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Unit 3.

Language and discourse: the role of culture in meaning

In Unit 2 you have been introduced to a range of historical attitudes
towards translation through the work of Lawrence Venuti. It has also
been discussed how the two most logical traits of an ideal translation
are as desirable as they are problematic and you have been encouraged
to focus on the difficulties, rather than on the ideal perfect translation.
Throughout the discussion I kept on referring to notions of language and
how, early in the XX Century, there are new perspectives on linguistics
and culture which one cannot ignore in dealing with translation. This
unit develops some ideas on language, particularly the fact that just being a chain of independent signs
with independent meanings language works within culture and shapes culture. Translation, I shall
argue, needs to take into account this language-as-culture perspective and therefore needs to be studied
from a cultural studies perspective. These unit develops this argument and shows how linguistics
needs culture, their relationship is symbiotic and for translators they hardly exist independently.
Keywords: meaning, signifier, signified, sign, discourse, linguistic chain, communication, channel, code,
reader, message, speaker, writerly, audience-focused approaches
Texts: Extracts from The Revengers Tragedy
Kinds of meaning: Language as a linear chain and as discourse
The following section aims to distinguish between two approaches to
the way languages construct meaning. Traditionally, language was
looked at as an object, something specific which meant in terms of a
straight line: one word followed another and meaning arose out of the
relationships between words and contexts. But it is important to move
into a more realistic approach to this view: actually language never
happens in a void; there is always something like a situation, and the
situation will determine meaning. This second view of the way language
works is described in terms of discourse. Discourse linguistic look at the linguistic chain in all of its
complexity as something that always happens between specific participants at a specific moment.
The social situation of communication: From the linguistic sign to semiotics
As we saw in the previous unit, Saussure is regarded as the father of contemporary linguistics. In his
work he also opened a whole venue of thought by introducing the idea of semiotics as a branch of
linguistics. Until then, language was studied independently from its social meanings (although some XIX
century linguists and anthropologists had started to adopt a different perspective). He was not the first
who thought that meaning had to be problematized beyond the idea of individual, self-contained signs.
But it was after the Cours that semiotics became a part of linguistics that dealt with communication, and
therefore it was the whole communicative act that became the object of research for linguists:
It is... possible to conceive of a science which studies the role of signs as part of social life. It would form
part of social psychology, and hence of general psychology. We shall call it semiology (from the Greek
semeon, 'sign'). It would investigate the nature of signs and the laws governing them. Since it does not
yet exist, one cannot say for certain that it will exist. But it has a right to exist, a place ready for it in
advance. Linguistics is only one branch of this general science. The laws which semiology will discover

will be laws applicable in linguistics, and linguistics will thus be assigned to a clearly defined place in
the field of human knowledge.
Te implication for translators should be clear: rather than simple strings of words, we translate a source
communicative act into another communicative act taking place in a different situational context.
Such communicative acts are made up of a series of variables, like the means of communication,
reception, or even the channel through which communication takes place. Language is one of the
variables that changes. For translation students this is, by far, the most important of the variables, but
in the context of this unit we shall treat all variables as equivalent in order to emphasize the idea of
language as communicative act.
Ambivalence: Eco and the Open work
Once we have acknowledged the need for social anchoring in any communicative
statement, our second step to move into a cultural studies framework will be to
acknowledge that communicative statements dont have just one clear meaning. This
will be particularly true in literary texts.

The open text as a key trait of language

Umberto Eco was one of the key semioticians of the XX Century. He stressed
the social conditions of communicative acts. In one of his earliest works
(Fenomenologia di Mike Bongiorno) he read a popular TV show in terms of
signs, communication and culture. In that sense, he was an early exponent of
cultural studies, which reads cultural events as if they were texts. For
instance, you can read a football match as if it were a text in which the
symbolic, the trivial, the cultural and social psychology converge.
(Another important name in this connection is Roland Barthes, who
introduced the term mythologies in order to study cultural manifestations as if they were signs)
Later on, in a work called Opera aperta/ Open Work he drew from linguistics to outline one of his key
proposals (which underlies the impulse of the first three units of this course):
The text is made up of layers of meaning and its ultimate signification is essentially open: it does not
have a final, closed meaning all readers can agree on; not even the meaning originally intended by the
writer can be regarded as final. This is because besides the ambivalences within each of those layers,
there is the problem of how they relate to each other. In the case of a football match, we can concentrate
on a layer of political meanings and a layer of psychological meanings. Each will be complex to study
independently, but there is no easy way to account to what extent the political dimension of a match
can be explained (or not) in terms of social psychology.
The open text and the issue of interpretation: hermeneutics
Interpretation can close the text (in our account, we could build up a story by selecting individuals
attending the match and following their actions and emotions as strands within this story). The work

of the translator is very similar to this process of interpretation: in an ambivalent

SL text, they need to focus on certain strands and work out a version that is
somehow consistent; translators will often need to decide on one interpretation
as their task is to construct one equivalent text in the target language. Still it must
be stressed that there should be a tension between this need and the fact that
openness is inevitable. A whole line within translation studies (called
hermeneutics) puts interpretation at the center of translators concerns.
According to hermeneutics (based on the Kabbalistic approach to sacred scriptures
interpretation and proposed by philosophers like Hans Georg Gadamer), the text
demands constant interpretation, no meaning is complete or final. The implications for translators are
obvious here. The classical essay is George Steiners After Babel, a book which is more about reading
and interpreting than about the translation process.
Although for Eco a work of art is always essentially open, it is true that what is known as classical art
endeavors to restrict meaning. If for Steiner the translator needs to interpret, one consequence of Ecos
work is that translators need to live with the fact that no interpretation will ever be final.
Interpretation and audiovisual translation
In terms of audiovisual translation this is slightly complicated by the problematic
status of film and other forms of audiovisual discourse as art. As a commercial
enterprise, interpretation is severely limited by market demand. And as we saw in
Unit 2, the market tends to demand homogeneous translation, equivalence and
transparency. Still, for the purposes of this unit we shall assume ambiguity and
openness are features (not always equally central) of all discourse.
It is also true that even the most challenging films for translators (say, The Big Lebowski) demand
technical rather than interpretive solutions. Other films which would benefit from hermeneutics
(say, Mulholland dr) work across the visual and verbal fields and the potential for intervention is limited.
Layers of meaning: speech into discourse
The discursive situation
One way to look at the relationship between the translator and the
text is using a theatrical metaphor which illustrates the process of
translation and the instances involved.
Meaning arises not out of separate units but out of a whole
communicative situation which can be linked to a dramatic performance with actors (speaker),
audience (listener), stage (channel), script (message), language (code) and context
(conditions). Each is important in determining meaning.
According to this scheme, we are producing a text in the target language but it will always be done
following certain protocols and conventions; a translation will need a sense of its audience (even if it is
a standard audience) and will also be taking into account issues such as the channel and the conditions
in which communication will take place.

And a performance is a good image for the concept of translation we

are exploring in these units. One can imagine the translator as putting
on a performance. The translator partakes of certain ideas of what
language is, certain conventions, is always limited and therefore
subjective and is addressing audiences which are real (rather than
He starts with a script (the original work), that he has to communicate to an audience (readers,
publisher), by conveying it through a code (the target language, but also the ideas on what translation
is mentioned above), in a specific situation (publishing or broadcasting contexts) and using specific
channels (written text, orality, dubbing, subtitling) which will make demands on his work. In all of
this he is making decisions, becoming an actor, a director and an author with a specific point of
view which will be eventually subjective.
Discourse and the complexity of the communicative act
Example 1
The Revengers Tragedy is one of the most important
Jacobean plays, probably written around 1607.
Although the author is unknown, scholarly debate has
shifted from Cyril Tourneur to Thomas Middleton. It
may have been written by several authors.
The genre is the revenge tragedy, a popular type of
play at the time, combining verse and prose to great
expressive effect. The themes were often violent and
bloody, and an important aspect of these plays is their
ability to shock.
The Revengers Tragedy is an original work (message) written in XVII Century English (code 1), to
be communicated to a variety of audiences (readers) at a given moment in history when those
audiences will be aware of certain cultural ideas (situation) and be put into a target language (code
2). The translator (speaker) will have to fulfill the demands of either publishers or stage producers
or directors (channels, code 3).
Conveying the original from the SL to the TL is complex because the whole staging of the process is filled
with ambivalence.
Exercise 1: to be marked by the lecturer
Look at the following fragment of the play and think in terms of what kind of alternatives are offered to
the translator. In particular think of some aspects in the text that need to be approached differently if
the text is intended as a translation for academic publishers (Ctedra would be a good example in
Spain), for dramatic performance in contemporary staging, for classical performance or for the normal
reader. In particular, look at difficulties and propose different solutions for different communicative

The section is quite typical of the whole play.

Oh Dutch lust! fulsome lust!
Drunken procreation, which begets so many drunkards.
Some father dreads not (gone to bed in wine)
To slide from the mother, and cling the daughter-in-law;
Some uncles are adulterous with their nieces,
Brothers with brothers wives. O hour of incest!
Any kin now, next to the rim o th sister,
Is mans meat in these days; and in the morning,
when they are up and dressed and their mask on,
Who can perceive this, save that eternal eye
That sees through flesh and all? Well, if any thing
Be damned, it will be twelve oclock at night;
That twelve will never scape:
It is the Judas of the hours, wherein
Honest salvation is betrayed to sin.
Dealing with cultural disparity
From discourse to culture. Once we understand that any text is
conveyed within a communicative situation, we need to also accept
that texts mean culturally. There are many elements in a text that
only gain their meaning through the culture in which they are
articulated. Unless we understand cultural mythologies it will be
impossible to interpret the original in all its complexity. The
following section is an attempt to outline how some of the more
interesting aspects of a text can only be understood if we look at translation as exchange between
cultures and not just between languages.
What is culture?
Critic Raymond Williams, in his classic Keywords, discusses culture as romance derivation of the latin
colere. This is a concept with a fuzzy (i.e.: not quite precise) equivalent in contemporary languages.
Most often it carries the meaning of cultivating, as in tending the ground for seeds to grow; taking care
and helping to grow are implicit meanings. But it also carries other meanings: adoration, devotion
For most people nowadays, culture means specifically high culture: it is a set of texts, language or
manners which are supposed to represent some higher form of humanity. A man of culture is a man
who has overcome the limitations of nature, someone who has risen above basic animal instincts and
behaviors in order to become better. In this sense, culture is associated to the aristocracy, and for
non aristocratic citizens, to become cultured is a way of rising up in society.
Culture thus standardizes society, by separating certain of its productions from others and by
preferring certain texts to others. Culture is not only produced in certain frameworks of meaning, but

it is read according to those frameworks. One does not go to an opera with the same expectations as to
a mainstream film or a musical. Assumptions and reading attitudes are different in each case.
But what Williams suggests is that this is an ideological distortion of the original meaning. In associating
culture to the values of aristocracy it makes common people more vulnerable, and they are forced to
leave the discourses or attitudes they are familiar with, exchanging them for higher ones.
For Williams, culture is a more objective (i.e. less ideological) concept: it is all the systematic
discourses generated by a society or a civilization that somehow are used in symbolic exchanges. So,
certainly musical theatre, mainstream cinema and pulp fiction are culture as much as opera, avantgarde art or high literature. But also football and sports, Big Brother broadcasts and the Valencian Fallas.
Each text is run through by ideologies and for a social scientist no kind of text should be preferred in
terms of their higher qualities. Symbolism surrounding the ritual of football is as relevant to study what
is at stake in our culture as the work of Javier Maras.
Culture as discourse
For translators, it is useful to regard culture not just as a set of practices, but as a set of (more or less
abstract) discourses which produce practices. This idea will be explored with examples in unit 9.
Discourses are configured in a certain way, they are, to use a term discussed earlier in the module,
structured in a certain way. There are rules to discourse. Discourses aim to achieve something in
particular, so they have a function. Looking at culture as discourse will help us identify specific areas
which the translator would be advised to look at. Cultural discourses are expressed in texts implicitly.
Knowing those cultural discourses will add new layers of meaning to the text which the translator will
be able to draw from.
Examples of cultural discourses:
Gender discourses: the way gender is expressed in society is relevant when dealing with artistic texts.
Well see how dealing with narrative characters, gender mythologies will be used to create motivation
and character effects. Recognizing gender structures, even myths and clichs, will help us pin down, for
instance, characters as Marilyn Monroes Lorelei in Gentlemen Prefer Blondes.

Political discourses: Recently there has been research on how politics is entangled with processes of
translation. It is not just about understanding the political other, but creating a certain point of view
in translation. In news reporting, word choices like Derry (from Londonderry) or The West Bank
are politically charges, and translators, whether they like it or not, end up reinforcing a vision which is
inescapably political.

Example 2
On October 26, 2005, IRIB News, an English-language subsidiary of the state-controlled Islamic
Republic of Iran Broadcasting, reported a speech made by the Iranian President Mahmoud
Ahmadinejad's at the "World Without Zionism" conference in Asia. The article was entitled:
Ahmadinejad: Israel must be wiped off the map. The story was picked up by Western news agencies
and quickly made headlines around the world. Of course, careful reading of the original Arabic showed
that this was just one of the possible translations (another possibility would have been: Imam
[Khomeini] said: This regime that is occupying Qods [Jerusalem] must be eliminated from the pages of
history.), and it had been chosen because it presented Iranians as particularly aggressive and hostile.
But also it failed to see what was a conventional metaphor in Arabic, rendering it literally without any
counterbalancing explanations. Of course, the headline created angry reactions amongst Western
Artistic discourses: Although there is no clear, final definition of what artistic discourses are (and
this would include both literature and film), it is more or less clear that treating a text as artistic
imposes certain conditions on the translator. One will need to look at things like connotation, genre,
rhythm and other aspects which would be unnecessary if the text was just aiming to communicate
information transparently.

Those discourses are articulated through conventions. More than mere rules, conventions tend to be
implicit. They are a set of notions widely accepted and deeply assimilated by people who are submerged
in discourses.
Conventions in film narrative will be the subject of units 5, 6 and 7.
Example 3
For instance, it is a convention in Western societies that pink is associated to girls. Or dressing in black
in funereal situations. Or shaking ones hand at greeting. Or saying goodbye when one leaves. Or using
certain expressions if one is male. Or liking certain discourses according to ones position in terms of
gender, class or politics.
Thinking in terms of cultural conventions can help translators in two ways:
1. by recognizing them, understanding better what the text is about
(Example: to what extent a film is stereotyping a character by making him
or her dress in culturally significant ways).

2. encouraging translators to find compensation for elements which, while

relevant to the text, might be lost in translation.

Dealing with textual conventions: Types of text (examples)

Texts express meaning but for communication to be smooth, they need to be framed in a system of
conventions. Conventions shape the possibilities of the speaker and help the reader to decipher textual
meaning. Again, the concept of convention tends to escape translators. Conventions are, indeed,
outside the text, so in analyzing texts in isolation it is hard to distinguish what is conventional from
what is specific. But conventions work as some kind of gravitational force determining form and
meaning, and need to be taken into account.
In the following section I am proposing a number of types of texts with a special emphasis on the
conventions that frame them.
Classical texts
One could argue that not all texts are equally open. The word classicism is
used in many senses. When asked what a classic is, the first idea that comes to
mind is that it is a work of art which is particularly central, particularly good or
well known. It is for many a valid definition that links classicism to the canon,
the films or novels everyone should know.
But classicism is also an approach to art that implies that every element of this
text (whether it is a painting, a book or a movie) has a clear meaning, it can be
fixed. The idea of classicism implies readability. In this sense it is the opposite
of the avant-garde unreadable texts, working on ambiguity. In a classical
piece, the author believes meaning can be precise, can be pinned down.
A classical film or a novel takes the reader (or the spectator) by the hand, so to speak, making it clear
what is more relevant, what is less so; making meaning clear and not subject to ambiguity; helping
audiences to look at the right places in order to understand the proper meaning. In order to produce
such smooth communication, classical art tends to be based in strong conventions, but, and this is
crucial, it also tends to hide those conventions.

Example 4
In terms of literature, the XIX Century realist novel is one such example of classical art. Novels by Balzac,
George Eliot, Zola, Tolstoy or Dickens are intented to mean something very precise; they carefully
explain events (sometimes at great length) so that there is as little ambivalence as possible. Avant-garde
art, however, was a reaction towards the certainties of Realism and is irreducible to explanation or one
simple meaning.
In terms of film narrative, it is important to distinguish between classical cinema and non classical
form. Classical, in these units is not old but an approach to making films that follows a clear set of

conventions in order to produce precise meanings. Most films of the Hollywood Studio Era (roughly
from 1920 to 1960) were classical, but so are many contemporary films that address mass audiences.
Example 5
Casablanca (Michael Curtiz, 1942) is a good example of classical film in all senses outlined: framings are
tight and well centered, the narrative has a clear conclusion, the structure is logical.
Classical texts are linked to some kind of degree zero writing. We shall explore this concept when we
study style in Unit 4.
Conventions and the journalistic text
Lets look at a news piece:
Spains government will this weekend finally make a formal request for the
bailout money it needs to prop up ailing banks as frustration grows about footdragging by prime minister Mariano Rajoy's conservative government.
Finance minister Luis de Guindos, who on Thursday pledged to make the
request immediately, has now told the Eurogroup of eurozone finance
ministers that they will have it by Monday.
The Eurogroup president Jean-Claude Juncker had already stated that the
group expected to have the request, which de Guindos had described as "a mere
formality", in its hands on Monday.
Juncker said eurozone ministers had tried to hurry Spain up, inviting it to "pursue (a) clear and
ambitious strategy, which needs to be implemented swiftly and communicated early."
Spain will base its request on two independent valuations of its banks which suggest the sector needs
up to 62bn (49bn) to see it through the next three years if the economy takes an even sharper turn
for the worse. Spain has been offered up to 100bn in help for its banks alone. It was not clear whether
the weekend's petition would include an exact sum of money.
Spain's latest foot-dragging follows its slowness in recognising the hole caused by toxic real estate in
some of its banks after a property bubble exploded four years ago.
It also reflects Rajoy's refusal to call the loans being offered to Spain a "bailout", even though the money
will be loaned to the state and then passed on to the banks.
Rajoy's government now hopes that a growing clamour for future rescues of Europe's banks to be done
directly, without money going via governments, may still allow it to avoid accepting loans that would
add to an already fast-growing national debt.
Among its salient features, we can identify the following:
Short, clear sentences

Conventional structure: most sentences are about someone doing something

Playing down anything that can be regarded as subjective (particularly adjectives).
Objective meaning: no room for interpretation
Certain phrases and lexical choices.

5. Tightly logical structure: each sentence leads to the next, each paragraph leads to the paragraph
that comes after.
These qualities need to be known and practiced by anybody who
would like their text to be recognized and published as a news
item. In writing infused with conventions, individuality is less

Exercise 2: to be marked by the lecturer

Try to illustrate some of the qualities of journalistic style in the text above with the traits outlined.
Conventions in poetry
Poetry is an ideal kind of text to think about translation, because of the central role of conventions. Also,
the poetic text gives unusual prominence to the way language works, dealing with external aspects such
as sounds, rhythm, connotation and rhyme. In dealing with poetry, we are faced with the kind of
language that resists transparent translation.
The essence of poetry used to be artificiality and conventionality: a poem needed to have an exact
number of lines, with rhyming schemes and very precise rhythm patterns. One can change rhythms, of
course, but some sense of rhythm needs to be present. Of all kinds of discourse, poetic discourse puts
the greatest stress on the surface of language and therefore requires more intervention (or personal
choices) from the translator.

Not all languages have the same rhythmic conventions.

Speakers of different languages give different meaning to sound

Rhyming conventions are also specific to languages

A word can connote certain things in one language, and have different resonances in another
Example 6: Sonnet 29 by Edna St Vincent Millay

Edna St Vincent Millay is one of the greatest American poets of the XX Century. Although her perspective
is contemporary, she chose to frame her thoughts in a classical form, the sonnet, and out of the
limitations of this form her sonnets achieve rare elegance.
Pity me not because the light of day
At close of day no longer walks the sky;
Pity me not for beauties passed away
From field to thicket as the year goes by;
Pity me not the waning of the moon,
Nor that the ebbing tide goes out to sea.
Nor that a man's desire is hushed so soon.
And you no longer look with love on me.
This have I known always: Love is no more
Than the wide blossom which the wind assails.
Than the great tide that treads the shifting shore.

Strewing fresh wreckage gathered in the gales:

Pity me that the heart is slow to learn
When the swift mind beholds at every turn.

Exercise 3: to be marked by the lecturer

Outline the specific aspects in this piece that make it a good example of poetic style.
Conventions in film narrative
Unit 6 will be exclusively dedicated to the kinds of conventions more relevant to audiovisual translators:
film narrative conventions. Obviously you will have to deal with other systems of conventions: you
might be translating a news broadcast or a documentary film.
Still, it is useful to remember that in the same way as news item, poetry, a welcoming speech at a
conference, a political address, all are subject to cultural conventions, when we attempt to tell a story
through film, we need to follow conventions also. For translators it will be useful to recognize such
conventions as a way of adding a new level to their understanding of film.
Films tend to follow certain protocols. Distinguishing between conventions and the more original
aspects of film is of the paramount importance for the translators. As before, this is because in that way
translators have a more comprehensive vision of film before working on it. But also because it gives
them a freedom to choose between translating what is conventional (lets remember that conventions
dont have to be the same across cultures) and what is individual or original.