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Vol 34 No 1, January - March 1996 Page 30 PREVIOUS ... CONTENTS ... SEARCH ... NEXT


The Prominence of Transfer in Translation
by Li Xiao Fan

In the process of preparing students to become translators, I go through at least three stages: Analysis of the source language; careful study of the text; and identification of the appropriate terminology in the target language. The first two stages involve four steps: Analyzing surface structure; applying transformational rules; analyzing syntactic structure; and finally examining the semantic component. The last stage employs the same four steps but in reversed order.

There is a gap between the first two stages of translation and the third, namely, between the source language and the target language. How do we bridge this gap? That's the task of "transfer!" It serves as a hinge between the study of the deep structure of the source language and the appropriate restructuring of meaning within the target language.

Transfer requires a complete grasp of the linguistic structures of the two languages. Basic problems lie in the different semantic, syntactic, and rhetorical systems of the languages. Therefore, in our rendering, it is necessary to make some changes in these structures of the target language. Since the difference in syntactic structures is self-evident, let us consider the semantic and rhetorical elements in translation.

Semantic structures

Over-differentiation versus under-differentiation: One language may differentiate among certain items or events while the other may treat them as one, disregarding minor differences. For instance, in English, the word orange refers to a kind of fruit. In Chinese, there are three different varieties of oranges indicated by three distinct noun forms. In this case, English under-differentiates while Chinese over-differentiates. The opposite may also happen as is the case with the following examples:

  1. The ship reached New York harbor after a month's voyage.
  2. Three policemen arrived at the crime scene immediately.
  3. When I got home, my supper was ready.

Chinese employs a single verb for the three opinions available in English.

Different category structures: Some categories existing in one language may not be present in another. For instance, most European languages have gender and case and even English shows gender in pronouns. Chinese lacks these categories.

Connotative meaning: Some semantic features present in one language may not be present in another. For example: The number 13 in American English has the meaning of bad luck, but in Chinese, there is no such connotation.

Different symbolic values relating to objects or events: Different cultures assign different values to people, objects, or events. For example: The White Elephant brand is often used as a trademark in China especially for batteries. For the Chinese, white elephant symbolizes something powerful and pure. But for Americans, white elephant means something old or useless. In some European countries and in the U.S.A., the expression red light suggests prostitution, but in China, especially during the Cultural Revolution, red light (or red lantern) symbolized revolutionary guidance. There is even a Chinese opera named "The Red Lantern."

Rhetorical structures

Each language has a set of rhetorical devices. Some may be identical, but others may not. In Chinese, an expression represented by four Chinese characters is frequently employed by educated people, for they think that it is expressive, terse, and forceful. Indo-European languages, have no such device.

For the sake of achieving rhythmic effect, the overlapping of two-character words is another characteristic Chinese rhetorical device, which has no counterpart in English. Instead, English has some devices like alliteration which are very difficult if not impossible to preserve in a Chinese translation.

Transfer is the most complex process in translation. If we pay due attention to transfer, translation will be much easier and the product will clearly represent the intended meaning of the source text.

Li Xiao Fan is an Associate Professor at Xi'an University of Technology in the People's Republic of China.


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Vol 34 No 1, January - March 1996 Page 30 PREVIOUS ... CONTENTS ... SEARCH ... NEXT
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