One of the eternal debates in translation studies is whether to favour the domesticating or the foreignising approach, and one of the most famous quotations on the subject comes from Friedrich Schleiermacher’s On The Different Methods of Translating of 1815:
“Either the translator leaves the writer in peace as much as possible and moves the reader toward him; or he leaves the reader in peace as much as possible and moves the writer toward him.”(For a more detailed look at the article as a whole, check out this excellent post by Susan Bernofsky at Translationista, which I discovered while making certain I’d remembered the wording correctly: http://translationista.blogspot.com/2011/02/friedrich-schleiermacher.html )
On only my second ever book translation, I got the chance to see a practical application of each approach. Allen & Unwin in Australia and Annick Press in Canada had jointly bought the rights to Rote Zorn by Brigitte Blobel and I was approached to translate it. Relatively early on, I enquired whether to use the metric or imperial systems for weights and measures, given the differing approaches of the varying readerships to metrication. Leave them as they are, I was told. We’ll sort that out later.
But that was only the start. In the end, the two editions of the translation came to exemplify the foreignisation/domestication debate. Red Rage is the story of Mara, a sixteen-year-old girl, her dysfunctional family and the problems caused by her uncontrollable anger. The Canadian publisher decided to leave the reader in peace and move the story to a generic city high school somewhere in North America. The Australian publisher decided to leave the writer in peace and keep Mara in her post-war estate* in Essen.
Now this is where things start to get interesting. If we move the writer towards a North American reader, as well as using miles, we have to change most of the characters’ names. Mara stays the same, but her parents Günther and Beate become Gary and Beth, for example. The nationalities of the immigrant neighbours change. Suddenly sixteen-year-olds can no longer (legally) drink beer or ride a moped.
It is certainly true that anger, fear, dysfunctional families and rough estates* can be found anywhere. Perhaps it is easier for a North American teen to identify with a character if they don’t have to worry about cultural differences. All the same, I regret the loss of Mara’s father’s back story. His one great achievement had been to escape to the West from East Germany; after that, though, he’d never amounted to anything, and this goes a long way to explaining the way he acts now. Obviously, once the translation is no longer set in Germany, this section has to go. It’s only a couple of paragraphs, doesn’t affect the main plot. But it does add something. The author put it in for a reason…
I’ve gained more experience since then. Perhaps if the situation were to arise again I’d argue the case for leaving the writer in peace. It depends though. The balance between the writer and the reader shifts from book to book. I recently translated a series of detective novels set in London. As a result, I aimed to make them as smooth as possible. To use the imperial system, to make the dialogue sound British so as to avoid jarring the reader. But maybe it would have been interesting to see ourselves as the Germans see us?
No, there isn’t a simple answer, but I’d be interested in what anyone else thinks about it!
* UK housing estate = US housing project. Thanks to Amalia Gladhart for making me aware of that little Pond difference.