Translation is challenging, even when it only(!) involves finding words that correspond to the meaning and ideas in the source material. Sometimes, things get even trickier, with the appearance of a culture-specific term that has no equivalent in the language we’re translating into, and that would take a long time to explain. So, what do we do?
In an interesting academic paper, Martina Outratová uses a selection of culture-specific Czech terms as examples to illustrate common ways translators overcome the cultural divide…although sometimes far from perfectly.
Here are some of the strategies Outratová lists.:
Loan words. Outratová calls this one of the easiest cross-cultural translation strategies, and it’s easy to understand why: All you have to do is keep a term in its original form. Of course, this will probably involve a very brief explanation the first time it’s used. The loan word strategy can also be used with foreign letters and symbols, as well as proper names (a strategy Outratová calls Retention). Of course, as she points out, while this strategy may be necessary and can also help give a bit of local flavor to a text, it shouldn’t be overused – otherwise, the reader will be totally confused, which makes for a translation fail.
Translation by paraphrase It’s rare to translate word-for-word, even if that might be how your brain first processes a text. From there, the translator has to smooth things out and make them more eloquent and natural-sounding in the new language. Outratová gives the example of changing “impossible to accept” to “unacceptable.” Of course, if you’re doing a literary translation, this choice will also depend on things like the author/character’s voice and purpose, rhythm, etc.
Functional equivalent. Sometimes, a term is so culturally specific that it’s easiest to use the closest possible cultural equivalent. Outratová gives the example of the Czech word kraslice, which refers only to a “real, red-painted egg”. Opting for the less specific but very similar “Easter egg” is a solution many translators would choose, despite the fact that, as Outratová remarks, in English an “Easter egg can be blown or hard-boiled and has a dyed or painted shell, it can be of any color; moreover, it can be wooden, porcelain or chocolate.”
Synonymy. With this cross-cultural translation technique, the translator uses a word with a similar meaning, because there is no actual exact equivalent. You might even do this when speaking your native language – for example, “translating” professional jargon to explain something to a client.
Cultural substitution. Sometimes, a translator gets lucky: a cultural term or concept actually has an equivalent in the language you’re translating to. One example that I frequently use, as a mom of a bilingual, bicultural son, is the Tooth Fairy. In French, my son’s other native language and culture, the job of collecting baby teeth and leaving a coin behind is done by la petite souris – the little mouse. Obviously, there is a big difference between a mouse and a fairy, but the basic concept is the same.
Generalization. Alas, there aren’t always cultural equivalents, even for legendary creatures. Sometimes, it seems easiest to forgo trying to find terminology to cover a complex concept, and simply adopt a word that will give a general idea. Outratová uses the Czech term polednice to illustrate this. Often translated into English as, simply, “witch”, its more accurate literal translation is “noonday witch.”
But neither of these terms really explain the concept behind this supernatural phenomenon. Essentially, a polednice is a woman (sometimes old, sometimes young and/or beautiful), who appears in a field in very hot midday weather. Whether by violence or simply by making her victim linger, she ultimately kills them by exposing them to extreme heat. In other words, a polednice is a supernatural representation of heatstroke. While using the term “witch” gets the job done to a certain extent, it unfortunately can’t completely explain the phenomenon, which is a major downside of the generalization technique.
Shifts or transpositions. Culture-specific translation isn’t limited to nouns. Some verb tenses, for instance, don’t exist in other languages. For example, the fact that there is no present perfect tense in French means that I have to translate a sentence like “I’ve been teaching English for ten years” using a different tense that conveys the same meaning – in this case, the present: J’enseigne l’anglais depuis dix ans (Literally, “I teach English since ten years”).
Translation by a less expressive word is used when an equivalent doesn’t exist or would be distracting or unnecessary in the language you’re translating to. Outratová gives the example of diminutives, which are common in many languages. English, however, doesn’t have them, so in most cases, they won’t be translated, and their meaning will have to be expressed in another way. For instance, you might see an adjective like “(my) little”, “dear”, etc., in front of a name.
Omission. In an ideal situation, a translator is able to express every concept from the original text. But sometimes, a culture-specific term would be as complicated to translate as it would be unnecessary, so the best solution is to leave it out. This is especially true if you’re working with a text whose main goal is to give information or instructions. For example, I have a client who will occasionally include cultural references in his guides to websites. If the reference isn’t easily understood by English-speaking readers or would take so long to explain that it would distract from the information he’s trying to share, I usually omit it (informing him that I’ve done so, of course). When doing this, Outratová notes, you should try to compensate for the loss in some way. I usually do this by either filling in a similar reference that English-speakers will understand, or being sure to use words that will convey the mood (funny, serious, etc.) that my client seems to want to convey with the reference.
Adding guidance. Sometimes, there’s no getting around the fact that a culture-specific term needs to be explained. In this case, a translator can choose to briefly do so, usually with a footnote or as a parenthetical. For example, I might translate, Comme c’était la Saint-René,tout le monde lui souhaitait une bonne fête, as “It was the feast day of René’s namesake saint, and everyone gave him their good wishes.”
When it comes to culture-specific translation, translators have so many options. Luckily, we usually find ourselves shifting to the one that works best. In fact, most, if not all, of these strategies are fairly instinctive for most translators, which makes Outratová’s list a behind-the-scenes glimpse into our world.