Translating Cultures: An Introduction for Translators, Interpreters and Mediators – Book Review

Author: David Katan
Publisher: Jerome Publishing
ISBN 13: 978-1900650731

Reviewed by David Gray, Centre for Linguistics, Translation and Literacy. Module Coordinator for Translation Module, MA in Field Linguistics.

Many of us involved in Bible Translation have little time to read books on
translation theory. This is a book worth making time for. It introduces us
to the idea of translation as cultural mediation – that translators are not
simply representing meaning in another language using linguistic signs,
as Eugene Nida taught in his Code Model – rather they are attempting to
mediate culture. In so doing they will often come across rhetoric or
behaviour which seem confusing or even irrelevant to their own culture. Yet, David Katan says, these must be translated or mediated across so that they have meaning for the audience. In facing this challenge of being mediators of culture the translator is engaged in a process of interpreting meta-language, and deciding what is relevant to the audience in question. Katan’s book provides a rationale for adding explanatory material (that is implicit in the text) or deleting other material (that will be seen as obvious to the reader) by explaining such changes in terms of recent translation theories such as Relevance Theory, ‘Frames’ and meta-language, and Speech Act Theory. One of the things I found particularly helpful, were the many examples Katan includes. Here is one:

Le Monde : Les deux auteurs directs de l’attentat … ont quitté Auckland … l’un pour Nouméa, l’autre pour Sydney (Australie).

Translation in The Guardian : The two men who carried out the attack … left Auckland … one for Nouméa, in the French Pacific territory of New Caledonia, and the other for Sydney.

The translator has found it necessary to make explicit the information regarding Nouméa, which would have been obvious to a French reader (but less well-known to Guardian readers in the UK), while deleting ‘Australia’ as being obvious to an English reader.

Another example highlights the possibility of finding whole sentences that contain too much i.e. embarrassing information. An Italian shoemaker had written this paragraph of information about their ‘Blackpool’ shoes:

Complimenti! Lei ha scelto le calzature Blackpool realizzate con materiale di qualità superiore.

La pelle, accuratamente selezionate nei macelli specializzati, dopo una serie di processi de lavorazione viene resa plù morbida e flessibile.

The translation read:

Compliments! You chosed the Blackpool shoes realized with materials of high quality.

The leather, carefully selected in the specialized slaughter-houses, after difference proceeding of manufacture, becomes softier and supplier.

Katan points out that some of what has been communicated is, quite frankly, inappropriate for British audiences, who don’t like being reminded that their shoes began in a slaughter house, and who associate the name ‘Blackpool’ with cheap seaside holidays, donkey rides, and sticky sweets. He recommends the translation below:

Your Blackpool shoes have been carefully made from the finest quality materials. Presumably it is too late to actually change the name of the firm, but putting the name in

italics serves the function of making them ‘so-called’ Blackpool shoes.

Lastly, for those struggling with unknown ideas, he shows how culturally-informed such concepts are. The phrase ‘annus horribilis’ is used in one article from the Guardian:

Even before the close of February, the Italian government is already well into its own “annus horribilis”. Mr Amato’s political mentor and Socialist Party leader Bettino Craxi, finally resigned after an eighth cautionary warrant from judges in the Milan scandal.

Katan suggest that it helps to be aware of Queen Elizabeth II’s speech after various difficult events in her own family: ‘Nineteen ninety two is not a year I shall look back on with undiluted pleasure. In the words of one of my more sympathetic correspondents, it has turned out to be an “annus horribilis”’. Since Elizabeth’s use of the phrase, readers have begun to associate it with scandal, upheaval, turmoil and public criticism. This knowledge then helps the reader interpret this unknown idea in the article.

These examples illustrate how difficult it is to translate from one European culture (and therefore language) to another, let alone from the various biblical cultures and languages into one’s own, often via a third, also alien culture – many translators work from secondary texts such as translations into English, French, Spanish, Russian, and so on. Those of us who train and advise translators need to be especially sensitive to this issue, as it is all too easy to influence a mother-tongue translator who is already struggling with their own mediatorial role with our exegesis and views of translation. They are trying to keep, not one, but two audiences happy – the eventual readers or listeners of the Bible, and also the consultant or translation advisor. Overall I would recommend this book as an introduction to the cultural pitfalls that befall any translator, consultant, or translation-advisor, though, as with any ‘Introduction’, the description of the various cultural, linguistic and cognitive theories is brief, and more likely to give the reader an incentive to read the fuller treatments of these subjects. As such it will be a very useful resource for both teaching staff and students on CLTL Meaning and Communication and Translation courses – it will provide relevant examples, and help folk see Bible translation within the general context of cross-cultural communication.

Please Note: The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the position of Redcliffe College.

Return to Issue 46.

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