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 »  Articles Overview  »  Art of Translation and Interpreting  »  Literature and Poetry  »  Translating culture-specific notions

Translating culture-specific notions

By Kalina Maleska-Gegaj | Published  02/21/2007 | Literature and Poetry | Recommendation:
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Kalina Maleska-Gegaj
Macedonia (FYROM)
Macedonian to English translator
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One of the greatest problems in my experience in translating literature has been how to translate the culture-specific notions. What I mean by this is the fact that certain literary works from the past centuries, be they novels, stories or poems, refer to specific events that took place in the time and the country in which they were written.

In such cases, the readers in the target language, in which the literary work is supposed to be translated, may be completely unfamiliar with the events or things the particular work talks about. I will only give a few examples to illustrate my point, and there are numerous similar examples. In The Importance of Being Earnest by Oscar Wilde two types of wine are mentioned, one is very expensive and rare, whereas the other one is cheap and consumed mostly by poor people. There are several humorous situations in the play based exactly on this difference. Both types of wine are generally unfamiliar to audience outside Britain. That is why the question arises – whether to retain the original labels of the wines mentioned in the comedy or, when translating, to use other brand names that are recognizable to the readers in the target language.

The translator is faced with the same problem when coming across a poem by Byron in which he makes fun of a ruler from the English history who is hardly known to audiences in the target language. In such a case, should the translator follow closely the original or resort to the use of a historical person from his/her own culture with characteristics that may be parallel to those of the English one?

The former has been the predominant choice of translators of literary works for many centuries – I can make this claim at least for the translations of novels, poems and dramas in my mother tongue. It certainly is a question that entails great responsibility on the side of the translator.

On the one hand, who has the right to change the original work, especially since a good translation is expected to reflect the same issues, concerns and contemplations that the original deals with? World masterpieces can be enjoyed by people in different cultures, speaking different languages, precisely because translators have managed to incarnate the spirit of the original in their translations. Besides, a lot can be learned about the culture and society of the people speaking the source language in which the work was firstly written, about their “types of wine” and their “rulers” in the above mentioned examples. This would not be possible if the translator adjusts the original names and brands, thus trying to bring the original closer to the readers of the target language.

On the other hand, there are some advantages in deciding for the second option. By moving away from the original and choosing notions from his/her own country, the translator may, in fact, be moving closer to the original. How do I mean this? Well, Wilde, for example, achieves a very comic effect with the interplay of the brand names of the two wines. By sticking to the names he uses, this comic effect would be completely lost for the readers of the target language because they would not understand why the wines are repeatedly used throughout the play. It is the same with the second example, that is, the comic effect Byron achieved can be adequately attained in the translation only if a more familiar figure from the history of the culture that speaks the target language is selected.

In regard to this dilemma, I don’t think there is a formula that can be invariably applied to all translations of literary works. What I believe is more important to have in mind when facing this question is to be consistent with the choice made in the beginning. Retaining the original designations is a way to be closer to the original and to familiarize your readers with another culture. It is also easier because you don’t have to search for adequate designations in the target language which may or may not correspond to those in the source language. However, by selecting names and labels from the target language culture, the translator can achieve much more successfully the effect (whether comic, as in the above examples, or otherwise) intended in the original, which should be the purpose of any good translation. And there have been few excellent examples of this latter type of translation, at least in my mother tongue.

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