Trans Internet-Zeitschrift für Kulturwissenschaften 15. Nr. Juni 2004
  7.1. Entlehnung und Übersetzung am Kreuzweg von Sprache und kulturellem Kontakt
HerausgeberIn | Editor | Éditeur: George Echu (Université de Yaoundé I, Cameroun)

Cultural elements in the translation of Mahfooz's The Beginning and the End and Palace of Desire

Ahmed-Sokarno Abdel-Hafiz (South Valley University)


Translation is considered a platform for communication between people of different cultures. As pointed out by Gerding-Salas (2000: 1), "the main aim of translation is to serve as a cross-cultural bilingual communication vehicle among peoples." Novelists rely on their cultural background when they write a novel, and readers of translated novels learn a lot about the culture of the society which has produced the novel. It should be kept in mind that by culture we mean all aspects of life including our social and religious rituals. Failure to convey these cultural aspects to novel readers should result in our inability to communicate with peoples belonging to other cultures. Therefore, a translator is expected to give more attention to the cultural aspects that permeate the novels they translate. In the words of Gerding-Salas (2000:2),

The translator plays an important role as a bilingual or multi-lingual cross-cultural transmitter of culture and truths by attempting to interpret concepts and speech in a variety of texts as faithfully and accurately as possible.

Translators may use different strategies to cope with cultural elements in translation: e.g. transliterating and paraphrasing. The former strategy relies on rendering the items in the Source Language (SL). The latter strategy gives periphrastic explanation in a footnote (Shunnaq 1998:43)


The Purpose of the study

The study embarks upon examining the way cultural elements are translated in two of Naguib Mahfouz's novels, The Beginning and the End and The Palace of Desire. The paper intends to point out that the translator of these novels failed to fully utilize the strategies (e.g. paraphrasing, transliteration, annotation, etc.) that are available for coping with the cultural elements which permeate these novels. These cultural elements fall into different categories: religion, politics, food, music etc. Some of these culture-bound items resist translation and need special attention. As Shunnaq (1998:42) puts it, "the Arab translator may find certain lexical items in Arabic that have no equivalences in English".


The Significance of the Study

The novels, The Beginning and the End and The Palace of Desire, have been selected because the former is translated by a native speaker of the target language (TL), i.e. Arabic, Ramsis Awad, whereas the latter is translated by a native speaker of the SL, i.e. English. This study points out that the translator, who is a native speaker of the SL, is more likely to be inattentive to culture-specific items. Such a study can help us discover the appropriate strategies for dealing with culture-bound items and expressions, thus showing how translation can attain its goal of enhancing communication among people. According to Shunnaq (1998:44), "when translating, a translator has to bear in mind the fact that he should exchange ideas and messages and not merely words. Taking this into consideration, the translator should be familiar with and sensitive to the SL culture". The novel, the translation of which we are studying, was written by a world-renowned figure, whose works serve as a source of knowledge about Arab culture. Inattention to the cultural elements in our translation of his works might play a role in hindering our efforts to close the gap between the Western culture and the Arab culture. In addition, the work "may turn out to be lacking in cultural characteristics and fail to maintain the special images within a culture."



Translation scholars have often been interested in equivalence as a major technique in translating a text from one language into another. As Faiq (1998: 224) states: "The quest for equivalence has long exercised both translation theorists and practitioners and remains one of the problematic areas in translation theory." It was Nide (1964) who discarded such terms as 'literal', 'free', and 'faithful' and replaced them with two basic types of equivalence: formal equivalence and dynamic equivalence (cf. Munday 2001: 41). Formal equivalence "focuses attention on the message itself, in both form and content" (Nida 1964: 159 cited in Munday 2001: 41). This technique can make use of "scholarly footnotes allowing studentto gain close access to the language and customs of the source culture." (Munday 2001:41). The dynamic approach seeks for "the closest natural equivalent to the source language message" (Nida 1964: 166; Nida and Taber 1969: 12 cited in Munday 2001: 42). According to Munday (2001: 42): "This receptor-oriented approach considers adaptations, of grammar, of lexicon, and of cultural references to be essential to achieve naturalness; the TT should not show interference from the SL."

This interest in equivalence has been manifested in the works of Catford (1965), who refers to formal correspondent and textual equivalent. But Catford recognizes the difficulty of finding equivalents. In such a case a translation shift is "deemed to have occurred". This study shows that reliance on equivalence is not viable if the two languages are as remote as English and Arabic. Thus all theories of equivalence-Nida' s formal and dynamic equivalence; Catford's (1965) formal correspondent and textual equivalent; Newmark's (1981) communicative and semantic translation- fail to deal with cultural concepts that resist translation. As Shunnaq (1998: 42) argues, "in some cases, the Arab translator may find certain lexical items in Arabic that have no equivalences in English because the concepts they refer to do not exist in English. Such items are normally culture-bound items in Arabic".

The theory proposed by Vinay and Darbelnet (2000) is appropriate for such situations. Their model is based on two strategies: direct translation and oblique translation. The former strategy comprises three procedures: (a) borrowing, (b) calque, and (c) literal translation. Of interest to us here is borrowing which permits the SL word to be "directly transferred to the TL" (Munday 2001: 56). Transliteration is often used to transfer words from SL to TL. This procedure is particularly useful if the SL word has no equivalent of any type in the TL. The second strategy-oblique translation-has four procedures: (a) transposition, (b) modulation, (c) equivalence, (d) adaptation. In the absence of equivalence in the TL, adaptation can be used. Adaptation "involves changing the cultural reference when a situation in the source culture does not exist in the target culture" (Munday 2001: 58). But note that this technique, which is receptor-oriented, obliterates the cultural component of the text: the cultural aspects of the text, especially of a novel, are considered indispensable, and a translator must not deny the readers the cultural flavor of the society which has produced the novel. Therefore, transliteration is considered superior to adaptation, but it must be supplemented with the footnote technique that Nida (1964) has suggested for his strategy-formal equivalence. This technique should provide explanations for the SL items that are closely associated with the source culture.

I will conduct a close parallel study of each of Mahfouz's novels under study and its English translation in an attempt to shed light on the translation of the culture-bound elements in the originals. As previously pointed out, the translator of The Beginning and the End is a native speaker of Arabic and is a member of the source culture. The way he deals with cultural elements in this novel will be compared to the way a native speaker of English has handled similar cultural elements in the translation of The Palace of Desire.


Previous Studies

Translation problems have always preoccupied Arab translation theorists and practitioners. Shunnaq (1998) has referred to a wide variety of problems: he deals with issues related to syntax; text-type; emotiveness, cultural expression, and lexical non-equivalence. The issue of equivalence has received much attention. Kharma (1991) has been interested in examining the problems associated with the translation of verb phrase forms into Arabic and vice versa. Ghazala (1995) has pointed out the importance of stylistic equivalence in English-Arabic translation. Faiq (1998) has focused on the translation of Koran metaphorical expressions into English.

As for the studies that are associated with the translated novels of Naguib Mahfouz, we can refer to the work of Aziz (1998), which discusses the role of pragmatic meaning in translation. He cites examples from Zuqaq al-Midaq to show how "the English translator chooses understatement, to translate the examples of overstatement in the source text" (Aziz 1998: 133). Also Farqhal and Borini (1998) discuss the pragmalinguistic difficulty of translating Arabic politeness formulas into English. These formulas are collected from the English translation of Mahfouz's novel Awlad Haritnas or Children of Gebelawi, as translated by Stewart (1981). Abdel-Hafiz (2002) handles pragmatic and linguistic problems in the English translation of Naguib Mahfouz's The Thief and the Dogs; but he does not discuss any problems pertaining to culture in this novel. To my knowledge, the question of how culture-bound items in Mahfouz's novels have been translated has not received the scrutiny and attention it deserves.


The addition of extra words to clarify the meaning

This is elaboration on the part of the translator who may depend on pragmatic inference to supplement the text with information that does not exist in the original text. The author of the original text depends on the shared cultural knowledge with his target readers. But the translated text is prepared for a different group of readers who do not share the same cultural background. Therefore, elaboration is required on the part of the translator. Note that in the following extract, the cultural word is translated and is then subjected to elaboration:

Hussein was weeping, mechanically reciting short verses (from the Koran) asking for God's mercy to fall on his dead father. The Beginning and the End, p.17.

Another example with religious reference can be seen in the following excerpt, where a religious phrase is translated and elaborated to help foreign readers understand the significance of the event referred to:

The arrival of the great feast day of the year, the Bairam, celebrating God's intervention in the sacrifice of Abraham's son, focused the family's thoughts and sentiments on their shared memories. The Beginning and the End, p.128

Elaboration can be employed without being necessarily accompanied by a translation. In the following excerpts, when the 'Al-fatihat' is first mentioned in the original text, the translator has to explain the meaning of the word without translating or transliterating it:

then let us depend on your eyes, The Beginning and the End, p.136

--Let's recite the opening Exordium of the Koran, The Beginning and the End, p. 53.

But when the same word recurs elsewhere, the translator transliterates it:

They all recited AL-Fatihat, The Beginning and the End, p. 53.

In the translation of Palace of Desire by Huchins, et al, the word which occurs several times, is never transliterated. A phrase is often provided: opening prayer of the Qu'an.

Some famous Arab musicians or leaders are sometimes mentioned in a novel. The translator must keep in mind that these figures are unknown to foreign leaders. Therefore, additional information is needed about them, as in:

It is what the greatest singer Salama Hijazi used to do, The Beginning and the End, p.56.

Note that Mahfouz did not need to identify Salama Hijazi, for he knows that his Arab readers know him very well.


Illegitimate elaboration

The translator has managed by adding information that does not exist in the original text: there is nothing in the SL text that indicates it was Hassan who first saw the two persons wearing peasant clothes.

Hassan broke off his thoughts as he saw a man and a woman approaching in peasant clothes, the brothers recognized them as their aunt and her husband Amm Farag Soliman. The Beginning and the End, p. 21

Sometimes the translator relies on conventional implication in order to insert additional information:

and you're not greedy, all that you need are some morsels of bread, clothing, a few glasses of cognac, some hashish to smoke, and a few women to sleep with. The Beginning and the End, p. 53

The items listed have conventional meanings associated with them. Any reader can figure out how these items are used. However, the translator has opted to provide additional information as to their use. He has relied on their conventional or associative meanings

Sometimes the translator unnecessarily elaborates on SL words which already have TL equivalents, as in

Excuse me. But if one is under the effect of alcohol or hashish, The Beginning and the End, p.56.

The word 'intoxicated' can be used to refer to a person under the influence of alcohol or drugs. The use of the word hashish to convey the meaning of the SL word is not adequate, for there are other drugs that can cause the same effect.

Elaboration is not often associated with a single word. A phrase or a sentence can be elaborated. For example, elaboration occurs if implicit performative acts in the SL are turned into explicit acts in the TL:

"And bring a nargileh, too, The Beginning and the End, p.54

"Give me one piaster's worth of Tahinia sweets, The Beginning and the End, p. 91


Failure to elaborate

The translator is expected to interfere by elaborating and explaining the part of text that has been transliterated. Transliteration is a tool available to translators whenever they encounter cultural or religious entities that resist translation. Since transliteration is not adequate in reflecting the meaning intended by the author of the SL text, the translator should use elaboration as a strategy that explains the intended meaning. Otherwise, the reader is left in a dilemma, not knowing what to do with the transliterated part of the text, as in:

You tried me out as a Sannid, chanting refrains for you, and I think I'm the right man for the job. The Beginning and the End, p.139

To transliterate without elaborating is quite useless. The word Sannid, which is a transliterated word, is unintelligible to any native speaker of English for this word is not available in any English dictionary. The translator has overcome this problem by putting a few words that explain the meaning of this word.

Unfortunately, the translator does not adhere to this strategy throughout the translating process: he starts using transliteration without elaboration.

The word "Amm", which has been translated, could be taken as part of the name, whereas it is often used as a term of respect.

The same thing can be said about the following:

Farid Effendi Mohammed, The Beginning and the End, p. 22

Effendi is a titled that is used in reference to educated people. Such a transliteration gives a false impression that it is a middle name.

Even this suit you're wearing, which makes you look not too bad an Effendi, comes with his money. The Beginning and the End, p.52

Arabic has a word for a father's brother and a completely different word for a mother's brother. Since English has only one word which covers both meanings, any translator finds himself/herself at a loss, as in:

The brothers recognized them as their aunt and her husband. The Beginning and the End, p. 21.

The translator should have pointed out whether the word aunt refers to a father's sister or a mother's sister. The two Arabic words occur in the SL text as in:

No uncles on either side! The Beginning and the End, p. 44

The translator has used the phrase "on either side" This attempt does not convey the intended meaning. This can be considered an example of miselaboration. The translator of Palace of Desire has appropriately dealt with these terms, which have no exact counterparts in English:

Ask your maternal uncles about that, love child, Palace of Desire, p. 622.

Some cultural words cannot stand transliteration without elaboration and explanation; the non-Arab reader of the translated text cannot understand the denotative and connotative nuances of the word:

All our pocket money! Not a millieme? The Beginning and the End, p. 32.

I will not pay one millieme more than three pounds, The Beginning and the End, p. 58

The religious words used by a novelist might be familiar only to those who believe in it. Followers of other religions might find the religious words strange and unintelligible. Again, the novelist who composed the original text might decide that such words, which are common, need not be explained or elaborated. The translator, who aims at a different group of readers, should attempt to explain such religious terms. The translator of the novel, to whom these words are familiar, has probably thought such words are not in need of elaboration or explanation:

What matters is AL Azz'n itself. The Beginning and the End, p.56.

Some famous names to Arabs might be unknown to foreign readers. Such names need further elaboration in a translated text; the translator failed to do so:

If the stations were really aware of art, I should stand next to Um Kalthum and Abdul Wahab. The Beginning and the End, p. 55.

Note that this part of the TL text refers to these names for the first time. These names are quite familiar to Arabs for they are famous musicians and singers. The translator, being a member of the Arab society, did not pay attention to this fact. Hence he failed to say a few words about these figures. The result is that the reader of the translated text is left dumbfounded and perplexed, for s/he has no idea who these people are.

In contrast, the translators of Palace of Desire often give extra information concerning musicians, dancers or politicians who are unfamiliar or unknown to foreign readers:

Husayn, Ismail and Hasan all got involved in a conversation about the outstanding musicians of the day: Munira al-Mahdiya, Sayyid Darwish, Salih Abde al-Hayy and Abd al-Latif al-Bana, Palace of Desire, p.554.

Sometimes, the novelist may use the name of a woman artist in order to convey an implication. The implication is available to the translator who pays attention to the cultural background. Thus in the following excerpt, the conventional implication associated with Bamba Kashar is quite familiar to the readers of the native culture; therefore, Mahfouz did not need to elaborate on the name. The translator has to dig out the implicit meaning:

Thank you, Miss Bamba Khashar, you seductive songstress. Palace of Desire, p. 580.

The political figures and events are not adequately elaborated upon by the translator of The Beginning and the End. The last names of the famous politicians remain intact in translation:

But for the students, the leaders (of the country) would never have united. Who would ever have imagined that Sidki would agree to meet with Nahhas? The Palace and the Wafidists at the same table, TheBeginning and End, p. 224.

By way of contrast, the following extract shows that the translator is not satisfied with the words given by the original author, especially as far as politicians are concerned. Mahfouz in his novel Palace of Desire uses only the last name to refer to a famous politician of the day. The translators provide extra information, including full names:

"Wouldn't you be satisfied if they were as important as the politicians Adli Yeken Pasha and Abdel Khaliq Sarwat Pasha. Palace of Desire, p. 580.

Words referring to special forms of poetry are not transliterated but remain unexplained by the translator of Palace Walk, thus leaving the reader confused:

Yes, mawawil, songs, and takatiqs, The Beginning and the End, p.139.

In contrast, the translators of Palace of Desire do not hesitate to supplement the transliteration with further elaboration and explanation so that the reader can grasp the meaning of the word:

There had been literary and social essays, religious ones, the folk epic about Antar-that heroic black poet of ancient Arabia, The Thousand and One Nights, a medieval anthology of Arabic poetry called Hamasa, Palace of Desire, p. 589.

Note that the translators have elaborated on cultural elements mentioned in the original text. Without such an elaboration, the average reader of the translated work would be in limbo, not knowing what to do with such expressions or names as Antar and Hamasa.

Each culture has its own cuisine and food types that might not be familiar to people of other cultures. The novels of Mahfouz contain references to special Egyptian dishes and foods. The translators should exercise care in handling such cultural items. The translator of The Beginning and the End does not often explain or adequately translate food types:

Narcotics are the lifeblood of vocalizing. Any singer worthy of the name is as much addicted to drugs as he is to such basic foods as molokhiva and fool mudammis, The Beginning and the End, p. 141.

Note that the translator has transliterated as fool mudammis and the word as molokhiva. (1) In contrast, the translators of Palace of Desire have translated the word as mallow greens as in

The stuffed potatoes, the mallow greens, the fried rice with giblets. Palace of Desire, p. 566.



Sometimes a translator can manage by ignoring certain parts of the original text. This avoidance technique is used for different reasons: (a) the item might be untranslatable for lack of equivalence in the target language. (b) the item/phrase might be ideologically or morally unacceptable by the target readers. (c) the translator might be in disagreement with the meaning which conveys a bad impression about the source culture

He kept talking to himself, your father (God be merciful to him) is dead now, you've lost your shelter. The Beginning and the End, p. 52

Note that the translator has ignored the nickname Aba Ali. In the following, a word is avoided for there is no equivalence for it in Arabic:

How is it possible for the feast to pass without filling our bellies with all sorts of meat, with roasted meat, boiled meat, fried meat, cutlets, sausages, and shin? The Beginning and the End, p.130.

© Ahmed-Sokarno Abdel-Hafiz (South Valley University)


(1) translators of Palace Walk translated these words as cooked-beans:1 The cooked-beans vendor, Palace Walk, p.32.


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7.1. Entlehnung und Übersetzung am Kreuzweg von Sprache und kulturellem Kontakt

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