Translating Culture

OK, how do you go about translating something that cannot be translated? The best examples that come to my mind are literature of the magical realism variety where absurd plots unravel and bizarre happenings take place so outlandish that often the native mind has problems grappling the meaning of the words and the intention of the author. We have to remember that before any translation takes place, an interpretation of sorts has to take place. Translation is – in effect and in a very real practical sense – an interpretation of an interpretation (ad infinitum). The writer interprets ideas and transforms them into words on a page; we then interpret his/her message (which may or may not be in tune with the author’s original intent) and then go about transforming the words again into another lanaguage and culture. The reader then makes yet another interpretation on reading our work. OK, let’s look at an interesting little example. How would you translate the meaning and true essence (not just the words) of the following short extract from Freedom and Death by Nikos Kazantzakis. Explain to yourself what it really means and think about how to translate it into another language, what characteristics Cretans possess that make them different from other Greeks, what significance eggs have in this culture. There are a whole host of questions we can ask…

“The eggs had already been eaten, shells and all. Now Captain Michales with a blow from his fist, smashed the pottery eggcups and distributed them to his guests to eat. Bertodulos, terrified, took his piece and clung breathless to a cask. With goggling eyes he watched the Cretans at his feet bite their bits of clay and chew them until they became sand and grit, which they swalled with a snigger.
There are three sorts of men, Bertodulos slowly explained to himself: those who eat eggs without the shells, those who eat eggs with shells and those who gobble them up with the shells and the eggcups as well. The third kind are called Cretans.”


4 thoughts on “Translating Culture

  1. “We have to remember that before any translation takes place, an interpretation of sorts has to take place”
    It’s true. To say more, this is an important stage, which may even determine the final product of translation. Therefore, every translator should be a really inquisitive reader. It’s not enough to read and understand, or to use our background knowledge; one should check his/her own understanding by refering to some additional sources, since the text often offers more than one interpretation.
    I love Crete and Cretans but unfortunatelly I don’t know why should eggs be so important in their culture. I’ll try to learn sth about it (any hint? :)). at the moment it may mean lots of things: maybe they are more masculine than other Greeks, maybe they eat more eggs ;), or maybe it has sth to do with religion (???) no idea, and (until confirmed) every interpretation seems stupid…
    But let’s assume that we cannot find anything on Cretans and eggs; do we have to care then? maybe it would be better, if the target text was as ambiguous as the source one? Why should we deprive the target reader of the possibility to refer to encyclopedia?
    Translating culture is not easy…

  2. Perhaps ambiguity #is# important. Perhaps we do #not# have to know the importance of eggs and Cretans. And perhaps there is #no# correlation between the two. Whatever the answer, the way forward is to know as much there is to know about what we are translating and really #understand# the text we are translating…

  3. translating matters connected with culture is always or almost always hard. i think the idea that every translation is preceded by interpretation sheds a new light on the process. the reader also makes their own interpretation, which means that in the course of time the message may get significantly biased and distorted. and that is something we do not want, do we?

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