University of Oxford

Factors Affecting Untranslability Within Written Translation Between Persian and English

 Translation per se always encounters with different changes from words in to larger possible units. Translation is defined by Catfors (1965) as the replacement of textual material in one language (SL) by equivalent material in other language (TL). During the history, many different and various text types were translated among languages of the world. Moreover, these text types were not of the same level of translatability, rather, the range of translatability varies from one text in to other one or from one language in to other one. Although with the theory of equivalence there might be some sort of balance among all elements of languages, it is not that easy to find proper translation for any linguistic and extra linguistic elements.

Despite the fact that there are a lot of similarities among languages, no body can ignore the role of main and significant differences across languages. Hence, there are always some parts or elements that exist in one language however they can not be seen in other languages. As a matter of fact, all differences across languages can be covered by some kinds of equivalents; however, there are many situations in which there is no one to one correspondence between languages. This phenomenon shall be referred to as un translatability. This term points at any condition in one language that does not exist in other languages. It is studied sometimes under the topic of lacuna theory. To illustrate, there are some words, idioms, … etc. that exist in one language, at the same time, they do not have any equivalent in another language.

Inevitably, untranslatability involves all areas of languages which means it can be understood by the comparison of various texts cross linguistically. In spite of the fact that untranslatable items are as old as languages are, these problematic and controversial items have not yet been studied scientifically. Translation, generally, and translation studied specifically as a field of science developed mostly in the second half of the 20th century. Consequently, untranslatability like any other problem in translation is a new topic about which there are many things to say. Studying of factors effecting in the process of untranslatability is done under the classifications of translation theoretition. Generally, all translators, somehow, face the untranslatable items across languages.         

It is obvious that there is no borderline via which the problem of untranslatability can be indicated, however, it was studied by translation scholars in one way or another. The translation scholars came up with various categorizations and taxonomies. Although studies are different, they have one thing in common that is the existence of one of the most problematic and controversial issues within translation which is the notion of un translatability. Un translatability comprises areas which impede finding equivalence among languages. Translation is suffering from untranslatability.

The purpose of this research is to investigate the nature of the notion so- called untranslatability will be tested in order to make sure that it influences the translation studies. The concept of untranslatability turns out to be developed and embroidered based on specific principles. It is perhaps conventionalized. Furthermore, the untranslatability is the result of variety of language systems and cultural system. Firstly, the concept of untranslatability, its definition and types will be explained. Then the research will be conducted. Finally, in an objective way the clarification of untranslatability will be made.

What is untranslatability?

Safavi (1992) defines the concept of untranslatability on the basis of principles. He defined five steps for finding equivalent for any part of language system. He postulated that whenever there is no equivalent for e.g. a word in one language, the translator will select the closest word in TL which is something a little bit inferior or superior to the SL word.

Manafi Anari (2003) defined a kind of applicable definition for untranslatability. He stated that when a translator can not convey the meaning from one language in to another, it is the exact place that untranslatability takes place. During his poetry studies, he believed that finding total equivalence in poetry is almost impossible.

Pedro (1999) stated two kinds of views. They are universalists` view  and monadists` view. According to universalists` view the existence of linguistic universals makes the translation possible. In accordance with the second point of view, the monadists believe that each linguistic community has its own reality; therefore, this view contradicts the previous.

Another important view in which untranslatability was indicated is the Catford`s view. British scholar J.C.Catford proposed binary oppositions known as the linguistic untranslability and cultural untranslatability. This dichotomy is part of Catford`s linguistic theory of translation. Linguistic untranslatability is the failure to find a TL equivalent is due entirely to differences between the source and target languages. He defined cultural untranslatability as a situational feature which is functionally relevant for the SL text and it is completely absent from the culture of which the TL is a part.

2. Statement of the problem  

As it was mentioned, the nation of untranslatability was defined very recently and it is very novel and new. As a matter of fact all translators and translation scholars will admit the existence of untranslatability. As above- mentioned, there are different points of view toward untranslatability. Some of the important views of untranslatability were explained in the previous part. It also included the Catford`s theory on the notion of untranslatability.

Catford (1965) defined his theory of translation based on linguistics. Later on, he explained one of the significant parts of his study which was the notion of untranslatability. He said that there are two kinds of untranslatability and they are linguistic untranslatability versus cultured untranslatability. This study will examine the untranslatability based on Catford`s taxonomy. In other words, the quantitative research will be conducted based on Catford`s model of untranslatability. The research will be done between Persian and English languages. The variables are the untranslatability (dependant variable) and linguistic and cultural aspects (independent variables).

3. Theoretical Framework

It seems that one of the most significant problems in translation is the untranslatability. Catford defined a dichotomy for untranslatability, namely linguistic and cultural untranslatability. Based on the Catford`s model and definitions, this study will examine the untranslatability between Persian and English. The study is quantitative.

4. Objectives of the study

This study emphasizes on the bi dimentional aspects which are very significant in the translation between source and target language. Some linguistic and cultural aspects of languages are not transforeble. These cultural and linguistic elements will create the cultural and linguistic untranslatability. This study is to find out whether there is a relationship between untranslatability and cultural aspects in addition to linguistic aspects. The results, implications and finding will be discussed.

By and large, the possible hypothesis will be expressed in the form of questions as follows.

4.1     What are the linguistic aspects of a language?

4.2     What are the cultural aspects of a language?

4.3     What do make difference between linguistic and cultural aspects?

4.4     Is there any linguistic or cultural gap between languages?

4.5     Does the untranslatability exist between languages?

4.6     Which level of language is highly culture bound or linguistic bound?

4.7     What kinds of strategies are used for untranslatable situations in translation?

4.8     Which one causes more untranslatability, linguistic aspects or cultural aspects?

5. Significance of the study

As far as translation concerned, untranslatability is its integral part. Majority of cases of untranslatability are either linguistic or cultural. Accordingly, the writer of this research proposal aims at focusing on linguistic and cultural aspects as the most crucial factors that will bring the problem of untranslatability. Furthermore, the probable variables which cause untranslatability will be defined and tested. They are linguistic and cultural variables. If the existence, relationship, and effectiveness of above- mentioned variables proved to be true, it will pave the path for carrying out the translation very correctly and effectively.

6. Method     

This section comprises the following parts design, participants, materials, instruments, data collection, data analysis, pilot study, test- retest, validity, and reliability.

6.1 Design of the research  

The collecting and gathering data, selecting sample, analysis of data are based on quantitative method. Therefore, the research is quantitative since it is data based

6.2 Subjects or participant

60 Iranian senior Azad university students of Shiraz will be selected to participate in the study. They are both male and female. They are between 22-29 years old. They are students who have been studying English language translation. They passed various courses of translation both from English in to Persian and from Persian in to English.

6.2.1 Selecting of subjects  

The population of the study is 150 students who were studying the B.A degree, then, 100 students will be selected. They will be selected according to of their rank in the standardized English proficiency test of B.A Azad university entrance exam which was administered when they were freshman. From 100 students, 60 students will be selected randomly. They will be divided in to two groups randomly. Each group will comprise 30 students. One group will be called experimental group and the other will be called control group. The researcher will define, describe, and explain the cultural and linguistic factors which affect the untranslatability to the experimental group; however, he will not tell anything to the 30 students of control group.

6.3 Materials, data collection and analysis  

60 students will be divided in to two groups. Each group comprises 30 people or students. The control group will perform the natural process of translation without any prior teaching. The experimental group will carry out the task or translation based on prior teaching of linguistic and cultural factors. The hypothesis will be null. No relation between variables will be defined.

The instrument will be two texts to be translated. One text will be based on linguistic factors and another one will be based on cultural factors. The students will be supposed to translate the texts the two texts will be written in Persian and will be translated in to English. Firstly, the cultural text will be administered among students of both control and experimental group. Then, the linguistic text will be administered between both experimental and control groups. Finally, the statistical aspects of centrality (mean, mode, median) and variability (range, variance, standard deviation) will be calculated. Co- relation will also be measured. The results will be shown in form of tabulation and graph.

After the measuring the primary statistics, now, the two- way ANOVA will be administered because of the fact that there will be two independent variables, namely, cultural and linguistic variables and there will be only one dependant variable which is the untranslatability. The two- way ANOVA will probably reject the null hypothesis and the study will be directional. It might be either positive or negative.

6.4 Pilot study

In the process of research, for the sake of practicality and applicability of the study, there is usually a pilot study which is carried out prior to real study. From the experimental point of view, the researcher will select very limited number of students and divide them in to control and experimental group. After that, the real procedures which will be used in the real study would be carried out by subjects. This is done only for the sake of practicality.

6.5 Validity

Because of the fact that the materials and instruments must be valid, two texts will be selected from among the many books of Persian literary students. Since they will be parts of academic books, there should be valid enough for measuring what will be needed to be measured.

6.6 Reliability

In order to measure reliability the students will be asked to participate in the exam twice. It is also called test- retest exam. Therefore, students will be take a part in test- retest exams. If the results will be similar, therefore, the two texts, namely, cultural and linguistic texts will be reliable. To illustrate, the students will be asked to translate cultural text twice and they will also be asked to translate linguistic text twice. Then if the results will be similar and the difference will not be meaningful, therefore, the text will be reliable.  

7. Review of literature

Untranslatability has been approved by almost all translators and translation scholars. Unfortunately, in the previous centuries, the notion of unfranslatability is very unpopular. It was in the second half of the previous century that untranslatability was accepted officially and took form. Nowadays, this topic is very intelligible and comprehensible. It contains the potential for many pieces of research. As a matter of fact, untranslatability is the reason of many differences among languages.

As it was mentioned the term untranslatability is a new notion. There are limited numbers of pieces of research about it. One of the Iranian scholars which discussed the notion of untranslatability is Safavi. He said whenever there is no proper equivalent for a SL part, the closest below or above equivalent should be used. His view is not perfect, but it is one of the views about the untranslatability.

Another scholar who is a theoretician about untranslatability is Iranian scholar Manafi Anari. He defined a very applicable point of view toward the untranslatability. His view comes from his analysis of poetic discourse. His main and significant point of view is about meaning. He considered a meaning to be regarded as untranslatable when it can not be transferred from one language in to another one.

One of the main view about untranslatability is pedro`s viewpoint. He regarded two opposite notions. They are the universalists`view and the monadists`view. Universalists believe that there are many universal features among languages; therefore, the translation can be done completely and properly. On the other hand, monadists believe that every society, every community, and every country defines its own reality, therefore, they are not the same and there are limited numbers of similarities among languages, accordingly, in most situations untranslatability defeats the notion of translatability.

The most important and logical theory about untranslatability is drawn by J.C.Catford. He is a British scholar who considered that the validity of the differentiation between linguistic and cultural untranslatability is questionable. He defined linguistic and cultural untranslatability as follows.

Linguistic untranslatability: it is a failure in finding an equivalent for target language item in view of difference between two language systems.

Cultural untranslatability: It is a kind of failure which comes from the lack of situational and functional absence in the target culture. It is more crucial than the linguistic untranslatability.

According to Catford`s view, we can ignore the previous dichotomy, only and if only, it could be indicated that all cases of cultural untranslatability respond to the impossibility of finding an equivalent collocation in the target language. In Catford`s point of view, the impossibility is a case of linguistic untranslatability. In other words, it is a case of collocational untranslatability which was defined by Catford as: untranslatability arises from the fact that any possible target language near- equivalent of a given SL lexical item has a low probability of collocation with TL equivalents of items in the SL text which collocates normally with a given SL item.

7.1 Probable or possible implication

 This study will prove the close relation between cultural and linguistic aspects with the notion of untranslatability. It will indicate the fact that some differences among languages will cause very crucial cases of untranslatability. On the other hand, there are some cultural notions that make a language very specific. These notions are defined and understood by specific cultures. In fact, they belong to that culture. In the case of translation, these notions are highly untranslatable. There are always situations that translators can not convey a word or item from one language in to another. These untranslatable conditions can be overcome by certain remedies. All in all, there is no doubt that the relation exists between untranslatability and linguistic and cultural factors. These relations will cause the untranslatability in which the item can not be conveyed to target language. This problem can be overcome by possible solutions.


Catford, J.C.(1965). A Llinguistic Theory of Translation. London: Oxford University Press.   

  Manafi Anari, S.(2003). Form- Based and Meaning- Based Strategies in Translation. Translation studies. 2, p40.

   Pedrp, R.D.(1999). The Translatability of Texts: A Historical Overview. Meta, XLIV, 4.

Safavi, K.(1992). Seven Articles on Translation. Tehran: Maad publications.


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