The Translation Tactics of Political Words in Diplomatic Interpretation

The Great Gatsby is a 20th century novel written by American author Scott F. Fitzgerald that depicts the luxury life of post-war generation in the fictional town of West Egg in 1920s. Being narrated in the first person by Nick Carraway, the story mainly talks about the tragedy of young millionaire Jay Gatsby as a result of his quixotic love and romantic illusions for the Nick’s cousin, beautiful socialite Daisy Buchanan. Considered to be the masterpiece of Fitzgerald, the novel reveals themes of disillusion of the “American dream”, idealism, decadence of values and lost.

In the original English novel, the author makes extensive use of unclear and vague words to create ambiguity in discourse contexts which arises mainly from two or more possible senses and lack of clarification. Though ambiguity exist in both Chinese and English, the translation of it has always been a challenging task as translators may struggle to choose the correct sense among many others in a certain context, which might cause misunderstanding in semantic level in TT.

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Therefore, this project will explore the issues related to the translation of ambiguity of references in discourse texture and will try to analyze the way they are dealt with by Chinese translators on the basis of cohesion and coherence. The study will begin by defining ambiguity and identifying key concepts that needed to be considered when translating ambiguous words, before examining how they are rendered in two Chinese works. Some conclusions will then be drawn from the result and the patters (if there’s any) will also be revealed.

I. Theoretical Framework

1. Defining Ambiguity

As a distinctive feature of language, ambiguity is defined as “a word, phrase, or sentence which has more than one meaning.” (Richards, 1985) Larson (1998:117) attributes ambiguity to the lack of context, arguing that if there are two senses of the word which are not clearly signaled, the translators may find it hard to identify the correct meaning without contextual sense. He takes the phrase “this suit is lighter” as an example, claiming the word “light” is polysemic which can either refer to the weight or color of the suit. Hence, the phrase is an ambiguous one. However, Quiroga-Clare (2013) sees the ambiguous phenomenon as something “witty and deceitful”. She points out “ambiguity itself can mean an indecision as to what you mean, an intention to mean several things, a probability that one or other or both of two things has been meant, and the fact that a statement has several meanings.” Compared with Richards, her definition of ambiguity seems to be broader with the consideration of the intension of the speaker.

In terms of the classification of ambiguity, Quiroga-Clare and Huston (2000) both categorize it into two types, namely, lexical ambiguity and structural ambiguity. They note ambiguity in lexical level mainly derive from polysemy (a word with wide range of meanings) and homonymy (different words with same pronunciation or spell but different meanings). However, such classification is not specific enough since some misunderstandings are caused by phonological ambiguities, especially in dialogues without context constraints. Some grammatically unambiguous sentences can be ambiguous in phonetic level.

Another scholar Javaheri (2008) investigates ambiguity from literary perspective and divides it into literary and linguistic ones. He believes that the literary ambiguity is created intentionally by the author through adopting various figures of speech, including irony and polysemy while linguistic ambiguity is an unconscious act resulting from linguistic and cultural differences of the languages. For the purpose of this study, ambiguity will be understood as a word with at least two or more interpretations and they’ll be examined on the basis of Javaheri’s classifications.

2. Ambiguity in Chinese and English

Though English and Chinese belong to different language families, there are some similarities of ambiguity between the two languages.

Pushpak (2012) points out that in the course of development, English borrow and absorb words from foreign languages, giving rise to a great number of homophones which are likely lead to phonetic ambiguity in linguistic level. She takes the English word “bank” as an example, suggesting that “bank in the financial sense in English came from banque (a kind of drug) in German”. These two words sound same while meanings widely divergent. Similarly, homophony is also prevalent in Chinese. For example, the Chinese words “??” and “??” are homophonic with the former one referring to mid-term exam while the latter final exam.

The research on Chinese ambiguity was started by the Chinese linguist Zhao Yuanren (1959) who analyses the role of context in ambiguity by taking the sentence “????” ( Chicken doesn’t eat)as an example. He argues that the sentence could either be interpreted as “Chicken doesn’t eat rice” or “We don’t want to eat chicken anymore” which embody two structures and two senses of meaning.

3. Ambiguity in Literature

While language ambiguity may sometimes lead to misunderstanding and shift of meanings on various levels, it plays an important role in literary works, leaving something undecided and opening up more possibilities. As Empson (1957) puts it “any verbal nuance, however slight, which gives room for alternative reactions to the same piece of language.”

In A Farewell To Arms, Ernest Hemingway takes advantages of the double sense of the word “arm” to create ambiguity. Literally, “arm” means an important part of the body, but since the setting of the story is against the backdrop of World War I, “arm” also indicates weapons, which reflects the character Henry’s intolerance of war and desire for peace. At the same time, Henry losses his wife, “an important part of his body” during the war. Therefore, the title can either be interpreted as farewell to the war or to his own wife.

Though ambiguity is classified at different levels in previous chapter, there’s another point that hasn’t been touched upon: ambiguity caused by unclear pronoun references, which is especially the case in literary works. For instance, in Jane Austen’s Sense and Sensitivity (1811:11), the word “her” repeated three times in the sentence “Marianne gave a violent start, fixed her eyes upon Elinor, saw her turning pale, and fell back in her chair in hysterics.” What does “her” refer to respectively, is it all about Marianne or Elinor?

From aforementioned points, it can be concluded that not all the ambiguities are undesirable, in fact, some of them act as a powerful tool when the author uses them on purpose.

4. Cohesion and Coherence in Discourse Context

In many cases, ambiguity arise “ when the translator only knows one or two senses of a word and does not know the context needed to signal the correct meaning.” (Larson, 1998) As one of the defining feature of text, texture is “a property which ensures that a text ‘hang together’, both linguistically and conceptually” (Hatim& Mason, 1990). In normal cases, a text should be coherent and cohesive. Cohesion can be defined, following Beaugrande, as a way to connect components of a text sequentially on surface level by adopting cohesive devices while coherence concerns more about the continuity of senses underlying the surface text, i.e, logical connection.(1981:4) Both cohesion and coherence are standards of textuality, the lack of which may lead to unsuccessful communication. (Beaugrande and Dressler (1981:3)

In discourse structure, however, the role of cohesion is rather different which “links something with which have gone before.” (Halliday and Hasan, 1976) It relies on semantic relations between different elements in a text. As Halliday and Hasan put it, “the interpretation of any item in the discourse requires making reference to some other items in the discourse.” Blum-Kulka (2000) makes an investigation into the shifts of cohesion in translation and suggests that “shifts in the types of cohesive markers might have implication on the level of explicitness and text meaning between SL and TL”.

On the other hand, though many expressions have several shades of meanings, there is only one sense in a text in normal cases. (Beaugrande and Dressler, 1981)If the speech producer fails to indicate the clear intended meaning, ambiguity or “polyvalence” may occur, especially when the speaker intend to convey multiple senses at one time. Therefore, the continuity between senses serves as the basis of coherence. These senses constitute “a large configuration of a textual world” in which ambiguous concepts and their possible senses become less evident with defined discourse contexts. (1981:87)

As Blum-Kulka puts it, “translation is a process by which what is said might become obvious and clear, while what is meant might become vague and obscure.”

II. Methodology

In the following section, four instances of ambiguous references will be identified from the whole book along with a comparative analysis of the two versions of Chinese translation on the basis of cohesion and coherence. The examples are classified according to the intention of the speaker, namely, literary ambiguity and linguistic ambiguity. It should be noted that the two meanings of the ambiguous references will be named as M1 and M2. For the sake of greater clarity, the ambiguity elements in ST will be underlined.

III. Data Analysis

As mentioned in the first chapter, literary ambiguity (intentional ambiguity) is used by the speaker or author on purpose while linguistic ambiguity (unintentional ambiguity) is mainly caused by polysemy and homonymy. The examples presented below are on the basis of these two categories.