Translation Tips: Dealing with culturally-unique terms

By | March 9, 2020

In this post I’d like to talk a little bit about how to deal with translating terms that are unique to a certain culture, in the sense that they are not everyday items that exist in other cultures. An example of a term that is likely to be present in most cultures is “plate”, although some cultures may have special variations of plates that unique to their culture.

I’d like to talk about different translation options using this short passage:

  • 夕方、家族みんなで炬燵に入って喋るのが常であった  (Yuugata, kazoku minna de kotatsu ni haitte shaberu no ga tsune deatta)

The culturally-unique word here is 炬燵 (kotatsu), which is a heated table that combines a wooden frame with a blanket and some sort of heat source to warm the underside of the table. While these are somewhat common in Japan, I’ve never seen anything quite like it in the U.S., though it’s possible there are similar items in other countries. (Here’s another interesting page with some details about kotatsu tables in Japanese culture, as well as steps to build your own.)

Let’s go through a few options for how to render this term:

Option 1: keep the term untranslated

One option is to simply keep the term as-is. This would result in a translation something like:

  • In the evenings, we made it a habit to sit together as a family at the kotatsu and talk.

This strategy is generally appropriate when the term is very familiar, for example the word “saké”. If the term may be familiar but some readers but others may not know it, italics can be used to show there is something special about the word, which is what I did in my above translation.

The risk here is that if many readers do not know the term they will have to either make a guess based on the context (which in this case may not be sufficient), or decide to look up the word. It also depends on the audience; if the reader is likely to be intimately familiar with Japanese culture, keeping the term unchanged is a reasonable option.

Option 2: Add extra details to clarify the term

If the term may not be familiar to readers, you can choose to keep the term, yet add some details to clarify the meaning. For example,

  • In the evenings, we made it a habit to sit together as a family at the warm kotatsu table and talk.

The advantage of this strategy is that it gives enough context for the reader to understand the term, and yet retains the term for those who already are familiar with it. Those who are not familiar but want more information can still look up the term.

However, the main disadvantage is that the sentence is giving redundant information, and for those who know the term it may be annoying.

Option 3: Replace the word with a suitable description

Yet another option is to remove the term, and replace it with a description sufficient for the reader to understand.

  • In the evenings, we made it a habit to sit together as a family at the heated table and talk.

This option simplifies things for the reader and helps them to understand the situation without introducing foreign terms that may confuse them. However, for those interested in learning about the item in question, it may not be easy for them to research since they don’t know the original term used.

Option 4: Use the word as-is, but provide a note

One more option is to retain the term, but provide a translators note that allows the reader to learn more if they so desire:

  • In the evenings, we made it a habit to sit together as a family at the kotatsu (*) and talk.

[*: A “kotatsu” is a Japanese heated table that consists of a wooden frame, blanket, and heat source. It is commonly found in traditional Japanese homes and is often a focus of family activity during cold weather.]

The main advantage of this approach is that it allows giving extra details without disturbing the flow of the text much.

There are varying opinions on the appropriateness of detailed translation comments in fiction. More often that not, it seems that modern literature translations avoid comments altogether, although occasionally you will find books with detailed comments. Translations of classic works, like “The Tale of Genji”, seem to generally have more comments (which makes sense because of the many history-laden words used).

Personally, I have mixed feelings on translation comments because of the extra work required when working with them at the editing and book preparation stages, especially because of formatting concerns. For my first E-book I added many translation comments, but due to the overhead required I haven’t done that on any subsequent books. When converting to a different document format, for example, it may be insufficient to simply cut-and-paste and may require manual treatment of the comments to transfer them over.

The Verdict

While I intended this article as a general discussion about translation options, this example is loosely based on a recent translation project where I actually had to deal with the word “kotatsu”. I ended up handling things in a way similar to Option 2 above.

If you were paying close attention, you may have noticed there is one more tricky part about the Japanese text in question. It is the word 入って (haitte) which is the te-form of the verb 入る (hairu), meaning “to go inside”.

In English when talking about tables, we typically use the verb-preposition combination “sit at”. However, because a kotatsu has an enclosed space, in Japanese it’s common to talk about going “inside” it.

The problem is that even if we give some more context about a “kotatsu”, it may sound awkward to the reader to translate the “go inside part” literally, for example:

  • In the evenings, we made it a habit to go inside the warm kotatsu table together as a family and talk.

While this might work for some readers, I think keeping with the standard “sit at” phrasing is the safest way to go.

By the way, if you are interested in learning more about translation, you can see my Youtube series TransLiterary Lab here, where I translate short excerpts of literary text.

(Note: featured image of a kotatsu taken from here, unmodified)

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