Translation And Its Cross-Cultural Relevance – Analysis


By default, translation is an intercultural activity because it is interlinguistic. The notion of translation cannot be conceived without imagining the relationship between cultures in a cosmopolitan world. A relationship, exchanges, transfers that give each of these cultures its identity but also a common character.

The importance of the passage from one culture to another, in the translation from one language to another, is essential to every translator of text. This necessity gives a particular motivation and pleasure to the translator who must know how to play with this beautiful interdependence between translation and culture. The translator has fun foraging through the cultural fields specific to each culture and enriching his translation with reference points and context, thus giving it a quality and a strong relevance.

This interdependence of languages and cultures has a positive “impact” on the translation, because it is the means to enrich the meaning. To translate a text or a video is for the translator to have a clear vision of the close, intimate relationships that languages have with each other. Translating from one culture to another means having the experience of one’s own language in its determination, its singularity in the midst of other languages, and this capacity to operate an intercultural mediation.

Translating requires know-how, but it also requires a culture of translation, a cultural experience of the profession, a profession that is certainly technical but that cannot be conceived without extensive, encyclopedic knowledge, curious about others and their language.

Translation: A Cross-Cultural Bridge

The translator has here the status of a mediator between cultures. The target text is, like the original text, a cultural semiotic product. The translator is a specialist in intercultural communication. He knows how to determine the most appropriate means of mediation for the desired meaning in a given socio-cultural context.

The culture of each of the languages involved determines the production and interpretation of meaning. The translator will be the ford passer who will navigate to reach the precise meaning by taking detours to play with the implicit/explicit relationship.

He or she will have to take into account social practices and norms, national identities, institutions, power relationships and policies that, in one way or another, influence the act of translation.

More than a bridge, perhaps, translation is the key to intercultural dialogue. A dialogue that is the best guarantee for peace. The translator is a dove breeder, a bridge builder between cultures, between people, between languages.

A bridge to defend cultural diversity and allow it to develop, to grow in its relationship to difference and “strangeness”. Without translation, we would be plunged into a world of conflict, contaminated by ignorance and misunderstanding, and finally by fear of the “other”. Literary translation has a key role here, it is an additional guarantee to calm the world and allow it to develop.

Language is not only an instrument of communication. It is also a symbolic order where representations, values and social practices find their foundations. Translating a document, a book or a film from one language to another is not simply a matter of translating words but also concepts. Concepts specific to a civilization and to a people who have their own way of thinking.

The translator must preserve the identity of the cultural term and be aware of the fact that he cannot integrate the totality of the concept in its specificity. For example, “culture-bound terms” refer to a different material culture (architecture, clothing, cuisine, etc.) or a specific socio-cultural system (religion, rituals, traditions, habits, etc.).

These terms are numerous in legal documents and in the humanities. The professional translator must master these cultural differences to preserve the meaning of the terms in the text.

By translating, a translator, in a highly cultural context (literary fiction, cinema, song, history, politics, art culture, website translation, etc.), has the privilege of being able to offer two peoples the opportunity to communicate and understand each other.

Translation has always been used by people from different cultures and backgrounds to communicate. However, translation is not only useful for this purpose : it also helps to create a relationship between cultures in a cosmopolitan world. Indeed, it is the translator’s responsibility to make the transition from one culture to another while enriching his translation with reference points and context, thus giving it a strong quality and relevance.

In this practice, the translator is considered as a cultural agent since he is like a mediator between cultures. Indeed, he has the heavy task of retranscribing the cultural references as well as possible by adapting them and by using detours when they are impossible to translate into the target language.

In this exercise, the cultural agent must take into account social practices and norms, national identities or institutions, the mores and practices of each country, power relationships as well as the policies that influence the translation in one way or another.

The translator therefore establishes an important bridge between the two languages, the purpose of which is to defend cultural diversity. Without translation, we would be plunged into a world of misunderstanding, fear of the “other” and conflict.

It is not simply a matter of translating words, but rather concepts specific to civilizations that have their own ways of thinking. These “culture-bound terms” are very difficult to translate, since it is necessary to preserve their identity, keeping in mind that it may not be possible to preserve the entire concept.

These terms usually illustrate : a different material culture such as architecture, clothing, gastronomy, units of measurement ; a well-defined socio-cultural system such as religion, customs, school and administrative systems, politics and the military. This type of content is generally found in the legal and humanities fields.

How will our cultural agent translate this type of text? The cultural agent will have four options to choose from : borrowing, literal translation (which could also be called tracing), cultural equivalence and periphrasis, otherwise known as explanatory translation. Each of these processes has its own specificities and must be chosen according to the target audience, the field of the text and its style.

The translator must therefore face a dilemma often encountered with this type of content, which is none other than making a choice between translating or explaining. Whatever the choice, he must have thought it through carefully, since the slightest error could lead to a misunderstanding of the text and thus the relay between the two cultures could not be carried out correctly.

Translation And Interculturality

More generally, translation is the conversion of one sign (linguistic or not) into another. It is a conscious gymnastics of the mind that consists in naming (interpreting) a reality by the constituents of another reality, even if they seem to be identical in nature. What are we doing, for example, when we explain a word of a language by other words of this same language, if not an act of translation ? What are we also doing when we linguistically describe a reality that is not a priori (description of a landscape, a fresco, the state of health of a patient, etc.) ?

That is to say that besides translation proper, which has the task of transposing linguistic signs to a different language, there are two other forms of translation where interpretation operates, either within the same linguistic reality, or from one system of signs to another which is distinct from it. If we follow Roman Jakobson, we will call the first activity “interlingual translation“, and the other two respectively : “intralingual translation” and “intersemiotic translation“.

Translation, as an activity of human thought, ensures a certain link between different modes of communication, a kind of dialogical link between two (of) languages, two (of) means of expression, two (of) imaginations, even two (of) cultures… often dissimilar.

In this respect, language translation approaches linked to interculturality have become increasingly important in research fields concerned with the phenomena of contact, comparison of cultures and understanding of so-called foreign languages.

Many dimensions of translation have already been the subject of various studies, some of them very useful. The activities of translation from one language to another, from one culture to another, raise several problems that need to be elucidated and circumscribed.

Translation is not exclusively the passage from one language to another, but the bringing together of two cultures, or even of several cultures. A rapprochement that obviously does not exclude the notion of a gap caused by the linguistic and cultural interferences inherent to the translating praxis. The search for equivalents and correspondents is certainly a means of guaranteeing any transfer from one language to another, but to take into account only these two facts would lead to the annihilation of any interlinguistic – and, therefore, intercultural – dimension that could bring new meanings.

Dialectal and cultural variations, the phenomenon of remotivation (para and pseudo-remotivation), the frequent contaminations of meaning in this field, the different connotations induced by the socio-cultural divergences between linguistic communities, are to be taken into account for the success (or not) of translation. Thus, thanks to translation, the migration of ideas (and cultures) becomes easier. Through it, the cultural load of the source language is superimposed on that of the target language. And this is where the importance of the “in-play” of any translation action lies, it seems.

Participating in the putting in contact of at least two languages, the translation operates, if not in the empire of plurilingualism, at least in the kingdom of bilingualism. That this bilingualism, or this plurilingualism, reaches a certain perfection in the subject of the translating experience is a credo on which everyone will agree, but the aporias should not be minimized either ! We must meditate on the effects, if only because they awaken, in a sling, a buried myth, that of Babel.

We propose to develop this reflection around the following axes :

1- Translational approaches :  tools and methods ;

2- Translation related to orality and social practices ;

3- Linguistic and inter-cultural problems : lexical fixation, automatic treatment of polysemy, etc ;

4- Translation and didactics of language and literature ;

5- Translation of works (literary, philosophical, specialty, etc.) ;

6- The movement of texts between languages, cultures and media ; and

7- Intersemiotic connections : text-image relationship (painting, cinema…)

Translation As A Negotiation Of Differences

From then on, the approach invites us to consider translation as a negotiation of differences, and no longer as an opposition between the universal and the local. To work on the translation of cultures is not only to ask what we translate, why we translate, how we translate, it is also to question the contemporary narratives of the untranslatable and, in so doing, to question the theme of incompatibility, that of the original/original and of translation/ betrayal. In short, to translate is to think of culture as a relationship between cultures. This is why there can be no question of a homogeneous culture. Differences are present within the same culture and between cultures, as they are within the same language and between languages. Thus, translating between cultures is indeed a civilizational issue, especially in the current ideological context, which makes the reference to the “war of civilizations” the dominant and everywhere implicit discourse. More than ever, it is advisable to think about the gaps between culture and civilization, between otherness and closure. Nor should we conceal the unavoidable differences and the pending question of incompatibility, of the different, of the untranslatable, all of which are factors of war rather than peace.

It is a question of responding to a paradox that can be formulated as follows : it is indeed because there is not a common cultural fund, linked to the same religious values, to the same philosophy of individual freedom, to the same model of rationality and to the adherence to the same democratic values, that intercultural translation has so much difficulty in being realized. Everyone knows that beyond this undeniably common cultural fund of humanity dear to Claude Lévi-Strauss, we quickly fall back on the differences, not to say antagonisms, which explain not only the recent violent history marked by the attack on the Twin Towers and the Pentagon on September 11, 2001 – and which in the months that followed gave renewed appeal to Samuel Huntington’s controversial theses on the clash of civilizations – but also the more ancient history of colonialism.

Language And Culture – Two Priceless Values Of Humanity

Culture is probably the widest semantic word that exists in any language, so immeasurable is it from the point of view of the multitude of phenomena, events, processes, genius achievements that humanity has delivered since its existence.  The culture is also defined as “a form of civilization” (Dictionary of the philosophy. Larousse. Didier Julia. Paris : Larousse, 1995, p.53). Of course, each society has its institutions that preserve and promote its spiritual heritage and in this sense, culture is associated primarily with humanism, with its values.

As for values, these can be grouped into three categories : the true, the good and the beautiful. The value (what should be) is distinguished from the truth (what is), and it is not necessarily linked to the cost expressed in money of an object. We are rather inclined to grant the status of value to immaterial notions, desired by man, universally appreciated – such are the virtues like wisdom, honesty, friendship, such are the masterpieces of universal culture – fine arts, literature etc.

Like the word “culture”, “value” has a semantic volume that brings together philosophy, society, creation, aesthetics and ideology. Values are often given legitimacy, being linked to education, but sometimes they hardly make their way to the pan-societal acceptance, being classified as deviant and marginal at certain stage of development of civilizations.

The cross-border and transnational circulation of cultural values ensures their universality and durability. This circulation takes place thanks to a unanimous or quasi-unanimous recognition at the national level, and then it goes on the road to eternity.

Their resistance to the flight of time is explained by the immateriality of authentic, genuine values, even if some of them (such as paintings, sculptures, architectural monuments, musical creations, etc.) seem to be caught in a material package. 

It must be recognized that the circulation of these universal cultural values cannot take place outside of language, the code of human communication par excellence.

The relationship between language and culture or rather the intimate link between the two phenomena/processes/products of humanity is of a complex nature, far from being doctrinally clarified and established with mathematical precision, giving right to biblical sacredness. 

“Culture is a collective place which, however complex and diverse, imposes its own criteria of relevance and, correlatively, its resistances and censures to the interpretation of potential meanings as well as to the interpretation of explicit meanings. “ (Brisset, 2007, p. 37)

Translators Are Builders Of National Languages And Literatures

Translators are also the builders of national languages and literatures. It is enough to recall the examples of the translations of the sacred texts into the national languages in England by William Tyndale, strangled and then burned. He was rehabilitated by the work of an English researcher, David Daniell, who published the Old and New Testaments in as well as the complete biography of Tyndale, in which he compares the contribution of Tyndale to the English language and literature to that of Newton in physics.

In France, the translator Jacques Amyot set out to embellish and enrich the French language, the translator of the Olivetan Bible (1513-1593), the scholarly translator Etienne Dolet (1509- 1546), who introduced the word “translation” into French, and Pierrot d’Ablancourt (1606- 1664), who was also concerned with the style and clarity of the French language, all contributed to the formation and development of the modern French language.

In Germany Martin Luther (1483- 1546), translator of the Bible into German, was the catalyst for the German language and his translation of the Bible served as the source for the first German language grammars. It is also interesting to follow the history of the “resurrection” of Hebrew as a national language, which occurred in the nineteenth century thanks to the contribution of the journalist-linguist Eliezer Ben-Yehuda (1858-1922), who became the ardent promoter of the idea of the propagation of Hebrew as the national language of the Hebrew state. In fact, making a sacred language, in which Judaic sacred texts were gathered in the fourth century, was a real adventure, for the main task in the “resurrection” of Hebrew fell to the translators, (Delisle and Woodsworth, 2007, pp.21-54).

Another case that highlights the role of translators in history is their manifestation as decision makers of power. Generally, translators and interpreters are an emanation of the political power. They only have the role of spokesmen in other languages. But there have been cases where translators-polyglots have come very close to political power : St. Jerome (born c. 347, Stridon, Dalmatia—died 419/420, Bethlehem, Palestine; feast day September 30) was the personal secretary of Pope Damasus I ( c. 305 – 11 December 384). After the death of his patron, St. Jerome was appointed to the position of secretary. After the death of his protector, St. Jerome almost became pope, but he lost the elections and the new pope Siricius made his life impossible, so St. Jerome went to Bethlehem to continue his work of translation.

Leonardo Bruni (or Leonardo Aretino; c. 1370 – March 9, 1444)  represents in the history of the city of Florence in Italy the exercise of the economic-commercial power, because he was an influential member of the Florentine guild of the importers of clothes and wool. He could afford the luxury of reasoning about good taste in Latin rather than servility in translation to Greek texts…

In England Willam Caxton (c. 1422 – c. 1491) is known as the author of English translations of French texts, but also as the first printer of England. But his power was also economic : he was a rich and influential wool merchant. His commercial prestige allowed him to become financial advisor to the duchess Marguerite of Burgundy.

The conquest of the New World is another example that reveals the importance of interpreters in the colonization process. The name of Doña Marina la Princesa Azteca is almost mythical. Cortes’ personal interpreter, she contributed to the conquest of Mexico more than the allied soldiers and tribes.

Translation As A Means Of Circulation And Transmission Of Knowledge

Translation appears as the privileged means of circulation and transmission of knowledge, know-how and skills.

The poles of appropriation of the cultures of others by the means of translation are geographically diverse. First, we will refer to the Roman Empire, where translations were seen as a means of enriching Latin civilization.

A lot of translations were done to enrich, but also to embellish the Latin language, the literature. This opening of the Roman Empire towards other civilizations, towards other systems of thoughts largely contributed to the blooming of the spiritual life, to the appropriation of the foreign philosophical systems and to the creation of the own systems of thoughts. Cicero has gone down in the history of translation as the first scholar who approached the problem of translation in an antinomian way : translating the letter or the spirit remains to this day a kind of prejudicial objection, around which discussions are conducted, and the ink continues to blacken the pages of scholarly translators from all over the world 

Secondly, we must mention the ambitious translation enterprise of Baghdad, Iraq, which in the ninth and tenth centuries set out to translate Greek scientific and philosophical writings into Arabic, the language of the new Muslim empire. It should be noted that the translations were often accompanied by exegesis and commentaries that introduced new knowledge and gave rise to other debates.

This appropriation of Greek culture from Greek and until then from Syriac versions, contributed enormously to the enrichment of Muslim civilization, here are some of the names of the translators of the House of Wisdom in Baghdad (Beyt al-Hikma) – Hunayn ibn Ishâq (809–873), ibn Luqa (820–912), ibn Qurra (826 or 836-February 18, 901), ibn al-Himsi (c.835). Besides the appropriation of Greek cultural heritage, translators also worked on the circulation of Chinese, Indian and Persian cultural heritage, (Delisle and Woodsworth, 2007).

The School of Toledo is not a physical building, but the totality of the translations carried out in Spain in the region of Toledo, and also of Barcelona and Tarazona in the XII-XIII centuries. This time it was already the appropriation of the Greek-Arabic cultural heritage that was the subject of these translating activities. The texts translated were mainly philosophical and scientific writings, including texts on medicine, mathematics, astronomy and astrology. The contribution of the translators of the School of Toledo is particularly interesting and original in its method. The political constraints of the time demanded that translators go in search of the manuscripts they intended to translate, and in this way, translators became travelers and carriers of cultures – such as Gerard of Cremona (1114 – 1187), Adelard of Bath (Latin : Adelardus Bathensis; c. 1080? – c. 1142-1152?…-1130). More than that, works of translation were crowned by original scientific creations, such is the case of the duo Abraham Bar Hiyya (Hebrew: אַבְרָהָם בַּר חִיָּיא הַנָשִׂיא‎; c. 1070 – 1136 or 1145) and Plato of Trivoli (1110 et 1145), who made Arab-Latin translations, but also passing through Hebrew and arriving also at vulgar Spanish, all this with the birth of a treatise of geometry, composed by Hiyya himself, (Delisle and Woodsworth, 2007).

If we ask ourselves the question: was the work of the Toledo translators mainly an activity of popularization or of appropriation of foreign knowledge for the enrichment of Latin culture, the answer proposed by researchers of the phenomenon of the Toledo School, of which Antoine Berman (24 June 1942 – 1991) seems to be the most indicated, is in favor of the second option. The thousands of pages of the Toledo manuscripts indicate that the translators did not care too much about the clarity of their translations, using many borrowings and abbreviations that would not have made these works accessible to the people. The journeys undertaken and also the translations made were above all a means of accumulating personal knowledge and of producing on behalf of the Church knowledge in Latin which was lacking at that time. On the other hand, the translators from Toledo, as well as their colleagues from Baghdad, enriched the translated texts with their own contributions, which led to the spread of knowledge.

Doña Marina – The Polyglot Aztec Princess (1501-1550)

The colonization of the New World was done mainly and thanks to the translators. The Spanish colonizers of the Americas issued 29 laws between 1529 and 1680, according to which we can judge the importance that the colonizers gave to translators. The guideline of these laws was the loyalty of the translators to the Spanish crown. The conquerors expected the translators to provide important support in the work of spreading Christianity and establishing the new power structures.

At that time, oral translation was used more than written translation. The main task of the aboriginal interpreters was to dissuade their compatriots from resisting the Spanish conquistadors. The most famous story of an unprecedented female presence in the process of conquest of Latin America is the case of Doña Marina (1501-1550), Hernan Cortes’ interpreter (1485-December 2, 1547). Marina was nicknamed Malintzin where “the Malinche was born in a noble family, her father died when she was still a child“. 

Her mother sold her to Mayan merchants after she remarried and gave birth to a son. Probably she was sold several times before she was offered to Cortes. Along with nineteen other young women she was baptized and the young women were distributed to Cortes’ captains. Marina spoke Aztec, Mayan and learned Castilian very quickly. She was only fourteen at the time, but was brilliantly adorned with beauty and intelligence, (Délisle, 2007, p. 297).

There are, therefore, two distinct perceptions about the mythical and legendary fate of Doña Marina.

Marina was not only Cortes’ interpreter, but also his advisor and mistress. She bore him a child. But Cortes did not spare his relationship with the Aztec princess. He gave her back to his comrades, to abandon her definitively in favor of his marriage with a woman of his social rank as soon as he returned to Spain (Díaz del Castillo, 1983).

Marina knew how to denounce the spies, to thwart the conspiracies, but above all she knew how to convince the Indians not to resist (Délisle, 2007, p. 159).

The authors of the chronicles that appeared during the life of Marina as well as the historians of the following centuries were unanimous to see in her “one of the dominant figures of the conquest of Mexico” (Madariaga, 1942, p. 117). In the chronicles of the time of Bernal Díaz del Castillo (c. 1496 – January 1584) her name often appears accompanied by the honorific title Doña and she is described as a true providence for the cause of the conquistadors. Bernardino de Sahagun (1499-5 February 1590), author of the General History of the things of New Spain, known as the Codex of Florence, a non contemporary chronicle of the times related, does not always approve of Marina’s conduct, but he does not go as far as to denigrate her as the Mexicans did after the Independence of their country (Delisle, 2007, p. 296).

Around 1550 an illustrated story appeared under the title Lienzo de Tlaxcala of Spanish inspiration. In the illustrations Marina is represented in practically all the most important scenes, being seen by the painter as the most important figure in the illustration, painted larger than Cortes himself (Brandon, 1988).

According to the first Marina was judged very severely by her compatriots for her collaboration with the conquistadors. A Mexican legend says that the ghost of Marina still roams the site of the ancient Aztec capital, Tenochtitlan (today’s Mexico City), because the woman cannot find rest after betraying her people. After Mexican independence, Marina was referred to as “the mother of a bastard race of mestizos (mestizos) and a traitor” (Mirandé and Enriquez, cited after Delisle 2007 : 297).

The second approach was initiated by more recent studies on Doña Marina, studies of feminist obedience, which rehabilitated the femme fatale of the conquistadors. According to the authors, Doña Marina as a woman and slave had rather a role of facilitator of intercultural exchanges and not of traitor (Alarcon, 1981). More than that, Marina was more instrumental in the conquest of Mexico than the soldiers of Tlaxcala and the allied tribes (Gargatagli, 1992). Marina made an invaluable contribution to the circulation of cultural values, especially because she abandoned her culture to adopt that of the Europeans.


It is not so easy to put a sign of equality between the language and the culture, because phenomena of instrumentalization of the languages take place almost everywhere in the world. And this is due to globalization and unprecedented cultural mixing: 

“The question is not to be of this or that language, but of this or that culture, and the problem of the loss of culture without linguistic abandonment is posed today almost everywhere in the Western world. This is particularly the case in Europe, whose unification is not based on shared national cultures but on a common globalized culture” (Morel, 2008, p.26).

But, in the problematic of the journey of cultural values through translation, we should consider both – language and culture – as an entity in harmony with itself, to facilitate the process of scientific analysis of the phenomenon. A retrospective look at the history of civilizations has allowed us to note that translation at different times, in different corners of the world, has played the primordial role in the transmission of cultural values and knowledge. 

Cultures are destined to translate each other, that they have no other future than this common relationship that enriches each one of them with what it receives from the others – the multiple passages, exchanges, transfers that give each one its identity, at the same time as they prove their common character. The translation between cultures, then, is not perceived as a punctual and episodic phenomenon (something that would sometimes happen to one or the other of them). It is what will come and what must come – the promised and progressive overcoming of their compartmentalization or their withdrawal into themselves. 

To think of the relation between cultures as translation is to announce that it will be impossible from now on to speak of the different cultures as homogeneous entities, developed from a proper background, because, by means of translation, they cannot remain identical to themselves. They will gradually become, each in a singular way, a mirror of all the others. Taken in this perspective, the extension of the concept of translation consists in thinking the relation between cultures in a cosmopolitan horizon. Interculturality draws the contours of a new utopia – that of a world in which cultural borders, the barriers that cultures erect between individuals, will be abolished.

You can follow Professor Mohamed Chtatou on Twitter : @Ayurinu


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Dr. Mohamed Chtatou

Dr. Mohamed Chtatou is a Professor of education science at the university in Rabat. He is currently a political analyst with Moroccan, Gulf, French, Italian and British media on politics and culture in the Middle East, Islam and Islamism as well as terrorism. He is, also, a specialist on political Islam in the MENA region with interest in the roots of terrorism and religious extremism.

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