Translation of culturally colored words: approach of the Russian translation school

Table of contents: The Kazakh-American Free University Academic Journal №6 - 2014

Borissova Anna, Kazakh American Free University, Kazakhstan
Gersonskaya Valentina, Kazakh-American Free University, Kazakhstan

Further globalization and integration increase interest in cultures of different nationalities, and, consequently, enhance research of their peculiarities. Nowadays we tend to learn more about other people`s life by means of art, i.e. various films, books etc., showing us their mode of life and mentality. Fiction being one of the most reliable sources, shows all the mentioned above without misrepresentation. The issues of preserving ethnic “flavor” and national coloring in the translation of a book into any foreign language is relevant and even crucial for the translator. This article is dedicated to the cultural peculiarities, creating the authentic atmosphere of the text and variants of their rendering, elaborated by the Russian school of translation and implemented into the English language practice.

Literary text differs from other types of texts and is considered to be more difficult for reader`s perception and full understanding of the concept due to its diverse nature. Professor L. Babenko defines the literary text as “a verbal piece of art, aiming to realize author`s concept, as an individual worldview, created by his artistic imagination, and implemented in the matter of the text by means of purposefully selected linguistic means, corresponding with the author`s idea, reflecting the reality and addressed to the reader who interprets all these in line with his own social and cultural competence” (Babenko, 2000, p.126).This definition proves that the literary text has linguistic and extra-linguistic connections. This idea was further developed by professor V. Vinogradov in his book “Introduction to the Translation Studies (General and Vocabulary Issues)”. He notes that linguistic connections or, in other words, linguistic information carries intralingua content, reflecting objects of the linguistic system, their interrelations and existing regularities of speech (Vinogradov, 2001, p 23). Linguistic connections are equally inherent in all types of texts, but the situation is not the same with extra-linguistic ones. They are mostly common for literary texts; this feature singles them out of the other text type and causes difficulties in literary translation. These difficulties are explained by the fact that this type of information presupposes notions and understanding of the phenomena, existing in material and spiritual cultures of other peoples (Vinogradov, 2001, p. 25).

The translation of the literary text is complicated because of figurative and associative elements, i.e. the extra-linguistic part of the text. Writing about extra-linguistic information, V. Vinogradov subdivides it into semantic information (information that denotes objects); expressive and emotional information (in other words – stylistic or connotative information); social and cultural information (including geographic information); chronological information (diachronic and monochromic); differential information (that varies in accordance with the meaning of the message, pointing either to the object or the subject, modality, etc.); background information (Vinogradov, 2001, p. 27). In “Language and Culture”, E. Vereshchagin and V. Kostomarov define background knowledge as “common for all participants of communication” (Vereshchagin, Kostomarov, 1973, p. 126). Such background knowledge includes information about cultural peculiarities of other peoples, and can be seen as the result of “historical development of an ethnic community” (Vinogradov, 2001, p. 135).They suppose that authors, while writing a book, address the average reader. So they consider this type of information acceptable and appeal to it. Knowledge about the country is a key element in understanding the text (Vinogradov, 2001, p. 170). However, we must take into consideration that the reader often belongs to other culture and does not speak the language the book is written in. In such a case communication will not be successful, as the message cannot be apprehended in the correct way. It leads to the change in the aim of translation, as the translator must obtain correct connotative meaning and thereby provide full understanding of the text. Translation of realias is the most complicated part of the process, as they reflect the social part of the language, i.e. the result of interaction between language and culture, representing the peculiarities of life style and habits (Repin, 1970, p. 88).

These issues have been analyzed by many scientists, including O. Akhmanova who writes about realia – objects (components of culture) and realia – words (vocabulary, representing realia – objects in language) (Akhmanova, 1966, p. 324). According to E. Vereshchagin and V. Kostomarov, translation of realias into other languages by means of exact match is impossible (Vereshchagin, Kostomarov, 1973, p 175); G. Tomakhin analyses different languages and cultures and writes about peculiarities of realias implementation evoked by them (Tomakhin, 1988, p 85). In our opinion, the definition given by S. Vlakhov and S. Florin fully shows the nature of realia. Thus, the realia is a word, denoting objects typical of life, culture, social and historical development of a nation and unknown for others. It represents national and historical coloring, has no exact correspondences in other languages, and so cannot be translated by means of common rules (Vlakhov, Florin, 1980, p. 265).

Having reviewed works by B. Repin, A. Reformatskiy, S. Vlakhov and S. Florin we are coming to the conclusion that classification of realias is based on different indications, such as time, place, semantics, grammar and phonetics. B. Repin, for instance, singles out five groups of realias: accomodation, clothes, jewelry; food, drinks; relations customs, plays, songs musical instruments, ethnographical; mythology and religion; onomastic phenomena (Repin, 1970, p. 92). Classifying realias, A. Reformatskiy considers not only objects, but also language. He distinguishes proper names, coins, ranks and titles, costumes and jewelry, cuisine, direct addresses (Reformatskiy, 1967, p. 221).

The most detailed classification was done by S. Vlakhov and S. Florin. They divide realias into three groups, based on objects, place and time. To the first group they refer geographical objects, including meteorology, and endemics, the second group is ethnographical realias, describing life style, culture, money,the third group is social and political realias, describing administrative and territorial system, bodies of power, social and political life, military realias, etc. (Vlakhov, Florin, 1980, p. 268). Subdivision of realias in this classification is done taking into account not only the national origin of realias, but also translation languages. The authors consider realias as “native” and “foreign”. “Native” realia is national realia. “Foreign” realia is a phenomenon not typical for certain community of people (Vlakhov, Florin, 1980, p. 290). S. Vlakhov and S. Florin suggest subdividing all the realias for translation purposes into outer and inner. In their opinion, outer realia is a realia foreign for both languages, i.e. the language of the original text and the language of translation. Inner realia, in its turn, is native for one of the languages. Also, realias can be seen as modern, and historical ones (p. 293).

As translation of culturally colored vocabulary is one of the most difficult tasks, many scholars pay great attention to it. E. Vershchagin, V. Kostomarov, V. Vinogradov and others contributed much to the development of the Russian translation school in general and translation of realias in particular. Analyzing their works, we can conclude that there are many ways to render realias. However, the fact that no ideal way to translate them exists is obvious. The task for the translator to choose the best variant, suiting the situation, is of great difficulty. The most obvious way is not the best one. Footnotes cannot be applied in all cases, despite the great number of its advantages. It takes a lot of place and requires reader’s attention and patience to read them. It also leads to the increase of pages in translation and so cannot be accepted by many publishing houses.

Transcription and/or transliteration are also commonly used. In the first case the phonation of the word is preserved, and the translator writes it down by means of the alphabet of translation language. This way is used in translation of the W. Scott`s novel «Ivanhoe»

“…to offer a hundred zecchins in ransom of these horses and suits of armour (Akhmanova, 1966, p. 647).

We think that transliteration is not quite good as it shows only the written variant of the word which cannot provide the reader with enough information. Transliteration was used in the translation of the Pushkin`s “The Tale of the Fisherman and the Fish”. So the word «izba» was transliterated.

The way called “transplantation” presupposes inclusion of foreign vocabulary into the translated text. This can be only used if the vocabulary is familiar to most of the readers. But translators must remember that this way cannot make a text easy for understanding.

Loan translation is a technique that implies adoption of lexical and semantical model from the original. It was used in translation of the M. Sholokhov`s short story “Herdsman”. The translator took the word Исполком and translated every part of it.

«So, we, the Executive Committee, propose Frolov, Grigory, in this place».

The disadvantage of this way is that translation of words parts cannot provide full understanding of culturally colored words.

Polyonization in translation consists of the search for the best suited equivalent, incorporating the whole specter of meanings and colors of the word. For instance, in translation of the W. Scott`s novel «Ivanhoe» the translator changes baron into помещик. Though such means misunderstanding and the wrong perception of the object.

Xenonymic explication, called descriptive translation by many scholars (Akhmanova, 1966, p. 691), allows us to explain the meaning of a word in the text, as it presupposes word combinations, illustrating the meaning and peculiarities of the described objects. This way was used in the translation of the «Breakfast at Tiffany’s» novel by Truman Garcia Capote. The word combination

«He rang open his cash register, and produced a manila envelope»

was translated as

«Он с треском выдвинул ящик кассы и достал конверт из толстой бумаги».

Alongside all the advantages, this way has also a disadvantage, as the xenonym itself is replaced in the translated text, and the reader can`t picture the object, and therefore, understand it (Tomakhin, 1988, p. 211).

Techniques employed in rendering the cultural component of a literary text can be readily seen in a typical specimen of translation made by a representative of the Russian translation school, i.e. the English version of the world-famous A. Tolstoy’s novel “Peter the First” made by T. Shebunina in 1961. The choice of this literary work for our research has been predetermined by the plot of this masterpiece of Russian literature as the scene of the book is laid in Medieval Russia and acquaints the reader with many aspects of the Russian life in the XVII century. To recreate the atmosphere of the epoch, the writer intensively uses archaisms and words denoting Russian realias. Take, the first chapter of the novel. Fifty – two pages contain 194 culturally colored elements.

Realias representing social life is the majority in the text (126 out of 194). There are realias denoting clothes, food, interior and exterior of the house, words, connected with religion, geographical names, words, describing the political and social environment of the XVII century.

The text is “overcrowded” with words, denoting objects of everyday life: clothes (лапти, тулуп, колпак, войлочный кафтан, телегея, валенки, кушак, food (солонина, подовые пироги, щи, тестяные шишки, левашник, перепечи), household items (сени, печь, изба, кадка, волоковое окошечко, усадьба, крыша луковицей, подклеть, крестовая палата), religious festivals and notions (покров, крестная сила, дьяк, подьячий, звонница, образа, патриарх), geographical names (Кукуй-слобода, Архангельск, Холмогоры, Река Неглинная, Яуза, Китай-город), political and administrative realias (дворня, боярское царство, стрельцы, ратник, кабальная запись).

The above-mentioned words were translated in the manner, typical of the traditional Russian translation school.

Thus, the realias of Chapter I were translated in the following way:

clothes and foot ware:


words, describing interior, exterior of the house, and yard:

There is wide variety of religious words:

The names of the cities and rivers (16 realias):

There are 54 realias, connected with social structure and political system showing political climate and governmental system of that time:

Transcription and transliteration are two the main frequently used ways of rendering realias, used by the translator.

В стрельцы пойти?

Join the streltsi?

In many cases the translator had to describe the meaning, but not to translate the given realia:

Под черным потолком клубился теплый, сухой дым, уходил в волоковое окошечко над дверью: избу топили по-черному.

Warm, dry smoke curled up to the blackened ceiling and made its way out of the little transom over the door— there was no chimney.

One of the most frequently used way to render the realias in the translation of the novel is to change them by neutral words:

Один, рослый холоп, бросив карты, обернулся.

One of the men, a tall fellow, flung down his cards and turned round.

The translator preferred not to miss the realias out, however some examples of this mean can be found in the text:

Володька Чемоданов с челобитной до царя дошел, два сельца ему в вечное владенье дано.

Volodka Chemodanov reached the Tsar himself with his petition and got two tidy villages in perpetual ownership.

Loan translation is the other way of rendering, implemented by the translator:

“Oh, they ’veki-i-i-lled me!” and dragged him out of the house, pushing through the crowd towards the Red Square, to show him to others.

Footnote is the way of rendering used only twice in the first chapter, and can be considered as the least implemented.

The choice of ways of realias rendering made by the translator can be explained by great amount of culturally colored words in the text. Transliteration and transcription are used to preserve national coloring of the text; explanation of the words, used instead of their translation, helps the reader to understand the nature of the phenomenon described. The best ways of rendering, i.e. footnotes and comments in the text cannot be used very frequently as they increase the number of pages and require the reader to be very attentive and patient to read extra amount of text. The translation reviewed reveals the problems that literary translators face and the way they try to deal with them.


1. Babenko L.G. Lingvisticheskij analiz hudozhestvennogo teksta. – Ekaterinburg, 2000. – 534 s.

2. Vinogradov V.S. Vvedenie v perevodovedenie (obshhie i leksicheskie voprosy). — M., 2001. — 224 s.

3. Vereshhagin E.M., Kostomarov V.G. Jazyk i kul'tura. M., 1973.

4. Repin B.I. Nacional'no - specificheskie slova-realii kak osobaja chast' leksiki v perevodimom proizvedenii. // Sb. Teoreticheskie i prakticheskie voprosy prepodavanija inostr. jaz. - M., 1970 - s. 87-98.

5. Ahmanova O.S. Slovar' lingvisticheskih terminov. - M., 1966. - 607 s.

6. Tomahin G.D. Pragmaticheskij aspekt leksicheskogo fona slova // Filologicheskie nauki, № 5, 1988 - s. 82- 90.

7. Vlahov S. i Florin S. Neperevodimoe v perevode. - M., 1980. - 342 s.

8. Reformatskij A.A. Vvedenie v jazykoznanie. - M., 1967 - 542 s.

9. Tolstoj A. Sobranie sochinenij v 10 tomah tom 7 - M., 1959

10. Tolstoy A. Peter the First – New York, The New American Library of World Literature, Inc., 1961

Table of contents: The Kazakh-American Free University Academic Journal №6 - 2014

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