Issue 46 Augus 2007

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From corpora to confidence
Michael Rundell & Sylviane Granger describe a corpus-driven research project

arrow Language Interference  
Lost in Translation:
From Arabic to English and back again

New words of the month
Making the Grade:
New Words in MED2

Beyond the definition:
Weblinks and the Macmillan English Dictionary

Book review
Word Origins

Lost in Translation:
From Arabic to English and
back again

by Hanan Bennoudi

Language and Culture
Semantic and Equivalence Problems
Further Reading
Next in the series


This article considers the difficulties faced by students learning English as a foreign language, including issues such as semantic problems, structure and word-for-word translation. Based upon a study of material produced by students taking composition and translation courses (comprising chains of individual / isolated sentences in English and Arabic), this research represents a broad investigation of inappropriate renderings. Language and Culture

The influence of the mother tongue (Arabic or Berber) on students' learning of English is a common concern for teachers at the English department in Agadir. One of the most difficult skills for students is writing. They find themselves unable to express their ideas as accurately and convincingly in English as they would in Arabic because they are not yet sufficiently familiar with the rules and standards of the English language. Students do not yet appreciate that different languages and their cultures express ideas in different ways through different means. They do not know that texts "become signs or semiotic constructs which embody the assumptions, presuppositions and conventions that reflect the ways a given culture constructs and partitions reality" (Hatim: 1997, 30). For example, Arabic argumentation uses repetition for emphasis and stylistic effectiveness, whereas in English, repetition weakens the argument. Therefore, "differences in persuasive strategy within the same language or between languages must be seen in both social and linguistic terms" (Hatim & Mason: 1997, 127).

In addition, problems emerge when students try to import the linguistic structures of their native tongue because of a lack of knowledge of the structure strategies of the foreign language. Consider the following examples, in which the influence of Arabic mechanisms and structures can be seen on the English renderings.

He came everyday to sleep with me.
Since many years ago,
Believe or don't believe it.

These examples would be better written as:
He spent every night with me
Many years ago
Believe it or not

It is obvious that there are lexical and stylistic differences between English and Arabic. Such differences should be brought to the students' mind in order to avoid making such mistakes.

These mistakes can, of course, be justified by the fact that Moroccan students are rarely exposed to a native English-speaking environment. However, "a good sentence does not write itself. A good paragraph does not just 'happen" (Mallery: 1944, 1). Therefore, I suggest that students should read widely in English, in order to familiarize themselves with the structures of English writing. This will enable them to write good compositions in English, though not in a 'third language'.

Since students are communicating across two linguistic and cultural fields, radio and television can be a valuable source of input as students can discover (through speeches, talk shows, news bulletins and so on) how English is used appropriately by its native speakers in their own environment.


Semantic and Equivalence Problems

I will now turn to explore the many problems encountered in translation. These can be separated into semantic and equivalence problems.

My interest lies in showing students that translation is not simply a process of transferring individual words from one language to another, and that a text can achieve a specific communicative purpose for a particular audience in a particular environment. This might help them to establish a link between source language and target language and avoid using literal translation which "does not secure referential and pragmatic equivalence to the original" (Newmark: 1981, 9).

For instance, semantic problems occur when students disassociate the meaning of the word from the context in which it occurs. For instance, bilingual dictionaries can provide a student with the different meanings for the word s/he is looking up, but ultimately s/he must make the decision as to which one fits the context of the text. Consider the following example, where the word 'West Bank' in Palestine was translated as a west bank. The student did not pay attention to the capitalization which could have helped him/her to recognize that it was a proper noun. In addition, other words in the text create a context which should have helped him/her to choose the best word in Arabic.

S.L.: The Israeli troops entered two West Bank Towns yesterday.
Faulty translation: Dakhalat al qowat alisrailia madinatay al bank algharbi amss. (The Israeli troops entered two towns of the west bank yesterday.)

Improved translation: The Israeli troops entered two West Bank Towns yesterday. Rissalat raiss alwozarae al britani wadiha fi hada alkhitab.
The letter is clear in this discourse of the British prime minister.

In the second example, the dictionary gives two translations for the word 'rissala' - 'letter' or 'message' and two translations for the word ‘'khitab' - 'discourse' or 'speech', but the student chose the wrong words. An improved translation would be:
The message of the British prime minister is clear in this speech.

Mistakes such as these are very common in English departments in Morocco, because students think that the aim of translation is simply to express the sense of a word, sentence or speech in another language, and that having a bilingual dictionary is enough. I feel it is my job to teach them that language skills and linguistic and cultural knowledge are essential tools for a translator. Translation can therefore be used "to consolidate constructions for active use and monitor and improve comprehension of the L2" (Sewell 1996 in Malmkjaer 1998, 45).

Translation equivalence is an important problem that students face when they go beyond the linguistic and the semantic levels. Our primary aim, at this point, is to make students aware of the theory of equivalence which "is usually intended in a relative sense – that of closest approximation to ST [source text] meaning" (Hatim & Mason: 1990, 8). This will help them decide what to keep, change, add, or omit in the target language in order to make it appropriate for the target audience. Hence the "use of common target patterns which are familiar to the target reader plays an important role in keeping the communication channels open" (Baker 1992, 57). To illustrate, while translating proverbs, students have to use 'a cultural substitute' that will be familiar to the target audience and will have the same impact. For example, one student translated the proverb:

akal aljamal bima hamal
to eat a camel with all what it carries.

This literal translation reflects the superficial meaning, but cannot achieve the communicative effect that the source text does, because the proverb is absent from the cultural repertoire of the English language and the camel is not an animal that is sufficiently familiar to the target language audience. A better option would be: 'to eat someone out of house and home'.

Another English proverb given to students was: 'longer than a month of Sundays'. it was translated literally by the majority, as

atwal min shahrin koulouhou ahad
whereas we would use the equivalent
atwal min shahri assawmi

- literally 'longer than the fasting month'. Here the use of a word with religious connotations is better rendered for an Arabic audience as the month of fasting - Ramadan. RAMADAN is one of the five pillars of Islam and this is the dominant religion in most Arab countries. So, students must be familiar with key expressions in their language in order to achieve a socio-functionally adequate translation



To sum up, when we are teaching a foreign language we must teach students to use the tools we give them in a skillful and appropriate way, by always bearing in mind that languages do not use identical forms to express the same reality, a "language is essentially rooted in the reality of the culture [...] it cannot be explained without constant reference to these broader contexts of verbal utterance" (Malinowski 1938:305 in Katan 2004:99)


Further Reading

Baker,M. (1992) In Other Words. London: Routledge.
Hatim, B. (1997) Communication across Cultures. Exeter: University of Exeter Press.
Hatim, B. and Mason, I. (1990) Discourse and the Translator. London: Longman.
Hatim, B. and Mason, I. (1997) The Translator as Communicator. London : Routledge.
Katan, D. (2004) Translating Cultures. Manchester: St Jerome Publishing.
Malmkjaer, K. (1998) Translation and Language Teaching. Manchester: St Jerome Publishing.
Mallery, R. (1944) Grammar, Rhetoric and Composition. USA: Barnes & Noble.
Newmark, P. (1981) Approaches to Translation. Oxford: Pergamon Press.

Next in the series
In the next article we'll take a look at borrowings and false friends between Czech and English.