Foreignisation

David Bellos claims in his otherwise spot on study of translation Is That A Fish In Your Ear? that the only way to represent the true foreignness of the original, without ridiculing it, is to leave the words in the original language.

The idea that foreign-sounding literary translations are just ineptly translated isn’t new, and it’s certainly true that translated novels that read like originals are the current norm. But is it really impossible to recreate the sounds of another language in translation, without irony and not just for comic effect?

For me, there are certain techniques you can use in literary translation to evoke the original language successfully. What you get ultimately is a foreignised translation that doesn’t sound like novels of the same or similar genres written originally in the target language.


One of the best places to see this is pseudotranslation. The point here is to make a novel seem as much like a translation as possible; superficially with a translator’s note or a translator’s name appearing on the cover, but also in the actual language of the novel.

French author Boris Vian is known not only for his surrealist literary novels but also for his fake translations of popular American fiction written under the pseudonym Vernon Sullivan. Vian pretended to be the French translator of Sullivan’s work, a blend of hardboiled fiction and sci-fi. In doing this, he allowed himself the freedom to twist his native French into some very English shapes in order to recreate the language of his heroes (Raymond Chandler and A. E. van Vogt) for a French readership. He mixed straight borrowings like “chewing gum” with unnatural-sounding Americanised French for a result that was as far from contemporary French genres as you could get.

In Arthur Golden’s Memoirs of a Geisha, a translator’s note introduces the novel as the translated memoirs of a Japanese geisha. Japanese-sounding proverbial sayings punctuate the prose and Golden uses very precise rhythmic language that reflects not only the controlled, secretive world evoked in the novel, but also hints at the imaginary source language: Japanese.

You can look also beyond literature for evidence of foreignised language. Marie Darrieusecq, for example, writes her Paris reviews for ArtReview in English and in French. Whether they’re her own words or her translator’s, the writing is peppered with gallicised phrases like “not a person” and “not counted in the rent” (ArtReview March 2012). These phrases sound unmistakably French to anyone familiar with the language, but even if readers only speak English, the foreignness of the these unidiomatic constructions is clear.

The aim, overall, is to give readers a taste of the original language in the translation. It’s not about writing in translationese or producing clumsy prose. It’s just a way of signalling to the reader that the work is culturally and linguistically different in origin.

Vian famously said it was pitiful how afraid people were of words. Even if, as Bellos argues, evoking the way non-native speakers use English runs the risk of sounding comical, there are still ways of manipulating language to avoid masking the original in translation.

When you consider how much is currently lost in translation, would it really be so bad if translators were more daring?

Further reading:

Marie Darrieusecq review of a work of performance art in Paris (In French and English)

Interview with Arthur Golden

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