The L-Space Web: Analysis

Sense Relationships and Semantic Problems in Literary Translation

A Study on the basis of Terry Pratchett's Soul Music

By Anke Schröder

1. Introduction


Death stopped.


'But I am a human.'


(Pratchett, 1995; 152 f.)

For sure, it is neither  the question why one should care what a phrase, or even just a single word means, nor the question how to avoid the question for the meaning of a word or phrase, which should be of interest, but the question how one can Know the meaning of a word or phrase and how this meaning canbe communicated adequately within one language, or, what appears to be even more difficult, to another language. The meaning of a word is for the most part based on its sense relationships towards other words surrounding it in a semantic field or by the 'role' it fulfills within the action described within a sentence (Yule, 1996; 116).

These sense relationships, which are either paradigmatic, that means established by the position of a word within a field, or syntagmatic, that means established by a word's position within a sentence, obviously are a source of translation problems as there will hardly be similar sense relationships between words of different languages even though they have the same meaning. In order to show these translation problems I will in a first step explain these different relationships and then in a second step examine Terry Pratchett's novel Soul Music and its German translation Rollende Steine in order to show concrete problems and possible solutions.

The term 'word' hereby will not be used for a single morpheme, but for a semantic unit which can also consist of several morpemes, but does not necessarily have to.

2. Sense Relationships

2.1. Synonymy

Synonymy is the relationship of 'sameness of meaning', or in other words, the relationship of different words referring more or less to the same idea. As the free choice between two words meaning completely the same in all contexts is an 'unneccessary luxury' (Jackson 2000: 93),l synonyms are not completely intersubstitutable in all possible contexts, but differ slightly. This fact can be illustrated by the following quote:

'But we hired you!', he said.

'The term is "retained", not "hired"', said Lord Downey, head of the Assassins' Guild. He looked at Clete with an expression of unconcealed distaste.

(Pratchett, 1995; 290)

The term 'hired' offends Downey, because, although it also conveys the idea of employment, the term 'retained' is more formal and refers to a different social status and a different kind of employment.

Synonyms can be distinguished in several ways, such as the aspect of formality or intensity. Some words are more 'professional' than their synonyms; some only belong  to written language, while other terms are more colloquial than others or are considered to be 'slang' or even 'taboo slang' words. Some synonyms just belong to different dialects.

Synonyms can also be distinguished by special contexts in which one member of a synonym pair is used, but the other not. Although a pair of synonyms may be similar in terms of style, intensity and dialect they still are not necessarily intersubstitutable because they sometimes are different in terms of connotation. 

2.2. Hierarchical Relationships: Hyponymy and Meronomy

When explaining a specific term by using a reference to a related, but more general term one uses the relationship of Hyponymy. Thisis a hierarchical relationship whereby the meaning of one form is included by another, that means that the hyponym refers to the super-ordinate term in terms of a 'being a kind of'-relation, whereby two or more terms can be co-hyponyms of the same super-ordinate term. Meronymy refers to a slightly different type of hierarchical sense relationship, as it is the term used for the relationship between a whole thing and its parts.

2.3. Antonymy

The sense relationship of 'oppositeness of meaning' is called antonymy. Although antonymy is typical of the adjective word class, it is not restricted to this class and can also be found in the word classes of nouns, verbs, adverbs, prepositions and conjunctions.

Antonyms can be  wether morphologically unrelated or built by affixation, that means by addition of negative or antonymous prefixes or antonymous suffixes. Still adjectives of the same stem with antonymous suffixes do not necessarily have to be antonyms, for instance 'hopeful' and 'hopeless' (Jackson 1993: 98)

There are two types of antonymy to be distinguished, namely gradable und non-gradable antonymy, whereby the latter can be differentiated into complementary and converse antonyms.

Gradable antonymy can be understood as 'antonymy in degree' and represents a 'more/less relation'. Jackson describes them as 'endpoints of a continuum or gradient' (Jackson 1993: 99), that means you will find both antonyms of one pair on the opposing ends of a scale, whereby they do not represent definite, but relative values. These antonyms still can be intensified by certain adverbs such as very, extraordinarily or extremely. This type of antonymy can only be found in the adjective word class among the gradable adjectives and to some extent in the adverb word class, but only among those adverbs that are derived from gradable adjectives.

Complementary antonymy represents an either/or-relationship of oppositeness without the idea of degree together with a total exclusion of one member of the pair within the presence of the other.

Converse antonymy conveys the idea of opposing perspectives of the same action or state. Again the definiton of someone, something or an action as one member of the pair excludes him from being also the other at the same time.

Both types of non-gradable antonymy can be found in the adjective word class as well as in the noun, verb and preposition/adverb particles word class.

2.4. Homonymy

The term homonymy is used for words, which happen to appear in the same shape, although their meanings are unrelated and they have different etymologies. Homonyms do not only differ in meaning, but sometimes also belong to different word classes, so it is possible to keep them apart by their syntactic differences. As the English language has a non-phonetic writing system it is also possible to distinguish between homographs, which appear to have the same spelling, but not necessarily the same pronunciation, and homophones, which are pronounced equally, but are not necessarily spelt the same; of course both phenomena can occur together.

Homonymy, especially when it is not restricted to homography and/or homophony but also happens to appear within the same word class, often leads to confusion, ambiguity and misunderstandings as homonyms with totally different meanings can make sense in the same utterance: 

'Then we play somewhere where the Guild won't find us', said Glod cheerfully. 'We find a club somewhere-'

'Got a club', said Lias proudly. 'Got a nail in it.'

'I mean a night club', said Glod.

'Still got a nail in it at night.'

(Pratchett 1995: 37)

2.5. Polysemy

Polysemy is the term for the phenomenon of one word having two or more separate, but still traceably related meanings. It is sometimes not easy to distinguish between polysemy and homonymy, as the polysemy of a word is caused by extension of a word's primary meaning. This is well illustrated by the following quote:

'Here is some free advice what you should know. It is free advice I am giving you gratis for nothing. In dis (sic) town, "rock" is a word for troll. A bad word for troll used by stupid humans. You call a troll a rock, you got to be prepared to spend sometime looking for your head (...)'

(Pratchett 1995: 31)

As discworld's trolls consist of different minerals, i.e. stones, the human insult "rock" is a clear reference to trolls' physical material and a sense extension of the word 'rock' with the meaning 'large stone'. The example of 'rock' can also be used to underline the difference between polysemy and homonymy as the noun "rock" meaning "large stone", the verb "to rock" meaning "to swing" are homonyms, while the relationship between "to rock" and "rock (music)" is a polysemic one because this certain type of music is undeniably related to the activity of rocking in a sense extending way.

If the polysemic terms derive from the application of an image in order to describe something, for instance referring to the boss of a company as its 'head' we speak of metonymy.

2.6. Collocation

The meaning of a word cannot only be  identified by its sense relationships with other words within the same field, but also by relations 'it contracts with other words occurring in the same sentence or text' (Jackson 2000: 113). This syntagmatic sense relationship, basing on the co-occurrence of words is called collocation. It does not only allow to identify the meaning of a word, or to predict the occurrence of certain words within the presence of another, but also may be the cause for the semantic change of a polysemous word by collocating a word which does not belong to the usual or expected collocations. For instance the term 'the reader in x' can refer to 'someone who teaches x' or 'the teacher of x', whereby 'x' refers to a certain subject. In case 'x' refers to a certain location, the reference 'teacher' may get lost and the meaning of the term changes to 'the one who reads in x'.

3. Semantic Problems in Literary Translation

As it has been shown above, the meaning of  a word is specified by its relationships to other words within a field that is not stable, but changes immediately when word is added, changed or taken apart, or by its position in a sentence and the co-occurrence of other words. The special features of each sense relationship described above allow the statement that there cannot be two completely similar wordfields in two different languages and therefore there are always various words of one language a possible translation of one word in the other language.

This large variety of possible translations makes it difficult to decide which one would be most appropriate to the author's intentions. As sense relationships are the source of puns these will also be only rarely translatable, namely only if there are in both languages similar terms related in the same way which convey the same humorous effect.

Still one can claim that it is possible to translate the mere plot of any piece of literature, regardless if it is poetry or prose, but the question is if this is translation is adequate, as there is usually more in it than the mere story, as there  are often a lot of allusions and references hidden in the author's special choice of words, for instance in telling names or in statements made by the narrator or the protagonists.

Soul Music contains, like every other novel of the Discworld series, a lot of parodistic elements, which on the major part rely on the use of certain sense relationships and especially the phenomena of polysemy and homonymy. Therefore this novel serves well to exemplify the problems in interlingual translation and possible solutions.

3.1. The Title

The novel's title Soul Music conveys a certain difficulty to the translator because it conveys polysemy to some extent, as it, on the one hand, hints at one of the main story lines of the novel, namely that music took over the part of being the soul of one of the main protagonists and on the other hand is the name of a certain genre of music, namely Soul.

As far as the title is only considered to be a reference to this certain genre, there is no translation necessary at all, as in German it has the same English name. Still by keeping the original title the hint at the story would get lost for those readers the translation is made up for, namely those who do not speak English.

However, the translator chose neither the direct translation nor the adoption o the original title, but made up one of his own, namely Rollende Steine. This surely alludes to the main story line, namely 'Music with Rocks in It', which is in the German translation 'Musik Mit Steinen Drin'; by the way, this translation shows the same problem as the polysemy of 'rock' has no equivalence in German. It appears to be likely that he also tried to convey a pun in this title, as the English translation of  'rollende Steine' is 'rolling stones', which is the name of a famous rock music band.

In my opinion this attempt to make up a different title in order to keep an intelligible allusion, as well to the story line as to music in general, failed, if one considers the major cause for inter-lingual translation of literature to make it understandable for those readers who do not understand the original text as they do not speak the language it is written in. But as there is no similar polysemy of the word 'Soul' or the word 'Seele' in German an adequate translation probably remains an unsolvable problem.

3.2. Names

The names occurring in the novel, no matter if character's names, place names or titles, bear a certain amount of allusions, references or puns and therefore are an important feature of the whole novel, therefore they represent great difficulties to the translator, as he has to judge in every single case whether to translate or to adopt a name. In the following chapters I will try to give examples of characters' and band names which convey such difficulties and the translator's solutions. Owing to the large amount of data, I have decided to exemplify on the basis of only two or three names of  the mentioned types, but included a full list of characters', band and place names in the appendix in order to make this study representative.

3.2.1. Characters' Names

Pratchett established certain rules for the  name-coinage of his characters, for instance the use of mineral names or other names coined out of the wordfield 'stone' for trolls, such as Chrysoprase and Asphalt and the use of family-relationships for the last name of dwarfs, for instance Glod Glodson and Snori Snoriscousin. In order to create allusive or punning names he uses for the most part homophones, homographs and specific denotations. These are of course, as I already have explained in the first part of this study for the most part rarely translatable because of the lack of similar relationships and wordfields in two different languages. Still it is questionable whether names should be translated at all.

As first example will serve the name of the novel's central character Imp Y Celyn, which causes several problems to the translator: Imp himself explains that his name is the Llamedese term for 'bud of the holly', a fact from which he develops his nickname Buddy Holly, an allusion to the famous Rock'n'Roll singer of our world. That 'imp y celyn' is in fact the Welsh term for 'bud of the holly' is not really of interest to the problem of translation, as the Welsh language does not have to be known in order to understand this explanation; the major problem in translating the explanation is to keep the nickname and still make its coinage plausible to the German reader. The second problem is to make Cliff's remark of 'Imp' sounding like 'elf', both being words for little fantasy creatures, intelligible to the reader as there is no such word as 'imp' in the German language.

'Well, all my family are y Celyns', said Imp, (...).'It means "of the holly". That's all that grows in Llamedos, you see, everything else just rots.'

'I wasn't goin' to say', said Cliff, 'but Imp sounds a bit like elf to me.'

'It just means "small shoot"', said Imp. 'You know. Like a bud.'

'Bud y Celyn?' said Glod. 'Buddy? Worse than Cliff in my opinion.'(sic!)

(Pratchett 1995:120-121)

»Nun, mein Famillienname llautet  y Cellyn«, antwortete Imp (...). »Das bedeutet soviell  wie ›von Holly‹ oder ›von der Stechpallme‹, wenn euch das llieber ist. Mehr wächst nicht in Llamedos, wißt ihr. Alllles andere verfaullt im Regen.«

»Ich wollte eigentlich nicht darauf hinweisen«, sagte Klippe. » Aber ›Imp‹... der Name irgend etwas Elfenhaftes hat.«

»Er bedeutet ›klleiner Trieb‹«, übersetzte Imp. »Beziehungsweise ›Knospe‹ oder ›Bud‹ in einer anderen Sprache«

»Knospe? Bud? Bud y Celyn?« Glod zögerte kurz. »Buddy? Ist noch schlimmer als Klippe, wenn du mich fragst.« (sic!)

(Pratchett 1996: 119)

We see that the translator chose on the one hand in order to keep Imp's explanation plausible the insertion of 'in einer anderen Sprache' ('in a different language'), that means he 'double-translated' and on the other hand changed Cliff's remark from 'Imp sounds like elf' to 'Imp sounds elfish', or in other words that not the entire name sounds like 'elf', but that the name sounded like an elvish name. Another observation can be made on the name 'Cliff', which has been directly translated into 'Klippe'. A choice that appears to be rather odd, as 'Cliff' is a common name in the English speaking world, but there is no such name as 'Klippe' in the German-speaking world, but still seems to be necessary to keep the wordfield 'stone' as source for the name coinage:

I thought . . . don't laugh . . . I thought . . . Cliff?' said Lias.


'Good troll name. Very stony. Very rocky. Nothing wrong with it,' said Cliff Lias defensively.

(Pratchett 1995: 120)

»Ich dachte . . . bitte lacht nicht . . . ich dachte an . . . Klippe«, erwiderte Lias.


»Guter Trollname. Sehr steinig. Um nicht zu sagen felsig. Damit alles in Ordnung ist«, verteidigte sich Klippe alias Lias.

(Pratchett 1996: 118)

A good example for Pratchett's use of homophony in name coinage is again a Llamedese name, namely Owen Mwny (/o'ən mʊnɪ/) [*], which is homophone to 'owing money'. As it  is not possible to translate this name into a German one, as there is no German name conveying the same or a similar sense relationship, the joke is lost.

The lost joke in the latter example does not present a greater difficulty to the translator as there is no hint in the text that this name is meant to be funny, but there arre names, which, in fact, present such difficulties as there is a clear statement about the meaning in the text, for instance in the following example:

'The wizard who thought he owned him [the raven] called him Quoth, but this was only because he didn't have a sense of humour and, like most people without a  sense of humour, prided himself on the sense of humour he hadn't, in fact, got.'

(Pratchett 1995: 55)

The joke hereby is the allusion to Edgar Allan Poe's famous poem 'The Raven' in which the line 'Quoth the raven "Nevermore"' is repeated again and again. As the translator chose to adopt the name instead of  translating it with, for instance, 'Sprach', the statement about the wizard's sense of humour remains unintelligible to the reader of the German edition, because he cannot connect the name with any translation of the poem. As solution of this problem the translator chose to insert an explanatory footnote:

'Der Zauberer, der sich für seinen Eigentümer hielt, nannte ihn Quoth*, weil es ihm an Humor mangelte. Wie die meisten Leute ohne Sinn für Humor war er sehr stolz auf seinen Humor.

* Hier spielt Terry Pratchett auf ein Gedicht von E.A. Poe an, in dem es heißt:»quoth the raven« = sagte der Rabe. Anmerkung des übersetzers.'

(Pratchett 1996: 53)

In my opinion this solution is not very successful, because the joke, ehich is produced by the allusion to the poem, only works, because it is a famous poem and the repeated 'quoth...' - line probably I even more famous, so the hint that there is a poem about a  raven is not adequately funny. A translation of the name would have been more successful, as there are well-known German translations of Poe's poem.

3.2.2. Band Names

By examining the band names in the following quote one will find allusions to some 'real' more or less famous bands:

'I'm fed up with being Surreptitious Fabric,' said Jimbo. 'It's a silly name.'


'Yeah, I liked it best when we were The Whom,' said Noddy.

'But we were only The Whom for half an hour said Crash. (A very grammatical half an hour, however.)

'Yesterday. In between bein' The Blots and Lead Balloon, remember?'

(Pratchett, 1995: 285)

These references are established by the use (and sometimes change) of sense relationships such as synonymy, polysemy and (co-) hyponymy. The first name mentioned 'Surreptitious Fabric' is an allusion to 'The Velvet Underground', which is made up by the polysemy of 'underground' which means also 'secret' in a figurative way and the archisem of  'velvet', namely fabric. 'The Whom' is a reference to 'The Who', which is made up by inflection of the original. 'The Blots' refers to 'The Inkspots' by use of simple synonymy. Knowing that 'Balloon' and 'Zeppelin' are co-hyponyms of the archisem 'flying vehicle' and considering 'lead' in 'Lead Balloon' to be the noun pronounced /led/ [*] the reference to the band 'Led Zeppelin' becomes obvious. Having a look at the German edition we see that the translator chose to translate the band names directly into German instead of adopting the originals: 

»Ich hab die Nase voll vom Heimlichen Stoff«, sagte Jimbo. »Der Name taugt nichts.«


»Mir gefiel›Die Wem‹am besten«, erwiderte Noddy.

»Wir waren doch nur eine halbe Stunde lang Die Wem!« entfuhr es Crash. (Es waren sehr grammatische dreißig Minuten).»Gestern. Zwischen ›Die Kleckse‹und ›Bleiballon‹.«

(Pratchett 1996: 284)

It is questionable whether this a reasonable choice or not, as the German reader who doesn't know English will not understand the references at all, no matter if translated or not. 'The Whom', however, would make an exception, as there is only an extra letter added. But this reference also gets lost when translated into German.

3.3. Puns

Puns basing on polysemy or homonymy may also cause difficulties in translating a text, because, as I already have mentioned above, these sense relationships are specific in one language and for the most part do not similarly occur in another one. If these puns are also obviously intended to be a pun, that means if they are called like that within the text, but are not translatable, the difficulty becomes even more obvious, because the translator has to decide, if he just should leave out the statement that this was a pun, or change the text by substituting it by a different one which is not a literal translation of the original. The latter is not possible in every context, so it is likely that he often will choose the opportunity I mentioned first. I will now exemplify on the following quotes.

'That's right,' said the Dean,' and this is the Rite of AshkEnte. It calls Death into the circle and he (...) can't leave until we say so. (...) I must say your predecessor - hah, bit of a pun there - was a lot more gracious about it.

(Pratchett 1995: 249)

The pun is of course the possible polysemy, although it actually is not regarded to be polysemous, of the word 'predecessor', which means 'ancestor' or 'precursor' in the first place but can also be understood as 'previous decessor', or in other words 'the one who made people decease before'. The German translation of 'predecessor', namely 'Vorgänger' or 'Vorfahre', does not offer the opportunity to derive a different etymology for this word in a similar way, so it is not possible to make the interjection 'hah, bit of a pun in there' plausible to the reader. Therefore, the translator has no other chance than to leave it out:

»Ja«, bestätigte der Dekan. »Und dies ist der Ritus von AshKente. Er ruft den Tod in den Kreis. Er (...)kann ihn erst wieder verlassen wenn wir es erlauben. (...) Dein Vorgänger nahm es weit aus gelassener hin.«

(Pratchett 1996: 248)

Another example I would like to mention is based on homophony. As English has a much wider range of homophones caused by it having a non-phonetic writing system, one is likely to assume that in this language are a lot more puns on this basis possible, than in a language wherein the spelling and pronunciation equal, for instance the German language.

'That's a harp he's playing, Nobby,' said one of them, after watching Imp for a while.


'No, it's the honest truth, I'm -' The fat Guard frowned and looked down.

'You've just been waiting all your life to say that, ain't you Nobby,' he said. 'I bet you was born hoping that one day someone'd say "That's a harp" so you could say "lyre", on account of it being a pun or play on words. Well, har har.'

Imp stopped playing. It was impossible to play under such circumstances.

'It is a harp, actually,' he said, 'I won it in -'

(Pratchett 1995: 27)

The pun herein is, of course the homophony of 'lyre' and 'liar', which are equally pronounced  /laɪə/. [*] As there is no similar homophony or homonymy between a harp-shaped musical instrument and the term for a person that is lies, the guard's misunderstanding and following accusation would be unintelligible to the German reader and therefore has to be left out. Still it is necessary to have a discussion about the instrument, in order to make Imp join the conversation.

»Er spielt eine Harfe, Nobby«, sagte einer von ihnen, nachdem er Imp eine Zeitlang beobachtet hatte.


»Es ist wirkllich eine Harfe«, sagte er.»Ich habe sie gewonnen, und zwar beim...«

(Pratchett 1996: 25)

If a pun bases on polysemy which refers to a word's collocation this may also cause difficulties in translating it. . As I already have mentioned in the chapter about collocations (2.6.), the  English word 'reader' is polysemous, as it can refer to 'someone who reads something', 'something which can be read' and 'someone who teaches at a university' depending on its collocations, but there is no German word conveying the same polysemy. Therefore it is difficult to translate the quote

The Reader in Esoteric Studies spent so much time reading in what the Bursar referred to as 'the smallest room' that he was generally referred to as the Reader in The Lavatory, even on official documents.

(Pratchett 1995: 131)

and keeping the pun adequately funny. The translator of the present German edition chose to translate 'reader' generally with 'Leser', that means 'someone who reads something', which is the adequate translation for 'reader' in 'Reader in The Lavatory', but does not adequately translate 'reader' in 'Reader in Esoteric Studies', because 'Leser' does not refer to 'academic teacher'. The result, however, sounds odd, because the academic reference is missing:

Der Leser esoterischer Studien verbrachte viel Zeit damit, in einem Zimmer zu lesen, das der Quästor als das kleinste in der ganzen Universität bezeichnete. Die folge war, daß er selbst in offiziellen Dokumenten »Leser auf der Toilette« genannt wurde.

(Pratchett 1996: 129)

3.4. Allusions and References within the text

Hidden references to, for instance, movies, songs, bands are another source for problems in translating Pratchett's novel, on the one hand because the translator has to keep in mind that the reader his aiming at does not understand the English language and therefore will not be able to understand polysemous or homonymous allusions, on the other hand, in the case of movies there are also German translations with titles which are not necessarily literal translations of the original. The following quotes are a case in point:

Ridcully was going to say, oh you're a rebel, are you, what are you rebelling against, and he'd say . . . he'd say something pretty damn memorable, that's what he'd do! He was -

But the Archchancellor had stalked of.

'mumblemumblemumble,'said the Dean defiantly, a rebel without a pause.

(Pratchett 1995: 173)

Ridcully würde gleich sagen: Oh, du bist ein Rebell, nicht wahr, gegen was rebellierst du eigentlich? Und der Dekan beabsichtigte, eine Antwort zu geben, . . . die es in sich hatte, jawohl! Er . . .

Der Erzkanzler gab ihm keine Gelegenheit etwas Denkwürdiges zu sagen. Er ging fort.

»Grummelgrummelgrummel«, sagte der Dekan trotzig - ein Rebell auf der Suche  nach etwas wogegen er rebellieren konnte.

(Pratchett 1996: 172)

The first part of the quote, being a reference to the movie The Wild One, where in Marlon Brando starring as Johnny being asked what he was rebelling against just answers 'Give me something', does not represent a major difficulty to the translation, but as 'a rebel without a pause' is an allusion to James Dean's famous last movie 'A Rebel Without A Cause', established by the partial homophony of 'cause' and 'pause', there is in fact an obvious difficulty. The movie's German title is 'Denn Sie Wissen Was Sie Tun' ('Because they don't know ehat they are doing') so it is worth asking if the translator should have kept the allusion and written 'denn er wußte nicht was er tun sollte'('because he didn't know what to do'), which is of course, although syntactically possible, a major change of the original text or if he should have chosen the literal translation.

Surprisingly, he did neither, but showed in his translation 'ein Rebell auf der Suche nach etwas wogegen er rebellieren konnte', which would be translated into English 'a rebel looking for a cause', that he understood the allusion to the movie but was not able to translate it. The literal translation would have been something like 'ein Rebell ohne Pause'.

Another allusion, namely to the famous jazz musician Thelonious Monk  can be found in the following quote.

'Right,' said Buddy, 'but if you went out there now and ask who the most famous horn player is, would they remember some felonious monk or would they shout for Glod Glodson?

(Pratchett 1995: 219)

This allusion bases on the homophony of the musician's name and the term 'felonious monk' and as its translation does not bear a similar homophony, the allusion is lost completely:

»Ja«, sagte Buddy. »Aber wenn du jetzt nach draußen gehst und die Leute nach dem Namen des berühmtesten Hornisten aller Zeiten fragst . . . Erinnern sie sich dann an irgendeinen sündigen Mönch oder bejubeln sie Glod  Glodson?«

(Pratchett 1996: 218)

3.5. Problems on the Basis of Connection between Language and Cultural Background

One cause for wordfields in different languages never being similar is that the meaning of a word, phrase or concept is, for the most part, closely related to one's cultural background. Therefore it is worth asking whether speakers of the same language who come from different regions will have the same understanding of one phrase or if the lack of cultural background knowledge will make a text from another background unintelligible. In fact, this problem is not only caused by different geographic, but also by different social origins, but as this study deals with the problem of translation I shall restrict this question only to the geographic differences. One attempt of the following exemplification shall be to show that there is specific British terms, which already may be unintelligible for Americans and to exemplify if these can be translated into another language of another country with also different background knowledge without losing anything of the original. 

'According to a rural legend - at least in those areas where pigs are a vital part of the household economy - the Hogfather is a winter myth figure who, on Hogswatchnight, gallops from house to house on a crude sledge drawn by four tusked wild boars to deliver presents of sausages, black puddings, pork scratchings and ham to all children who have been good. He says 'Ho ho ho' a lot. Children who have been bad get a bag full of bloody bones (it's these little details which tell you it's a tale for the little folk). There is a song about him. It begins: You'd better watch out...'

(Pratchett 1995: 69)

The example clearly conveys an allusion to Christmas and Santa Clause or Father Christmas as he is called in some regions. There is no point in getting this wrong, the main problem here will be to keep and explain the 'hog' reference. Therefore one must know that there is a Scottish term for New Year's Eve, namely Hogmanay, which allows the British reader to understand why here Christmas is connected with pigs. This might be already unintelligble for non-British native speakers of English and is an even bigger problem in interlingual translation.

As there is no similar term referring to hogs or pigs in German the translator faces a major problem in keeping this passage intelligibly funny. Another problem is the song reference. 'You'd better watch out' being the first line of the English carol 'Santa Claus is coming to town' cannot be known to a German reader without an average knowledge of the English language and culture. Neither is there any German carol beginning with a similar line.

Keeping these facts in mind one should look now at the German edition and see how the translator solved these problems:

'Vom Schneevater erzählt man sich vor allem auf dem Land beziehungsweise in jenen Regionen, wo Schweine eine wichtige Rolle in der lokalen Wirtschaft spielen. Die mythische Gestalt ist in der Neujahrsnacht unterwegs, mit einem einfachen Schlitten, der von vier Keilern gezogen wird. Brave Kinder bekommen von ihm Würstchen, Blutwurst, Innereien und Schinken. Offenbar findet er großen Gefallen daran, »Ho, ho, ho« zu sagen. Unartige Jungen und Mädchen erhalten von ihm einen Beutel mit blutigen Knochen (an solchen Details erkennt man sofort, daß (sic) die Geschichte für Kinder bestimmt ist. Es gibt ein Lied über ihn, das mit den Worten beginnt: Seid besser auf der Hut...

(Pratchett 1996: 67)

Here we see that the translator chose, for the major part, the way of literal translation, except for the names 'Hogfather' and 'Hogswatchnight' which he translated with 'Schneevater' (meaning 'Snowfather' in English) and 'Neujahrsnacht' ('new year's eve'). This shows that he himself understood the allusion to 'Hogmanay' and chose these translation to keep the winter image, still the literal translation would have been 'Schweinevater' and 'Schweinefutternacht', or in the second case, the term 'hogswatch' being polysemic and also meaning 'nonsense', 'Unsinnsnacht'; The concept of Santa Claus riding a sleigh, rewarding children who have been good and punishing the other ones is well known in all western countries, where Christmas is celebrated and needs no further explanatory comment  Yet it seems as if there is no way to keep the reference in a German translation. In my opinion there would be an appropriate way to keep the reference by coining a phrase like 'Schweinachten' or 'Schweinachtsmann' in compounding the German words for 'pig', namely 'Schwein' and for 'Christmas', namely 'Weihnachten', but apparently the translator did not have the idea or thought it to be inadequate.

The literal translation of the song's first line turns out to be inadequate, as the German reader only understands the idea of threatening conveyed in this line but cannot be able to connect it with a Christmas carol. A possible solution would be to insert the opening line of a German carol, for instance 'Morgen, Kinder wird's was geben..' meaning 'Kids, tomorrow you'll be getting...' instead of translating the original. This line also conveys slightly the idea of threatening, even if it is not as strong as in the original.

A similar problem is presented in the following quote:

'Lunch was Dead Man's Fingers and Eyeball Pudding, a healthy ballast for the afternoon's occupation, which was sport.'

(Pratchett 1995: 56)

These expressions are common in the United Kingdom, where items on the school menu are traditionally given horrible names. 'Dead Man's Fingers are sausages and 'Eyeball Pudding' refers to semolina. In this case the literal translation of these euphemisms would be inadequate, as there is no such tradition in Germany. To translate these expressions in their actual meaning is also not absolutely appropriate, as there are stylistic differences between the synonyms, namely British school slang and the official names of these kinds of food. The translator, however, chose neither of the two options, but made up food names of  his own.

'Zum Mittagessen gab es Händelkraut und Vitaminpudding, genau die richtige Nahrung für den Nachmittag, der im Zeichen des Sports stand.'

(Pratchett 1996: 54)

Neither 'Händelkraut' nor 'vitaminpudding' are common expressions for a certain type of food in Germany, so this choice does not appear to be very plausible. As there has been made an unneccessary change to the text without any positive or negative effect this translation can be regarded as not being successful at all.

4. Conclusion and Points of Discussion

As I have shown in the preceding chapters, the different sense relations between words in different languages make the fulfilment of the task of a literal literary translation without a certain loss of allusions,  references and puns which remain plausible, intelligible and obvious to the reader impossible. It is now worth discussing in which cases a translator should choose the literal translation and in which cases he should change the text by translating into different, yet adequate images, in order to keep the allusions established by the author or to invent at least similar ones. No matter which way of translation is chosen, the result  will be a text which is at least slightly different from the original. It will be only comparable to the original, but never be the same just in a different language. Of course, one can accuse me of having chosen a work with an extraordinary amount of semantically based humour in order to prove my thesis, but this problem  does not only occur in this aspect, but wherever one word has several possible translations it causes the problem of which translation is the most adequate to the author's intention. Therefore one can say that literary translation is always also literary interpretation.

5. Abstract

The present study deals with the establishment of a word's meaning by the different possible sense relationships it has with other words, such as synonymy, antonymy, polysemy, homonymy, hyponymy and collocation. These sense relationships are explained, for most of them examples are given.

A second part of the study deals with the question whether literature is translatable or not, as there are rarely the same sense relationships between words of different languages and therefore it is not easy to decide what is the most appropriate translation of a word in a certain context. This question is tried to be answered on the basis of an examination of Terry Pratchett's novel Soul Music and its German translation Rollende Steine. The examination hereby focuses on  the translations of the title, names, puns, references and the problem of cultural background in translation.

Finally the author comes to the conclusion that there is, in fact, no literary translation possible, as there are always slight changes of the text to be made in order to keep puns and references, if the translator decides to go for a literal translation of the mere plot of a novel this translation can never have the same effects like the original. So translation and original will always differ slightly.

6. Bibliography

Primary Literature:

Pratchett, Terry, Rollende Steine, ins Deutsche übertragen von Andreas Brandhorst, München 1996

Pratchett, Terry, Soul Music, Corgi Edition, London, 1995

Secondary Literature:

Breebaart, Leo and Kew, Mike, The Annotated Pratchett Files v7a.5, (online version) and (download version), seen on Feb 15th 2002

Harris, Roy, Synonymy and Linguistic Analysis, Oxford 1973

Jackson, Howard, Words, meaning and vocabulary: an introduction to modern lexicology, London 2000

Keller, Rudi (Hrsg.), Linguistik und Literaturübersetzen, Tübingen 1997

Yule, George, The Study of Language, Cambridge, 21996

[*] Footnote: If you are unable to view the phonetic symbols and wish to do so, have a look at this image.

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