Volume 8, No. 3 
July 2004

  Aiwei Shi

Front Page  
Select one of the previous 28 issues.


From the Editor
The Seven-Year Itch
by Gabe Bokor

Index 1997-2004

  Translator Profiles
Observations from a Rear-View Mirror
by Tony Roder

  The Profession
The Bottom Line
by Fire Ant & Worker Bee
Source Language versus Target Language Bias
by David Petersen, Ph.D.

  In Memoriam
Moustafa Gabr: 1964 - 2004
by Anthony Pym

  Translators and Computers
Machine Translation and Computer-Assisted Translation: a New Way of Translating?
by Olivia Craciunescu, Constanza Gerding-Salas, Susan Stringer-O'Keeffe
Computer Collocations and Computer Metaphors
by Anca Irinel Teleoacă

  Literary Translation
Linguistic and Cultural Issues in Literary Translation
by Mohammed Albakry
A Little Conversation about Tone and Translation
by Vasconcelos de Carvalho

  Cultural Aspects of Translation
Accommodation in Translation
by Aiwei Shi

  Translator Education
Testing and Evaluation in the Translation Classroom
by Dr. Carol Ann Goff-Kfouri

  Book Review
Tolkien in Chinese: A Thesis Review
by Mark Hooker
Enrique Alcaraz and Brian Hughes'
Diccionario de términos jurídicos Inglés-Español, Spanish-English

by MĒ Angeles Ruiz Moneva
New English-Polish and Polish-English Dictionaries: Some Problems Related to Legal, Financial and Insurance Terminology
by Łucja Biel

  Arts & Entertainment
Este traductor no es un gallina: El trasvase del humor audiovisual en Chicken Run
Ana Isabel Hernández Bartolomé, Gustavo Mendiluce Cabrera
A Case Study: Spain as a Dubbing Country
M. Carmen Gil Ariza

Coping with You
by Danilo and Vera Nogueira

  Translators' Tools
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Web Surfing for Fun and Profit
by Cathy Flick, Ph.D.
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  Translation Journal

Cultural Aspects of Translation


Accommodation in Translation

by Aiwei Shi
Xinzhou Teachers University, Shanxi, China

Abstract: Faithfulness was once considered the iron rule in translation in the history of translation in China as well as in the West. Yet when we take a closer look, accommodation, or adaptation, is found in most published translations. This article attempts to investigate the reasons why accommodation is frequently needed and enumerates the following types of accommodation translators or interpreters make in their work: cultural accommodation; collocation accommodation; ideological accommodation; aesthetic accommodation.

Key words: faithfulness, accommodation, target context, effect.

What does accommodation mean?

ccommodation in this article is considered a synonym of adaptation which means changes are made so the target text produced is in line with the spirit of the original. A text which is not obviously a translation in the traditional sense is thus created. Here, we must in the first place define translation. Translation consists of providing, in the receptor language, the closest natural equivalent of the source language message, first in terms of meaning and secondly in terms of style. (Nida, 1984). Is translation a scientific study or artistic endeavor, researchable theory or technical craft, a branch of linguistics or of literature? It seems that all of these definitions have their advocates among translators and those who have sought to characterize its theory and its practice. Here the somewhat sterile debates about translation as a process or translation as a product give way to fresh opportunities to cohere the semiotic, the linguistic, the social, the cultural and the psychological perspectives on communicating. In short, it offers a broader concept of what it means to understand (Christopher N Candlin: the General Editor's Preface of Discourse and the Translator by Basil Hatim & Ian Mason.1990). We believe translation is not merely linguistic conversion or transformation between languages but it involves accommodation in scope of culture, politics, aesthetics, and many other factors.

Translation, in terms of methodology, may be literal translation or free translation, which used to be an irreconcilable dilemma in translation circles on which unfortunately no authoritative conclusion has been reached. In China, it is agreed by many that one should "translate literally, if possible, or appeal to free translation" (Fan Zhongying, 1994: 97). Yet few abide by such a rule for reasons that will be discussed shortly. The opposite of adaptation is transcription, which is a word-for-word method of translation rarely applied in translation practice with the exception of lists and catalogues, because linguistic differences forbid us from doing so, especially when the two languages belong to quite different language families such as English and Chinese.

Accommodation is also translation, a free, rather than literal, kind of translation. Moreover, it is inevitable in practice if the translation is to maintain the source message's essence, impact, and effect. Tthe theoretical bases of this statement will be the topic of the next section.

Theoretical Bases

In the West there is an interesting saying: A translation is like a woman: if it is faithful, it is not beautiful; if it is beautiful, it is not faithful. The faithfulness-beauty contrast was often used by Chinese translators to describe the effect of a piece of translated work. Most would rather prefer faithfulness to beauty when evaluating a translation. I suspect the reason is most probably that the Chinese traditional morals or values influence the translators' choice. Academically, it is the dispute between source-centered and target-centered trends. During most of the history of translation both in China and the West, source-centeredness was regarded a priority and was strictly followed. More than one hundred years ago, during the Qing Dynasty, Yan Fu, who was a household name in the Chinese translation circles placed faithfulness as the first o his three-word principle: faithfulness, smoothness, and elegance. Lu Xun, a well-known translator and man of letters, is a strong supporter of such a view and his translations co-authored with his brother evidently proved his idea, although their translations were accused by some as unnatural or even non-understandable (Chen Fukang: 2000). Similarly, in the West, A.F. Tytler (1747-1814) proposed his principles:

A translation should:

  • give a complete transcript of the ideas and sentiments in the original passage
  • maintain the character of the style
  • have the ease and flow of the original text. (A.F. Tytler: 1790)

This is cited here to demonstrate the historical fact that source-centeredness was prevalent, not to prove that these principle are wrong or should be abandoned altogether. Instead, one should study them seriously and apply them in practice. Our suggestion is that if for linguistic or cultural reasons the source cannot be transcribed, we must make accommodations rather than translate it literally. As a matter of fact, accommodations are made exactly to preserve the original style or manner. As translation theories develop, a shift can be observed from source to target, from form to content and meaning which is essential in any form of human communication.

In modern times, a new theory appeared to offer a compromise. It was proposed by by Christiane Nord (2001), who introduced a pair of terms: Documentary (preserve the original exoticizing setting) vs. instrumental translation (adaptation of the setting to the target culture). Whether a translation ought to be instrumental or documentary when cultural and historical elements are involved is therefore the translator's decision. If s/he focuses on the transmission of the original flavor for the reader's reference, documentary translation is preferred; if s/he mainly intends to convey the information for basic communication, instrumental translation is sufficient. Moreover, if the purpose of a translation is to achieve a particular purpose for the target audience, anything that obstructs the achievement of this purpose is a translation error. This is significant in its emphasis on the target-centeredness.


Collocation accommodation

Because translation is primarily a linguistic endeavor, either oral or written, we would like initially to deal with accommodation in the linguistic sphere.

If language were simply a nomenclature for a set of universal concepts, it would be easy to translate from one language to another. One would simply replace the English name for a concept with the Chinese name or vice versa. Learning a new language would also be much easier than it is. Actually, each language articulates or organizes the world differently and languages do not simply name existing categories, but they articulate their own.

Collocation is a difficult factor for anyone learning a foreign language. Talking from my own experience, I from time to time find myself puzzled with some English collocations and it is not rare that in my translation practice I often make such collocation mistakes which I do not notice until a foreign colleague or friend points them out. There seems to be no reason for certain collocations. Builders do not produce a building; authors do not invent a novel. Regular dictionaries are of little help in translating collocations, and the translator must often resort to accommodation. For example, when butter or eggs go bad they are described in English as rancid and addled respectively. Both rancid and addled mean 'stale/rotten' but swapping modifiers would make unacceptable collocations. When translated into Chinese, a common collocation is choule, meaning 'has become stinky.' Here accommodation is made unhesitantly and naturally, for the original English collocation.. Another example is the English phrase 'dry cow,' which is correctly rendered in Chinese as 'the cow has stopped providing milk,' because a literal translation ganniu would perplex the Chinese speaker, causing communication to fail.

Cultural accommodation

Culture is too broad a term and it may cover everything. Culture can mean the arts collectively: art, music, literature, and related intellectual activities; knowledge and sophistication: enlightenment and sophistication acquired through education and exposure to the arts; shared beliefs and values of a group: the beliefs, customs, practices, and social behavior of a particular nation or people; shared attitudes: a particular set of attitudes that characterizes a group of people (Encarta, 2003). If applied in the sense expounded above, the present article can all be covered in one word—cultural accommodation. Yet for purpose of stress, I list these four categories. Here I use the term in a much narrower sense, for instance, the shared attitudes or values of a group.

The Chinese national character which is shared, to my knowledge, with the Japanese is implicature in talking to people as opposed to the direct and open way of the Westerners, especially Americans. In both interpreting and translation, accommodations must be made so communication may proceed smoothly, with neither party feeling offended and irritated. Anyone who has had traveling or living experiences in an exotic culture will readily confirm my statement. I am only calling translators' and interpreters' attention to the fact that accommodation as a skill will make their job more successful.

Ideological accommodation

By ideological accommodation I mean sexual and political concerns. Most Chinese, even today, avoid the topic of sex, which is usually considered pornography. If you do not, you will be regarded immoral, dishonest, unreliable and simply bad. This is one of the principle reasons why sex education is in the school curriculum but never seriously taught. The teacher just tells the students to read what is written in the textbook and discourages the students from asking a question. So in translation we either omit or abbreviate the original graphic description of a sex scene. This does not mean that Chinese literature never touches upon sex. It is only in the way of depicting sex where the difference lies. We will edit the language or the scene, or make it implicit instead. In English-Chinese translation, the translator would always make accommodations to soften the original tone, hoping not to offend the readers (as well as to escape censorship?), I do not wish to present my judgment here but wish to state a fact in translation practice when sex is involved.

Another theme is politics to which no less attention ought to be paid. Let us assume that a foreign medium carries offensive statements against the Chinese government. It is advisable for the translator that the details not be translated. At most, it is suffucient to mention that the government is being criticized. Patriotism forbids one from making critical or unfavorable statements or spreading them by translating. This is where heavy accommodations should be made. Some of those who neglected this advice have gotten into serious trouble.

Aesthetic accommodation

Poetry has been notoriously believed to be untranslatable. Robert Frost once said, "Poetry is what gets lost in translation." This is sufficient evidence of the difficulty involved in translation of poetry; therefore accommodation is even more necessary. Because poetry is fundamentally valuable for its aesthetic value, aesthetic accommodation becomes a skill instead of a basic requirement. A good poetry translator instinctively knows the difference between the aesthetic traditions of different cultures, so his/her translation can be better appreciated by the target reader and can achieve the required effect. Otherwise the translation is doomed to be a failure no matter how close or similar it looks to the original. In Chinese translation circles the following example of accommodation is quoted quite frequently to demonstrate an effective skill or to attack the rigidity of the source-centered point of view.

Wang Rongpei (1995), a senior translator, changed the original Chinese image to adapt to the English aesthetic tradition when he translated a poem in the ancient poetry collection generally known as the Book of Songs. The ancient Chinese used the following simile to depict a beautiful girl (literally translated): her hands are like soft sprouts; her skin, condensed cream; her neck, larva of a scarab; her teeth, deviltree; her head, qing ( a cicada-like insect); and her brows, the shape of a moth. Let's not inquire about the reasons why the ancient Chinese made such comparisons or analogy. One thing is sure: Westerners would not be able to appreciate such a 'beautiful' girl. Wang's version, after his artistic modification or adaptation, reads like this:

Her hands are small, her fingers slim;
Her skin is smooth as cream;
Her swan-like neck is long and slim;
Her teeth like pearls do gleam.
A broad forehead and arching brow
Complement her dimpled cheeks
And make her black eyes glow.


In the above I have discussed the need for accommodation in translation with an example. I suggest that accommodation is also translation, even if it means addition or loss of information, explanation, rewriting, or re-creation.


1. Fan, Zhongying, 2003. An Applied Theory of Translation. Foreign Languages Teaching & Research Press, Beijing, China.

2. 陈福康: 中国译学理论史稿. 上海: 上海外语教育出版社. 2000

3. Tytler, A.F.,1790. Essay on the Principles of Translation.

4. Nord, Christiane, 2001. Translation As a Purposeful Activity-functionalist approaches. 上海外语教育出版社.

5. Eugene Nida, 1984. On Translation, Translation Publishing Corp. Beijing, China.

6. Hatim, B. & Mason, I., 1990. Discourse and the Translator.