Sunday, November 02, 2008

Cultural References in Translation

How obvious do you have to make cultural references in translation? Recently, I was reading an English translation of a novel by a Japanese author. I caught phrases such as “going to a Japanese teahouse” and “X, the Japanese god of…” and so on. In other words, the translation gives more information than the original and emphasizes the “Japaneseness” of the text (I assume this anyway, since I can’t read Japanese, but I doubt a Japanese work would need to explain Japanese concepts for Japanese readers). Do you think literary translations should have added explanations (non-fiction translations require different strategies, as we know)?


Anonymous said...

Isn't this why footnotes exist?

Andrew Shields said...

In reading translated fiction, I'd rather not see such explanations. And most people apparently prefer to not have footnotes (otherwise, non-fiction books published for a mass audience would at least have endnotes!).

It is not uncommon to see something like a "glossary" in translated fiction; that seems to me to be a good approach that most people can accept.

One feature of Salman Rushdie's work that is quite noticeable is that he "translates" Indian references for his global audience, but he does not translate British references.

Interestingly, this was pointed out to me by the German translator of "Midnight's Children" and "Shame," who said that young African-American writers that she later translated did not "translate" subcultural references for the larger audience, which made translating them much harder than translating Rushdie.

KT said...

I know that it is hard enough for humans to translate nuanced cultural text successfully. It will have to be done by someone who is versed in the cultures of the two languages to equally high degrees.

That is why the thinking that computers will ever be able to replace humans in translation (of all including literary texts) seems to be wistful at best.

Do check out my blog when you can.

B.J. Epstein said...

Thank you all for your comments.
I personally don't like to see footnotes or explanations in literary texts, and I think most readers don't either, as Andrew suggested. Footnotes take readers out of the text too much and remind them that this is a fictional work (and/or a translated work). A glossary is a good compromise, but even that too can be a bit much at times.
If, as in the example Andrew gave with the African-American writers, the writers themselves don't "translate" references and they knowingly leave some portion of the readership out of the loop, as it were, why shouldn't the translators follow their lead?

Best wishes,

Anonymous said...

There's an excellent book on the translation of cultural references:
Katan, David (2004), Translating Cultures: An Introduction for Translators, Mediators and Interpreters, St. Jerome, Manchester.

SJP said...

I generally tend to the glossary idea, as well. However, I think it also depends on the number of cultural references that the reader from another cultural context would certainly not understand. If there are like ten such terms in one paragraph and the author does not give the least hint at what they could mean, I wonder if the reader of the translation wouldn't feel quite lost and give up reading after a few pages. In such cases, I would say, it is a good idea to insert a hint. Of course, it should fit in smoothly and not disrupt the text flow.