
tion to the general reading public is in fact unacceptable, as thoughtfully illustrated
by Peter Newmark (1991, p. 23). To further compound the matter, a functionally
adequate translation may well be a stylistically unacceptable translation. In this light,
perhaps it is more appropriate to consider readable translation. Readability
incorporates both accessibility and acceptability, without necessarily implying
inaccuracy or inadequacy.
Translation manifests a tendency to create disparity or mismatch between the real
(what is patently contained in the source text) and the conventional (what is
demonstrably presented in the target text). Since the conventional discourse of the
target text is not designed to accommodate foreign materials, what is unique in the
source text becomes irreplaceable in translation, which necessitates modification in
the absence of culturally synonymous items in the target language. If culturally
significant details or particulars turn out to be untranslatable, linguistic, cultural,
and conceptual inventiveness is called for, although the result of this is that the
identity of the source text is transformed. In reality, the language of translation is a
special language, supposedly a product of hybridity, constitutive of a language within
a language, which is also seen as a so-called sublanguage as opposed to a natural
language. The translated language is one that comes into being as a result of
translation with some vestiges of foreign otherness, while to some extent conforming
to the norms of the target language. A translation represents a somewhat artificial
text. In truth, [c]ulture in its entirety may be considered a text a complexly
structured text, divided into a hierarchy of intricately interconnected texts within
texts (Lotman, 1994, p. 384). Certain texts or parts of a text are translatable while
others are not, or rather, as stated earlier, partially translatable or untranslatable.
Due to inevitable linguistic or cultural lacunae in the target language,
untranslatability is a certainty. Meanwhile, however, untranslatability is increasingly
identified as localized in areas such as metaphor, imagery, rhetoric, puns, concepts,
and so on. As in the case of translatability, untranslatability is also partial and
therefore can be delimited. Some translators, perhaps out of desperation, simply
resort to deletion, particularly when they are confronted with wordplay in the source
text. What is at stake is the acceptability of the translated text. Despite special
emphasis on acceptability or readability, substandard translation is often defined by
inadequacy as an archetypal sign of loss, and the size of loss is directly proportionate
to the degree of untranslatability. In other words, what gets lost in translation is
attributed to untranslatable manifestations. Therefore, the need for compensation
has typically been assumed to cope with untranslatability as a remedial measure.
With substitution in place, formal untranslatability is often tuned into semantic
translatability, as in gist translation, in spite of the resulting inevitable loss of formal
features associated with the original.
In real life situations, untranslatability is persistently marked to make translation
very difficult if not impossible. On 18 December 2008, at a conference to
commemorate the 30th anniversary of the reform and opening-up policy in China,
the Chinese President, Hu Jintao, remarked: As long as we dont waver, dont slack
off and dont zheteng [ in Chinese means to get sidetracked], and as long as
we firmly push forward reform and opening-up [. . .] we are certain to be able to
successfully realize this grand blueprint and achieve the goals we are striving for.
The use of transliteration is an unmistakable sign of untranslatability. The northern
Perspectives: Studies in Translatology 233
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colloquial word is emotionally evocative, registering the nuances of anguish and
turmoil in the Chinese historical, political, and social context. Despite the
connotations of historically similar and also disparate experiences, this word has
caused numerous attempts to translate it into English: avoid self-inflicted setbacks,
dont flip flop, dont sway back and forth, no dithering, no major changes, avoid
futile actions, stop making trouble and wasting time, no self-consuming political
movements, much ado about nothing, dont waste effort retracting from hasty moves,
stop messing around. In addition, a more direct translation, no more political
turmoil, has also been suggested (Li, 2010, p. 9). The problem is that none of the
suggested versions manages to capture the implied chaos and in-fighting (Li,
2010, p. 5). As a result, the untranslatability or severely limited translatability of this
word in relation to modern Chinese political experience has bred grudging
acceptance of the transliteration of bu [which means do not] zheteng.
Moreover, it is noteworthy that attributes such as awkward, obscure, and
unreadable are normally identified as bad or incompetent translation, regardless of
the style of the original, which may not be readable in the first place. At any rate,
these attributes are typical symptoms of untranslatability or feeble attempts to
address untranslatability. A pertinent question is when an idiomatic cultural form
poses a challenge to translation, whether it should be taken seriously. How seriously?
Should it be translated idiomatically as well? If so, is the resulting domestication
desirable or acceptable in the true sense of cross-cultural communication? The
ensuing bridging act of translation focuses on the play of resemblances and
differences underlying cultural beliefs, values and expectations.
Chinese literary translation in 1921 is an obvious case in point, when there was a
debate between Zheng Zhengduo and the famous writer Mao Dun (whose real name
is Shen Yanbing), and also his brother, Shen Zemin. The focus of the debate is
whether or not literary texts are translatable. In the same year, in an article published
in issue 3 of Xioashuo yuebao (Fiction monthly), Zheng Zhengduo states
categorically that literature is unquestionably translatable. Also in the same year,
issue 5 of Xioashuo yuebao carried an article by Shen Zemin, refuting such a view, in
response to Zhengs article, by maintaining that literature is untranslatable. Shen
Zemins brother, Mao Dun, echoes the view of literary untranslatability in an essay
entitled Translation Problems Some Views on Poetry Translation. Zheng
Zhenduo was a stalwart supporter of the New Literature Movement, famous for
its openness to modern concepts from the West. Via English, he translated into
Chinese substantial amounts of Indian, Russian, and Greek literature. Emboldened
by the huge success of his translated works, and enthused by the excitement of
translation activities during the period, Zheng showed an impassioned commitment
to encouraging more translators to promote the cause. In contrast, the Shen brothers
were coolly observant of the many translation problems left unresolved and the
helplessness that became the defining attribute of much of the translation practice.
During the May Fourth Movement in 1919, literal translation was amazingly
prevalent, as evidenced by some translators forcing their way in translation. Many
translations suffered from a severe lack of coherence and turned out to be difficult to
understand.
However, it should be pointed out that untranslatability is decidedly not fixed,
but endlessly subject to change, subsequently leading to new forms of translation,
which fall somewhere along a spectrum between the translatable and the
untranslatable. In particular, literary translation is encapsulated by such questions
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as what to translate, to what extent the translated text can produce an impact on the
target culture, and what that impact may be. Over the years, although cultural
universalism has been under criticism, its rapid spread is undeniable. It is
unquestionably true that the presumed commonality of language and culture makes
it possible for the target reader to share, at a certain level at least, cultural experiences
that are not usually possible within the practical constraints of life; although the
non-communicative nature of certain cultural configurations embedded in the
original puts in peril the possibility of translating such experiences. Some ineffable
or less effable ways of life with regard to the source culture tend to cause problems
for translation, but they provide a unique way of placing the target culture in contact
with a foreign cultural practice.
Untranslatability and foreign otherness
It is worth noting that untranslatability is ultimately attributable to foreign otherness
with respect to the awareness of difference. In spite of Derridean debunking of the
primacy of the original, not many translations can afford to deviate too radically
from the original, at the risk of perhaps producing a text that is essentially different
and can barely be called a translation. On the other hand, being unlike the original
may indeed be part of the effort to rid translation of its derivativeness and
secondariness, and, more significantly, of the constraints on translation problems.
Still, foreignness is not something that can be circumvented. Homi Bhabha (1990, p.
314) aptly states that:
The foreignness of language is the nucleus of the untranslatable that goes beyond the
transparency of subject matter. The transfer of meaning can never be total between
differential systems of meaning [. . .]
Translation tries to work out possibilities of compromise and in the end it becomes
the product of compromise. And whatever the final form, translation invariably turns
out to be an unfilled promise. The untranslatable reminds the translator that
translatability cannot be established by mere negation of otherness through forcible
relocation or perfunctory substitution.
In a way, (un)translatability is quintessential to the equilibrium between
foreignization and domestication. Lack of or insufficient corresponding items in
the target language, namely the so-called equivalents, necessitate invention or
creative translation, which is predisposed to some degree of domestication. As
Jakobson puts it, the untranslatable cannot be translated but [o]nly creative
transposition is possible (Jakobson, 2004, p. 143). The optimal commitment is to
reconcile incongruity between the two linguistic and cultural systems in translation,
so as to extend or transcend the limits of the untranslatable. One common approach
to tackling untranslatability is to domesticate alienation and foreignness inherent in
or associated with the original, which inevitably leads to a lack of sharing and
reciprocation, as well as participation and interaction. Moreover, excessive domes-
tication signifies the abandonment of reproduction so as to give way to unqualified
production. Admittedly, this kind of culturally dismissive approach reduces the
seriousness of the cultural form of the source text. When untranslatability is turned
into translatability violently, it may imply or suggest radical change. Consequently,
Perspectives: Studies in Translatology 235
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formal features and signifiers need to be changed, for example rearranged,
substituted, or (re)produced.
Still, an unavoidable question remains: What exactly is untranslatable? Is it
meaning, or sense, or emotion, or effect? Is what puzzles the translator intrinsically
and absolutely untranslatable, or tantalizingly, seemingly, deceptively untranslatable?
Untranslatability in turn haunts, seduces, teases, frustrates, and inspires the
translator, who needs to know at what level the untranslatability impacts the end
result of translation. It is worth pointing out, however, that there are different levels
and aspects of untranslatability: textual, extra-textual, cultural, linguistic, referential,
conceptual, and most notoriously, untranslatability caused by wordplay in the
original. As it happens, a translation can be insufficiently comprehensive to be
comprehensible or too comprehensive to be comprehensible if it is overloaded with
cultural allusions. In truth, the strain of cultural burden can be undone if exotic
references (sometimes regarded as irrelevant or nonessential) are removed. In this
respect, the untranslatable is seen as encompassing a number of formal features with
regard to rhyme, sentence structure, register, and so on, which remain endlessly
susceptible to corruption and loss.
Sure enough, there is the inevitable question: How does the untranslatable get
translated? In theory, infinite potential solutions can be found, but they can endlessly
elude the translator on a given occasion when a solution is urgently needed. The
immediate concern is whether a translation delivers, what it actually delivers, and
then how exactly it delivers. There are many practical problems to address. If hidden
nuances in the original remain hidden in translation, there is less chance that they
will be detected by the target reader, and, consequently, this can be construed as
inadequate translation, and also ultimately as part of untranslatability. However, if
they are brought into light, in keeping with a general tendency towards making
translation explicit to enhance communicability, the target reader is spared, or rather
denied, the challenge, and therefore the pleasure, of uncovering the hidden meaning.
Of course, no translation can be an exact replica of the original and, more relevantly,
the target reader, due to cultural, historical, and linguistic differences, cannot be
expected to be sensitive to such hidden nuances, considering that the two languages
involved in translation, particularly if they are as far apart as English and Chinese,
may not share the same depth and richness when referring to a particular thing. A
specificity of society, culture, and geographical location often causes comprehension
difficulties.
Crucially, however, translation forces its way into existence in tackling or ignoring
untranslatability, and in this process something is invariably lost. But it is perfectly
possible that translation can be conducted without essential loss. As to what
constitutes essential loss, there is no easy answer, particularly with regard to literary
translation, not to mention the translation of poetry. In numerous cases, for example,
images are more important than anything else. Yet such images are not transferable,
and even if the basic meaning gets translated, with the images being replaced or just
dropped, the significant part remains untranslatable. This brings us back to the
perennial question: Are a thought and its articulation separable? A single linguistic
code can barely be reproduced in full in the target language, and as a result, the
dialogic dynamism of heteroglossia is reduced one way or another. But multilayered
representation is essential in literary translation. In this sense, to give clear meaning
is not enough. And as for semantic obscurity, if such is the case in the original, it is
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supposed to be kept in translation, although in practice it tends to be made explicit in
translation.
Furthermore, untranslatability necessitates the formation of neologisms, due to
the frustrating fact that the translator is unable to translate what he/she understands
in the source text into the target language. It is also true that untranslatability is not
the same as lack of understanding, although sometimes it may indeed be the case. To
understand what something means in one language is no guarantee that it can be
translated into a different language. If there is something unintelligible in the source
text it is naturally untranslatable, yet if something turns out to be unintelligible after
translation, it is an unmistakable sign of incompetent translation. For this reason,
rather than trying to capture the full meaning, which verges on impossibility, most
translations tend to focalize the essential meaning, which is then duly articulated in
the target language. This is an inevitable compromize. As noted by Brad Evans, an
untranslatable word is most often one without a synonym in even its own language
(Evans, 2004, p. 784). Hence the most common solution to the untranslatable is by
way of an explanatory or descriptive paraphrase (Nolan, 2005, p. 58). It is plain that
to paraphrase meaning in the same language is easier than in a different language.
The alleged difficulty is, as Berman puts it, The translated text would fall short of
the original because it is allegedly unable to restore the network of connivances and
references that constitutes the life of the latter (Berman, 1992, p. 99).
Readability in the cross-cultural context
All this discussion of translatability and readability can be included under the rubric
of cross-cultural communication. Needless to say, the immediate intelligibility of
translation has been a central concern, raising the fundamental question as to
whether an experience of language and culture can be shared, and if so, to what
extent. One simple or simplistic solution to untranslatability is to translate meaning,
the underlying assumption being that as long as there is meaning, it can be
translated. Robyn Davidson declares: In discursive prose, nothing that has a
meaning is untranslatable; the corollary being that untranslatable passages generally
are found to be meaningless (Davidson, 2009, p. 386). Of course meaninglessness is
untranslatable, but it does not mean that it is not transferrable. And meaninglessness
can be relative and ephemeral: some readers may make sense of it, so there is a
chance for it to actualize in a certain context. Still, the consistent concern of the
translator has been lack of readability of translation spawned by untranslatability,
revealing an obsession with the extreme version of the target-oriented translation
strategy.
It is important to note that the question of readability in a cross-cultural context
is of central relevance to the literary value perceived by the target reader. Literary
experience is defined or characterized by how a text is handled by the translator, and
the reception of translation is filled with the importance of readability, which
concerns the efficacy of cross-cultural communication. A typical example is the
reception of Du Fu and Hanshan in the West, as observed by Davison (2009, p. 388):
Du Fu, the greatest and most perfect of all the Chinese classic poets, becomes grey and
arid in translation, whereas his contemporary Hanshan, whose work is flat and vulgar
and which was, quite rightly, largely ignored in China, enjoyed a huge success in
colourful poetic incarnations in Japan, in America, and in France [. . .] Translation may
Perspectives: Studies in Translatology 237
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serve as a perverse screen serving to occlude instances of true beauty, while conferring a
sudden freshness upon worn-out cliches.
What exactly has happened is of great interest here. Does this mean that Du Fu is
more untranslatable than Hanshan? A series of factors, ranging from cultural
difference to aesthetic appeal, may be involved in determining the reception of their
works in translation. It is obvious that some texts are translated better than others
largely due to different frames of reference.
If two translated versions of the same source text, markedly different from each
other in stylistic features, are equally reliable in that they are fairly accurate, this
raises the question of how untranslatability can be overcome, suggesting that there
must be different ways to do so. James Joyces Ulysses was translated into Chinese in
the 1990s and two translation versions came out almost simultaneously. The version
that places emphasis on readability was translated by Xiao Qian and his wife, Wen
Jieruo, whose three-volume set with 5,840 footnotes was published by Yilin Press in
Nanjing in 1994. The large number of footnotes is surprising because the couple
claim to make their translation readable (Xu et al., 2001, p. 85). To be sure, the
readability of this translation is testified by its quick sale; its first edition of 85,000
was sold out and copies were in great demand in Shanghai. The other version was
translated by Jin Di, the first volume was published in Taiwan in 1993 and then, in
1994, the complete set of two volumes was published by Peoples Literature
Publishing House in Beijing.
It is apparent that the translators of the two versions worked independently,
without any chance to borrow from each other. In light of this remarkable
coincidence, there have been numerous discussions focusing on the differences
between the two versions. Patrick ONeil, for instance, labors the point of the
superiority of Jin Dis translation (ONeill, 2005, p. 91):
While Xiao Qians three volumes admittedly contain 6,000 footnotes (while Jins version
makes do with just 2,000) Xiao and Wen took only four years to complete what took Jin
sixteen years, and they sought little input from the world of international Joyce
scholarship.
In contrast, Jin Di took a string of visiting fellowships and professorships in the West
and consulted widely among Joyce scholars (ONeill, 2005, p. 91). This does seem to
give Jin Di the advantage in tackling an extremely difficult source text with numerous
untranslatable parts, but is no guarantee of a superior translation. Translation
reviewers dwell on the rivalry between the two translated works that seem to
galvanize more critical minds.
As many rightly claim, Ulysses translated by the husband-and-wife team provides
better readability. The way in which foreign languages in the novel are treated in their
translation contributes to its general readability. The foreign languages used by Joyce
include French, German, Spanish, Italian, Greek, Latin, Hebrew, and Sanskrit. Such
languages would be unintelligible gibberish to Chinese readers. And largely for this
reason, they are all translated into Chinese. Because the foreign language milieus
presented in Ulysses are not reproduced, much is irredeemably lost. The target reader
experiences no foreign languages and reading is unimpeded. However, the authorial
intention as shown in this particular mode of expression is not obscured: foreign
words are not only translated into Chinese but also identified and explained as such
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in footnotes. In contrast, Jin Di keeps his translation as close to the original as
possible: he uses no quotation marks for dialogue and no punctuation for stream of
consciousness. Moreover, all foreign words are kept intact in the main body of the
translated text with footnotes containing translation and explanation of these words.
Although Xiao Qian and Wen Jieruo do not go as far as to furnish punctuation for
stream of consciousness, they deliberately leave spaces between words where there is
supposed to be punctuation. Still, this treatment, though very controversial, has
greatly improved the readability of the original.
Jin Di, on the other hand, is much less intrusive: he is not prepared to enhance
readability at the expense of accuracy. The husband-and-wife team uses endnotes
while Jin Di uses footnotes, about which he has reservations (Jin, 1996, p. 1070):
Adding footnotes is not necessarily a solution to problems because they may greatly
damage its artistic integrity and appeal. Some difficulties, mainly related to background
knowledge, can be overcome by providing the reader with footnotes but it may create
the impression of an academic work so as to disappoint the readers expectations of
certain things.
He therefore sets out to minimize the number and length of footnotes mainly to
facilitate reading because he is uncomfortable with the intrusive nature of footnotes.
He needs to pay sufficient attention to both accessibility and readability.
Both versions reveal a strong commitment to intelligibility. Let us examine the
two translation versions of the internal reality of Stephen Dedalus, who is haunted by
his diseased mother:
Her eyes on me to strike me down.
A: (Xiao & Wen, 1994, p. 38)
Back translation: She looking square at me with her two eyes wanting me to kneel
down.
B: (Jin, 1994, p. 14)
Back translation: Her eyes fell on me to press me down.
In version A, the phrase strike me down is made more explicit with the verb kneel
in Chinese to translate strike. She gazed at me [. . .] is more intense than the
original. Version B, with few signs of intervention on the part of the translator, is no
more explicit than the original and also less graphic when compared to version A.
No, mother! Let me be and let me live.
A: (Xiao & Wen, 1994, p. 38)
Back translation: No, Mum! Just leave it to me and allow me to live.
B: (Jin, 1994, p. 14)
Back translation: No, mother! Let go of me and let me get on with my life.
The verb be is notoriously difficult to translate, as in Hamlets to be or not to be.
To be sure, it is context dependent. There is deliberate semantic indeterminacy, in
that it is difficult to pinpoint exactly what this be is. The ambiguity of be is
apparently untranslatable, posing a challenge for the translator to fill the semantic
space. Still, version A seems to be more readable than version B.
The snippets quoted here, lacking context, may not be very revealing, but indicate
some of the significant differences between the two versions. The same question
arises: Does readability matter in translation? It certainly helps sales, because Jin Dis
Perspectives: Studies in Translatology 239
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translation, palpably less readable in comparison, sold much less copies. The target
readers reception is admittedly something important to bear in mind when judging
the so-called value of a translated text. In this regard, there is no doubt that
adaptation is essential for the survival of a translation work. Yet in literary
translation, readability seems to be somewhat related to literary value, although
admittedly this may not always be immediately obvious. However, if readability is not
a prime concern for the original, any attempt to enhance it in the target text is
perhaps problematic. In other words, if the translated text is too easily readable, a
general atmosphere of suspicion is unavoidable. Reviewers will start looking for signs
of overt domestication, as in the case of the translation by Xiao Qian and Wen
Jieruo, and consequently authenticity is at stake. Although it is well-known that
readability is not a desideratum for serious literature, unreadability undermines the
reception of a translated text. Yet it can be argued that translation is principally
about accessibility, without which a translated text stands little chance of survival. In
a sense, unreadability is a reflection of untranslatability, and the transformation of
the original is manifest in, to some extent, familiarizing the source language.
Form and literal translation
Culturally loaded details are sometimes viewed as unnecessary and not congenial to
readability, which seems to justify some extreme acts by the translator to the original,
in the name of reducing the unnecessary burden on the reader, in the words of Fu
Donghua, who does precisely that in his Chinese translation of Gone with the Wind.
In the preface to his translation, he writes unabashedly: This novel is about
American Civil War, eight years away from us, thousands of miles in distance. How
can they have any bearing on us? Not wanting his readers to work too hard, he takes
great liberty with the source text by deleting ponderous details concerning weather
conditions, religious references, and psychological descriptions of characters. He
makes it clear that the way in which he translates is primarily out of consideration for
his readers: [. . .] while translating books like this one [Gone with the Wind], if every
word and sentence is carefully rendered, it may make for tedious reading. He does
not flinch from making it plain that, when he encounters ponderous descriptions
and psychological analyses, if they are deemed not really related to the storylines and
likely to bore the reader, he simply remove[s] them chunk by chunk without any
mercy (Fu, 1979).
3
However controversial this translation strategy may be, it has
ensured its popularity among the target reader for several generations.
Fu Donghuas translation of Gone with the Wind was published in 1940. In
September 1979, Zhejiang Peoples Publishing House decided to republish some
translated classics, among which was Fus translation of Gone with the Wind. When
they caught wind of the news, more than a dozen book distributors representing
different provinces swamped into the Publishing House to place orders. As a result,
the printing plan had to be adjusted from 100,000 to 600,000 copies (Feng, 1999). It
was not until 1989 that a new translation was published. Currently there are at least
five retranslations, which seem to register some dissatisfaction with the original
translation by Fu Donghua. Obviously, readability alone is not a sufficient criterion
for a good or reliable translation. In Fus case, some of the details that are not
translated are either untranslatable or deemed not worth translating by the
translator.
240 Y. Sun
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The relatively ephemeral appeals of highly readable translations which are not
entirely reliable tend to cause problems in the long run. While some critics and
scholars endorse such translation strategies, particularly out of a functionalist
consideration, others find such a practice totally unacceptable. There are, for
instance, quite a few Chinese scholars that support Fus method of translation,
arguing that to omit all the superfluous details in the original is understandable and
even desirable for the sake of general readability. Nevertheless, a mutilated
translation, no matter how justifiable it may seem under certain circumstances,
remains vulnerable to severe criticism. Arthur Waleys abridged translation of the
classical Chinese novel The Journey to the West, retitled as Monkey, Folk Novel of
China, deeply upset Anthony C. Yu, who retranslated the novel in its full version,
consisting of four volumes. The change of title by Waley indicates a desire for
readability, and his translation has appeared variously as The Monkey God, Monkey:
[A] Folk Novel of China, and The Adventures of Monkey, or simply Dear Monkey, a
further abridged edition for children. Yu explicitly questions the readability achieved
in Waleys translation at the expense of authenticity, and cannot help but ask the
question: how could this be the same novel that had captivated my attention since
boyhood? (Yu, 1998, p. 94). The fact that the source text is abridged does not seem
to be a serious problem as Waley has made it clear in the preface to the translation
but it is the radical revisions of language and vast omissions of terms, episodes,
[and] recurrent poetic passages that are profoundly disturbing (Yu, 1998, p. 94). For
Yu, the way in which the text is treated represents a culturally reductionist approach,
to be castigated.
For this reason, Yu approves of Venutis mode of foreignization in translation,
but still argues for some degree of readability, because it is closely linked to
accessibility. He further remarks: What is alien and different can be made familiar
and comprehensible (Yu, 1998, p. 89). However, he seems to inadvertently
dichotomize different and incomprehensible. What is different may well be less
readable, though not necessarily less interesting: there may be something relatively
refreshing to be offered due to a defamiliarizing effect. Nonetheless, in view of
Venutis repudiation of readability, Yu offers his support: In this revisionist view
of the matter, the aim at readability inevitably incurs the unpardonable sin of
domestication, of rendering innocuous that which is textually different and foreign
(Yu, 1998, p. 89). Excessive domestication, for the purpose of enhancing general
readability, is cross-culturally unacceptable. But the problem is that the innocuous
can be untranslatable, and if barely managed will turn out to be unreadable. All this
boils down to the vexing question of dealing with the formal dimension of
translation. Preserving the foreign in translation is potentially disruptive to reading
the target text and to the target language itself. In light of this argument, the
preferred strategy of foreignization, the opposite of domestication, cannot be an
entirely innocuous practice.
Reading translation depends on an ostensibly different system of signification
and somewhat different communication modes, which is sufficiently demonstrated by
the threat of untranslatability. Thus foreignization, though cross-culturally expedi-
ent, spurns readability, because it results in an idiomatically inappropriate text.
Stylistic awkwardness (resulting from foreignization) is a major impediment to
readability, and as a result the poetic dimension of literature becomes concealed. Yet
linguistic fluency in translation, to return to my earlier point, is not without its
problems, for it leads to substitution in a conventional form. Substitution is totally
Perspectives: Studies in Translatology 241
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necessary and inevitable, but it does reiterate the untranslatability of form. It is
therefore not difficult to understand the translator making redemptive efforts to
recreate or reproduce the original form. It can be observed that what is
untranslatable on the level of form is perfectly translatable on the semantic level,
which signifies that as long as explication is done, at least some sense of the original
can be brought across. One often cited solution is to translate meaning if form proves
to be impossible to translate. But this is equally problematic. The translator may
have to interpret semantic uncertainty that contributes to untranslatability in the first
place. However, according to Paul de Man, literal translation is not the answer (de
Man, 1986, p. 88):
from the moment that a translation is really literal [. . .] word by word, the meaning
completely disappears [. . .] There is also a complete slippage of the meaning when the
translator follows the syntax, when he writes literally [. . .] And to some extent, a
translator [. . .] has to be literal.
It is indeed true that if something is translated literally, it is often translated badly, or
at least perceived as such. Literalness can be avoided through interpretation so as to
liberate translation from untranslatability. Likewise, a particular referent may be
untranslatable, since it means practically little or nothing to the target reader, unless
it is altered, replaced, or substituted. In the process of turning the untranslatable into
the translatable, a degree of transformation is inescapable. In brief, the improved
translatability leads to better readability.
However, to translate meaning without due respect for form vitiates cross-
cultural transaction and the literary quality of the original, to which its literary form
may lay claim, can be severely compromised. If formal features, including textual
heterogeneity in substance, diction, style, and tone, are removed, replaced, or
radically altered, the literary quality is bound to suffer, which suggests that the
irreducibility of literariness needs to be recognized. Admittedly, it is not always easy
to make literariness of the original intelligible to the target reader in order for it to be
appreciated properly and adequately, and we must not assume that literalness is the
same as literariness or in any way guarantees the latter. The translator plays with the
signs of artfulness and literariness under the enabling and constraining contextual
conditions. In this connection, respect for foreign otherness contributes to mitigating
arbitrariness in making decisions about how to tackle untranslatability.
Literariness of foreign literature
Some of the issues at stake in the debate over the importance of literariness of
translation can be addressed in connection with the lamentable fact that no Chinese
writer has won a Nobel Prize for Literature, which is thought to be due to the less
than satisfactory translations that fail to do justice to the original. Understandably,
literary translation is usually accompanied by a preoccupation with literariness. But
how can the literariness of foreign literature be re-created in translation? Literary
translation, by definition, is the reproduction of literariness that is cross-culturally
nebulous, can also be ideologically malleable and politically motivated, and is almost
certainly historically conditioned. In a cross-cultural context, the avowedly alien
complexities of literariness are brought out and need to be carefully negotiated,
which calls for and justifies creative translation, for otherwise literariness can be
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reduced or lost. Therefore if the reconstruction and re-functioning of literariness in
translation are approached lackadaisically, it will have a negative effect on its
reception. And untranslatability, if anything, makes the job of textualizing
literariness more difficult. Without doubt, aesthetic hierarchies of the target
language are also different from those of the source text. If the translator
concentrates on recreating the form, the literary value of the original may or may
not be appreciated. It is common that literal translation risks unintelligibility and
foreignizing translation risks a bad reception. Among other things, the allegorical
meaning becomes untranslatable in literal translation which is confined to closeness
to the original. Yet the recreation, for example, of referents, particularly the culture
specific ones, in the target text is obviously culturally inauthentic. In the case of the
constitutive elements of a foreign discourse being removed or replaced as a form of
radical rewriting, it would be an extreme instance of domestication.
Cross-culturally, the distinguishing feature of literariness in the original is
unquestionably important. Yet, as noted earlier, constraints on formal transmission
can be so severe that the reproduction of form in the target text is often
compromised. Perter France (2005, p. 257) observes that:
[t]here are times, to be sure, when translators feel that the text they are creating flows
spontaneously through them. But characteristically, they have to submit to a variety of
constraints and perform all kinds of unnatural operations in order to do justice to their
source text and bring it across effectively to the audience they are wooing.
While translators create something new as a natural consequence, they are
constrained by unnatural factors, which include, most notably, formal features of
the original. But literary translation is not often done in a spontaneous manner, and
in pursuit of naturalness (if it is the case), translators struggle not to deviate from the
original too much in an attempt to avoid causing fluctuations in the quality and
effectiveness of cross-cultural communication.
Yet anxiety over lack of readability, which is seen to affect adversely the
literariness of a literary work, may prompt some translators to translate more
creatively than technically necessary. Such an approach has more to do with the
desire to enhance readability than with dealing with untranslatability. Conscious
cultural fluency in translation can be attributed to the readiness of translators who
regard readability as their highest value. Sometimes cultural fluency can be unduly
stressed. A veteran Chinese translator, Xu Yuanchong, famously champions aiming
toward an optimal dominance by the target cultural values, thus turning the act of
translation into a battle for superiority. Xu (2000, p. 2) elaborates on his theory of
cultural rivalry with regard to literary translation:
Literary translation may be considered as rivalry between two languages (or even
between two cultures), which vie to express the original idea in a better way. It should be
faithful to the original at least, and beautiful at best. A literary translator should exploit
the advantage of the target language, that is to say, make the fullest possible use of the
best expressions of the target language in order to make the reader understand, enjoy
and delight in the translated text.
In a triumphant gesture, Xu privileges the target language over the source language,
irrespective of other possible considerations. More to the point, he virtually endorses
translation to be undertaken in a blatantly interventionist way, offering various
Perspectives: Studies in Translatology 243
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aesthetically satisfying solutions to what are anticipated as translation problems.
This practically leads to the repossession of the source text.
Likewise, in response to the statement that If we want to preserve as much as
possible the artistic charm of the original, we should try as much as possible to retain
the modes of expression of the original language, while accepting its validity, Xu
argues that if a choice has to be made between the modes of expression and the
artistic charm, then the latter should prevail (Xu, 2001, p. 51). He cites the English
translation of a line from Book of Songs as an example. The literal translation of
is something like Die or live, meet or part,/With you Ive made
oath. According to Xu, this translation is devoid of any artistic charm (Xu, 2001,
p. 51), and he offers a version he believes to be superior: Meet or part, live or die,/
Weve made oath, you and I (Xu, 2001, p. 51). Once again, he sees this in a
competitive light, as though the source and target texts are in rivalry for greater
appeal. However, in all fairness, his is not a cannibalistic translation approach,
because he also emphasizes retaining and bringing out the artistic charm in the
original. This is largely a revisionist translation strategy, aiming at readability and
acceptability by subverting and creating the ontological hierarchies of aesthetic
value.
For the purpose of enhancing general readability, a more radical form of
translation, exposed to the strong force of acculturation behind the surfaces of the
original, can be extrapolated to taking pre-emptive action, in terms of creating
culture specific references in the translated text where such references do not exist in
the original. This strategy is not about the unfamiliar referents to be communicated
to the target reader. Instead, some different referents, totally familiar to the target
reader, appear in the translated text. This is called cultural replacement by Chang
Num-fung, who argues that referents can be created based on the linguistic and
cultural resources of the target language (Chang, 2004, p. 247). A typical example
comes from a Chinese translation of Oscar Wildes The Importance of Being
Earnest:
A girl with a simple, unspoiled nature, like Gwendolen, could hardly be expected to
reside in the country (Wilde, 1990, p. 13).
A: (Yu, 1984, p. 48)
B:
(Chang, 1990, p. 23; my italics)
Version A is to be expected. Version B resembles version A, except the part in italics,
which is added by the translator not based on the source text but out of
consideration for cultural readability. The back translation of the added part is
something like The country is full of flowers, just a flowery world, but in Chinese
flowery world is a proverb meaning the world of sensual pleasures, denoting a
word of myriad temptations. Such a translation is of an expository nature, like a
footnote being inserted into the main body of the text. As a result, a totally different
set of formal characteristics is created as if it were part of the original.
Similarly, in his translation of Yes, Prime Minister, the remark by the Prime
Minister is treated in such a way that it ostentatiously deviates from the source
text: Government must be impartial. It is not proper for us to take sides as
between health and cigarettes (Chang, 2004, p. 202) is rendered as
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and the translator ex-
pounds the rational for this proactive approach (Chang, 2004, p. 241). Implausible
allusions/references to the Cultural Revolution in China are added in the translated
text. A back translation can reveal how much is interpolated in the use of indigenous
materials: Government must hold a bowl of water steady (not to spill it). It is not
proper for us to support one faction (of Red Guards representing health) and to
suppress another faction (of Red Guards who endorse smoking). The translator
transforms the translation into a different paradigm of self-referentiality in order to
increase readability. In general, transformation as embodied in substitution of
metaphors and allusions is undoubtedly helpful in tackling untranslatability, and it is
not uncommon among some translators. Yet Changs strategy is much more daring,
and represents a functionalist approach that bypasses the imagined or anticipated
untranslatability and proves to be aesthetically satisfying or interesting to the target
reader. Perhaps it can be said that the fear of being out of control leads to over-
controlling the translation situation by moving the translated text into the aesthetic
reality of the target culture.
A direct outcome of this cultural displacement is that some situational features
are created to appropriate and homogenize the original, succumbing to a tendency to
superimpose familiarity on the essentially foreign. Thus cultural constraints are
removed through localization and adaptation to the target culture. This strategy can
be seen as an over-reaction to the potential cultural untranslatability, but in fact
signifies that the need to tackle the issue of untranslatability symmetrically word to
word or sentence to sentence is reduced drastically. It is all part of the process of de-
alienation and reintegration to restore and maintain cultural coherence, laying bare
the underlying concern that even if something is linguistically translatable, and is
indeed translated into the target language, it still remains culturally untranslatable,
with the target reader failing to understand fully the cultural message conveyed. Seen
in this light, the range of options is expanded considerably by redirecting attention to
cultural relevance, so as to enable the target reader to make necessary connections
and associations that are not peripheral to the central meaning in reading a foreign
text. To achieve cultural relevance this approach is justified, so as to empower the
translated text to function properly by creating the necessary conditions for the
target reader to make cultural associations, with the help of the provided cultural
signifiers and referents of the target language. Strictly speaking, this is not over-
reaction to linguistic untranslatability, because the original is reasonably translatable
at the semantic level, but an unusual response to what is perceived as cultural
untranslatability. Since no serious attempt is made to bring the foreign stylistic
features into Chinese, the higher cultural readability achieved thus virtually stamps
out the possibility of cross-cultural exchange and readability. While footnotes are
disguised as an integral part of the text, such a translation approach provides
seemingly unobtrusive aids to understanding and reading by manipulating the space
between readability and unreadability, and between translatability and untranslat-
ability.
Conclusion
Despite intermittent conflicting appearances, translation aims at reliability of some
sort and has proved to be easily susceptible to criticism for lack of it. Translation may
be about meaning but is more than that, for, among other things, the loss of
Perspectives: Studies in Translatology 245
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metaphorical forcefulness can undermine meaning. Yet meaning is elusive, infinite,
and changing, and may depend on debatable interpretations. To translate manage-
ably, it is often necessary to translate creatively, and also obliquely, in view of an
excessive focus on the issue of untranslatability making translation impossible. With
infinite potential solutions, what appears to be untranslatable is in fact infinitely
translatable given the right cultural, historical circumstance. Moreover, increasing
cross-cultural communication helps to generate more effective ways of translating
what used to be untranslatable. There is of course no exact symmetry between the
original and the supposed copy. A broader sense of translatability, not just confined
to semantic accuracy, is of practical value, because absolute translatability means
absolute banality, which fades and dissolves into insignificance. But it is still
important to understand that, in many cases, what has been translated remains
essentially untranslatable because some vital parts have disappeared, for example
substance, diction, style, and tone.
From the cross-cultural perspective, untranslatability is viewed as relative rather
than absolute. In reality, cultural meaning may well be transferrable if not
translatable, but to transfer cultural meaning in a haphazard way is not viable; it
has to be interpreted and/or appropriated as a complex part of localization, entailing
adaptation for the local circumstances. Meanwhile, it is also necessary to enable
cultural meaning to move beyond closed localism and to reach some kind of adopted
universalism, while giving due consideration to cultural particularism in translation.
Among other things, cultural form is the focal point of (un)translatability, which
calls for a creative re-conceptualization of cross-cultural communication to be
mediated between translatability and untranslatability. As a hybrid cultural
performance, it has become less and less satisfactory for translation to simply resort
to either assimilation or exclusion as a means to cope with the problem of cultural
untranslatability. Instead, painstaking cross-cultural negotiation, admittedly invol-
ving a certain amount of acculturation and linguistic and cultural adaptation, has
taken on increasing importance as a thoughtful attempt to translate the limits of the
untranslatable. It is perfectly natural to connect literary quality with a certain degree
of readability. However, it should be cross-cultural readability rather than cultural
readability that unblocks access to the original, so as to foster genuine cross-cultural
communication. In any event, the excitement of the readable emerging from the
unreadable demonstrates the transformative power of translation.
Notes
1. The famous Derridean notion that translation is both necessary and impossible reveals the
indeterminate nature of meaning characterized by difference, which involves diverse
perspectives on and approaches to untranslatability.
2. Even though he has directly challenged the very primacy of the original, Derrida thinks
through the implications of untranslatability. In response to the emphasis placed by
Benjamin on the interplay of translation and original, Derrida (1985, p. 66) coins the
phrase untranslatable translation and afrms that nothing is untranslatable; but in
another sense everything is untranslatable (Derrida, 1985, p. 57). This patently points to
the provisionality of the untranslatable, which is often worked out indirectly in a
multiplicity of possibilities. The apparent conclusion is that untranslatability is absolute
and translatability is possible only in relative terms.
3. All English translations of Chinese sources in this article are mine.
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Notes on contributor
Yifeng Sun is Professor of Translation Studies at Lingnan University, Hong Kong, and an
Affiliated Professor at Southwest University, as well as other institutions. He is the author of
several monographs, including Fragmentation and Dramatic Moments (2002) and Perspective,
Interpretation and Culture: Literary Translation and Translation Theory (2004); 2nd edition,
2006), and co-editor of Translation, Globalisation and Localisation: A Chinese Perspective
(2008).
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In H.K. Bhabha (Ed.), Nation and narration (pp. 291322). London: Routledge.
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Literary and Art Press.
Chang, N. (2004). Zhongxi yixe piping [Criticism of Chinese and Western translation theories].
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de Man, P. (1986). The Resistance to Theory. Minneapolis, MN: University of Minnesota
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Derrida, J. (1985). Des tours de babel. In J.F. Graham (Ed.), Difference in translation (pp. 165
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268.
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chubanshe.
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