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Respect or Ridicule: Translation Strategies and the Images of A Foreign Culture – Anne-Marie Lindfors

The Electronic Journal of the Department of English
at the University of Helsinki

ISSN 1457-9960

Volume1, 2001

Translation Studies

© 2001 Anne-Marie Lindfors


Anne-Marie Lindfors

Abstract. This paper discusses the images of a foreign culture portrayed in the Finnish translation of an African novel, Tsitsi Dangarembga’s Nervous Conditions, from Zimbabwe. In any translation project, the initial decision between domesticating and foreignizing strategies affects the whole translation process, leading either to a target text that is easily recognizable and thus readily accessible to the readers, or to a text that constantly reminds them of cultural difference. In the translation of African literature the convention in Finland has been to preserve the sociocultural content of the source text; consequently, the preferred strategies have been foreignizing. Such strategies may, however, have unwanted side effects, as the resulting images of the source culture may be distorted, with debatable ethical consequences.

1. Introduction

In the modern world, distances between different countries are getting shorter every day, and cultures have more and more contact with each other. Intercultural communication benefits from knowledge and understanding of the other´s cultural features and peculiarities, and one good way of getting a deeper insight into a foreign culture is through its literature. In smaller language areas such as Finland, people are fairly dependent on translated literature when they want to read books from abroad, which emphasizes the responsibility of translators and publishers, as they decide which books are selected to be translated, and how the translation work is to be performed. An important aspect in the translation of literature is that translated texts can be influential in the construction of national identities for foreign cultures (Venuti 1998:67).

Translating literary texts from other cultures involves more than linguistic considerations, which becomes more apparent when the source culture is geographically or temporally distant from or otherwise alien to the target culture. The concept of linguistic equivalence has gradually given way to “the cultural turn” (Bassnett & Lefevere 1990) in translation studies, as broader issues, such as context, conventions and history of translation have attracted increased attention (Bassnett & Lefevere 1998:123). My present aim is to investigate some translation strategies that have been employed in the translation into Finnish of one African novel from Zimbabwe, Tsitsi Dangarembga’s Nervous Conditions (1988), and the effects of these strategies on the target text and its function. I shall also discuss some ethical questions that arise from the images of the foreign culture portrayed in the target text.

In the analysis of the Finnish translation of Nervous Conditions, I use methodology developed within descriptive translation studies and presented in Gideon Toury´s book Descriptive Translation Studies and Beyond (1995). In contrast to older approaches to translation, which are source-text oriented and prescriptive, this method relies on description and explanation of relationships obtaining between target and source texts. The method is called target-text oriented, because the analysis starts from the target pole, but it is by no means confined there because, as the analysis proceeds, the target text is mapped onto its source text, with the aim of eventually establishing the norm of translation equivalence and the overall concept of translation underlying the text (Toury 1995:37).

Nervous Conditions (referred to below as NC), was written by a young Zimbabwean woman author, Tsitsi Dangarembga (born in 1959), and published by Women´s Press in London in 1988. The Finnish translation, Tambu (referred to as TA below), was translated by Leila Ponkala and published by Art House in 1989. The book, originally written in English, won the African section of the Commonwealth Writer´s Prize in 1989. It has been translated into at least twelve languages. The main character in the novel is Tambudzai (Tambu), a girl in her early teens growing up in colonial Rhodesia in the late 1960s. After her brother´s death, she gets a chance to go to school, which she believes will be a way for her to escape from the hard life at the homestead. With increasing experience, however, she starts to question the usefulness of Western education and values. Important themes in the novel are colonialism and patriarchal society and their impact on the lives of women.

2. Translation of cultural features

2.1. Shared knowledge

In the translation of literature, cultural distance between the source and target cultures requires some consideration. The author of a literary work has usually adjusted the level of implicit information to match the assumed general background knowledge of the intended readership. When such works are translated for people who have a different cultural background, the degree of shared knowledge between the assumed source- and target-text readers first needs to be established. The translator then considers how to help target-text readers understand that which is not expressed in the source text and which they are thought to be unable to infer. Differences in cultural background may require adjustments even when a literary work is not translated into another language but simply published in another country within the same language area. An example of this is given in Koskinen’s account of the revisions that an Argentinian novel went through before it was published in Spain (2000:60). References to the tango, in particular, a typically Argentinian cultural phenomenon, were changed in order to make the novel more accessible to European readers.

Treatment of cultural features also occupies an important position in the translation and marketing of African literature. Even when the source text has originally been written in a European language, it may contain unfamiliar elements, for example, features from African oral tradition, or unidiomatic linguistic structures reflecting the structures of the author´s native African language. Dingwaney even claims that “texts written in English or in one of the metropolitan languages, but originating in or about non-Western cultures, can be considered under the rubric of translation” (1995, as cited in Gyasi 1999:80). The author of such literature has thus been a “creative translator” (Gyasi 1999:82), adjusting the level of foreign elements in the text to match the assumed shared knowledge of the intended readers. If the writer has a wider, international readership in mind, cultural features are usually made more explicit (Tymoczko 1998:29), in glossaries, for example. When African literature is translated from one European language into another, the process is complicated by this hybrid nature of the source text, a mixture of two cultures: the African thought and the European language that serves as the medium for conveying it (Bandia 1993:62). Important questions during the translation include what the function of the target text is, and thus, how exotic or familiar the target text should be made for the intended readership.

2.2. Domestication and foreignization

Translating a text from one culture to another usually requires that a choice is first made between two basic translation strategies, domestication and foreignization. Domestication means making the text recognizable and familiar and thus bringing the foreign culture closer to the reader in the target culture, while foreignization means the opposite, taking the reader over to the foreign culture and making him or her feel the cultural and linguistic differences. This choice between domestication and foreignization is linked to questions of ethics, too: should the translator be accountable to the source or target culture, and to what extent? If target-cultural conventions are followed in the translation process, the text will be readily acceptable in the target culture, but it will inevitably lose some of the characteristics that would have given it a foreign or even exotic feeling.

A more serious aspect of having domestication as a dominant translation strategy is, according to Venuti (1998:67), the fact that translations wield considerable power in the construction of national identities for foreign cultures. Translations can change domestic representations and create stereotypes for foreign cultures, which may have such consequences as ethnic discrimination, colonialism and geopolitical confrontations. It is thus important to consider whether the resulting representations of foreign cultures in translated texts are ethical. Some translation strategies and their effects on the image of the source culture portrayed will be the topic of the next section.

3. Translation strategies in the Finnish translation of Nervous Conditions

3.1. The method of analysis

The method developed by Toury (1995) for descriptive translation studies can be used in the study of translation processes and resulting target texts. Of special interest are the strategies available to translators, the choices they make between them, and the constraints that may affect such choices. In the initial stages of the investigation, the scholar defines several coupled pairs of target-text solutions and corresponding source-text problems and tries to discover regular patterns in the translational behaviour. The establishment of translation relationships obtaining between coupled pairs is the next step, the aim being to discover the dominant norm of translation equivalence and the overall concept of translation underlying the target text as a whole (Toury 1995:37). The final objective could be to model the decision-making in future translation projects according to the results obtained from descriptive-explanatory studies. In this paper, I shall first analyze the treatment of culture-bound words, and then consider some very literal translational solutions involving changes of meaning. In this section I have made some use of Chesterman´s classification of strategies (1997:87-116).

3.2. Treatment of culture-bound words

One conspicuous feature in NC are the foreign elements evoking the African setting and culture. Even on the very first pages the reader encounters words which cannot be found in English dictionaries, for example matamba and matunduru (3). These are Shona words, mostly for food, and the author has scattered many of them in her text, but they could include other aspects of Shona culture as well, both physical (furnishings) and linguistic (exclamations). Dangarembga has obviously used them to give local colour to the text, and there are no glossaries or other explanations of the meanings of these terms in NC. The Finnish translator has employed the same strategy fairly consistently when dealing with these Shona words:

Sometimes it was not only maize but mhunga and rukweza as well. (NC 6)

Toisinaan viljelimme maissin lisäksi myös mhungaa ja rukwezaa. (TA 12)

This strategy, which Chesterman classifies as the use of a loan (1997:94), and which is also called transference or direct transfer, is sometimes not even considered a translation strategy at all (Newmark 1988:81). It preserves the exotic feeling of the source text and thus contributes to a foreignized target text.

Another source of cultural words in NC is Britain, the former colonial master of Zimbabwe. Measurement units especially may cause problems for the translator — and for the reader — as they differ from the metric system used in Finland:

She […] delivered without complication a healthy seven-pound boy. (NC 155)

hän synnytti ilman komplikaatioita terveen, seitsemän naulaa painavan pojan. (TA 223)

The measurement is rendered by its dictionary equivalent. The translator, however, does not treat the British cultural elements as consistently as the Shona words, as she sometimes renders inches as centimetres (for example TA 77) and yards as metres (TA 52). Such cultural filtering (Chesterman 1997:108) makes the target text less strange to the readers, and thus domesticates it to a certain degree. The foreignizing tendency is, however, more prominent in the treatment of British cultural words. There is also one example in the novel where the target text unit of measurement may remain somewhat obscure:

With thirteen extra people to feed — and the lot of us devouring seven loaves of bread and half a pound of margarine each morning (NC 135)

Ruokittavia oli kolmetoista odotettua enemmän, ja kaikilla tuntui olevan valtaisa ruokahalu; pelkästään aamiaisella

In this example, the Finnish translator has obviously mixed the unit of weight (naula) with that of money, i.e. a pound sterling (punta). The Finnish readers may be puzzled as to the meaning of the term in this connection, unless they are able to work it out through back-translation. Some kind of misunderstanding or carelessness may also explain the translational solution in the next example:

Today there are fewer white people on the mission. They are called expatriates, not missionaries, and can be seen living in unpainted brick houses. […] I am told that whether you are called an expatriate or a missionary depends on how and by whom you were recruited. […] I often ask myself why they come, giving up the comforts and security of their more advanced homes. Which brings us back to matters of brotherly love, contribution and lightening of diverse darknesses. (NC 103)

Nykyään lähetysasemalla on valkoisia vähemmän kuin ennen. Heitä kutsutaan maanpakolaisiksi eikä lähetyssaarnaajiksi, ja heitä asuu maalaamattomissa tiilitaloissa. […] Se kutsutaanko heitä maanpakolaisiksi vai lähetyssaarnaajiksi riippuu kuulemma siitä, kuka heidät on värvännyt ja miten. […] Kysyn usein itseltäni, miksi he tulevat tänne turvallisista, mukavista ja kehittyneistä oloista. Se on taas sitä veljellistä rakkautta, avustustyötä ja jos minkälaisen pimeyden valaisemista. (TA 150-151)

The word expatriate has been rendered as maanpakolainen ‘an exile’, which is obviously not what is meant in NC. The readers of Tambu may wonder why white people have had to leave their home countries and move to Africa, as we are used to seeing news of migration in the opposite direction. The context does not support this reading either. Thus, a more suitable translation might have been kehitystyöntekijä ‘development aid worker’.

African literature may well reflect African thought patterns. One example of this in NC is the following:

Babamukuru and Maiguru would now formally welcome me into their home; formally disinter me, my mind and body, from the village. (NC 85)

nyt Babamukuru ja Maiguru toivottaisivat minut virallisesti tervetulleeksi; minut, minun sieluni ja ruumiini, kaivettaisiin virallisesti kotikylän maaperästä. (TA 124)

In this literal rendering the words in the source text are faithfully reproduced, with the result that the image conveyed to the Finnish readership may be rather macabre.

All in all, as far as the analysis of translation of culture-bound elements in Tambu goes, we may claim that even though some British cultural features (mostly measurement units) have been naturalized, the foreignizing trend is strong. The translator has used either a foreign loan or literal translation to render cultural features into Finnish. This is in accordance with Bandia’s comment that “[t]he main aim of the translator of African works is to preserve the cultural homogeneity of African thought. His effort is generally geared towards transferring the source-language culture into the target-language culture with a minimal distortion of both languages and cultures” (1993:60-61).

Beside culture-bound words, there is another recurrent feature in Tambu which increases the strangeness of the novel. This feeling of foreignness is not intended by the author but results from the very literal translation into Finnish of many passages in NC. This phenomenon will be investigated in the next subsection.

3.3. Very literal translation involving changes of meaning

Maximum fidelity to the source text often occurs at the word level through very literal translation involving dictionary equivalents. Consider the following example:

Therefore I was not surprised when he suddenly stopped leaping in the central regions of Babamukuru´s domain in order to stake his claim on our clean, kempt cousins. (NC 37)

En siis lainkaan hämmästynyt kun hän yhtäkkiä lakkasi hyppelemästä Babamukurun maa-alueen keskustassa ja alkoi vaatia omikseen puhtoisia, siististi kammattuja serkkujamme. (TA 56)

The word domain in the source text is to be understood figuratively, but in the Finnish translation it means ‘a plot of land’. Maa-alue is one of the first equivalents given for domain in the English-Finnish dictionary, which seems to be the source of this translational solution. The next example may also be somewhat problematic for Finnish readers:

A wedding that made a mockery of the people I belonged to and placed doubt on my legitimate existence in this world. (NC 163)

Häät pitivät pilkkanaan lähimpiäni ja saattoivat kyseenalaiseksi laillisen olemassaoloni tässä maailmassa. (TA 233)

One meaning of legitimate in Finnish is laillinen ‘legal’, but it can also mean avioliitossa syntynyt ‘born of parents who are married’, which is obviously what is meant here.

One more example of this recurrent feature of very literal translation and reliance on dictionary equivalents is:

Nyasha climbed out of bed, advising me to make an effort to stop being a peasant, which distressed me no end. I knew what the word meant because we had come across it one day in a poem in an English lesson and our teacher had explained that a peasant was a land-fowl which looked something like a guinea fowl. Nyasha must have been very annoyed, I thought, to be so rude (NC 89)

Nyasha kömpi vuoteesta sanoen, että olin maalainen ja että minun pitäisi tosissani yrittää muuttua. Ahdistuin valtavasti. Tiesin mitä “maalainen” merkitsi, koska olimme törmänneet kyseiseen sanaan englannin tunnilla erästä runoa lukiessamme. Opettaja oli selittänyt, että se tarkoitti helmikanan näköistä maalintua. Nyashan täytyi olla todella loukkaantunut, koska ei hän muuten olisi käyttänyt niin hävytöntä kieltä (TA 128)

This is an obvious case of wordplay between peasant and pheasant in the source text, and the Finnish translator has rendered it almost word for word, thus producing a text segment that is likely to remain incomprehensible to Finnish readers as the word maalainen ‘peasant’ cannot be confused with the name of a bird. Similar examples of very literal translation can be found throughout Tambu.

4. Discussion and conclusion

The observation of regular recourse to very literal translation in Tambu, together with the foreignizing strategies that were found to dominate the translation of culture-bound elements, provide support for the hypothesis that this translator´s norm of equivalence is based on word-level dictionary equivalents, and that her concept of translation is maximum fidelity to the source text. The target text Tambu fulfils the condition that Venuti (1998:87) demands of an ethical translation project, in that it should deviate “from domestic norms to signal the foreignness of the foreign text”. The ultimate goal of such translation projects, according to Venuti, is “resistance against ethnocentrism and racism, cultural narcissism and imperialism, in the interests of democratic geopolitical relations” (1995:20).

Venuti´s demands for the employment of foreignizing translation strategies have met with criticism from many translation scholars. One important point is raised by Robinson, who claims that for “[some] readers the quaintness of foreignized texts […] makes their authors, and the source culture in general, seem childish, backward, primitive, precisely the reaction foreignism is supposed to counteract” (1997:111). It seems to me that the characters and culture presented in Tambu are in danger of precisely such a fate. Some support for my speculation is provided by the fact that even though the novel was meant for ordinary Finnish readers of literature (Leila Ponkala, personal communication, March 1996), Suvi Ahola wrote in her review of the book in the Helsingin Sanomat: “Tambu on oikeastaan nuorisokirja” (“Tambu is actually literature for teenagers”, my translation) (11.2.1990, A18). More study will be needed to establish the reasons for such a change in the function of the target text, or at least for such an effect on one influential critic, but as translated texts reflect the attitudes and values of the target culture, the interesting question is what Tambu can tell us about our own views of Africa.

The ethics of translation can be defined using various criteria, as Koskinen (2000) has shown. For Pym, “the ultimate aim of translation is to improve intercultural relations” (1992:169), and Kwame Appiah´s goal is “a genuinely informed respect for others” (2000:427). It is debatable whether Tambu can meet such expectations, as the images it transmits of one African culture can at best be said to remain somewhat unclear. How then could such images be avoided in the future? Appiah (2000) recommends a method called “thick translation”, which consists of explaining all cultural details in annotations and glossaries, in order to improve the understanding of the cultural features of the source text. Such texts, however, may require too much effort from the target reader, and they may also be considered too academic to sell well. But whatever strategies are chosen for the translation of African literature, such projects should be in accordance with Bandia´s ethical demand “that the translator should strive to avoid exacerbating tensions created by past historical events (colonialism), by ensuring that no `negative stereotyping´ due to ignorance of the source culture occurs in the translation” (1993:57).



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