Patricia R. Chaput's essay Culture in Grammar


One of the difficulties translators face is the existence of culture in language. A translator may correctly convey all the words into the target language, but it will be impossible, even with extensive footnotes, to relate the culture, i.e. rituals, experience, understanding, habits, peculiarities, cultural context, association, etc., which is bound up in those original words. 

In her essay “Culture in Grammar”, Patricia R. Chaput examines the differences between Russian and English usage of vocabulary, gender, possessives, aspect (imperfect or perfect tense of verbs) and verbs of motion.
Of particular interest are some of the comments related to aspect and verbs of motion.
On aspect, she notes “Among our students we find that speakers of English tend to overuse the perfect aspect, and frequently, if not constantly, see events in terms of accomplishment. To a simple question, what will you do this weekend, students often want to express an answer in terms of accomplishment, and even when they understand that wasn’t the question, they want the right to express the answer in those terms” (409). Later she cites work by Inkeles, et al. with regard to Russian and American personality traits: ‘the great emphasis on achievement found in the American records... (and) absent from the Russian ones’ (409-410).  She herself compares a typical American Protestant church service with the Russian Orthodox service, pointing out the structured nature of the American event as opposed to the fluid Orthodox service where worshipers come and go whenever they want (410). 

With regard to verbs of motion, she cites Moyle’s comparison of Americans’ positive view of travelling into new space with ethnic Russian culture, which finds one-way travel beyond established boundaries to be negative and even potentially evidence of unquiet dead or demons (411): “Trips away from the village, and in general trips across boundaries, were often viewed as negative, with travelers as potentially threatening figures, perhaps even the devil in disguise (411).

 In transposition, the culture reference in language is present since the target language and context coincide. As a result there is no formal problem with aspect and verbs of motion due to the singular cultural frame of reference. There may be an issue with the narrator’s orientation since e.g. Gogol or Austen is partially shaping a narrator in 21st-century America, but that is no different from the situation with any author of fiction, including contemporary ones.
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