Translating Cultures.

“Translation is always a shift, not between two
languages but between two cultures or two encyclopaedias. A translator must
take into account rules that are not strictly linguistic but, broadly speaking,
cultural.” — Umberto Eco

“Translation is impossible, but necessary”, said Indian
literary theorist Gayatri Spivak.

Those five words could summarize on their own the whole
history of translation, from Cicero to the most recent theories (the
ever-lasting debate on the word-for-word vs sense-for-sense dichotomy, which
dates back to the last century BC was the first reflection of the best way to
get through the ordeal of cross-cultural understanding). Since the very
beginning of translation studies, translators and theorists have been debating
“(un)translatability”. The thread of consistency of the debate is related to
the inherently destructive nature of translation (the idea embodied in the
crucial term traduttore tradittore, “translator, traitor”), which has been
recognized by almost all of them.

Already in the Renaissance, Joachim Du Bellay spoke of
translation as a “pis-aller devant l’inaccessibilité de l’original” (a
second-best, a lesser evil when confronted with the inaccessibility of the
original), designating translation as a “creative imitation process”. During
that period, translation was already considered as an art of approximation, in
an attempt to produce analogous effects in the target language speakers, since
rising up to the level of the original was considered to be simply impossible.
In the 17th and 18th centuries, with Nicolas Perrot d’Ablancourt, and later
with Madame Dacier, among others, translation was said to be a deterioration in
itself, which leads translators to consider foreign texts as being
“untranslatable”. Madame Dacier says: “the linguistic-aesthetic propriety of
French is incompatible with the original, our language doesn’t quite know what
to do with harsh, repulsive words”’. To overcome the issue, we create during
that period translations that are beautiful but unfaithful to the original,
translations that strongly diverge from their original and even introduce a
series of elements that do not belong to the source text – e.g. improvements
and anything that might appeal to the target reader – in a way that “betraying”
the source text itself was somehow inescapable (see Georges Mounin’s Les Belles

Nowadays, the debate is still alive, symbolized by the
opposition between Antoine Berman’s strangeness and Umberto Eco’s
ethnocentrism. Both scholars weigh into the centuries-long debate over
source-oriented vs target-oriented translation. The former method tries to
stick as closely as possible to the nature of the original text (the “source”),
which often means presenting something culturally alien to the reader – for
example, giving a literal translation of foreign slang, regardless of how odd
this may sound. The “target-oriented” or ethnocentric approach, on the other
hand, tries to put things in terms familiar to the reader: if an English novel
has someone speaking in Cockney, this may be transferred into “Parigot” in the
French version*. This opens up much wider possibilities for the translator, who
is not only changing the words from one language to another, but attempting a
kind of cultural translation too.

Berman warns against ethnocentric translation, an unethical
variety that uses a fluent translation strategy to hide a source text’s
“strangeness” from its readers. Some of the shifts that can occur in
translation are outlined in his “negative analytic of translation”, which
examines twelve “deforming tendencies” that cause translation to deviate from
its essential aim. He says: “All the tendencies lead to the same result: the
production of a text that is more ‘clear’, more ‘elegant’, more ‘fluent’, more
‘pure’ than the original**. Berman
advocates a variety of source-oriented or “foreignizing” translation that seeks
to make the act of translation “visible”. He sees this process of foreignizing
translation as especially important in a world in which the English language is
dominant and where there is a risk that translation into English of literature
from the world’s less visible languages might result in the appropriation of
texts and cultures on the target culture’s terms alone. According to him, the
translator should resist the dominant tendency towards invisible, fluent
translation that masks cultural difference and instead, attempt to make the
translated text manifest elements of foreignness. The aim of this kind of
translation is to avoid, or at least minimize, ethnocentrism and promote
cultural innovation as well as the understanding of cultural difference. In
developing strategies to achieve foreignizing translation, Berman sees
interpretation as playing a key role and notes that this interpretation must
take into consideration both the literary qualities of the text itself and the
expectations and knowledge of the target audience of the translation. Indeed,
regardless of the translation strategy applied, all translation involves an act
of interpretation, just as all reading entails interpretation, as the brilliant
George Steiner said.

This is also emphasised by Umberto Eco, who proposes on his
side “negotiation” as a way of theorizing translation: this would enable us to
move away from the dichotomy of source vs target and to view translation as a
dynamic process of decision-making, “an ongoing act of negotiation between
author and text, between author and readers, as well as between the structure
of two languages and the encyclopaedias of two cultures”. Interpretation is
central to this process of negotiation as the translator’s work involves a
series of choices and decisions and these are made on the basis of the
interpretation the translation makes of the “intention of the text”. As Eco
explains, “many hypotheses can be made about the intention of a text, so that
the decision about what a translation should reproduce becomes negotiable”.

Even if Eco tries to eschew the source-target approach and
stand somewhere in the middle, arguing that there must be some give-and-take
between these two methods, his many examples show a largely target-oriented
approach, with an emphasis on creating an equivalent effect for the target
audience through the use of target language resources (we can draw here a clear
parallel between Eco’s principles and the abovementioned tendencies dating back
to the 17th century).

The key example he gives involves mice and rats. The Italian
“topo” (mouse) is also commonly used for rats, and is what any Italian would
shout if he saw a rat scurrying across the floor. So when Hamlet shouts
“How now! A rat?” (just before he kills Polonius), this is correctly
translated using an Italian word which the dictionary normally explicates as
“mouse”. But at the opening of Camus’s La Peste, when a dead rat is found on
the stairs, Eco insists that the Italian translator should use the technical
term “ratto” (or “grosso topo”, to show that a rat and not a mouse is meant),
because the relevant point here is not that the animal scuttles or startles,
but that it carries the plague.

We could justifiably argue that this is not a special
“negotiation”, just a straightforward application of the rule that translators
should know how words are actually used.

The complications start to arise when Eco discusses the
problems involved in translating his own novels, with their fine webs of hidden
quotations and literary in-jokes. For example, when one of his characters uses
a phrase from a famous poem by Leopardi (famous, that is, to Italian readers
but not to English ones), he suggests that the English version should substitute
a quotation from Keats. What matters, he says, is that the “effect” on the
reader should be the same – in this case, the experience of hearing a familiar
literary echo. Gradually, this emphasis on the creation of an equivalent
“effect” takes over his argument, until it becomes clear that, far from
offering a compromise, he is in fact putting forward a strong version of the
target-oriented approach. It is obvious that the “effect” of Cockney slang on
British readers is best replicated, in the case of French readers, by using

We might then ask ourselves the following worrying question:
“But why stop there and not transfer the setting of the novel itself from
London to Paris!?” The answer is beyond our scope, but the limit not to be
exceeded certainly deserves reflexion.

Guillaume Deneufbourg

* If you are interested in sociolinguistic equivalence
issues, we refer you to the brilliant
example from Robert Anthony Lodge’s
article published in Romantisme (in French – n° 86, 1994)

** In this respect, we suggest you read Françoise Wuilmart’s
excellent essay on the “sin of levelling down in literary translation” (“Le
péché de nivellement en traduction littéraire”- Meta n° 52, 3, 2007).