index.html The Function of Cultural Reference within the Hermeneutic Circle: The Case of Arabic-English Translation

Language Centre, Al-Quds University
P.O. Box 20002 Abu Dies
Jerusalem, Palestine


The present paper examines the functions of Arabic cultural references within the scope of the hermeneutic circle of the translator. These functions are investigated through a corpus consisting in a translation of The Square Moon: Supernatural Tales by Ghada As-Samman. An English translation of As-Samman’s work is analysed in terms of Steiner's four-move model, revealing a continuum in which each complements the others in the reconstruction of translated meaning. The moves are finally evaluated vis-à-vis equivalence theory and translation strategies. The analysis shows that realising the functions of Arabic cultural references in translation depends on the translator’s hermeneutic circle. Keywords: Hermeneutic circle, equivalence, translation strategy, cultural reference.


Throughout history, translation has been a means of contact between different civilisations. Indeed, the principal task of the translator has been to facilitate communication across disparate languages and cultures. Without doubt, language and culture are as inseparable as the two sides of a sheet of a paper. As Hammerly (1983: 516), citing Nostrand, points out, “language cannot be understood without reference to the culture of which it is a part and the social relation which it mediates”. Translation-wise, Nida (1994: 147-163) succinctly puts it that “translating can never be discussed apart from the cultures of respective languages, since languages are themselves a crucial part of culture.” Such an intimate connection means (or should mean) that translation inevitably goes far beyond transmitting mere language content from a given Source Language Text (SLT) to a given Target Language Text (TLT), to cultural features which per se make the translator’s task quite laborious, even for the translator working between kindred cultures.

It is an oft-repeated truism that translation is fraught with difficulties. In a sense, several problems which usually hamper the translation process are not only relevant to a linguistic system gap between the Source Language (SL) and the Target Language (TL), but they are also very germane to cultural discrepancy and disparity between languages, especially between remote languages. Arabic and English stand as perfect examples of the languages with little linguistic or cultural affinity. In this vein, Sofer (2002: 65-6) explains:

The conscientious Arabic translator is aware of the generic difficulties in working with two languages as different from each other as English and Arabic. […], there are vast cultural differences between a Western language such as English and a Semitic language like Arabic. One cannot translate these languages without paying attention to these cultural differences.

Needless to say, such differences between the two languages are expected to have a deleterious effect on the flow of communication which is thought to be the ultimate goal of translation. In this respect, Nida (1964) believes that whenever it happens that SL and TL linguistic and cultural systems have not much in common, the translation process is expected to become fiendishly difficult. According to Nida, the greater the cultural diversities between two languages, the more these diversities can turn translation into a hellish nightmare, and the less the disparity, the fewer the problems will be.

It ensues, therefore, that maintaining shades of meaning across cultural boundaries between two different languages will be somehow challenging, and hence the importance of “find[ing] out how to overcome such culturally determined translation problems” (Nedergaard-Larsen 1993: 208). Translators should not flinch in the face of the challenge anyway because “there is sufficient shared experience even between users of languages which are culturally remote from each other to make translatability a tenable proposition” (Hatim and Mason 1990: 105).


Data of the Study

The present paper comprises ‘القمر المربع: قصص غرائبية’ by Syrian writer Ghada As-Samman (1994) translated by Issa Boullatai (1998) as The Square Moon: Supernatural Tales (SMST). The reasons for the selection are manifold. Firstly, As-Samman is renowned for her feministic and nihilistic views which colour The SMST. Secondly, As-Samman’s cynicism and sarcastic style has brought a deluge of criticism levelled at men, being insufferable and narcissistic. The SMST deals with the question of Neanderthal attitude towards Arab women, and the fact that they live in cloud-cuckoo-land about liberty expectations has been no longer valid. Thirdly, The SMST is a stream of consciousness about Arabs’ insidious and creeping malaise. Among them are immigrants and émigrés who are faced with a myriad of problems while trying to reconcile changes in unfamiliar milieus in Paris, London, among others. It is then possible to explore whether these hallmarks of The SMST can survive in the translation, a point which would corroborate and diversify our argument.

Study Design

The present paper studies 10 cultural references identified by the researcher as posing difficulties when translated into English. The references are discussed under three major categories albeit the interplay between these is highly possible. These are ideological culture (e.g., religion and politics), social culture (e.g., social habits, rules of conduct and attitudes towards women) and material culture (e.g., adornment). The translations of the references were discussed in terms of hermeneutic approach, with equivalence theory in mind.

The Hermeneutics of Translationii

Steiner (1975/98: 249; emphasis added) defines hermeneutic approach as “the investigation of what it means to understand a piece of oral or written speech, and the attempt to diagnose this process in terms of a general model of meaning”. By the same token, understanding a culture the best way possible requires unravelling its interpretive complex knots of meaning, which is usually referred as Hermeneutic Circle (HC). Besides being the fount of all knowledge and underpinning the wheels of human communication in a general sense, HC tends to provide the backdrop against which different burgeoning and elastic interpretations could be made. It also refers to the process of interpretation that a work’s parts cannot be understood irrespective of preliminary understanding of the whole, and the vice versa is quite true. It follows, therefore, that HC serves as a purveyor of human daily life experiences and, most likely, have echoes further afield in disciplines like translation studies.

The hermeneutics of translation, according to Steiner (p. 312), deals with “the act of elicitation and appropriative transfer of meaning”. The act of translation is seen in the context of human communication across barriers of language and culture. Steiner sees that HC is represented in four stages or moves (pp. 312-435). The first move requires that the translator gets to grips with a translation problem through what he termed ‘Trust’— there is “a sense to be extracted and retrieved into and via [the translator’s] own speech” (p. 314). The second move is ‘Aggression’, whereby the translator brings home the ST. This move is ‘incursive’, ‘extractive’ and ‘invasive’. Next comes ‘Incorporation’, in which the ST meaning extracted in the second move is incorporated in the target culture and it “either ingests and becomes enriched by the foreign text, or it is infected by it and ultimately rejects it” (Munday 2001: 164). The fourth and final move is termed ‘Compensation’ (Steiner ibid: 316-19). From Steiner’s point of view, the translation might be said to compensate the original by giving it a new lease of life via its selection for translation and the “subsequent transfer to another culture [which] broadens and enlarges the original” (Munday ibid: 165).

This hermeneutically-oriented approach can be shown on a hypothetical continuum whereby any translation activity occupies a position between two ends of a cline (SL is on the left whereas TL is on the right). Figure 1 shows Steiner’s moves in the course of translation.



T= Trust; A= Aggression; I = Incorporation; C= Compensation

Figure 1 Steiner’s “Moves”

A series of arrows points the way the translator would go or move, starting with ‘Trust’ move which is close to the SL, to more sophisticated ‘Compensation’ move at the right end of the cline— the TL. The latter move is thought to be the fulcrum of translation activity. This process is usually in tandem with a number of translation strategies usually employed whilst trying to render a given SLT. Definitionally, a strategy is a procedure employed to attempt a solution to indubitable baffling problems with which translation is replete. We might observe a kind of oscillation between different types of translation strategies as the translator goes from one move to another (for example, see Text 1A and 1B below).

Apropos the significance of communication in cross-cultural exchange, HC is borne out to be essential for any translation process, and that the translator’s decisions made during the process operate within the scope of Steiner’s Moves. The conglomeration of these moves is aimed at communication. Likewise, Fisk (1990: 39) says:

For communication to take place, I have to create message out of things. This stimulates you to create a meaning for yourself that relates in some way to the meaning I generated in my message in the first place. The more we share the same codes, the more we use the same sign system, the closer our two meanings of the message will approximate to each other.

Viewed thus, a text producer would certainly have a message intended for a SL reader who would make out of the message. As a reader, the translator’s capacity to convey shades of meaning of a SLT depends on his/her ability to interpret and comprehend the SLT. The ability determines the translation strategies and then the end product of translation. Any misunderstanding on the translator’s part is expected to break the flow of the SLT.

The Concept of Equivalence

The thorny issue of equivalence has befuddled translators for decades. A legion of translation theorists has tackled the concept of equivalence, but each has looked at it from a different angle (see Nida 1964, Catford 1965, Ward & Nida 1986, Perez 1993, among others). It goes without saying that each language has its own subtle nuances to the point of opacity as it might be the case in syntax, semantics, pragmatics, stylistics and culture, etc. and consequently exact equivalency seems to circle the square. In a sense, translation can be ‘an x-ray, not a Xerox’ (Barnstone 1993: 271), but more or less a rip-off of the original. It follows, then, that claiming infallibility in any translation process is rather difficult. Nevertheless, translation has not been beyond the realms of possibility as Benjamin (1969/2000: 21) states: “a real translation is transparent; it does not cover the original, does not block its light, but allows the pure language, as though reinforced by its own medium, to shine upon the original all the more fully.”

It would be beyond the scope of this study to offer detailed analysis of the axial concepts around which Translation Studies revolves, but rather to offer a brief synopsis of equivalence for its importance. Three major kinds of equivalenceiii are identified following Farghal and Shunnaq’s classification (1999: 5). First of all, formal equivalence “seeks to capture the form of the SL expression. Form relates to the image employed in the SL expression”. Secondly, functional equivalence “seeks to capture the function of the SL expression independently of the image utilised by translating it into a TL expression that performs the same function”. Finally, ideational equivalence “aims to convey the communicative sense of the SL expression independently of the function and form”.

It should be noted that employing any of these types is not a magic cure-all for translation problems. Instead, other variables are involved in translation activity. Translators still have a wide selection of equivalence levels in the course of translation, hanging on language and cultural remoteness between the SL and TL and on the translator’s competence which is defined by Pym (1992: 175) as:

The ability to generate a TT series of more than one viable target text (X, TT1, TT2 ... TTn) for a transferred text (Y) [,] the ability to select one TT from this series, quickly and with justified (ethical)confidence, [and] to propose this TT to a particular reader as an equivalent for Y.

The translator should detect and appropriately caters to a final ‘ostensible’ translation which leapfrogs previous watered-down translations, and hence operating within the realm of HC. For instance, rigorous selection of a kind of equivalence could help reflect the function of Arabic cultural references in translation.

With the theoretical framework sketched above, we have an approximate idea about the potential problems of HC in translation. This paper examines the problem of Arabic references that come into play in the translation of Ghada As-Samman’s The SMST within the scope of HC. Let us indulge in a few illustrative examples to see how the translator has dealt with the function of cultural references.

Ideological Cultural References

Religious Cultural References

It is true that Islam has hold sway over Arab and Muslim life and is largely the apogee of Arab culture. The ethos of social milieus all over the Arab World is more or less Islamic. The SMST is a treasure trove of several religious references whose translation(s) might produce cultural features indigenous to the TL. For example, consider the exchange:

Text 1A

وأنتِ، ألمْ يَخطُر لكِ أنّ بِوسعكِ الزواجَ منْ صلاح الدين على أن تطلبي أن تكونَ (العصمةُ) بيدك سلفاً؟

ما معنى ذلك؟

معناهُ أن بوسعكِ تطليقَه حين تشائين مثله تماماً. (As-Samman 1994: 78)

Text 1B

And did it not occur to you that you could marry Salah al-Din on condition you return your ‘isma?”

What does that mean?”

It means that you retain the right to divorce him whenever you wish, just as he does exactly.” (Boullata 1998: 69; italics added)

Bearing in mind that the tangle of socio-cultural practices of men relegates women to the bottom of social ladder all over the Arab World, the speaker in Text 1A tries to inculcate a feeling that men have an axe to grind, and hence resisting male-oriented image of dominance. Having looked more deeply into the above rendition, we find that it falls short of relaying the intended message of original Arabic, a message which manifests itself in a woman’s strong desire to dearly love to marry a man without losing sight of the belief that marriage would cramp her style. After all, she wanted to have him under her thumb as the italicised cultural item in Text 1B would suggest.

Here the problem is that the function of ‘isma in Arabic may be stupefying and is difficult for the TL readers to comprehend. In terms of Arab traditions, ‘isma has much to do with ‘Who is entitled to break up marriage?’, and it seems possible to assume that TL recipients would arrive at this meaning as it is contextualized. The Arabic reference is also relevant to ‘Who runs family matters?’Socially speaking, ‘isma is considered proof of man’s virility without which the stigma of having obnoxious character would haunt him for the rest of his life. In very few cases women can retain full or partial‘isma— if it is stated in the marriage contract prior to marriage in Islamic-Arab culture. In contrast, in a western culture, the couples are up front about breaking up with each other; they simply do that on agreement. Roughly speaking, ‘isma is equally shared by the couples.

Text 2A

وإذا ترملت تدخل عِدتها الأولى. (As-Samman 1994: 14)

Text 2B

If she is widowed, she enters her first ‘idda, the legally prescribed period of months during which she may not see a man or remarry.

(Boullata 1998: 7; italics in the original)

The italicised reference in Text 2B, which transliterates the one Arabic item ‘عِدتها’, adduces several interpretations. First of all, a woman may observe death or divorce ‘idda. Whilst the former is observed when a woman’s husband has died for a period of four months and ten days, the latter is observed when a woman is divorced for a three-month period. In both cases a woman should have to wait in home during the period except for something of necessity and refrain from going to beauty parlour and getting remarried, etc. until ‘idda is terminated. Sometimes, ‘idda lasts during pregnancy and terminates when pregnancy ends. Secondly, from the speaker’s point of view, a woman has been the butt of jokes or criticism and is usually thought to be a feeble wannabe; consequently, she needs to be taken under man’s wing as Arab societies are patriarchal in a general sense.

The translation in Text 2B also merits close attention. While the translator is trying to go a step forward as to Steiner’s moves, it seems that he stumbles on the third move. Opting for ‘cannot see a man’ gives rise to a misconception because the woman who is observing ‘idda can still see a man depending on the degree of being ‘مَحْرَم’ or ‘المَحْارِم غير’ (for more elaboration, see Text 3A and 3B below).

Text 3A

نهضتْ عن مقعدها وهي تخلعُ مِعطفهَا كما تفعلُ البيروتيات في حضورِ غير "المحارم"، (As-Samman 1994: 9)

Text 3B

She rose from her seat and took off her overcoat, as Beirut women do in the presence of those within the family whom they are legally forbidden to marry. (Boullata 1998: 3; italics added)

In Text 3B, the italicised clause which paraphrases the underlined Arabic items ‘المَحْارِم غير’ (lit. marriageable people) is diffuse, obscure and overwrought, and further breaks the flow of communication thrust of the SLT. Nothing would come to the translator’s rescue indeed. In original Arabic, the woman’s behaviour is not nauseating as she is the speaker’s aunt, and what she did (i.e., taking off her overcoat) is socially acceptable in the presence of her nephew who is considered ‘مَحْرَم’ (‘a degree of consanguinity preventing marriage’) (Wehr 1974). Unlike English culture, ‘مَحْرَم’ goes far beyond blood relationship (e.g., father, son, uncle from father’s side, uncle from mother’s side etc.) to include relationship by law because of marriage (e.g., fathers-in-law, step-sons, step-fathers) and relationship by ‘الرضاعة بالمحارم’ (breast-fed brothers or sisters). Being ‘مَحْرَم’ or ‘مَحْرَم غير’ permeates stratum of Muslim and Arab societies, and most of socio-cultural practices of Arabs and Muslims are governed by relationship to women. For example, in presence of a brother, i.e., ‘مَحْرَم’ a woman can uncover her hair whereas in his absence and presence of a foreigner, i.e., ‘مَحْرَم غير’ she should get a veil over her hair; all society members are ‘مَحْرَم غير’ thereof.

Paradoxically, the aunt took off her overcoat in the presence of ‘المَحْارِم غير’ which is the forbidden fruit of an illicit action insofar as Islamic-Arab culture is concerned. Still, this exhibits As-Samman’s nihilistic tendency of the culture as the item ‘البيروتيات’ (Beirut women) would imply. Obviously, Beirut women in Text 3A are western-minded so taking off their overcoats in front of foreigners is normal. Conversely, they may look more pious, earnest and ‘puritanical’ in Text 3B.

References to Political Culture

It is unquestionably true that political culture differs from one country to another. While Western culture is characterised of democracy and tolerance, the West look askance at the notion of Arab embryonic democracy. As a Western-minded writer, As-Samman speaks out against unwieldy Arab political systems which have invariably resulted in political upheaval, have a tremendous amount of poverty around and make Arab countries in piffling dispute all the time, and the list go on. To make the point clear, consider the following:

Text 4A

- لا شيء غير أنني أحبه… وأنه يفتشُ عن عمل. وأنه يغني أيضاً بصوتٍ جميلٍ و يرددُ باستمرار أغنية "سجِّل أنا عربي." (As-Samman 1994: 70)

Text 4B

Nothing, except that I love him. He is looking for a job. He also sings and had a beautiful voice. He continuously repeats the song ‘Register: I’m an Arab’.” (Boullata 1998:61)

In Text 4B, the italicised phrase is intertextually linked to a well-known poem by Darwish (1977): “Record: I am an Arab. And my identity card is number fifty thousand. I have eight children and the ninth is coming after a summer. Will you be angry?”iv Thawabteh (2006: 49) elaborates on the importance of hermeneutics of intertextuality of this particular cultural reference saying that the poem is composed by Darwish:

A well-known Palestinian poet of indomitable will. Darwish wrote this poem in defiance of an Israeli police officer, probably to mitigate the incessant suffering of Palestinians after 1948 war, a war that has made an indelible mark on the world and brought Palestine political upheaval since then. Thousands of Palestinians were killed and thousands more fled or were driven from their homes to the neighbouring countries and lived in deteriorating and humiliating conditions. Darwish was impelled to leave his country for Lebanon; then he returned back home and fought a long rearguard action to get an Israeli-issued identity card.

Perhaps more to the point, the interpretations that can be made in Text 4A might be sui generis for TL readers to encapsulate. The antagonist in Text 4A was so deep in desperate to erase the memory of being away from his homeland which has been torn by civil war and implacable enemy invading Lebanon in 1982. He immigrated to France to get the French nationality, with all the privileges thereof, but, due to xenophobia and racism very much obvious at least in France, he could not do so. He was even unable to find a job, led a miserable life and, most importantly, wanted to get this horrendous and ‘gut-wrenching’ experience over with. The poem, however, highlights personality characteristics such as resistance, persistence, diligence, prudence, sobriety and fidelity. It is rather difficult for the TL receivers to get the function of the above intertextuality being within the boundaries of HC of the SL readers.

Socio-Cultural References

That the type of behaviour which fits a given culture does not work as such in another is something of a truism. Points of cultural divergences between cultures are manifold. What is socially acceptable in one culture is not necessarily so in another. For instance, some Arabs are not enamoured of the West and its values thought to produce butterflies in the stomach. The otherwise is quite true. Being the case so, the translator’s task is likely to be difficult. Take the following:

Text 5A

بوسعك أن تتزوج امرأة ثانية وثالثة ورابعة عليها وتعيش راضية مع ضراتها . (As-Samman 1994: 8)

Text 5B

You can marry a second in addition to her, and she will live happily with her co-wives” (Boullata 1998:1)

The highlighted cultural reference in Text 5B, which translates the underlined Arabic item ‘ضراتها’ (lit. wife other than the first of a plural marriage), is nothing short of culture-specific. The translation into ‘co-wife’ solves part of the problem of the SL function of the word and requires that the SLT reader perform the arduous labour of referring to the text. In other words, s/he should study the socio-cultural context in which this lexical item makes sense.

Nevertheless, the recalcitrant features of the translation are crystal-clear. Firstly, Arabs adore children and that if it happens that one’s wife can bear the husband no children, then she is swept into the vortex of her husband’s embittered emotions and consequently, he might marry a second without breaking up with the first. Secondly, when marriage becomes too restrictive, the husband will seek new horizons without breaking out of the dull situation, simply by getting married to a second, keeping in mind the relationship with the first is still in effect; therefore, a woman might feel emasculated and/or marginalised. Polygamous marriages are yet commonplace. Socially speaking the relation between the wives in plural marriage will most probably always be strained and shambolic in a general sense. Other things being equal, ‘co-wives’ carries layer upon layer of connotative meaning which are difficult to be understood by the TL readers.

Text 6A

وهكذا انجبت صبياً وبنتين وأنا لا أعرف هل أحب زوجي أم لا. ووسط الزغاريد علقت أمي شهادتي في المطبخ وتم ترويضي بثلاثة أطفال. (As-Samman 1994: 109)

Text 6B

And so I got married and gave birth to a boy and two girls, meanwhile not knowing whether I loved my husband or not. And a midst wedding ululations, my mother hung my diploma in the kitchen. (Boullata 1998: 101)

In Text 6B, the italicised socio-cultural reference ‘wedding ululations’ which translates the underlined Arabic ‘الزغاريد ووسط’ (lit. a midst trilling cries) is typical of most Arab and Muslim societies whereby the women would make a high-pitched trill to express jubilation upon a wedding party, or graduation ceremony, or giving birth to a baby and, alternatively, upon sad occasions when someone dies as a martyr as it is the case in some Arab countries (e.g. Palestine, Lebanon and Iraq). Traditionally, the women (especially mothers, wives, sisters etc.) would become oscillate between despair and joy, thus making ‘الزغاريد’ sound in a martyred air. Ideologically speaking, they are likely to make the sound to express joy as the glorious martyr would enter the realm of nirvana.

In terms of HC, Text 6B falls short of the original Arabic because the generic ‘الزغاريد’ is rendered into more specific ‘wedding ululations’. The translator seems to have reached a conclusion that the source of delight in Text 6A is only attributed to wedding party whereas it is not—it could be due to getting married, or giving birth to a boy and two girls or obtaining a diploma. Yet another point manifests itself in Text 6B, that giving birth to babies is prior to ‘wedding ululations’, i.e., before marriage. Clearly, Islam-Arab culture curbs out-of-wedlock births whereas western culture approves it.

It follows, then, that it would be quite difficult for TL readers to forge their own interpretation within the realm of their cultural repertoire in the same way as of the SL readers. In the words of Shunnaq (1993: 54), ‘الزغاريد’ is “untranslatable into English as it connotes numerous emotive overtones. Actually, it is an action of joy and extreme happiness which I can not find any equivalent for in English”. For the sake of elaboration, take the following:

Text 7A

ولا أريد الزواج منه إن العلاقة الحرة "الكونكوبيناج" تمنحني حقوقاً أكثر بكثير من تلك الشرعية التي يريدُها أبي ... (As-Samman 1994: 81)

Text 7B

I don’t want to get married to him. Concubinage grants me many more rights than those legal rights my father wants for me… (Boullata 1998: 71)

The speaker in Text 7A is awfully weary of marriage in its traditional sense as it continues to ride roughshod over her rights and then she becomes ambivalent about marriage such a way. She would rather prefer ‘concubinage’ originally comes into Arabic from English as borrowing. The translation in Text 7B seems to be quite perfect as far as TL readership is concerned.

Text 7B poses another problem— the rendition of ‘شرعيةً حقوقاً’ into ‘legal rights’ does not reflect the connotative meanings of the SLT. In Islamic-Arab culture, two kinds of rights are generally realised— legal rights and ‘الشرعية الحقوق’ (Islamic-based rights). The formal falls within the ambit of civil law and a wrongdoer would face punishment, whereas the latter is Islamic based on the notion that human actions fall within the scope of what is permissible and what is not.

Text 8A

يومئذ كنتُ أمارسُ هواية َصيد السمك فوقَ ُصخور شاطئ "رأس بيروت" وأشعرُ أنّ جسدي جزءٌ من الصخرةِ تحته ومستقرٌ فوقها و"الحجرُ في مكانهِ ِقنّطار" كما كانَ يُرددُ أبي. (As-Samman 1994: 26)

Text 8B

In those days, I practiced amateur fishing from the beach rocks of Ras Beirut and felt my body part of the rock underneath it as it was firmly positioned on it. My father used to say repeating the popular proverb against leaving one’s birthplace, “A stone in place weighs a ton”. (Boullata 1998: 18; italics added)

In Text 8A, the underlined Arabic proverb is a powerful metaphor meant to show that one’s love for homeland is not carved on tablets of stone. The proverb highlights tidal wave of patriotism which began during colonialism and still affects most Arab states. English culture would use ‘east or west, home is the best’. The anomalous relationship between one’s love for homeland and the use of a stone in its place perhaps kill TL readers’ comprehension stone-dead.

Material Culture References

It is true that material cultural references are culture-specific. These usually have meanings in the minds of people of a given culture and interplay with social and ideological culture. Articles of clothing, jewellery, cosmetics, etc. (e.g., henna, kohl etc.) are examples of material culture, bearing in mind the social and ideological connotations. Take the following example:

Text 9A

وحولي وجوهٌ مرسومة ٌبالكحل ِوالحناء والوشم والإبتسامات والألوان والقبلات وحرارة القلب.

(As-Samman 1994: 69)

Text 9B

Around me were faces with kohl and henna, tattoos, smiles, colours, kisses and warm hearts. (Boullata 1998: 60)

Insofar as Arabs are concerned, black henna is not permissible for women and men; nor is tattooing one’s body. Nevertheless red henna and kohl is permissible for women and men. Applying henna and kohl are ritualistic practices of Arab marriage. Prior to a wedding night, Arabs would celebrate ‘Henna Night’ whereby a bride would dye her hands with henna and wear a wedding dress that would be different from that to be worn next day at wedding night. It is also possible for a bridegroom, as well as the relatives, to apply henna.

Tattooing one’s body for ceremonies or whatsoever is socially acceptable in Western culture. In Islamic-Arab culture, however, it is not permissible for Muslims to tattoo— the one who tattoos and the one who is tattooed are both cursed and are expected to be an object of ridicule.

Text 10A

السيدة الغامضة ما تزال تعبث بحبات سبحتها. (As-Samman 1994: 69)

Text 10B

Yet the mysterious lady continued to finger the beads of her rosary. (Boullata 1998: 7)

As a material cultural reference, ‘سبحتها’ (lit. her rosary) has religious and social connotations. To tell the rosary for counting prayers is a religious practice that is widespread all over the Arab and Muslim worlds. Socially, telling or fingering the beads has become a social practice devoid of ideological connotations; Text 10B is a case in point.

Analysis and Discussion

Thus far, the translations we discussed are open to various interpretations on account of deviation from their interpretative meaning(s). As mentioned earlier, any decision make in the course of translation falls within the ambit of the translator’s HC. Therefore, we argue for the assumption that the onus is first and often last on the translator to provide as salient translation as possible. The translator is first of all a reader of the SLT and hence should establish an HC that would facilitate the flow of communication in a translation. The more HC of the SL readers is shared with the translator’s, the more possible for legible translation.

The aforementioned translations can be explained in terms of Steiner’s four moves in relation to equivalence theory and translation strategies as can be shown in Table (1) below. The symbol ‘plus’ shows that the move is realised, ‘minus’ indicates that the move is unrealised and ‘plus-minus’ denotes approximation (partially realised and partially not realised).

Arabic Cultural Reference











  1. العصمة’









  1. عِدة’

idda, the legally prescribed period of months during which she may not see a man or remarry








  1. مَحْرَم غير’

those within the family whom they are legally forbidden to marry








  1. سجِّل أنا عربي’

Register: I’m an Arab’








  1. ضراتها’









  1. ووسط الزغاريد’

And amidst wedding ululations








  1. الكونكوبيناج’









  1. الحجرُ في مكانهِ ِقنّطار’

A stone in place weighs a ton








  1. الحناء’









  1. سبحتها’

her rosary







M1= Move 1; M2= Move 2; M3= Move 3; M4= Move 4.

For.= Formal Equivalence; Fun.= Functional Equivalence; Id.= Ideational Equivalence

Plus’ sign= realised.

Minus’ sign= not realised.

plus-minus’ sign= approximation (realised and not realised).

According to the ‘Trust’ move, the translator assumes that the SLT has a meaning to be extracted and is realised in almost all of the examples discussed above, with the exception of Texts 3B and 6B. The meaning(s) arrived at by the translator should be shared with those of the SL readers’ HC for optimal translation. As can be noted, the translator opted for formally-based transliteration strategy in Texts1B, 2B, 7B and 9B. By definition, in Text1B, the translator opted for transliteration without giving any footnote that might help make the message clearer. Formal and functional equivalences are also obvious in Text 8B and 2B. The image of the SL of Text 8B is retained and further elaborated through adding ‘popular proverb against leaving one’s birthplace’. Likewise, in Text 2B, the translator formally employed transliteration strategy along with another functional one— paraphrase. In very few cases like the ideationally-based equivalence in Text 3B, the translator’s HC collides with the SL readers’ bringing about erroneous translation.

The second ‘Aggression’ move requires that the translator takes actions to bring the SLT home simply by intruding into it. This is very obvious in all of the examples , again with the exception of Texts 3B and 6B. For instance, in Text 5B, the Functionally-based lexical creation is employed by the translator. The third ‘Incorporation’ move seeks to incorporate the cultural reference in the TL culture. It seems quite possible to assume that the translations of cultural references are threefold. Firstly, the reference could be incorporated in the TL culture as it is the case in Text 9B. The cultural reference –henna– is brought home, and has become part of the TL culture. Similarly, the lexical creation of ‘co-wife’ in Text 5B becomes integrated in the TL culture. Secondly, ‘Incorporation’ may be fully observed due to the fact that the reference is western and has its own connotations in Western culture as Text 7B would suggest. Thirdly, though the translator seems to be at pains to incorporate the reference into the TL culture, culture-specificity yet militates against optimal translation as in Text 1B. The translator seems to have stopped at the first move giving rise to recalcitrant text in the TL culture, as it were. The last move can be explained in terms of the trade-off between the SLT and TLT. As a result, a kind of translation is either primary status in the TT, or peripheral to the TT (see Even-Zohar, 1978). The function of the cultural references can be retained in the translation if the translator moves where s/he should go and stops where s/he should stop. Unfortunately, in The SMST, the translator inappropriately stops at some moves employing some strategies that distort the message of the SLT.


The foregoing analysis suggests that cultural problems diffuse the translation between languages belonging to different cultures. In the case of relatively remote languages, the task of the translator is fraught with peculiar perils. It also examines strategies employed in the translation of cultural references from Arabic to English within the scope of the translator’s HC. Employing formal-based equivalence works only if the two cultures share the same HC and it has been found that there are some cases where both cultures converge. In most cases, however, both cultures diverge, and it is incumbent upon the translator, for the sake of maintaining a proper flow of communication, to opt for functional equivalence rather than formal equivalence. In a sense, Steiner’s moves close to the TL end cline are highly possible.


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About the Author:

Mohammad Ahmad Thawabteh was born in Beit Fajjar, Palestine, on February 25, 1968. He holds a B.A. degree in English Language and Literature from Bethlehem University in Palestine, an MA degree in English Language, with specialization in Translation, from Yarmouk University in Jordan, Advanced Higher Diploma in Translation and Intercultural Studies Universitat Rovira i Virgili in Spain and a Ph.D. in Translation and Intercultural Studies from University of Granada in Spain. His research interests are translation studies, pragmatics, cultural studies, discourse analysis and semiotics. He has been teaching at Al-Quds University, Palestine, since 1999.


1. Issa Boullata is of Palestinian extraction. He is a professor of Arabic language and literature at McGill University, Canada. He has been translating several Arabic literary works into English, e.g. The SMST, among others.

2. The author would like to thank Professor Seán Golden, Universitat Autònoma de Barcelona, Spain for his ideas on the hermeneutics of translation, which helped develop this paper a great deal.

3. Formal and functional equivalence are introduced by Nida in (1964). Ideational equivalence inspires some polemics against shortcoming of other types of equivalences. Some translation theorists claim that ideational equivalence begins where other types end (see Farghal 1995 and 1990).

4. This translation can be found at

iIssa Boullata is of Palestinian extraction. He is a professor of Arabic language and literature at McGill University, Canada. He has been translating several Arabic literary works into English, e.g. The SMST, among others.

iiI would like to thank Professor Seán Golden, Universitat Autònoma de Barcelona, Spain for his ideas on the hermeneutics of translation, which help to develop this paper a great deal.

iiiFormal and functional equivalence are introduced by Nida in (1964). Ideational equivalence inspires some polemics against shortcoming of other types of equivalences. Some translation theorists claim that ideational equivalence begins where other types end (see Farghal 1995 and 1990).

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