Volume 4, No. 4 
October 2000

  Yongfang Hu





The World Is Our Oyster
by Gabe Bokor
Index 1997-2000
  Translator Profiles
Experience Counts!
by Eva Eie
  The Profession
The Bottom Line
by Fire Ant & Worker Bee
  Translation Theory
Equivalence in Translation: Between Myth and Reality
by Vanessa Leonardi
The Sociosemiotic Approach and Translation of Fiction
by Yongfang Hu
Translation and Meaning
by Magdy M. Zaky
Into English—Seven survival tools for translating Brazilian Portuguese into English
by Danilo Nogueira
  Translator Education
Poor Results in Foreign>Native Translation: Reasons and Ways of Avoidance
by Serghei Nikolayev
  Science & Technology
A Translator’s Guide to Organic Chemical Nomenclature XXI
by Chester E. Claff, Jr., Ph.D.
  Caught in the Web
Web Surfing for Fun and Profit
by Cathy Flick, Ph.D.
Translators’ On-Line Resources
by Gabe Bokor
Search Engines Revisited
by Gabe Bokor
  Translators’ Tools
Translators’ Emporium
Translators’ Events
Call for Papers and Editorial Policies
Translation Journal
Translation Theory

The Sociosemiotic Approach and Translation of Fiction

by Yongfang Hu
uring the past two or three decades, developments in the fields of transformational grammar, general and contrastive linguistics, semantics, information theory, anthropology, semiotics, psychology, and discourse analysis etc. have exerted great influence on general translation theory, enabling the discipline to broaden the areas of investigation and to offer fresh insights into the concept of correspondence on transference between linguistic and cultural systems. The traditionally much debated dichotomy between literal and free translation has been replaced by various linguistically informed modern distinctions, like Nida's “formal” versus “dynamic” correspondence, Catford's “formal correspondence” versus “textual equivalence,” or Newmark's “semantic” as opposed to “communicative” translation. In general, more attention has been paid to the translation process and greater emphasis placed on “equal response” of the target language reader. Such new perspectives on theoretical front as well as the fairly extensive developments in specific interlingual contrastive studies have promoted considerably the understanding and mastery of the nature and skill of translation (Shen, 1996). However, these are seen to be insufficient when applied to the translation of prose fiction. Translation of fiction has benefited very little from resent developments in linguistics. In literary translation studies, much attention had been given to poetry translation instead of fiction translation. And more and more scholars have become concerned with the problem that the translation of realistic fiction as a literary genre has been most neglected. Shen Dan (1996) in particular emphasizes the necessity for applying literary stylistics to the translation of prose fiction, which is a significant contribution to the study of fiction translation, because some specific problems posed by translation of fiction such as “deceptive equivalence” can be rather effectively solved by the introduction of stylistic analysis. Shen Dan's attempt to introduce literary stylistics into translation of fiction is quite significant. However, the nature of fiction translation cannot be restricted in the literary stylistic analysis that considers style only as artistically or thematically motivated choices and focuses on the translation of foreground features of prose fiction. “Deceptive equivalence” is not the only problem that occurs in translation of fiction.

Translation of fiction is much more complicated than the translation of other genres, as it deals not only with bilingual, but also bi-cultural and bi-social transference
It is generally accepted that translating fiction is a complex process subject to the influence of numerous variable factors, such as whether the translation should be source-language-oriented or target-language-oriented, or whether a given original should be adapted for certain pragmatic purposes. Chinese fiction and English fiction, which are not only written in different languages, but also represent different cultures, differ greatly in terms of linguistic, literary and cultural-social conventions. We shall not only pay special attention to certain peculiar ways in which language generates aesthetic effects in Chinese and to the methods used by translators to achieve expressive identity in English but also give insights concerning the cultural-social values in translation of fiction. However, both literary-stylistic and linguistic approaches have failed to recognize the nature of fiction translation. At present the best approach to studying translation of fiction is the sociosemiotic approach, which has been found to address all aspects of fiction translation. This paper intends to discuss the necessity of introducing the sociosemiotic approach to translation of fiction.

1.What is prose fiction?

Criticism divides literature into different categories, or genres: poetry, drama and prose fiction. Prose fiction presents a story that is invented and not literally “true.” Its prose language is not divided up according to principles of rhymes, rhythm, metre or word patterning. And prose fiction is written to be read rather than acted or performed, and the events described are told to us by a narrator, not enacted or dramatized (Watkins, 1995). The most commonly encountered prose fiction is novels and short stories that may take different forms like satirical novel/story, gothic novel/story, science fiction etc. Whatever form or type it may be in, it is possible to generalize some important features of prose fiction.

 1.1 Narrative technique: all information relating to the manipulation of point of view in the work

 1.2 Characterization: information about how we learn about characters; any indication that characters are changing or developing; significant new information about a character

 1.3 Theme: moral problem/issues raised for the characters or for the reader

 1.4 Plot: an ordered, organized sequence of events and actions

 1.5 Style: The most important feature of prose fiction is its style which I will discuss in a much broader sense than Shen Dan's definition in her attempt to bring literary stylistics to translation of fiction. As a matter of fact, there are many versions of the notion of style according to the different purposes of stylistic analysis. As for prose fiction, I propose two types of style: one is authorial style, i.e. style related to meaning in a general way. When people talk of style they usually mean authorial style, in other words a way of writing that recognizably belongs to a particular writer, say Lu Xun or Qiong Yao. This way of writing distinguishes one author's writing from that of others, depending on different periods of history, different worldviews of authors, etc. Lu Xun is noted for his satire which is simply the most concise delineation and criticism of the outworn culture and ideology of the feudal society during the era of old China. His satire is forceful and irresistible, precisely because it gives a true reflection of both reality and his own worldview. Qiong Yao, a female novelist, however, is noted for her creation of love stories. The search for true love and romanticism is the eternal theme of her novels, which enjoy popularity among many young females. One can easily tell the different authorial style of Lu Xun and Qiong Yao. The other notion of style is text style, i.e. style intrinsically related to meaning. Just as authors can be said to have style, so can texts. When we examine text style, we need to examine linguistic choices which are intrinsically connected with meaning and effect on the reader. Areas like lexical and grammatical patterning, discourse coherence and cohesion, and figure of speech should be explored in details. Sometime, even a seemingly insignificant comma can be very important in interpretative terms. The above effort to make clear the notion of style of prose fiction is very helpful in exploring the nature of fiction translation.

2.The nature of fiction translation

Translation from one tongue to another is altogether too complicated and mysterious a process to provide clear-cut conclusions about the novelists' art, but I still believe it is possible to distinguish the nature of fiction translation from the translation of other genres.

 2.1 What are included in translation of fiction?

Translation of fiction is much more complicated than the translation of other genres, as it deals not only with bilingual, but also bi-cultural and bi-social transference, including the entire complex of emotions, associations, and ideas, which intricately relate different nations' languages to their lifestyles and traditions.

 2.2 What's the core of fiction translation?

Translation of fiction involves the exchange of the social experience of individuals in the fictional world with readers in another culture or society. Both the social factor and the authorial factor (authorial individualism) are emphasized in the process of fiction translation. The two kinds of style mentioned above, i.e. authorial style and text style concern both social and authorial factors of fiction and distinguish one novel/short story from another. Therefore, the reproduction of style (both authorial style and text style) is considered the core in translation of fiction. It is also a difficult task for the translator of fiction to explore the style of a novel/short story and the message the author conveys about social life, human relationships, etc.

 2.3 Social consequences of fiction translation

Prose fiction has a much greater social influence than the other two literary genres. A best seller may have millions of readers, and sometimes popular novels are adapted into films, which further increases their audiences. To exert a large-scale social influence is also the novelists' purpose. Lu Xun once explained his purpose as a novel writer: “This slide convinced me that medical science was not so important after all. People of a weak and backward country, however strong and healthy they might be, could only serve to be made examples of or as witness of such futile spectacles; and it was not necessarily deplorable if many of them died of illnesses. The most important thing, therefore, is to change their spirit, and since at that time I felt that literature was the best means to this end, I decided to promote a literary movement.” He considered his literary works as a textbook for enlightening China's oppressed millions and expected wide acceptation of his works. The same is true for translation of fiction. Since the May 4th Revolution, a great number of western novels have been introduced to Chinese youth via translation, which are real eye-opener to Chinese readers for understanding the outside world. That's why translation of fiction still has a large-scale social influence, and this is why more and more fiction is being translated into other languages.

To sum up, translation of fiction depends largely on various factors, including aesthetic conventions, historical and cultural-social circumstances, authorial individualism and the author's worldview, among which reproduction of the fictional style is regarded as its core. It's impossible for either the linguistic, communicative, or philological approach to cover all the features of fiction translation. Although the introduction of literary stylistics to translation of fiction brings out a new perspective in the study of fiction translation and particularly emphasizes stylistic analysis, it is limited to the study of translation of the text style, leaving out the authorial style, which has a wider scope involving social, cultural and ideological factors. The sociosemiotic approach takes into consideration various aspects of the philological, linguistic, communicative, and other approaches of translation and extends considerably the base for recognizing the meaningfulness of both lexical content, rhetoric form and cultural-social value. Therefore it has been found to be relatively comprehensive. We consider it the best approach to studying translation of fiction and solving the potential problems in translation of fiction.

3.What is the sociosemiotic approach?

Eugene A. Nida, a famous American translator of the Bible, is well known for his works in semantic structure and translation theory. His comments on sociosemiotics are quite positive and throw some light on the nature of the sociosemiotic approach: “Perhaps the most pervasive and crucial contribution to understanding the translation process is to be found in sociosemiotics, the discipline that treats all systems of signs used by human societies. The great advantage of semiotics over other approaches to interlingual communication is that it deals with all types of signs and codes, especially with language as the most comprehensive and complex of all systems of signs employed by humans. No holistic approach to translating can exclude semiotics as a fundamental discipline in encoding and decoding signs.” (Nida, 1993)

The sociosemiotic approach helps one understand better not only the meanings of words, sentences and discourse structures, but also the symbolic nature of distinguishing between designative and associative meanings. It also emphasizes the fact that everything about a message carries meaning.

The theoretical basis for the sociosemiotic approach is Halliday's sociosemiotic theory of language. He emphasizes the unity of the text (language), context (linguistic or non-linguistic), and social structure and advocates that language is a unique system of signs with a social function, capable of expressing the meaning of all the other sign systems. However, Peter Newmark's classification of the functions of language into expressive function, informative function, vocative function, aesthetic function, phatic function and metalingual function is much superior to Halliday's classification into ideational function, interpersonal function and textual function. The core of this approach is Charles Morris's semiotic approach to meaning. He treats a sign as a tripartite entity and classifies meaning in three dimensions of semantics, syntax and pragmatics, namely designative/referential meaning, linguistic meaning and pragmatic/associative meaning. The most significant part of this approach is that social semiotics does not just concern itself with what people say and do and how they do it; it also focuses on when (in what context) and why, i.e. the large-scale social consequences of such words and actions.

4.Application of the sociosemiotic approach to translation of fiction

The sociosemiotic approach is particularly applicable in translation of fiction.

 4.1 Translation of fiction does not only reproduce the message, but also the style, i.e. the way in which the message is conveyed. The sociosemiotic approach to meaning is suitable for translation of fiction. According to the sociosemiotic theory, verbal signs have three types of meaning: designative meaning which indicates the relationship between verbal signs and their referents, linguistic meaning which indicates the relationship between signs, and pragmatic meaning which indicates the relationship between verbal signs and interpretants. A text may simultaneously have three types of meaning, or just two types of meaning, or only one type of meaning.

The clear distinction of those three meanings is helpful for fictional translators to recognize the entire style that a novel/short story conveys. By examining the author's choice of words and sentence patterns, fictional translators can have a clear idea of the designative and linguistic meaning, and thus may better reproduce the text style of the original by exploring the author's intention, the reader's interpretation, and the potential social consequences of the novel/short story. Translators can recognize the pragmatic meaning which indicates the relationship between the author and reader, and thus can properly reproduce the authorial style of the original.

 4.2 According to the sociosemiotic approach, the text is a semantic unit with meaning and function. It is a product in the sense that it is an output, something that can be represented in systematic terms. It is also a process in the sense of ongoing semantic choices, a movement through the network of potential meanings, with each set of choices constituting the environment for a further set. A novel/short story actually is a unity of meaning, style (how to convey meaning) and function (why to convey meaning) which we cannot discuss separately. Peter Newmark's classification of the functions of language is suitable for us to explore the unity of meaning, style and function in translation of fiction. He distinguishes six functions of language:
  1. Expressive function: The core of the expressive function is the mind of the author, his/her worldview and intention of the prose fiction.
  2. Information function: The core of the informative function of language is the external situation, the facts of a topic, reality outside language, including reported ideas or theories in the prose fiction.
  3. Vocative function: The core of vocative function of language is the readership, the expected social consequences of the author's work.
  4. Aesthetic function: This function of fictional language is designed to please the senses and provide fun through the use of figures of speech, symbols, plot design, etc.
  5. Phatic function: This function of language often relates to speech and dialogues in prose fiction, which is used for maintaining a friendly contact with the audience rather than for imparting information.
  6. Metalingual function: It indicates a language's ability to explain, name, and criticize its own features. However, this function is seldom connected to fictional language.
Most prose fiction works may contain all three types of meaning and the five functions mentioned previously, through which fictional translators can easily and thoroughly analyze the SL prose fiction and have a better understanding of the authorial and text style of the novel/short story, thus achieving equivalence in meaning and similarity in style and function in the translation.

 4.3 The whole process involved in the translation of fiction is rather complicated, including encoding of the message by the prose fiction writer, and decoding and reencoding of the message by the fictional translator. The message, including meaning, style and function, is what the prose fiction author wishes to convey through his/her fiction in the order of pragmatic level (intention of the author or the theme of the fiction), semantic level (choice of words), syntactical level (choice of sentence patterns, etc.) and discourse level (integrating the former three levels into the entire discourse). This is the process how the fiction writer encodes his/her message. However, how the translator decodes the message is in the reverse order. At first, the translator comes across the whole discourse of the prose fiction, and then he/she analyzes it at the syntactical, semantic and finally pragmatic levels. At the end, the translator perceives the message conveyed by the SL text. The most important thing is how the translator re-encodes the message he/she understands, which is the basis of the translating activity. The order is very similar to the fiction writer's encoding process, but the language employed is different.

 4.4 The translation criteria deriving from the sociosemiotic approach are “correspondence in meaning and similarity in style and function,” which turns out to be well suited to verify the quality of fiction translation. “Correspondence in meaning” is actually correspondence in designative meaning, linguistic meaning and pragmatic meaning; “similarity in style” is similarity in both authorial style and text style, “similarity in function” is similarity in the six functions advocated by Peter Newmark. The translation of meanings and reflection of styles and functions, therefore, should rely on both linguistic context and non-linguistic context, i.e. culture and society. A qualified translator should acquire language competence and cultural knowledge of both TL and SL, and take pains to reduce the loss and distortion in his/ her translation. Thus, the translation may achieve the translation criteria—correspondence in meaning and similarity in style and function.

Thus it can be seen that the sociosemiotic approach is applicable and necessary to translation of fiction and it offers fresh insights into the authorial and text style, as well as into the dialectical relation between linguistic form and fictional reality, or into the way that fictional discourse is organized. The sociosemiotic approach is unique in its ability to shed light on the various functions of the linguistic medium of prose fiction, on the literary, cultural conventions and authorial individualism, on author's worldview and social consequences of the fiction. It is likewise to be hoped that more fictional translators become familiar with sociosemiotics, a field not only offering a useful theory for translation of fiction, but also providing a sophisticated method of translation criticism.