Discourse Processing Approaches To Translation Languages Essay

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This essay is an investigation into the problems involved in the translating of the text 'Humour Rules' into Polish (see translation in the Appendix) and the use of different strategies to overcome any issues arising from translating the text. The problems analysed will relate to the discourse processing/pragmatic approaches to Translation Studies and its impact on source text comprehension and target text production in translation.

The text used to depict such problems and strategies is 'Humour Rules', by Kate Fox and which appears as chapter "Watching the English. The Hidden Rules of English Behaviour", published by Hodder & Stoughton and already translated into Polish. Fox is a trained Social Anthropologist, a Fellow of the Institute for Cultural Research, co-director of SIRC (Social Issues Research Centre), and the author of many social science books is well placed to analyse this issue.

Instead of exploring foreign cultures and people inhabiting remote corners of the world, Fox decided to write about what she considers to be the most puzzling tribe of all, which is her native country of England. In her book, she examines what she calls the English national portrait and unravels a fascinating culture governed by a hidden set of rules and codes of behaviour that are present in the population's daily mundane routine, such as the way people talk, work, play, queue, even their jokes.

In this essay we will examine the rules of behaviour established in English society in order to translate them correctly and therefore illuminate Polish people in their understanding of the English culture. Being English is not a matter of birth, race or colour, but instead is a mindset based on behavioural codes and rules which Fox attempted to decipher. This has been done so that the English can re-examine and laugh at themselves but it also can be used for outsiders to understand through humour, in a humorous way, what it means to be English. Although 'Humour Rules' is an anthropological analysis of the English, its unique humorous nature does not translate well into Polish due to numerous reasons, with less flexible grammar being an important one. Another issue is more closely related to culture-specific items in text, including values and sense of humour that may not be perceived similarly by a Polish audience.

This essay will focuses on problems of the value and limitations of different approaches in explaining how translators retrieve and re-create meaning in the process of translation by utilizing the knowledge of pragmatics, especially cross-cultural pragmatics, individual and world knowledge. In the second section key concepts of discourse processing will be outlined in order to establish if they are of any help. The third section encompasses a commentary on any pragmatic problems arising from the translation of Appendix. It is followed by fourth section with commentary on cross-pragmatic issues in translation. Finally, the fifth section explores problems that relate to individual and world knowledge.

Section 2 - Discourse Analysis

Language is used by people to communicate with each other for social interaction or to express cultural identities. Communication and dialogue is primarily based on individual experience but they are culturally determined and will depending from particular culture. This has resulted in approximately 6,900 different languages spoken around the world.

Discourse analysis should be the starting point for any text comprehension, as it helps to overcome a variety of limitations, and it can enrich people's understanding of communication and social interactions. It is clear that discourse analysis can be applied to different disciplines, but this paper will focus on the linguistic approach that investigates the character of social and cultural language use.

According to Brown & Yule discourse analysis is interested in discussing:

"…how a recipient might come to comprehend the producer's intended message on a particular occasion, and how the requirements of the particular recipient(s) influence the organization of the producer's discourse (…) The discourse analyst is interested in the function or purpose of a piece of linguistic data and also how that data is processed, both by producer and by the receiver." (1983:24)

Thus, instead of taking into account a text's linguistic features and sentence level, discourse analysis also takes a closer look at the context in which language is used. As Beaugrande and Dressler argue: "text does not make sense by itself, but rather by the interaction of text-presented knowledge with people's stored knowledge of the 'world". (1981:12)

Brown & Yule points out:

"Any analytic approach in linguistic which involves contextual considerations, necessarily belongs to that area of language study called pragmatics. 'Doing discourse analysis' certainly involves 'doing syntax and semantics', but it primarily consist of 'doing pragmatics (…) In discourse analysis, as in pragmatics, we are concerned with what people using language are doing, and accounting for the linguistic features in the discourse as the means employed in what they are doing.") (...) That is, in using terms such as reference, presupposition, implicature and inference, the discourse analyst is describing what speakers and hearer are doing, and not the relationship which exist between one sentence or proposition and another." (1983: 26-27)

This essay investigates the anthropological conclusions about English sociality found in 'Humour Rules' in order to apply them correctly in a translation context so as to bring about a change in understanding English culture amongst Polish people. The analysis of the Appendix involves identifying different features in the text, such as discourses. A discourse refers to a particular theme in the text, such as those relating to national identities or values. For example, a sentence that stresses a claim - 'the underlying rule in all English conversations is the proscription of 'earnestness' or 'Humour Rules'.

Section 3 - Commentary on a Translation through Pragmatics

This section examines the relevance of pragmatics to translation studies. Language translation is a discipline that draws immensely from other disciplines such as cognition, biology, neurology, psychology, sociology, ethnology and anthropology amongst others, with linguistics and pragmatics being particularly important. The relationship between translation and pragmatics may seem abstruse but a close analysis of these two fields draws remarkable areas of interests.

Yule argues that:

"Pragmatics is concerned with the study of meaning as communicated by a speaker (or a writer) and interpreted by a listener (or reader). It has, consequently, more to do with the analysis of what people mean by their utterances than what the words or phrases in those utterances might mean by themselves. Pragmatics is the study of speaker meaning." (1996: 4)

Pragmatics is concerned with the term implicature, which refers to implied meaning as opposed to literal meaning of utterance. There are occasions that the locator says exactly what s/he means but in most cases s/he is not being totally explicit and that is because s/he is determined by culture or context. Pragmatics is used to analyse what speakers really mean by their sentences in a particular context, depending from who they are talking to, where, and under which circumstances.

At the end of the 19th century in Vienna, Arthur Schnitzler's leading character discusses the issues that may arise in communication:

"...only those who look for a meaning will find it. Dreaming and waking, truth and lie mingle. Security exists nowhere. We know nothing of others, nothing of ourselves. We always play. Wise is the man who knows." (Paracelsus, 1999: xvi)

Pragmatics deals with intended and implied meaning, presuppositions and intentions of people that communicate with each other. This discipline can be seen as discourse in action, conditioned by culture or people who take part in conversation.

Discourse analysis is concerned with conversational implicature that is derived from the general principle of conversation that language users will usually follow. The general principle, called Cooperative Principle expands the boundaries of pragmatics and was originally envisaged for effective communication. First introduced by Grice it is defined as: "Make your conversational contribution such as is required, at the stage at which it occurs, by the accepted purpose or direction of the talk exchange in which you are engaged." (Brown, Yule 1983: 31)

Grice's formulated the conversational conventions and maxims as follows:

Quantity: Make your contribution as informative as is required (for the current purpose of

the exchange). Do not make your contribution more informative than is required.

Quality: Do not say what you believe to be false. Do not say that for which you lack

adequate evidence.

Relation: Be relevant.

Manner: Avoid obscurity of expression. Avoid ambiguity. Be brief (avoid unnecessary

prolixity). Be orderly.

The fact that speakers frequently fail to adhere to any of above conversational maxims misleads the hearer who can interpret the meaning in a different way from the expressed meaning. For example many English people use irony and sarcasm in conventional humorous conversations and it may be hard for non native speakers to find the true meaning and intentions at times.

'The Importance of Not Being Earnest Rule' created by Fox could be presented in similar manner as Grice suggested in The Cooperative Principle. It could help to grasp the vague boundaries between four English norms (sincerity, earnestness, seriousness, solemnity), but it doesn't mean Polish people have to follow English way of behaving dogmatically.

Quantity: Make your contribution as 'sincere' as required. Do not make your contribution

earnest or more sincere than is required. Make your contribution as 'serious' as

required. Do not make your contribution solemn or more serious than is


Quality: Do not say what you believe to be insincere. Do not say insincere things for which

you lack adequate evidence.

Relation: Be able to grasp subtle distinction between 'solemn' and 'serious', between

'sincerity' and 'earnestness'.

Manner: Learn new behavioural grammar. Be sincere. Be serious. Avoid earnestness.

Avoid solemnity. Avoid pomposity. Avoid self-importance.

These conversational implicatures are produced in a specific context shared by both the speaker and the hearer, assuming that both parties recognise the underlying rule in all English conversations, which is the proscription of earnestness, solemnity, pomposity and self-importance.

Grice's view is that all language users should share certain rules and maxims enabling them to understand one another and interpret the implicature, whenever meaning is not stated explicitly (Brown, Yule: 31). However his attempt to formulate universal maxims at the expense of culture specifics rules was criticised by Wierzbicka who described his theory as "ethnocentric illusion". Wierzbicka argues that Grice has "tended to assume that the ways of speaking characteristics of mainstream white American English represent 'the normal human ways of speaking', and that, apart from minor variations, they can be expected to be the same as those prevalent in any other human society." (1991: 67-68)

Wierzbicka is against these pragmatists that attempt to formulate universal rules in language that are mainly anglocentric by pointing out that: "diversities in ways of speaking and interacting are not superficial and that they can be accounted for, above all, in terms of different cultural attitudes and values; and the "cultural relativity in the field of interaction" is increasingly seen as a reality and an important subject of investigation." (1991: vi)

Speech Acts

The important parts of pragmatics are related to three speech acts (locutionary act, illocutionary act and perlocutionary effect). The locutionary act is defined by Yule as "the basic act of utterance, or producing a meaningful linguistic expression" (1996:48). People do not usually speak for any particular reason, but instead have some kind of intention or communicative function in mind that leads to the second dimension of the speech act - the illocutionary act. Every translation has to pass through those first two elements - both locutionary and illocutionary act. The third dimension is the perlocutionary act, which is the creation of an utterance with an intended effect in the hearer's mind.

There are different speech acts such as apology, complaint, invitation, request, promise, and compliment with each of those acts of utterance being conditioned by particular culture in which they are uttered and cannot be determined universally in a similar way as conversional openings, sense humour or irony. These culture-specific issues are determined depending by the situation and it is up to the translator to decide whether to transfer the original message something that can be achieved with the use of cross-cultural pragmatics.

Section 4 - Commentary on a Translation through Cross-Cultural Pragmatics

According to Richard Young cross-cultural pragmatics is the study of linguistic action carried out by language users from different ethnolinguistic backgrounds" and it is quite different to pragmatics which is "the study of language as an action and of the social context in which linguistic action takes place."

In daily conversations, many misinterpretations may arise between English and Polish speakers. Poles may find English people serious, ironic, sarcastic or even arrogant and bullish, while many of their jokes may not be deemed funny at all. In order to fit fully in into English society, a Pole should gain new world knowledge about English culture and a new behavioural 'grammar'. This could be achieved thanks to an understanding of cross-cultural pragmatics.

Rintell-Mitchell has argued:

"Perhaps the fascination that the study of cross-cultural pragmatics holds for language teachers, researchers, and students of linguistics stems from the serious trouble which pragmatics failure can lead. No 'error' of grammar can make a speaker seem so incompetent, so inappropriate, so foreign, as the kind of trouble a learner gets into when he or she doesn't understand or otherwise disregards a language's rules of use." (Rintell-Mitchell, 1989:248, quoted in Trosborg 1994: 4)

There are many examples of highly anglocentric norms like 'earnestness', 'solemnity' that do not have an exact equivalent in Polish. In a similar manner 'sincerity' never emerged in Polish culture as a core value, as much as it has in English culture.

Trilling points out that:

"If sincerity is the avoidance of being false to any man through being truth to one's own self, we can see that this state of personal existence is not to be attained without the most arduous effort. And yet at a certain point in history men and classes of men conceived that the making of this effort was of supreme importance in the moral life, and the value they attached to the enterprise of sincerity became a salient, perhaps a definitive, characteristic of Western culture for some four hundred years".

(Trilling 1972:5-6, quoted in Wierzbicka: 115)

There is no global definition for 'sincerity' though, and some Polish people may have arrived at the opposite conclusion to Trilling. Speech acts have no universal cross-cultural function, and thus may create pragmatic problems. In some cases it may be a problem to translate into Polish since English conversational openings such as "How are you today?" or "What a beautiful day, isn't it?" because most Eastern Europeans might find them insincere, speakers are expected to respond positively regardless to their true feelings. At the same time, a typical Polish response to the famous Borat opening (in Polish for some reason) of "Jak siÄ™ masz?" (How are you?) could be something (depending from the level of closeness) - "Oh, better not ask", "I don't know anything for the exam", "I don't feel like doing anything" (always with a smile and the right intonation), which seems like an depreciating understatement, and its translation could be misunderstood by an English audience.

Polish immigrants in England often complain about the insincerity of English conversational openings. Drawing from my individual experience when first asked the question - 'Are you all right?' - I originally thought that the person was deeply worried about my health state (Is something wrong with me?) but a lack of reaction to my answer was deeply puzzling. It was only afterwards that I realised that the questioner was not particularly interested in how I felt in first place. The questioner expects though a positive answer such as 'Not too bad' not matter how the speaker really feels. So in the end Polish immigrants find such a repetitive game quite insincere because expressing non-existent good feelings as brief as in such an exchange is foreign to them.

In summary Polish and English cultures express themselves differently in speech acts that become codified in their languages and because of that they create a pragmatic problem in translation. It is hard to formulate universal norms of sincerity and seriousness as they have a slightly different meaning within these two cultures.

Section 5 - Commentary on the translation through individual and world knowledge

Every linguistic community can be characterised by different classification of values or habits which, in case of Polish and English culture, may resemble or differ from each other. Wierzbicka argues that: "interpersonal interaction is governed, to a large extent, by norms which are culture-specific and which reflect cultural values cherished by a particular society". (1991: v)

Alvarez and Vidal argue that: "culture-specific items are usually expressed in a text by means of object and of systems of classification and measurements whose use is restricted to source culture, or by means of transcription of opinions and the description of habits equally alien to the receiving culture." (1996: 56) They further point out that it is hard to define in the text culture-specific items, as opposed to linguistic and pragmatic items, because everything in language is determined by culture, even language itself.

"In translation culture-specific item does not exist of itself but as the result of a conflict arising from a linguistically represented reference in a source text which, when transferred to a target language, poses a translation problem due to the nonexistence or to the different value (whether determined by ideology, usage, frequency, etc) of the given item in the target language culture." (Alrvarez and Vidal 1996: 57).

According to this way of thinking culture-specific items could in fact be any problem arising in translation relating to the intercultural gap between source and target text.

'Rules' as a concept are culture-specific and a 'very English' norm of behaving. The English created or improved variety of games and their rules (cricket, football, boxing amongst others etc), queuing rules, York Masonic rites etc and it seems as though the behaviour of the English is ruled by some higher order that must be obeyed within Anglo-Saxon attitude. It is really lovely to see how the English people quickly and naturally form a queue whereas at the gathering while Poles would behave rather messy despite 50 years of communism when queuing was very strict and exhausting.

Humour is another culture-specific feature of social norms. It can survive translation, if the translator is perceptive enough to the source text and takes enough care in its reproduction. Some of the humour in this text fails to come across simply because of its linguistic nature. There are other cornerstones of English humour to be found in this text such as superiority, irony or cynicism that are prototypical in English but quite rare in Polish culture.

The humorous double nature of the lofty heading 'Humour Rules' is lost in translation as it loses its 'graffiti sense' and is the price to pay for lexical equivalence. Due to linguistic reasons Polish sentence construction and its fewer double meanings (e.g. due to frequent use of compound word construction) meaning that Polish humour and typical jokes rely to a great extent on humorous ideas rather than on play of words. So the above title can only be translated in one way or the other. It makes more sense to translate it as 'rules about humour' rather than 'humour rules, OK' because Kate Fox's book is full of other 'rules' (e.g. 'food rules' chapter) that a translator would translate literally as 'rules' so it is better to keep it in that consistent way.

British humour has lots of play on words and pun while in Poland it is slapstick comedy, parody and laughing at current affair to be especially popular. Brits immediately feel the need to bury emotions under humour while Polish people are quite emotional and they would think twice before using irony and sarcasm in case it causes any offences. Poles, however, are not as emotional as Americans whose loud clapping, cheering give way to sentimentality that clashes the more cynical outlook of the English. Emotions and sentimentality makes both English and Polish people uncomfortable and they tend to avoid heart-on-the sleeve displays.

Polish sense of humour is traditionally based on culture-specific speech genre called 'kawał' which is sort of a joke. It originates from the fact that Poland was occupied for many years and 'kawał' served as psychological remedy in defiance of foreign powers. Wierzbicka argues that (1991: 188): "kawał is conceived of as an anonymous creation of oral culture, as a cultural coin which is meant for general circulation. (...) It promulgates ingrougness, solidarity, social interaction, vis-a-vis some outsiders like the Nazis, Soviet-imposed communist regime, the foreign partitioning powers in the nineteenth century". This is not a case nowadays so much as there are less and less jokes about a Pole, a Russian, a German, in which the Pole always comes out as the cleverest and most cunning.

Having established the various parameters that can be used to achieve a more truthful translation of the text taking into account cultural differences, let us take a closer look at the text that was translated into Polish from English and which is in the Appendix.


This section is extremely thorny to translate, as 'serious', 'solemn' and 'earnest' are all, in a very first instance, translated as 'poważny' ('serious'), according to a Polish dictionary. Any crucial distinction between those three words is not clear, as terms like 'sincerity' or 'seriousness' never really developed as Polish core values. In fact there is no such culture-specific thing as the common Polish values, except maybe for traditional patriotic values such as - "God, Honour and Homeland" etc.

The word 'solemn' (podniosły) is hardly ever used in normal conversation and usually in relation to religious issues, legal resolutions, oaths etc. Earnestness has to be translated as 'patos', giving it more of a fervent flavour, that refers directly to the American way of introducing God into the politics. The translation of 'earnesteness' as 'patos' loses though the connection with Oscar Wilde's famous play 'The Importance of Being Earnest', translated into Polish as 'Bądźmy Poważni na serio", in which case two words (poważni and serio) had to be used to render the original word - 'earnest'. 'The Importance of Not Being Earnest Rule' is translated as 'Zasada bycia niepoważnym na serio'. It is better to translate 'earnest' as patetyczny (earnestness - patos) rather than 'poważni na serio' because the latter is too long, with these two words having similar meaning.

Translator should keep a clear distinction between all these four words in the Polish target text.


Thorough section 24-37 there are lots of humorous examples that have to be reproduced in sensitive way. A Polish translator has to be careful when translating expressions like "Bible-thumping solemnity" as it may have negative repercussions in largely catholic country and it may not get published if the metaphor is translated literally.

Politics is staged with politicians hardly saying what they really mean. New term such as 'politainment' has emerged meaning a merger of politics and entertainment with the political career of actors such as Arnold Schwarzenegger or Ronald Reagan proving it. The aim of 'politainment' is to use the media to appeal to the public and it originates from the USA.

In the USA political discourse is awash with religion which is just another form of advertisement, and very often counterfeited easily. It is sad that millions of people in the world, since ancient times, have to listen to politicians who want to appear differently in public to their true self. For example Crassus talking to Julius Caesar explained his real feelings about the Gods: "Privately I believe in none of them. Neither do you. Publicly I believe in them all." (Stanley Kubrick's film "Socrates"). A typical Englishman understands that hypocrisy and trying to discuss religion at the dinner table or any other personal matter may result in him backing away. The collapse of religion in England may also be part of the reason why the topic of religion is missing from politics. Margaret Thatcher once quoted Francis of Assisi "where there is discord let us sow peace" and the whole country cringed in vicarious embarrassment and she never attempted it again. However Tony Blair hit the news a few years ago after saying that he had converted to Catholicism, shocking the nation and perceived as a sort of a U-Turn.

Tony Blair explained his views as follows:

"It's difficult to talk about religious faith in our political system," (...) "If

you are in the American political system (...) you can talk about religious faith and

people say, 'Yes, that's fair enough,' and it is something they respond to quite

naturally. You talk about it in our system and, frankly, people do think you're a


Blair's public statement about religion may prove that English people are becoming more and more Americanised, especially with programs like the X factor that recently featured Cheryl Cole appearing very emotional on stage. It sets an example to the audience across the country to behave in similar manner. This is happening in Poland too. With such an onslaught the English attitude of 'grin and bear it' and Kate Fox's book may soon become out of date.


Humour mirrors shared understanding of social norms. As Marta Mateo points out: "humour depends on incongruity of language in behaviour" (Zabalbeascoa, as quoted in Vandaele: 414). Humour depends on the rules of established convention, and it is produced by disturbing the usual order and bringing back the norms. English people often disobey some of Grice's maxims in order to produce humour without constraints.

When Fox writes that an: "English (man) can spot the slightest hint of self-importance at twenty paces, even on a grainy television picture and in language we don't understand." she is violating Gricean maxim of quality (Do not say what you believe to be false. Do not say that for which you lack adequate evidence) in order to achieve an effect an ironic effect. She obviously does not believe what she writes but Polish readers would not believe in it literally either and in essence they would easily get the irony. On that occasion the translation is very faithful and achieves the same level of irony without the need of additional processing. The only problem is some Polish people may find this statement a bit superior.

Mark Twain famously said that: "humour is a rubber sword - it allows you to make a point without drawing blood". English people use a great deal of superiority effects that "include in it any (anti) social effect, intention or cause that humour may have, either interpersonal and socially visible or 'private' but with reference to social world. (Vandaele: 157). To name a few, according to Vandaele, it could be stereotyping, cueing and use of irony that can lead to discrimination.

Section 6 - Conclusion

Fox describes English society in a humorous way in her essay 'Humour Rules'. English humour probably stems from the highly divided class divisions within English society and every conversation may result in a social clash. This makes people quite apprehensive of daily social conversations and for this reason the English people are famed for their small talk such as asking about the weather and the humour helps to hide their emotions.

For Polish people it is very useful to learn about English humour (e.g. its pervasiveness, dominance) and ways of behaviour because thousands of them cross the English Channel every year in order to live in a society that is foreign in terms of ethnicity, culture and language. They find themselves living a bilingual life and are left with a dilemma as to what extent they need to attune themselves to their new linguistic context in order to live in a harmony within the new environment?

It is clear that Poles have to learn a new behavioural grammar, which means new ways of speaking, new ways of communications and social interaction. One way for Polish people to understand the 'Not Being Earnest Rule' is by learning to become less spontaneous, excitable, emotional, dogmatic, extreme and consequently to become more reserved, tactful, sincere and serious. Learning new cultural scripts should help them better fit into a society.

As we have argued speech acts vary from culture to culture and so it is extremely difficult to have universal rules or maxims. This means that different cultures should be analysed from a culture-specific or pragmatic perspective. Applying Gricean maxims to 'The Importance of Not Being Earnest Rule' is helpful in discourse processing and leads to better understanding of English 'grammar'.

This essay offers a framework within which different cultural values and rules are explored. Polish people should be aware of English cultural scripts such as sincerity, values, sense of humour and different ways of interacting and decode their meaning. If they already reside in UK they should adapt in a balanced way, and it is clearly up to them to decide how much of their national identity they want to give up in order to better accepted into society. In my view Fox's chapter is very educating and can potentially contribute towards an inter-cultural understanding by helping Polish people in the development of their global competencies.

Moreover, on another level we may all wake up one day in a global village in which values are learnt from television and in that sense Fox's theories about traditional Englishness soon be out of date altogether. In the future Americanised universals in language may become a widespread reality, at least in the West.

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