Cultural issues and translation loss

In translation, as in any type of human communication, cultural issues must always be taken into account.

When converting a text from its source language into the target language, it isn’t always possible to translate literally. The issue of names and proper nouns, institutions, traditions, etc. is only one aspect. Sometimes, there are proverbs or idioms that require some amount of creativity and adaptation, while some parts of the source text may be fairly untranslatable because an equivalent concept does not exist in the target culture. In these cases we talk about translation loss.

Cultural transposition is an example of relative translation loss, and as such it comes in various degrees. Depending on the specific translation guidelines of each particular project, it may be desirable to adopt either a source-culture bias or a target-culture bias or some kind of middle ground.

The most source-culture biased translation is exoticism. This implies using grammatical and cultural features from the source text with minimal adaptation.

The next step on the scale moving from source-culture bias to target-culture bias is calque. Calque is a form of translation which uses target language words and is acceptable as target language syntax, but it remains unidiomatic in the target language. An example of calque would be the word-by-word translation of a proverb using similar grammatical structures in the target language, e.g. “Ein gebranntes Kind scheut das Feuer” translated as “A burnt child shuns the fire” (source: S. Harvey, M. Loughride, I. Higging, Thinking German Translation, Routledge 2008, pp. 34-35.)

Cultural borrowing is an alternative that constitutes the middle ground between source-culture bias and target-culture bias. It consists of introducing verbatim an expression from the source language into an otherwise idiomatic target text. Careful, some apparent exoticisms may lead to huge confusions if left as such in the target language. Just think about “Handy” (in German, a cell/mobile phone) and the actual meaning of handy in English.

One of the most culturally-sensitive adaptations of texts that usually does justice both to source text accuracy and to target language clarity, fluency and comprehensibility is the so-called communicative translation. This is great for clichés, proverbs, sayings or idioms that have readily identifiable equivalents in the target language. The text becomes highly fluent, understandable and offers target audiences something they can easily relate to. It is always my first choice when translating advertising copy. To refer to our earlier example, “Ein gebranntes Kind scheut das Feuer” becomes “once bitten, twice shy” (source: idem, pp. 36-37.)

At the extreme end of the target-culture bias spectrum, we have cultural transplantation. This concept defines the “wholesale rewriting” of the source document in a target culture setting. It is often used by literary translators for source texts that contain dialect.

Usually, translators will avoid the extreme ends of the spectrum and will translate somewhere in between. Giving clear instructions and translation guidelines according to each text’s desired objectives and target audience is of vital importance. It is a decision best taken by the customer and discussed in detail with the culturally-aware translator. It makes the latter’s work much easier and the end result more satisfactory and more effective.

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