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38 - How realia can be translated

«[...] en él nunca veremos el rostro de quien fue pintado de espaldas ni la nuca de quien se retrató de frente ni el lado oculto de quien ofreció el perfil».

"[...] we'll never see the face of the person who was painted from behind, or the nape of the neck of the one whose face was portrayed, or the hidden side of the one in profile".

In the previous units, we examined the ways in which it is possible to translate realia. Now we proceed to the choice of one or the other strategy. The underlying notion guiding all translation choices in general, and those dealing with realia in particular, is that it does not make much sense to establish general rules; it is advisable consider pluses and minuses of each possible strategy on an individual base.

The first choice to be taken is, of course, between transliteration and translation. It is possible synthesize the variables on which such a choice depends into five points:

  1. the type of text;
  2. the significance of the realia in the context;
  3. the type of realia, their systemic role in the source culture and in the receiving culture;
  4. the languages, the collocations, and the collocabilities, the degree of acceptance of unusual collocations and exotic expressions in the receiving culture, and the translator's will to "force" the reader to overcome mental laziness in favor of a richer world awareness;
  5. the metatext's model reader (with possible, probable differences as compared to the prototext's model reader).

1. the type of text
If the text is a scientific text, there are probably not many realia, and the few present are mostly actually terms (words of technical terminology), that usually have the corresponding term in the receiving culture as the resulting translation. In public affairs writing, transliteration is statistically more frequent, while in fiction the choice depends mostly on the translation strategy, so that drawing statistics and mapping trends is impossible. Vlahov and Florin recommend translation for children's literature, but I don't agree. I don't think that the model reader of a book for children is stiffer or less curious of diversity; on the contrary, I think that it is often true that these are more common features of the adult reader. In adventure novels, the genre itself dictates the choice of transliteration, because deciding to read an adventure story is a choice of those curious for the new, the different, the exotic. In this case, maybe, one can make an exception to the non-generalizing rule, and state that here transliteration is nearly compulsory. In a popular science work, because of the didactic character implicit in it, I think that the most apt solution would be transcription with an explication in a footnote. In the dramatic text, since there is no possibility for footnotes, the choice is more complex and falls most heavily on the strategy the director chooses for interpretation.

2. the significance of the realia in the context;
The presence of realia in a sense can be more or less significant, their role can have a greater or lesser semantic value. The realia elements being alien or proper to the source culture constitutes a major difference in their consideration. When realia are alien to the source culture, it is probable that a neuter translation strategy consists in transliterating or transcribing them. The presence of realia pertaining to the source culture, on the contrary, poses a much more serious problem to the translator. In this case the degree of exotization, while transliterating and transcribing, is much greater than in the prototext:

common and familiar in the source language, such words and expressions in the translation's language are out of the usual lexical context, differ by heterogeneity, and, consequently, they demand a heightened attention to be decoded.

One can therefore say that wherever realia have a systemic (textual, contextual) significance, transcription is more advisable, while whenever realia are among the lower subdominants in the scale drawn by the translator in the moment when she decided her strategy. The risk implied in transcription or transliteration is, whenever it doesn't convey at all the lexical sense of the written word, of not realizing that the dominant, in this case, is just the lexical value of the word. It would be advisable, then, if one is certain that it is the case, to choose a word that is understandable in the receiving culture.

3. the type of realia
The degree of awareness of determined realia in a given culture is an essential parameter. Some hardly ever arouse any doubts: it the case of ruble, franc, Bolshevik, toreador, Thermidor, Jacobin. These are words found in almost any dictionary, and in these cases transcription is a nearly obliged choice, because the reader that could in the event not being aware of their meaning can easily indirectly access it. The realia that really challenge are national, regional and local realia (of the source culture). Of these, the ones semantically more active can be transcribed, the secondary ones can be translated, according to the whole translation strategy.

Words indicating given territorial or economic or political agencies, when translated, can mislead the translator. It would be misleading "to translate" the US President as Prime Minister, or translating the Clinton "administration" in Clinton "government". Along the same line, it would be at the least misinformative to speak of the "secretary of State" of an European country, when there is a minister of Foreign Affairs is in his place.

Analogously, it would be misleading to translate a Soviet Kolkhoz into a farm, as if a Kolkhoz had no peculiar feature when compared to farms that are found in most areas of the world.

4. the source culture and the receiving culture, and their languages
In the different national dictionaries, there is no uniform quota of foreign words. Some cultures are more inclined to adsorb words from "alien" cultures than others. And, for historical reasons of the single nations, some cultures leave their mark on others. For example, in the former Soviet countries, like the Baltic countries that are entering the European Union, until 1991 the quantity of Russian borrowings was very high, due to the political domination. It is very probable that, within the bounds of reason, such borrowings have been going into disuse since 1991, when these republics became independent again.

For similar reasons the French borrowings dominated in English, Italian, German and Russian for many centuries, because French culture was dominant or, anyway, one of the dominant ones at the world level in the West. While in this century, above all due to the internet, we see the clamorous linguistic prevalence of English. Any culture where there is no rigid linguistic protectionism accommodates, in its dictionaries, many English-American words that are not counterbalanced in the American dictionaries with new foreignisms.

Bibliographical references

FINKEL´ A. M. Ob avtoperevode, TKP, 1962, p. 104-125.

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 1986: 106.
4 Finkel´ 1962: 112.