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39 - How to translate realia

«Contar es lo que más mata t lo que más sepulta, lo que fija y dibuja y hiela nuestro rostro o el perfil o la nuca»1.

"Telling the story is what kills, what entombs, what secures and delineates and solidifies our face, profile or nape"2.

From what was explained in the previous unit, it is obvious that relationships, sometimes the balance of power between cultures, have an influence also on the translation strategy chosen for realia. If, as we saw, in the dictionaries of most languages there is a strong presence of English words, this is evidently a sign of a greater readiness to accept realia in the texts coming from English-speaking cultures, rather than make an effort to understand the meaning and the cultural contextualization of realia coming from other cultures, that are lesser from the point of view of international visibility.

I must add that English language is very heterogeneous, because within it Germanic, Romance, Latin, Greek traditions converge and, maybe due to this easy appropriation and use of "exotic" words, the rate of absorption of non-English words is very high. Therefore, it is not only a cultural, political, and economic predominance of the U.S., but also of a cultural and linguistic ductility. In a sense, American English has become one of the most spoken languages in the world also because within it many non-English cultures and traditions find legitimate space, as much as the United States of America is traditionally the gathering point of émigrés of every provenance.

In this sense it is the translator's task (or her employer's, whenever he dictates the strategy she is to follow) to opt for a greater or lesser visibility of the original culture in the text (or which is referred to in the text). The translator is often the link of the semiosphere's communication chain from which preservation - or obliteration - of data on the reality in the source culture depends, on which the speed of communication within the huge semiotic macro-system, the world, depends.

Finally, another cultural variable bears on the choice between transcription and translation of realia: the possible presence of interlingual homonyms.

When considering the model reader, the choice between transcription and transliteration must be planned according to the pragmatic, or aesthetic, nature of the text. In the former case, choices are substantially dictated by the practical purposes of the text, without leaving any room for personal interpretation.

In the case of an artistic text, a distinction between mass reader and scholar must be made. Such a distinction is not always possible or desirable, however.

Targeted editions are possible only for languages that have a very high number of speakers and a high rate of readers. For example, Italian is spoken in the world by a comparatively low number of people, and among them the rate of readers is very low. For this reason, when, for example, the edition of a classic is planned, usually it is not targeted for a given type of reader; it has to satisfy - in the intentions, at least, the tastes of all readers, from the commuter reader to the philologist.

On the contrary, for English language, the number of readers is far greater, so it is possible to plan editions geared for a narrower target: cheap editions for the wide public, and philological editions for scholars; editions without footnotes or preface, with translated realia, easy to read, for the more "casual" readers, and editions with powerful critical apparatus, transliterated realia (maybe with a footnote), and just one line of text in each page above dozens of lines of notes - as Vladìmir Nabókov wanted - for the more sophisticated reader.

So, when one thinks that the choice between realia translation and transliteration depends on the model reader as well, this means above all on the diffusion of the language of the receiving culture and on the publishing policies followed there.

I think that the preservation of realia by transliterating them is always the best solution, even for editions destined to a mass public. It is axiomatic that for the mass public, and for children, one must prepare "easy" texts, both in the metrical form (prose editions of epical poems), and in syntax and lexicon.

I think that a casual reader shouldn't be considered casual forever either, nor punished with a low-quality product. A passion for reading must be cultivated by publishing policies as well. Readers must be attracted with interesting products, seducing them with a variegated array, coming from different regions and, as to realia, conserving the exotic flavor they lend. An exotic taste is an "extra", that can be appreciated also by casual readers, or "weak" readers.

On the contrary, finding only what is already known in texts cannot be a strong motive for increasing readership.

Maybe in some cases one tends to confuse the plane of exoticism and the plane of formal complexity. Complex texts like Joyce's Ulysses or Musil's Man without Qualities are complex even if there are no realia, and tend to be read by elite readers independent of the cultures into which they are translated.

There are many levels of reading. A text can also be read with satisfaction by someone not catching all possible levels of interpretation. And a surface reading is possible of a text containing many realia, that may not be decoded all at once, but whose presence is still an important reference for an eventual discussion, and a given from a different reality.

Their suppression (actually, their translation occurs more often than their suppression), or obliteration cannot have any positive consequence for any type of reader, in my opinion. I repeat that this is my personal opinion.

I close this unit about realia with a quotation:

Connotation, therefore also color, is a part of meaning, consequently it is translated with the same importance of the semantic meaning of a word. If it were impossible to do so, if the translator could transmit only the "naked" semantics of the lexical unit, the loss in color for the reader of the translation means an incomplete perception of the image, substantially, its distortion (Vlahov and Florin 1996: 121).


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.