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To foreword or not to foreword?

  • By Canan Marasligil & Nicky Harman
  • 23rd September 2013
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Should a translator's influence be felt when reading a translated text? Two former Translators in Residence share their conflicting views on forewords, footnotes and the frustrations of knowing too much, or too little, of book's cultural context.

Canan Marasligil is a translator working in French and Turkish; Nicky Harman is a translator of Mandarin. Both are former Free Word Translators in Residence, and hold conflicting views about how a translator should make themselves felt in a translated text. Before they each take the stage at International Translation Day 2013 to argue their case, we asked them to make their pitch to us in writing. Here's what they had to say:


In the French translation of Latife Tekin’s novel Berci Kristin Çöp Masallari (Tales from the Garbage Hills), you are forced into a footnote explaining to you what a “simit” is from the very first page. It says that “simits” are “Petits pains en couronne couverts de grains de sésame”. How very nice of the translator to take my hand and guide me into Turkish culinary culture, taking me out of the story from the very first page, reminding me that I am not reading something that has any link with my culture, my background, or my linguistic knowledge. Being Turkish probably helps my anger grow, but I sincerely believe that as a reader in any other language, this would make me mad. Just do an image search of “simit” on Google. Seriously, go on.

Okay. Did we really need the translator’s footnote on that one? The reader who wants to get out of the story to search it would do so, and the one who prefers not to won’t, but would still understand from the context that a simit is something you eat. Leave that choice to the reader. It’s like unknown vocabulary. Not everyone likes to stop to check in the dictionary what a previously non-encountered word means. (Don’t tell me you know all the words in all the books you’ve read until now!).

I don’t think translation should involve a guide into a specific culture, their customs, their food or language. We don’t do it with specific vocabulary, so why should we do it with culture? 

The primary role of a translator should be to render voice, not vocabulary, customs or habits. I recently read a novel written in British English, set in the UK, in which the author used the verb “to blutack”. I am sure many non-native English speakers like myself, who read English at a pretty good level, would have never heard of such a verb, but this didn’t push the author to explain what blutack was and why it could be used as a verb. And it didn’t stop me from understanding it. Because I’m one of those curious and slow readers, I Googled it, and learned a new verb built on cultural knowledge. Does this mean that when translating this novel into another language we should use blutack and explain it in a footnote? Of course not: it’s unimportant. We will use the appropriate vocabulary that means “stick it to the wall” in all languages.

Not everyone will understand all the cultural references in a book, and that is OK. There is no point in taking the reader out of the world a writer took so much time and energy to create, only to prove that we, as translators, made a good choice. And of course, each single translation will be a new creative work, standing on its own: I will translate a work in a specific way, whereas another translator will do it differently. In that sense, we are all unique in the way we work, but having a creative role doesn’t force us to guide the readers more than the writer originally intended to. If a translator should choose to do so, the readers will learn in time that it is that specific translator’s choice. I prefer not to be in that category. I prefer to leave the reader free to be curious and not to participate in the “exoticization” of literature (especially since this usually happens to non-Western literature: you never need to explain what a croissant is to a non French reader. If we stopped doing it with simits, maybe it would enter common knowledge one day.)

There’s another problem with footnotes and extra explanations: they 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. 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, and I don’t like to think in terms of markets. If this is unavoidable (for financial reasons, I suppose), I would leave that side of things to the professionals: let the marketers sell the book, but don’t add that into the artwork. Don’t mix cultural misunderstandings with the author’s voice.


As translators we are often asked by the publisher to write a preface to our books. I confess that I sometimes find the request irritating, not least because I don’t regard writing lucid, polished essays as my forte. So why do I agree? Very simply, because it gives me a chance to locate the writer within his or her literary tradition, and to communicate my personal enthusiasm for that writer. I can hear Canan snorting at the second point – after all, the book itself should arouse enthusiasm in the readers. If they don’t warm to the work, nothing I write will change that. I totally agree. But let me revert to my first point. I think it is crucially important to explain the background against which the writer is writing. 

Let me illustrate with a further question: Why do teachers consider it necessary to explain the role of the fool in Shakespeare’s King Lear? Because the modern meaning of the word doesn’t communicate the dramatic and social importance of the role. Granted, the reader will get some idea by the time they’ve finished the play. But why expect them to run barefoot through King Lear when we could give them a pair of running shoes, by way of an introductory note?  Fundamentally, I think that 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. This is especially true when readers are unlikely to know much about a history and a culture far removed from their own experience. For example, in a collection of Hong Kong stories I translated recently, by the writer Dorothy Tse, I felt it was very important to explain her surrealism by quoting her own words: “Contrary to mainland literature that tried to borrow languages from the working class as well as the farmers in the 50s as a way to reach the public, Hong Kong’s literature has a tradition of resistance to the language of daily life. Its highly experimental language is a strategy to distinguish a literary work from an entertaining and commercial one. In Hong Kong, writing itself is an active rejection of utilitarian society and mundane everyday life.”

The crucial words here are “Contrary to mainland literature”. I hope that these words will pique the interest of the reader, flagging up the fact that Hong Kong literature is a world away from the heavily politicized tradition of contemporary mainland Chinese literature. They will also alert readers to aspects of Dorothy’s writing such as her resolute refusal to reference Hong Kong products and places, giving us instead fantastic, imagined names, which are nonetheless tantalizingly close to reality.

At a more mundane level, I think it is necessary to add a translator’s note about Chinese naming conventions or about historical events such as the Cultural Revolution which have made such an impact on Chinese writer’s creative imaginations.

It would be disingenuous of me not to tackle the issue of footnotes and foreign words here, since Canan has made this a key point of her contribution. It’s slightly worrying to have to agree with my opponent in the debate – but actually I do. I find footnotes extremely irritating in a novel. What we ought to be talking about is the many and varied means by which a skilled translator can convey the information about the meaning of that foreign word without interrupting the flow of the story. Here’s an example: I am translating a novel set in Tibet, and have translated the following sentence: “The woman lying at the roadside shouted: “Mister, mister, where are we? Tashi delek! Ni hao! Do you speak Mandarin?” ‘Tashi delek!’ is a Tibetan greeting; ‘ni hao!’ is ‘hello’ in mandarin Chinese. I am fairly sure that most readers would not know the first (I certainly didn’t), although some will have heard the second. But does it matter whether they know Tibetan and Chinese greetings? It’s clear enough from the context. The effect of a footnote would be to make a dramatic moment (a car crash) much less dramatic.

Not all instances of foreignness in the text are as clear-cut as that, of course. What I hope we will focus on in our debate is just what readers need and want to get out of a foreword, and how the meaning of objects, customs and concepts foreign to the reader of translated literature can be conveyed without the use of the dreaded footnote. Or will there be defenders of the footnote in the audience? We shall see.

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