WAAT #34: On Foreignization and Domestication

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When deciding how to translate culturally rich references, it’s not a binary either/or approach but a continuum of possible translation approaches; a wide spectrum of foreignization and domestication possibilities.

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Earlier this week, I read a book review where the reviewer applauded the translator’s choices to domesticate certain cultural references in a recent book to ensure that English readers who were not from the source culture would still be able to get the humor. If you’ve been following me for a while, you know that, as a fiction writer myself, I’m not at all keen on watering down or hyping up cultural references in any kind of writing. That is to say, I’m not for sanitization to appease readers who may be unfamiliar with a particular culture and I’m not for exoticization to appeal to readers who love to see certain tired tropes and stereotypes in particular cultures (see my 2021 roundup of #mangodiscourse.) So, when I asked a question on Twitter about foreignization versus domestication, I knew it was a sensitive issue among fellow translators that would bring out a range of responses.

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Before we get into the terminology and responses, a bit of quick housekeeping. After eight months of using a freemium newsletter service provider, I’ve reached my maximum free subscriber limit. A good kind of problem to have, I realize, but it’s given me a chance to explore how to manage this newsletter best. Here are the TWO small changes you’ll see starting in September 2022:

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Back to our topic. First, if you get a chance, do read the terrific responses and quote-tweets to my Twitter question (there’s no easy way to just turn them into a PDF that I can find.) The terms “foreignization and domestication” are from Lawrence Venuti’s The Translator’s Invisibility: A History of Translation. You can get a cheat sheet summary on Wikipedia. And, in last week’s newsletter, I had shared Robert Chandler’s excellent LARB essay on this topic as well.

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As you will see from the responses, the Wiki entry, and Venuti’s book if you have it, there is no easy or ready answer. And, as you see from the top graphic, there’s actually a continuum of approaches, depending on what the translator is aiming to do with the text. In general, most translators prefer to keep the source culture references and, where possible, contextualize further. Oftentimes, that’s via what Jason Grunebaum calls a “stealth gloss”, which is added into the text itself (see the introduction to his translation of Uday Prakash’s The Girl with the Golden Parasol.) Not quite as often, it can be via footnotes (which I personally love, I confess) or an end glossary.

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In my recently-released translation, the original Gujarati stories often included passing references to folktales, historical events, and more. In many cases, there was simply no way to replace them with something more familiar or recognizable for a non-Gujarati reader because we’d have lost the meanings. The author himself knew that some readers from his own time would not get all his references so he included footnotes. In my translation, I’ve kept his footnotes and, where necessary, added some of my own for today’s English reader. Here’s one example.

“Arrey! But, baapa! My giver of food and shelter! Forgive my mistake. I was raised by the darbaar. I have been given land by the darbaar. I have made a huge mistake. If you tell me, I will fast for seven days!”

“Fast-bast is fine. Seems you’ve seen this Popabai’s63 behavior here. But, here in Bhamarda, there is a lot more to see, ho!”

63 Popabai: A reference to a folktale about a pious woman who fasted regularly and lived a minimal life. When a king kidnapped her to marry her, she cursed him that his entire kingdom would get destroyed. He then took her back to her hut but drowned on the way and died. Justice was dispensed through divine intervention. Here, the kaamdaar is using “Popabai” to refer sarcastically to Jhamkudi as a falsely pious, fasting woman. As we see later in the story, Dhumketu is also indulging in some clever foreshadowing here with the nod to divine intervention.

~’The Dispenser of Justice’; The Shehnai Virtuoso and Other Stories by Dhumketu (tr. Jenny Bhatt)

Per the foreignization-domestication continuum above, my approach was that of “addition.” Now, I could have tried something simpler above by just adding a phrase within the main text like, say, “Seems you’ve seen this Popabai-like Jhamkudi’s fake, fasting piety but just remember how she cursed and destroyed the king.” Or, I could have localized or domesticated this reference entirely by using an example English readers would know like, say, “Jezebel.” But that would be an anachronism because this rural overlord character wouldn’t know of Jezebel at all. Besides, keeping the Popabai reference and adding the brief footnote allows the reader to see how Dhumketu has layered this plot point with meaning. On a more personal and, perhaps, whimsical note, this is a delightful and almost-forgotten Gujarati folktale and I loved the opportunity to add even more cultural texture to the translation. I realize it’s not everyone’s cuppa. Some editors don’t care for this sort of thing because they’re looking to appeal to the widest-possible readership. Then again, one of the reasons I read and enjoy translated works is to experience new (to me) and wonderful worlds. And I hope other readers do too.

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Of course, this is an endlessly complex topic and entire essays have been written about them, both scholarly and otherwise. Daniel Hahn’s Catching Fire: A Translation Diary, which I’ve mentioned at least a couple of times before, describes several such foreignization versus domestication dilemmas and how he chose to resolve them. Definitely worth a read.

How do you feel about foreignization and domestication in literary works? What are some recent examples that come to your mind from translations you’ve read? Do share in the comments. You can also share on social media with the links below.



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Jenny Bhatt is an author, a literary translator, and a book critic. She teaches creative writing at Writing Workshops Dallas and the PEN America Emerging Voices Fellowship Program. Sign up for her free newsletters, We Are All Translators and/or Historical Fiction Craft Notes. She lives in the Dallas-Fort Worth metroplex, Texas.

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