Volume 14, No. 4 
October 2010

  Behnaz Sanaty Pour


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Chance Favors the Prepared Mind
by Patricia Thickstun
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English Translation of Chinese Dish Names
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Freeda C. Wilson

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M.L. Seren-Rosso

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Comparison of Textual Patterns in German and Portuguese Medical Texts
by Katrin Herget and Teresa Alegre

  Cultural Aspects of Translation
A Study of Euphemisms from the Perspectives of Cultural Translation and Linguistics
by Behnaz Sanaty Pour

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  Translation Journal
Cultural Aspects of Translation

A Study of Euphemisms from the Perspectives of Cultural Translation and Linguistics

by Behnaz Sanaty Pour M. A. Student of Islamic Azad University, Shahreza Branch
under the supervision of
Mohamadreza Talebinezhad, Ph.D.
Associate Professor of Islamic Azad University,



Language which people use in their daily lives can be both simple and at the same time very complicated. Therefore, people will have to have an intuition in what and how they express what they mean. In the present article, an attempt has been made to study euphemisms in the translation process when the target and source languages have various cultural backgrounds. The framework within which this study is done is the face-work and politeness theories. From these standpoints, the authors claim that culture can place more emphasis on the use of euphemistic expressions, while a translator is translating from one language into another.

Key words: translation, euphemism, face-work theory, politeness theory

1. Introduction

o be polite, people have a tendency to veil concepts that are delicate or offensive. Communicators use euphemisms in their utterances, spoken or written, to cover up or soften the unpleasant connotations and denotations of some words or expressions.

A particular behavior or utterance which is polite in one culture might be impolite in another culture.
In principle, encoding and interpreting of these indirect expressions are specific in every culture and language. Consequently, it should be noted that culture would affect the way people accept the restrictions and place them on the translation process in order to use euphemisms instead of directly expressing something unpleasant.

The present paper addresses euphemism as a way of being polite and studies it under the light of face-work and politeness theories in the cultural translation.

First, the current study reviews the notions and sub-categories of face-work and politeness theories as well as the face-threatening acts. Next, euphemism and its relation to face-work and politeness theories will be discussed. Then, from the cultural translation perspective, euphemisms are viewed and strategies for translation of harsh and objectionable concepts are discussed.Last, the conclusion part will be presented.

2. Theoretical assumptions

2. 1. Face-Work Theory

Goffman (as cited in Hudson, 1998, p. 113) developed the face-work theory. This theory is based on the term face in the expression "to lose face" and "to save face", meaning self-respect or dignity. Goffman (1959, pp. 208-12) defines face as "the positive social value a person effectively claims for himself by the line others assume he has taken during a particular contact. Face is an image of self, delineated in terms of approved social attributes."

The fundamental idea underlying face-work theory is that people living in a society do their best to save their face and not to lose it. It must be noted that face is a very fragile element that can be easily damaged by others. Therefore, when people communicate with each other, all participants are in charge of maintaining not only their own face, but also other people's face.

Brown and Levinson (1978, p. 66) narrow down the notion of face introduced by Goffman. According to them, face is "something that is emotionally invested, and that can be lost, maintained, or enhanced, and must be constantly attended to in interactions." In their view, face is divided into two categories: positive face and negative face. It is certainly worth mentioning that as Peccei (1999, p. 64) emphasizes, negative does not mean bad in this case; here it is used as opposite to positive.

2. 1. 1. Positive Face

Based on Brown and Levinson (1987, p. 13), positive face is "the desire (in some respects) to be approved of." In this regard, Peccei (1999, p. 64) holds that positive face refers to the human's need to be confirmed and liked by other people in the society. It also refers to a person's need to feel that his social group shares common aims. Brown and Attardo (2005, p. 83) define positive face in this way: It "is building someone's ego, the desire to be liked." As an illustration, they say compliments and showing respect are some aspects of this type of face since people wish to be liked and feel important (p. 83).

2. 1. 2. Negative Face

As explained by Brown and Levinson (1978, p. 13), negative face is "the desire to be unimpeded in one's actions." Brown and Attardo (2005, p. 83) also state: "negative face is the desire to be left alone, not to be imposed upon, and to be able to act as we please." In their opinion, apologies and deference are aspects of negative face.

One question raises here: What is the relationship between face-work and politeness theories? To answer this, Brown and Levinson (as cited in Brown and Attardo, 2005, p. 83) declare that face is part of a theory named politeness. In this regard, they mention that "to a large extent politeness can be seen as a tool to save face, both for the speaker and the hearer." Yule (1996, p. 134) also claims that "in the study of linguistic politeness, the most relevant concept is face" and "politeness is showing awareness of another person's face."

Fasold (1990, p. p. 161) believes whatever communicators do to maintain their and others' positive and negative face will add to politeness.

2. 2. Face-Threatening Acts

All the threats to both positive and negative face of both speaker and hearer are called Face-Threatening Acts (FTAs). The degree of these FTAs is not similar; some of them can be serious FTAs and some can be mild. Factors such as intimacy or power can determine the seriousness of the FTAs.

2. 3. Politeness

Politeness or face-saving theory is developed by Brown and Levinson. In fact, they extend Goffman's face theory. As discussed by Mills (2003, p. 6), politeness is the speaker's intention to reduce the face threats of the FTAs toward another. Basically, minimizing the hearer's negative face and maximizing their positive face are the main considerations of politeness.

Brown and Levinson (1987, p. 1) hold that politeness has a socially basic role: It can control potential conflicts among the communicators. They claim that their theory is a universal feature of all languages. However, the politeness of an utterance is evaluated by norms and values which are culture-bound and vary from culture to culture, that is, which actions threats "face" or which politeness strategy is taken in what context will differ across different cultures.

Generally speaking, it is strongly recommended that people be polite in their communication with those whom they do not know very well so that the people feel accepted and valued as a member of a social group.

Meyerhoff (2006, p. 84) contends that the politeness theory provides a criterion for distinguishing similarities and differences between cultures in the way of using politeness in the society.

Brown and Levinson distinguish two kinds of politeness: positive and negative.

2. 3. 1. Positive Politeness

Positive politeness serves to keep positive face of others. Peccei (1999, p. 64) states that "When we use positive politeness, we use speech strategies that emphasize our solidarity with the hearer, such as informal pronunciation, shared dialect or slang expressions, nicknames, more frequent reference to speaker and hearer as we, and requests which are less indirect."In short, positive politeness wishes to preserve people's self-image as confirmed and liked member of the society (p. 66). Some examples of positive face are offering, avoiding disagreement, paying attention to the hearer's need.

2. 3. 2. Negative Politeness

Negative politeness is to keep people's negative face. In the case of using negative politeness, those speech strategies will be used that stress the speaker's deference to the hearer.

According to Peccei (1999, pp. 64-5), the use of the following strategies will lead to preserve the negative face of other people: (a) avoidance of nicknames, slang and informal pronunciation, (b) using more indirect and impersonal request such as could you... or could I ask you to..., (c) referring to the hearer in the third person instead of second person (e.g. Students are asked not to put their essays in the staff room.), and (d) More frequent use of mitigating devices, which are used to lessen the blow, such as please, possibly, I'm sorry but... .

3. Euphemism

Merriam-Webster Online Dictionary defines euphemism in this way: "the substitution of an agreeable or inoffensive expression for one that may offend or suggest something unpleasant; also: the expression so substituted." Leech (1981, p. 45) defines euphemism as "the practice of referring to something offensive or delicate in terms that make it sound more pleasant." Sanderson (1999, p. 259) also states that euphemism "can be used as a way of being vague and unclear, or to cover up the truth or reality of a situation." Johnstone (2008, p. 59) in her book also phrases that euphemism is "the use of a supposedly less objectionable variant for a word with negative connotations."

Simply put, there are some words and topics which are not supposed to be mentioned directly in various cultures. To avoid the negative meanings and connotations of the words and subjects, euphemisms are employed. Mostly, euphemisms encompass the subjects such as religion, politics, sex, death, different functions of the human body, and diseases.

According to Wardhaugh (1986, p. 231), "Perhaps one linguistic universal is that no social group uses language quite uninhibitedly." Thus, it can be inferred that all cultures probably use euphemisms. One important issue is that: Euphemisms are culture-specific.

Hai-long (2008) contends that "Language and culture are inseparable from each other. As an inalienable part of language, euphemism bears the mark of culture." He continues that it "can be easily tracked in our conversation and they reflect different levels of culture and various patterns of culture. To some extent, euphemism is a mirror of culture."

No doubt, every language can demonstrate the culture of the people who use it. As mentioned before, it should not be ignored that the use of euphemisms varies from culture to culture because of different history, social customs, values, religions, and moral standards. Cultural differences will lead to dissimilar form and content of euphemistic expressions in various languages. Depending on from which culture a text is translated to which culture, the amount of using euphemisms could change.

4. Relation of Euphemisms to Face-Work and Politeness Theories

In the course of interaction, communicators must preserve each other's face. In other words, they must pay attention to two kinds of related rules: rule of self respect and rule of considerateness. The former is a body of rules through which the participant maintains his or her own face while the latter is a body of rules through which the interactant preserves the others' face.

In this view, Qing (2005) holds that "The face threat reduction or face saving is not only mono-directional, i.e. other-oriented, but also bi-directional or even "self"-oriented in some specific conditions.... In addition, "others" indicates not only the hearer, but all the parties involved."

It is not always convenient to express some opinions or facts directly.By using ambiguous notions in the euphemistic expressions, people attempt to minimize the FTAs.

Based on Locher (2004), speakers attempt to avoid making a situation embarrassing or making the addressee feel uncomfortable. Thus, politeness strategies are used to save the hearer's face. Moreover, speakers are also concerned about their own face more than the addressee's face due to the fact that the speakers do not wish to damage their own face. Consequently, by employing euphemisms, the threats to both the speaker's and hearer's face will be minimized.

Meyerhoff (2006) claims that Brown and Levinson's politeness theory considers formulizing the choice of words and phrases which are appropriate for the complexities of the social order. In this view, it should be noted that euphemism is a kind of word or phrase choice. By employing the well-chosen vague or pleasant words and expressions, people try to decrease the FTAs.

Euphemism is a type of indirect language. Directness is considered less polite than indirectness. It seems that as directness can damage both speaker's positive face and hearer's negative face, the use of euphemism will mitigate the FTAs.

Euphemisms seem to be related to the off record strategy, which is a way of being indirect or vague and leaves it up the hearers to interpret the indirect statement. As discussed by Levinson and Brown (1978, p. 211), "a communicative act is done off record if it is done in such a way that is not possible to attribute only one clear communicative intention to the act."

Through close observation of the foregoing points, the relation of euphemism to politeness, and face-work theories becomes obvious.

5. Translation and Culture

When cross-cultural communication occurs, cultural translation will be needed. In such communication, if participants are not aware of each others' cultures, misinterpretation would take place. To avoid such misunderstandings, translators are responsible for the effective and correct intercultural interactions.

Farb (1973, p. 91) states: "Any word is an innocent collection of sounds until a community surrounds it with connotations and then decrees that it cannot be used in certain speech situations. It is the symbolic value the specific culture attaches to the words and expressions." In other words, the culture will determine the neutral, negative, or positive loads for the meaning of the words. Therefore, the connotations of words vary in different cultures and translators have to keep this point in their minds.

Hongwei (1999, pp. 121-2) assumes three sub-divisions within a culture:

    1. Material culture: It "refers to all manufactured products."
    2. Institutional culture: It "refers to various systems and the theories that support them, such as social systems, religious systems, ritual systems, educational systems, kinship systems, and language."
    3. Mental culture: It "refers to people's mentality and behaviors, their thought patterns, beliefs, conceptions of value, and aesthetic tastes."

As explained earlier, language belongs to the second category. Hongwei believes that the second and third categories are closely related. In fact, differences in the second one lead to differences in languages. Translators work with languages. As a result, such cultural differences cause problems in cultural translation.

Pym (2010, p. 144) states that "The prime cause of cultural translation is the movement of people (subjects) rather than the movement of texts (objects)." For him, cultural translation lies more in processes rather than products.

According to Perteghella and Loffredo (2006, p. 1), cultural translation studies have an undeniable role in the practice of translation in recent years. He states as the following:

The emerging discipline of translation studies within a multifaceted, contextualized cultural framework, which has enabled scholars to embrace interdisciplinarity within translation studies, while the symbolic, metaphorical and actual interfacing of 'translation' with the cultural sphere has highlighted is (symbolic) links with other intellectual and critical settings. (p.1)

On the whole, the translator is not supposed to merely transfer the original text linguistically and literally, but also s/he must pay attention to the cultural factors as well as the natural and correct translation of the message coming from the original text. The implication of this point hints at the crucial role of translator as a creative writer in the target language.

6. Translation of Offensive Concepts

For translating the blunt statements of the facts or distasteful issues, translators have four options:

    1. Direct transfer of such concepts from the source language to the target language;
    2. Indirect expression of those concepts by using euphemisms;
    3. Understatement of their seriousness;
    4. Omitting them in the translation process;

Translators have to decide when and where one of the above-mentioned strategies should be employed as the best one. As a whole, the very requirement of the translators' familiarity with the culture of both the source language and the target language is the crucial facet in making this decision.

7. Conclusion

Because of the growing cross-cultural communication, intercultural communicative competence seems necessary nowadays. In this regard, all sides of an interaction should improve this competence. One aspect of this competence is to preserve the face of each other.

To this aim, speakers seek to alleviate the FTAs to their own face and the hearer's face in the communication process. In this regard, politeness, a salient element in every culture, is a determining factor. Politeness is a culture-bound phenomenon, which means that a particular behavior or utterance which is polite in one culture might be impolite in another culture. Because of this feature, communicative failure may appear, if the participants do not employ the appropriate polite forms which are proper for a specific culture. Generally, the importance of politeness lies in the avoidance of the FTAs.

To be polite and to protect the face of both or all sides of communication, people favor a variety of language which is pleasant and less offensive. Through the discussion above, it can be concluded that, to show politeness, people tend to use the euphemisms, as a figure of speech, in their interactions. However, the degree of avoidance of mentioning certain issues explicitly is not identical in all cultures.

Translators, as mediators between the source and the target languages, must be aware of the cultural differences. Through such knowledge, the translator determines the level of implicitness and explicitness of the harsh and objectionable utterances. When those concepts are left implicit, addressees can interpret the implied intentions through their sociocultural and contextual background knowledge.


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