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37 - Realia substitution, approximation, contextualization.

«[...] contando o diciendo lo mismo cada vez que se lee u hojea o consulta, del mismo modo que la acción elegida y congelada de un cuadro[...]»1.

"[...] telling the same thing in the same way every time it's read or leafed through or consulted, just as the action of a painting, once it's "chosen and frozen"[...]"2.

Aside from the translation strategies examined in the previous unit, we have another possibility, when facing the translation of a text containing realia: their substitution with realia of the receiving culture. According to Vlahov and Florin, who have a prescriptive and not merely descriptive attitude,

this view causes an unacceptable "substitution" of the prototext's color with a different color [...] there are paradoxical situations in which the nearest realia to foreign realia in the receiving culture are realia, often themselves adopted (from a foreign culture), often international, but close, understandable to the reader and somehow colorless, for which reason they are preferred3.

They are chosen, implicitly, by translators preferring such a strategy. Even on this plane, I think it is impossible to state that one strategy is absolutely better or worse than another. Realia substitution can make sense, especially if the text has a pragmatic, utilitarian dominant, and the style can be given a low priority. It is clear that such a strategy, whenever applied to literary texts, tends to flatten the cultural differences, to negate them, to alter reality in order to render a text understandable, better, to make it understood without the effort to accept its diversity.

Then there is approximate translation of realia that, according to Vlahov and Florin, is the most popular. This approach allows to translate the material content of an expression at least in a vague way, but the color is nearly always lost, because instead of the connotation prescribed by the author's strategy, we have an expression necessarily deprived of that intende connotation, having a neutral style. Within such approach there are some subtypes:

The principle of substitution with a generic expression of broader meaning is resorting to the noted translation principle of generalization. The approach is indicated whenever the translator arbitrarily decides not to translate the local color, knowing that in this way he can give an idea of the objective, material reference. In the two originally Russian examples:

I prefer dry wine or borzhomi

I'd like something lighter: some narzan or lemonade

in both cases the translators translated the realia with "mineral water". The immediately evident advantage consists in the fact that the reader understands what drink the sentence's protagonist wishes. The disadvantage is, obviously, that the reader will never know neither the specific drink requested nor, in cases, that such a drink exists and is particularly popular in certain areas or in specific historical periods. The reader will never know the semiotic value of the act of drinking (or at least requesting) borzhomi in the cultural context in which it is inserted. Compared to this strategy, the transliteration strategy has the evident disadvantage of not being completely understandable ("what the hell is borzhomi anyway?") but it has also the indubitable advantage of allowing the interested reader to investigate and maybe find out something about a real aspect of a culture he didn't know (while in the previous case to such an aspect he simply is not allowed to access).

Based on this principle, the izba on hen's legs typical of Russian popular fairy tales can become a generic palafitte, and a pagoda can become a generic temple.

Another subtype provides the substitution with a functional analogue. The definition of this strategy is very poor, because it merely says that the substituted element arouses a similar reaction in the receiving culture reader to the one aroused by the prototext on the source culture reader. Speaking of aroused reactions is very dangerous, because there is neither objective confirmation nor the possibility of distinguishing the reactions of one reader from those of another, there is a supposition on a sort of standard reader.

Based on such a technique, for example, a not widely known game very popular in the source culture can be substituted for a very popular game in the receiving culture. In a translation from Russian into Bulgarian, since chess was not well known, a translator has transformed a chess game into a checkers game (and maybe he would have turned it into a volleyball game, but he couldn't, because the two men had "sit to play"). Similarly, a musical instrument not well known but very popular in the source culture is substituted for an instrument very well known in the receiving culture (and in such cases, for example, a Neapolitan mandolin can become a Western-American banjo).

A third subtype foresees the description, explanation and interpretation of the realia elements instead of realia, a periphrasis is introduced explicitating the denotative content. For example, instead of a Russian armyak you write "rough cloth coat", instead of kulebyaka you write "dish of filled pastry": lexicographic interpretations.

There is a fourth translation strategy consisting in the contextual translation of the realia. Realia elements are substituted with words that, in the context and co-text in which they are placed in the original, explain the sense of such a collocation. Instead of translating the lexical meaning, the systemic, relational meaning is translated, that would be, naturally, vane to search for in the dictionary. This option is followed when the translator thinks that the context is the dominating factor in a given message. The example reported by Vlahov and Florin is the Russian sentence

Skol´ko stoit putyovka na sovetskij kurort?

that is translated:

How much are accommodations at Soviet spas?

In this way the sense of putyovka is lost, it beaing a sort of official certificate given to someone going on vacation, or taking a refresher course, or going on retreat, that, in Soviet times, could have been free or cost a symbolic sum. Evidently this word has no 'analogue' in cultures outside the Russian-Soviet one.

Here, in synthesis, are the translation strategies for realia examined here:

  • transcription
  • transliteration
  • translation
  • neologism (calque, half calque, appropriation, semantic neologism)
  • realia substitution
  • approximate translation (generalization, functional analogue, description, explanation, interpretation)
  • contextual translation

Bibliographical references

MARÍAS J. Negra espalda del tiempo, Punto de lectura, 2000 (original edition 1998), ISBN 84-663-0007-7.

MARÍAS J. Dark Back of Time, New York, New Directions, 2001 (translated by Esther Allen), ISBN 0-8112-1466-4.

VLAHOV S., FLORIN S., Neperovodimoe v perevode. Realii, in Masterstvo perevoda, n. 6, 1969, Moskvà, Sovetskij pisatel´, 1970, p. 432-456.

VLAHOV S., FLORIN S., Neperovodimoe v perevode, Moskvà, Vysshaja shkola, 1986.

1 Marías 2000, p. 73.
2 Marías 2001, p. 60.
3 Vlahov e Florin, 1986: 101.