Friday, March 25, 2016

Translating Culture and Cultural Phenomena

Religious imagery plays a huge part in
Semana Santa.
This week, in Spain at least, is Semana Santa (Holy Week). If you've never seen the spectacle before, it's incredibly impressive. I'm currently in Málaga in southern Spain, where the festivities are quite vibrant and inexplicable. That's why today I thought it'd be useful to look at translating culture and cultural phenomena.

When it comes to translating cultural phenomena, things can get quite tricky for a translator. As such things are usually unique to a region, country, or even language, a direct translation probably won't exist because the thing itself neither exists in the target culture nor the target language. That's when creative translation practices can come in handy.

Is your audience familiar with the practice?

Before you start translating, you should think about who is going to read your text. For example, if I was writing an English-language article for British expats who live in Spain, I could just leave cultural terms in the original Spanish. This is because the readers would likely be familiar with the Spanish terminology, despite preferring to read articles in English.

What if your audience isn't familiar with the practice?

Say your target audience is unfamiliar with Spanish culture. In this case, I would have a bit more work to do. I can't really invent words for the terminology, as the practices don't exist in English-speaking culture. In this case, I would have to be more creative. For example, rather than trying to find a vague term to describe a specific cultural idea, I might need to keep the word as it is, but add a brief description to the sentence.

Semana Santa celebrations in Sevilla, Spain.
Is it really OK to not translate a word?

Of course it is. Languages borrow words from other languages all the time. In fact, we've done plenty of posts on loanwords that have made their way into the English language. Sometimes, as a translator, the words just don't exist in the target language. In this case, you may have to just keep them in the source language and explain them in the target language. If your audience understands the culture as it was described in the source text, then you've done your job. Well done!

Is there a specific cultural phenomenon that you've found hard to translate? What was the most complicated cultural element you've translated? Tell us about your experiences in the comments below.