It's International Translation Day next Monday, and I stumbled across a great blog on the Free Word Centre's website discussing whether translators should provide cultural context - and if so, how much.
Canan Marasligil, a translator working in French and Turkish, argues that the work should be allowed to speak for itself, and readers should be allowed to wander through a story without being constantly told what they're seeing and why this is significant.
"(Extra explanations) assume that readers in one language, say English for instance, all have access to the same cultural references, and would not understand any culturally foreign references," he writes. "It would mean that as translators, we would think about readers as being part of a specific market. I don’t that this is our job. Personally, I believe in the capacity of all to understand a piece of creative work."
Moreover, Marasligil says, over-eager translators can be horribly patronising and have a tendency to reinforce "exotic" stereotypes. After all, no one ever thinks it necessary to explain what a croissant is. (The same, by the way, goes for italics. I am constantly undoing italics added by copy-editors. Italics are like saying, watch out, here's a foreign word... take a deep breath... here it comes... spaghetti.)
Nicky Harman, a translator of Mandarin, believes that cultural and historical context can help us understand subtle layers that would otherwise have escaped us. He gives the example of reading Shakespeare without understanding the role of the court fool at the time: you might still enjoy the play and catch some of the nuances, but you would probably get more out of it with a bit of help.
"Expecting the reader to appreciate a book without understanding the context in which the writer was writing and, even more importantly, what he or she was trying to do, is to do the writer an injustice," Harman argues. "This is especially true when readers are unlikely to know much about a history and a culture far removed from their own experience."
While Harman has a point, Marasligil's argument carries more weight. True, cultural footnotes can teach us useful facts. But ultimately, they distance us from the story and the writer. Translators who keep adding explanations are like tour guides who herd us through a crowded market, urging everyone to keep following the red umbrella. We are the visitors, the strangers, the gawkers, obediently trotting along and taking in neatly packaged bits of information while already looking forward to lunch.
Marasligil's approach - leaving the reader to figure out that a simit is a sort of Turkish sesame bagel - may initially seem more demanding. It throws us right into the bazaar without telling us what's going on. But here's the thing: no one told the people in the bazaar what's going on, either. All of us are constantly trying to figure out what's going on around us and where we're all heading. The one thing that might just help us get there is not a dictionary of baked goods, but human connection and understanding. What better way to achieve that connection than to dive into a story that is not your own, allow the force of the narrative to carry you along, and become a different person in a different world until you close the book?