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Cultural Challenges in Sinhala-to-English Translation

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Translation as an art and skill is an integrated process which involves the comprehension, analysis,reformulation and recontextualisation of texts by incorporating the contextual, semantic and socio- cultural aspect of source language and target language texts.While the translator is supposed to render a meaningful and an accurate conversion of source language text to target language , the translator is also supposed to preserve the equivalence in tone, style and the cultural details of the two involving language systems in order to maintain the intelligibility of the translated texts for the intended readers. 

Language and culture are inextricably interwoven. In the same way translation and culture share an undeniable bond.Culture bound terms and dialects are two fine details of a cultural community which play a significant role in the production of a successful translation. Translation is often recognised as an act of culture specific communication. And when a translator encounters troubles and challenges while dealing in comprehending and contacting culture, then, it is known as cultural barriers. Thus the ultimate achievement of a translator in producing a perfect translation would be to bridge the gap small or large between the two cultures he or she is 
dealing with.  


Language and culture are inextricably interwoven. In the same way translation and culture share an undeniable bond

Cultural barriers are not the only hurdle translators need to overcome in order to find a successful readership. There also exist the challenges of dialects. Dialects are different varieties of the same language that have evolved over time and in different geographical locations in a country. The biggest challenge in dealing with the dialects is that the translator himself might be less known to the dialects within his own language system. Another challenge is the lack of a direct translation of some words. Dialects based on geographical divisions might be endemic to the particular region since they have developed their own distinct words over time.Translators find it intricate to translate them even to their original language which makes the job of the translator much complex.  
Sri Lanka inherits a proud history and rich culture and is multicultural with multiple ethnic groups as its citizens.Different ethnic groups adore different religions, follow different customs and belong to different traditions.For this reason Sri Lankan translators while dealing with Sinhala to English translation often face various challenges when translating culture bound terms and dialects in their process of translation since they find it extremely difficult to substitute these cultural aspects and render the exact impact to the readers in a completely contrastive target context.  

Generally translators encounter, culture bound terms and dialects in literary translations. The outcome of the translation should be a compromise of the source language culture and the target language culture. But in case of Sinhala and English cultural communities, they hardly share parallel cultural aspects. Apparently Sinhala and English communities belong to two different worlds. 

The problems sprout when cultural aspects of the source language community is never heard, seen or practiced by the target language community. In trying to converge such an alien cultural background to the unexposed target readers, the translators come across tedious challenges. As mentioned above, Sri Lanka runs back to a long history and owns unique cultural components which are less practiced in other cultural communities. Almost all Sinhala literary works include plenty of cultural details and multiple dialects. The culture bound terms such as “bahiravapooja”, “kalu kumara dosha”,”balagiridosha”,”sanniya”, “apala”, “yantra mantra”, “bandana”, “nivana“etc and culture bound kinship terms such as “maddumaya”, “heeneka”,”mahaeka”, “Lokueki”, “bappochcha”, “mahappoccha”, etc and also the cultural practices as”indul kata gaanawa”, “ran kiri kata gaanawa”, “hisathelgaanawa”, “baaraoppukaranawa”etc do appear frequently in Sinhala literary works. But it is extremely hard to adapt these cultural details to English language readers and to make them interested to the readership since they are least aware of these cultural activities and very less acquainted to these terms.The flaws and gaps in knowledge of the cultural details will keep the translator away from a successful translation.


the ultimate achievement of a translator in producing a perfect translation would be to bridge the gap small or large between the two cultures

Dialects in Sri Lanka are generally determined on three basic factors namely the geographical location, social status and profession. The lexical formation of the speech community in the Southern part of the island distinguishes from that of the Central, Western, Northern and or Inland of the Island. Meanwhile Western urban community call father as“Thaththa”the Central Highland community call “Appachchi”, while the general population in Sri Lanka call the bird as“kurulla” people in Monaragala call it “Sakalaya”.Woodapple the Sri Lankan tropical fruit generally called “diwul” is “jool” to some regions. When dog is “balla” for some it’s “kaeta” and “boosa” for others.Fishermen in Southern region of the Island use a contrasting set of vocabulary to that of the Farming community Inland. Different professions have adapted a set of distinct words endemic for them. Different social statuses use different set of words to engage in communication. While the urban middle class people mingle English with their spoken Sinhala the people live in slum conditions and alike places use a totally opposite vocabulary for their day to day speech.They use different tones and styles of words to speak. In addition to this, dialects of indigenous Vedda People and Rodi people too show significant differences to the main language system of the island.In this way translators tend to confront a risky situation to comprehend, manipulate and translate these dialect variations for the lexical density they face dealing with these.Translating dialects is a difficult task that requires input and skills of an expert translator.Dialects with no doubt is one of the most subtle challenging aspects any translator would face.If it is not employed in a right manner it might lead the translation to a mistranslation losing the meaning and intention of the target translation and disappoint the target readership.  
With the rapid technological development translation has become an amalgamation of technology and art of translation. The process of translation is not just confined to human translation but also it has the forms of Machine Translation and Machine Assisted Translation. Yet, unfortunately at this particular situation translators are helpless for technology is not trained to deal with fine and sensitive aspects like culture.A successful translation with perfectly translated cultural details cannot be solely anticipated through the aid of technology and it is a well known fact to the discipline of translation.

The outcome of facing these challenges might end up producing a mistranslation or losing the emotional impact on the reader. In the process of attempting to translate the cultural terms translators often make errors as mistranslation of culture bound terms and dialects, omission of such words or delivering an unintended meaning for such words, which obviously would harm the purity of the source text and disrespect its rationale.  
Not just in text translation in movie subtitling which is also a form of translation, these same challenges do occur in attempting to translate a movie in one culture to another.Subtitle writers struggle with the same hardships when they try to parallel one set of cultural aspects to the other.  


A successful translation with perfectly translated cultural details cannot be solely anticipated through the aid of technology and it is a well known fact to the discipline of translation

As remedies for these challenges skillful translators employ certain strategies to overcome the solemnity of these challenges. Transposition, Calque or literal translation, Explication or explaining the alien cultural aspects to the target reader, Naturalization or substituting similar cultural aspects from the target language culture to that of the source language culture’s, borrowing terms, Generalising or substituting a hyponym, adding footnotes and glosses are some of the widely used strategies the translators employ.  

However translating culture bound terms and dialects is challenging in all levels, but the degree of relevance and accuracy depends on the skills of a skillful translator who is masterly enough to overcome such risks and produce a reliable translation which would give the accurate impact on the target reader.  

The writer is a third year Translation Studies undergraduate from Sabaragamuwa University of Sri Lanka who takes interest in research work based on cultural terms and translation in Sri Lanka.   

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