Picking sides in translation: foreignization or localization?

The relationship between the source text, reader, and the target culture has always been at the forefront of the minds of the greatest translation scholars. How integrated into the receiving culture should the source text be? Does translation entail cutting all ties with the language and culture that produced it? Can two cultures meet halfway in a text that is foreign yet local?

There are volumes written on the topic; nonetheless, today’s translation studies courses have not yet let go of the intricate balance between foreignization and localization. The debate remains open: in the linguistic context of today, which is the preferred direction for practicing translators?

Foreignization is a translation approach that relies on preserving the source language features – such as sentence structure, vocabulary, certain grammatical features – in the target language. Although rendered into a different language, a foreignized text celebrates its foreignness by letting it permeate the fabric of the new translated product.

A translation process that relies on localization, on the other hand, usually produces a text that seamlessly enters the target culture, reinvents itself, and claims the new literary ecosystem as its own.

Let’s take a newspaper article that needs to be translated from French into English as an example. A foreignized translation would feature words of the French origin rather than their English counterparts, longer sentences, idioms that might challenge the reader’s imagination, or French cultural phenomena. A localized translation, conversely, would follow the traditional English language newspaper style in terms of the syntax, vocabulary, and grammar.

As a translator working for one employer or a freelancer juggling multiple contracts, take some time to look into the benefits and shortfalls of the two approaches – and everything in between – and decide what technique suits you best.

1. Know thyself. Which side do you gravitate towards: localization or foreignization? Where do you stand in the debate on the approaches to translating a foreign text? Maybe you’re neither a die-hard localizer nor a devoted foreignizer but a translator who modifies their approach based on the context and audience? As you get a fuller grasp of translation studies and grow in your role, pick a side that aligns with your beliefs, experience,technical expertise and the shifting needs of your clients. Further, know the pros and cons for each approach according to the field you are working in – global business translation work tends to prefer localization whereas some literary translations can prefer to hold onto some of the original nature of the text.

2. Know your text and audience. Spend just as much time studying your contract and the audience it’s intended for as you would deciding what kind of a translator you are. After all, everything that you produce has to satisfy your client and get the message across despite the inherent linguistic and cultural barriers. Ask your clients how they envision the translated text, how it will be used, who the target audience is, and if they have a preference for a translation method.

3.  Be vocal about your preferred approach. While taking note of your employer’s instructions, inform them of your standpoint, what you’ve learned through your experiences, and if you have a better solution for their project. As much as your client might know about translation, they hired you as an informed and trusted advisor.

The age-old debate around the approaches to translating a foreign text is not only pertinent to the theoretical field of translation studies, but also every translation job that comes your way. Picking a side – or sides – is essential for professional consistency and your reputation in the field.


Translating Revolutions: The Activist Translator! (Guest Blog)

Revolutions have always been central in shaping and determining the course of human history. The concept itself refers to radical, transformative changes which denote several phenomena from the “industrial revolution”, the “sexual revolution”, to more contemporary revolutions that spark off fundamental political/institutional changes (e.g. The Bolshevik Revolution) and promote universal values such as democracy, human rights, real citizenship, emancipation, equality, and justice (e.g. The Arab Spring). Revolutions are theorized, led, and performed through language which is the vehicle of the people’s aspirations and demands. Thus, as Umberto Eco asserts, revolutions can be looked at as “open texts at the literal and semiotic levels” that can, through translation, cross transnational borders and mobilize any populace in the world. Just as contemporary revolutions and uprisings continue to unfold acquire new meanings and significations, so too does the role of translators and interpreters.

Since the beginning of the 21st century, translation research started to take a new path, which is marked by activism and engagement. The invention of the internet, the new technological developments in communication and digital materials, and the rise of cyber activism, have spawn a new dimension of translation called “the activist turn” (Wolf 129). It postulates that translators are not mere linguistic and cultural intermediaries, but rather individuals committed to human causes and agents of resistance and emancipation. In other words, translation is not merely about transferring words from one language to another and examining whether a translation is faithful or not. Instead, the focus is on the social, cultural, political, and ideological factors that inform and shape the translators’ choices. Particularly, it is on the politics of translation as well as the visibility/agency of translators.

Interestingly, translation has become a medium for expressing dissent. In fact, translators have used their multi linguistic knowledge to empower voices that have been not heard. In his book, Challenging Codes: Collective Action in the Information Age, Italian sociologist Alberto Melucci argues that language and translation constitute a space of resistance, a means of reversing the symbolic order. In the same vein, Mona Baker, a professor of Translation Studies at the University of Manchester, adds in her article Translation as an Alternative Space for Political Action that translators “have broken away from a long tradition of positioning themselves purely as neutral, unengaged professionals who stand in some ‘liminal’ space between cultures and political divides”. Thus, individuals who translate texts and utterances cannot be neutral and apolitical, but rather they do take sides and influence the outcome of the mediation by constructing new realities and identities.

Historically, translation played a crucial role during the emancipation movements that began in the late 18th century in Latin America. Georges L. Bastin, Alvaro Echeverri and Angela Campo claim that “translators, like other actors in history, do not function in a vacuum; rather they are social beings and as such espouse ideologies and identities that are particular to their social contexts.” Among the cases that are worth mentioning, there is Antonio Narino who translated the 1789 La declaration des droits de l’homme et du citoyen to Spanish and Juan Picornell who translated to Spanish Lettres aux Espagnols americains, written originally by the Peruvian Jesuit Juan Pablo Viscardo. One cannot also ignore the Spanish translations of the United States Declaration of independence and the constitution of the USA. Published between 1789 and 1812, these translations are among the central components of the ideological cornerstone of emancipation in Latin America.

In the Middle East and during the wave of revolutions that shook the region, translation has operated as the gateway through which the masses propagated their revolutionary narratives to people all over the world. For instance, Revolutionary Arab Rap (http://revolutionaryarabrap.blogspot.ca/) is a blog that comprises numerous translated musical productions mainly rap and hip-hop by male and female artists from the countries that witnessed the Arab Spring. The blog translatingrev.wordpress.com is a platform where students from the American University of Cairo contributed to the translation of chants, signs, banners, jokes, interviews and poems produced in Tahrir Square. Moreover, translators were engaged in the documentation and archiving of the Egyptian revolution by creating websites and blogs such as http://www.tahrirdocuments.org/ site. Materials are collected from demonstrations in Cairo’s Tahrir Square and published in complete English translation alongside scans of the original documents. Subtitling videos of the Egyptian revolution was another area of engagement. As a matter of fact, non-profit media collective known as “Mosireen” played a pivotal role in providing subtitles to videos of demonstrations and sit-ins. By doing that, it has created a digital space not only to support citizen media but also to circumvent the narrative of the government through translating the events for a wider audience. In this regard, translation becomes the link that enables activists to connect with protest movements abroad. Hence, translation is a political act and represents a key element of the revolutionary project.

Translation has been and will remain a catalyst for sociopolitical change. It may be argued that its supposed neutrality is pure fiction as translators, and throughout history, have promoted a wide variety of agendas from Saint Jerome’s commitment to women’s education to translator’s participations in social movements and revolutions. Salah Baslamah, a professor at the University of Ottawa, has developed a new vision of translation and translation called “Citizen Translation”. This vision highlights the need to promote the translator’s visibility and socio-political commitment. Nevertheless, the question that will keep spilling a lot of ink: how can translators be engaged in their communities while at the same time remaining faithful to the original texts?

Houssem Ben LazregHoussem Ben Lazreg is currently a Ph. D. candidate, a freelance translator/interpreter, and a teaching assistant of Arabic/ French in the Department of Modern Languages and Cultural Studies at the University of Alberta. He was a Fulbright Foreign Language Teaching Assistant of Arabic at Michigan State University from 2010–2011. He holds a Masters Degree in TESOL from Nazareth College of Rochester.