Translation is hard, translating culture is…near impossible?
Between 1613 to 1620, the samurai and diplomat Hasekura Tsunenaga, successfully negotiated several trade deals with Spain and the Vatican. In Travel Narratives from the Age of Discovery, the author laments the lack of documents that have survived from this trip. He asks the readers to imagine the Japanese envoy walking down Vatican City, wearing high wooden shoes, regal kimonos, and carrying parasols. They would be in stark contrast to the stern, white, marble statues atop the pillars, surveying the delegation. Hasekura might have kept a journal, or he might have written letters home detailing the diplomatic mission. But few—if any—of those documents were preserved, let alone translated.
If those journal entries or letters could have been translated, what insights could we have gleaned from them? What were the delegates feeling? What was their impression of the city? Of the colossal buildings? Of the display of wealth and artistry? And what actually happened during the negotiations? What were the manners, the observances, the customs involved?
Many people refer to culture as something tangible, such as words or colloquial expressions that could be explained with an equivalent in the target language. But culture is more than what can be researched, it’s also about a life that has to be lived before it can be parsed into language. Translating texts involving cultural references need to take into account the very emotional interpretations that it could potentially undergo.
And having a trained translator—who speaks and lives in the country where the target language is used—is indispensable.
Why is culture hard to translate? Isn’t it only about rendering a few expressions, names, and word order into the other language?
Edward T. Hall likened culture to an iceberg as part of his cultural theory. The tip of the iceberg represents culture on a superficial level, such as language, games, food, festivals, and fashion. These are parts of culture that are readily visible.
But what about everything below the surface? For Edward T. Hall, this is where deep culture resides: the elements of culture that aren’t so observable. This includes communication styles, gestures, personal space, attitudes of cooperation vs. competition, concepts of fairness and justice. These are all elements that need to be experienced and absorbed before they can be interpreted and translated.
Joaquim Mallafrè, a Catalan translator, remarked that translators who focus on translating into their native language will usually have an instinctual sense for the “varieties, dialects, undertones, and registers” of their native language. As for deep culture mentioned in the cultural iceberg above? The bottom of the iceberg is difficult to access for a reason. It takes years of personal development, maturity, even self-awareness to be able to immerse yourself in a country and to discover those deep cultural elements. Translators who have made the effort to be sensitive to the language and the culture will produce quality translations that cannot be easily reproduced elsewhere—and that kind of qualification should not be easily discounted.
But if someone has to live in the culture to fully experience it, then why bother with translation?
Translation helps with bridging gaps between people who do not speak the same language. As Netflix’s Chief Product Officer Greg Peters said, “All this beautiful work will go to waste if no one can understand it.”
Translation can render a cultural experience a little less foreign, a little bit more accessible, but culture, frankly, cannot be translated and true experience of another culture is transcendent of words and signs. Culture is, in a word, inexplicable.
But as humans, we’re always attempting the impossible.
Joaquim Mallafrè describes in his article A Translator’s Travel how some claim translation to be a betrayal of the original. Even though it’s ideal to read a book originally written by the author in their native language, it’s only possible if you know the language well enough. Native speakers can usually grasp the connotations, expressions, references, allusions, politics, slang, the play on words—in short, the essence of the text—all on the first reading. But if you don’t know the language well enough, then you’ll need a translation. The attempt to understand the entire text during the first reading is a daunting task, even for native speakers. Mallafrè counsels that sometimes reading a good translation and understanding it clearly, is better than reading the original and understanding it poorly.
And this is where the gift of translation comes in.
Therefore, when commissioning a translation, look for the qualifications and pay attention to the language and cultural combination. Like an iceberg, the translator’s language skills are merely the tip, while their cultural superpowers (the essence of their skills) are submerged below the surface.
Select the right translators based on their deep understanding of the language and the
culture—and the translation will reflect the complexity of something profound.
Boulanger, Ann Marie. “Guest Post: The Importance of Translating into Your Native Language.” Thoughts On Translation, 2 Oct. 2018, http://www.thoughtsontranslation.com/2018/10/02/guest-post-the-importance-of-translating-into-your-native-language/.
Collins, Katie. “Netflix’s Plan to Get Everyone Watching Foreign-Language Content.” CNET, https://www.cnet.com/news/netflixs-plan-to-get-everyone-watching-foreign-language-content/. Accessed 10 Apr. 2019.
LCW – Language & Culture Worldwide, LLC. | The Cultural Iceberg. https://www.languageandculture.com/cultural-iceberg. Accessed 10 Apr. 2019.
Mallafrè, Joaquim. “A Translator’s Travel.” META, vol. 38, no. 4, 1993.
Mancall, Peter C., editor. Travel Narratives from the Age of Discovery: An Anthology. Oxford, 2006.
Maruko, Mami. “Spanish Envoy Celebrates 400-Year Relationship.” The Japan Times, 7 Oct. 2013, https://www.japantimes.co.jp/community/2013/10/07/voices/spanish-envoy-celebrates-400-year-relationship/.
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