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Cultural Translation

People reflect places reflect people. We all grow from our geography. This is at once an exciting phenomenon, giving rise to a wealth of cultural diversity, yet also a massive challenge to humanity, both in terms of the problems caused by xenophobia and in apparently simple difficulties of translation. For those apparently simple translation difficulties turn out to be significantly complex, creating gaps in mutual understanding at the level of language, ways of life, behaviours and, when one reaches the level of poetry, metre, rhyme and the many more refined subtleties of verse such as alliteration and multiple word meanings. The implications for a study of nineteenth century French poetry are legion, in particular for the need for ‘cultural translation’ to strengthen one’s fuller understanding of nuances across our European heritage.

I was lucky to have lived abroad, in Hong Kong, for four years as a small child. I learned the magic of foreign cultures, foreign words and foreign names aged from five to eight. But coming back to Britain it slowly dawned on me that huge numbers of British citizens find foreign culture, words and names not so much a joy as a problem. Recently the BBC ran a programme on the difficulties experienced by British people whose names have foreign roots. Here is 28-year-old Umutoni Thuku-Benzinge from London:

I learnt where my name was on the school register so I could jump in and prevent teachers from mispronouncing it. The experience was frustrating and heart-breaking. It was very difficult to understand those emotions at such a young age. When I reached work, one colleague constantly decided to call me Moo. I thought it was very disrespectful. It's the sound a cow makes. Other colleagues came to the defence of that person and told me I was being unreasonable. It made me question if I was overreacting. I'm happy for my name to be shortened to Umu, but I don't like the automatic assumption that I can just be given a nickname. It's very dismissive.

Umutoni's name has Rwandan roots and means ‘favoured and precious’.

Umutoni Thuku-Benzinge

Of course it is hard to expect everyone to cherish cultural diversity and to want to learn as much as possible about the meanings of names, words and behavioural preferences. Such things require a lot of time, a commodity many people have little of. But the progression from Umutoni, resonating with the Rwandan truth and meaning something so warm, to Umu, which Ms Thuku-Benzinge felt she could accept, through to Moo which evidently had an element of disrespect, tells an important and discreditable story.

Translators have a delicate task, often a thankless one. As we have noted, the challenges they face can be literally insurmountable when it comes to bringing out sophisticated linguistic. But often there is a dubious force at work, pressing to adapt the original, either to make it suit the expected audience or to make it suit the preferences of the translator. Baudelaire, for example, in translating De Quincey’s Confessions of an English Opium Eater, transformed the sequencing intended by De Quincey and repeatedly inserted many of his own comments and insights1. Another example: I was startled in 2013 at Glyndebourne when the English surtitles, which were displayed to accompany a production of Strauss’ Ariadne auf Naxos, deliberately mistranslated the German ‘Ich bin der Herr über ein Schiff’ (I am the master of a ship) as ’I am the pilot of a plane’ because this suited what the production was doing. The tenor sang the correct German but the translation was dishonest. Brian Friel’s brilliant 1980 play, called Translations, has several telling examples of exactly this type of dishonesty, and he shows admirably well where it leads.

Tower of Babel by Pieter Bruegel

It is not just intentional dishonesty that we have to contend with. It is actually more than time-consuming to acquaint oneself with other languages and cultures in any depth. Part of the problem is the astonishing range, even simply of languages. Ethnologue2 reports 237 language-families across the planet giving rise to over 7,100 languages. Over ninety of those are spoken by populations numbering over ten million people. British people have principally been taught European foreign languages in so far as they have learned any: the proportion of non-European languages in which British citizens are fluent is not a statistic which I have been able to establish, but I think it a reasonable guess that it would be well under 10 per cent and perhaps under 5 per cent. Our linguistic links beyond Europe are tenuous.

Then there is the problem of propinquity. The further away you go, the greater the cultural gaps that you find. It might be helpful to take one example of intercontinental cultural contrasts, that between Europe and Japan, to illustrate the problems of translating where differences in cultural expectations can lead to misunderstanding. This will serve to light a concluding discussion of the implications for a study of nineteenth century French poetry, in particular for the need for cultural translation to strengthen one’s fuller understanding of nuances across our European heritage.

Murray Sayle was an Australian journalist who died in 2010. Sayle was a larger-than-life character whose professional career saw many more-than-colourful challenges. His second wife was Japanese, and in 1975, aged 49, he settled with her in Aikawa, some 40 kms west of Yokohama. They had three children who grew up in the local village school. Sayle was regularly called to village meetings to explain what he thought events in the wider world might mean for his fellow villagers. After some fifteen years in Aikawa, by mischance Sayle’s wooden home burned down. He was not a practical financial man, and had no insurance. The village met together and decided that it would be right for them to club together and pay for the rebuilding of the Sayle family home.

Murray Sayle

This story, even allowing that Sayle might have embroidered it slightly3, illustrates something remarkable about the cultural gap between attitudes and expectations in Japan compared to those more familiar here in Europe. It is scarcely conceivable that any village in Europe would have the social cohesion to ’club together’ to help even a family who had lived in the village all their lives, let alone to help a family whose husband and father was from another continent.

Frequent visitors to Japan will have noticed many other cultural differences: the courtesy at every intersection of behaviour is out of all recognition in its gentleness and generosity, even from truck drivers; the general willingness to act in the interests of the community is far higher than in Europe; the police can be authoritarian to a degree that would not be tolerated in Europe; the street wiring is incomprehensibly overbearing; double deck and even triple deck roadways are common in cities in ways unimaginable in Europe; rural theft is so low that locking houses is unusual in the country; their public gardens are havens of peace rarely found in Europe; and so on.

These qualities emerge for me from perhaps a dozen visits to Japan over thirty years, none longer than ten days. Of course many others have visited Japan for much longer periods and speak the language, and will know more or see Japan differently. Yet others have never been to Japan; perhaps their key point of reference might well be the Bridge on the River Kwai if Japan is mentioned. But the essential point should be clear, that the ‘rules’ in Japan are quite different from those in Europe. If a European tries to sit down and watch a Japanese Noh play, they will be completely baffled unless they have had tremendous training. I was once invited to a private entertainment club in Tokyo, where three ladies scraped together a living by creating a warm atmosphere and singing (to my ears poorly) to their own (poor) guitar accompaniment. It was a place of charm and character, entirely above board, but even with all the background I had, I was woefully incapable of appreciating anything adequately of the experience even if I did know clearly that I was being seriously honoured by an intimate invitation. It really is different over there. I might add simply as an aside: the diet is wonderfully healthy, and the seafood is out of this world, too.

Japanese Noh play

If we take some of these characteristics and try to think a little of their implications when considering how to translate a Japanese novel or poem, we immediately realise what barriers we have to surmount to come to any appreciation of what is involved. It can become so great that one cannot hope to draw in the artistic essence without either vast background study or the support of a genuinely enlightened commentary.

This becomes even harder when there is an era differential as well. We watch the superb pseudo-mediaeval films of Akira Kurosawa and readily realise that we are having problems crossing the cultural frontiers. It becomes almost impossible to engage properly with a Japanese poet like Saigyo (1118-1190), of the late Heian and early Kamakura period, without a deeply erudite and perceptive guide like William Lafleur4 to tell about and give context to contemporary court, Buddhist and society attitudes alongside the specifics of Saigyo’s life story, and thus to explain the real point behind his exquisite short poems.

Stéphane Mallarmé by Manet

We come full circle to think what this means for us as we contemplate France in the second half of the nineteenth century. Look at Baudelaire, who spent much of his adult life battling debts and syphilis, deploying laudanum addictively to combat the latter. How far are we culturally from grasping the natural balance of things in a society where traders tolerated selling goods (and parting with their products) without actually receiving cash? How far are we from grasping the practical consequences (to say nothing of the social consequences) of contracting syphilis with the hopelessly limited medical understanding of the issues that governed health matters at that time? How are we to understand a poet like Mallarmé, who contrived to generate a remarkable reputation as a poet while actually publishing remarkably little, particularly bearing in mind the intense obliqueness of much of his expression? How much do we sit down to study the 1848 revolution, the 1851 coup d’état which brought back Napoleon III as Emperor, or the catastrophe of the defeat to the Prussians at Sedan in 1870? These are but a surface level of understanding compared to what is really required to truly grasp the literary developments in France in that period. Cultural translation is a deeply complex subject.

But it is a zone of inexhaustible richness. In closing, it is good to be able to mention something on the up-side where Covid is concerned. One of the windfall positives of the Covid problems has been that is has opened up many peoples’ minds to reassess their experience and their direction. Several of my younger acquaintances are changing jobs and even career paths. In my case it led to a review of the extensive travel I have done, and with that, a long reflection upon the cultural clashes I have witnessed. This has given rise to a collection of poems whose central theme is culture clash. The 68 poems are spread in setting across 30 different countries in all the major continents apart from Australasia, and the cultural challenges emerge from confrontations highlighted in my opening paragraphs above. It will be seen that I celebrate a wonderful richness in cultural diversity. A link is attached below for those with an interest to follow it.


Nicholas Goulder

Nicholas meditates further on the cultural challenges which emerge from confrontations in Bud on a Pearl, a new collection of 68 poems set across 30 different countries, in which he also celebrates the wonderful richness of cultural diversity. The collection can be download here. (PDF, 823KB)


1 See for example Rosemary Lloyd, Charles Baudelaire, Reaktion Books, 2008, p 134-5.

2 Ethnologue has been published roughly quinquennially since 1951 by SIL International. Even critics such as Harald Hammarström, an editor of Glottolog, concluded in 2015 that, on balance, ’Ethnologue is an impressively comprehensive catalogue of world languages, far superior to anything else produced prior to 2009’.

3 My source here is a group of Spectator articles he wrote in around 1990, awed at the generosity of the village. Sayle was known for adding colour to make a good story even better - for the colouring, see e.g. Hendrik Hertzberg ‘Remembering Murray Sayle’ The New Yorker 23 Sept 2010. However here, since his articles in the Spectator were read in Aikawa, he could not have completely invented the story.

4 For example Awesome Nightfall, the Life, Times and Poetry of Saigyo, Wisdom Publications, Boston 2003.

Posted on:Wednesday 3rd March, 2021