Sourcing the Target Culture

Martin Boyd

In recent decades, many theorists of literary translation have stressed the importance of foregrounding the source culture of the translated text, to avoid what Lawrence Venuti describes as the inherent tendency of translation towards domestication, whereby the translation becomes “imprinted by the target culture, assimilated to its positions of intelligibility, its canons and taboos, its codes and ideologies” (2008: 18). As mediators for the source culture, translators have an ethical duty to convey that culture effectively to target culture readers, resisting the assimilative undertow of the translation process while at the same avoiding the temptation of easy exoticism, falling back on cultural tropes and stereotypes which, instead of enlightening and challenging target culture readers to better understand the rich complexities of the source culture, only serve to reinforce their preconceived ideas about that culture.

This ethical responsibility is even more important for translators working into English, a global hegemonic language whose native speakers are notoriously reluctant to read translated literature (consider, for example, the widely documented fact that less than 3% of books published each year in the United States are translations, compared to figures well above 40% in most non-English speaking countries). In such contexts, translated literature can prove an essential tool for punching holes in the monocultural echo chamber. Latin American literature, for example, can serve to challenge erroneous preconceptions and stereotypes circulating in the Anglosphere (and especially in the United States) about that region—or, as is all too often the case and as I’ve explored in previous articles on this Forum, to reinforce those same preconceptions.

But this ethical approach to literary translation cannot really be applied to a particular case that I had to confront in one of the most challenging, interesting and enjoyable translation projects I have taken on in recent years: what if the culture described in the source text is not the source culture, but the target culture? This was the dilemma I faced when translating the novel The Mystery of Queen Nefertiti by Spanish author C.T. Cassana. A brilliant work of YA fiction that makes use of the idea of time travel to bring history quite literally alive for its readers, Cassana’s novel is set in London, where a young English boy named Charlie discovers a secret time-travelling device. With the help of his sister Lisa, Charlie will embark on a series of journeys to different key moments in history in a quest to uncover the mysterious fate of the ancient Egyptian queen Nefertiti.

The translation of this Spanish novel into English thus posed rather a unique problem: instead of considering how to transfer the foreign cultural elements of the source text into the target culture, the real challenge of this project involved a process similar to “back-translation”, where English cultural elements that the author had effectively “translated” into Spanish needed to be returned to their native soil. The most significant of these elements had to do with the characters’ linguistic and social behaviours, as it was important to ensure that the way the characters expressed themselves was true to their cultural context. But while for most literary translations this would mean trying to find or create linguistic features in the target language that somehow reflected the foreign source culture, in this case I needed to help these Spanish-speaking English characters find what was in fact their native voice.

For example, Charlie’s mother, Maggie, has a very particular way of expressing herself when she’s angry, a rather charming blend of sophisticated language reflecting her academic background (she’s a curator at the British Museum) and a vulgar vernacular more suited to expressing blind rage. In the original, this comes out in a tone that is very naturally Castilian Spanish, like the vituperations of an educated Madrilenian:

—¡Maldita sea! —se la oyó exclamar—. Pero, ¿cómo se atreve a hacernos esto ese maldito presuntuoso? ¡Ese niñato arrogante! ¡Ese vividor! ¡Ese hortera inculto! (Cassana, 2017: 16).

To bring Maggie Wilford back to her homeland, it was important to find an equivalent blend that would give her the tone of the outraged educated Londoner:

“‘Bloody hell!’ they heard her exclaim. ‘How dare that presumptuous bastard do this to us! That arrogant, infantile imbecile! That swindler! That tasteless philistine!’” (Cassana, 2018: 15).

Similarly, the two main characters, Charlie and Lisa, needed to be translated convincingly as recognisably English youths. At the same time, as the translation was to be targeting a broader international audience (the client had specifically requested US English, despite the British setting), it was important to develop idiolects for these two characters that accurately reflected their English identity without ever being incomprehensible to North American readers. For inspiration in this respect I turned to J. K. Rowling, whose young characters in the Harry Potter series use a vernacular that is unabashedly British while still being internationally accessible and—just as importantly—without falling back on English cultural stereotypes of the “ullo guv’na” variety.

But the “cultural repatriation” of these Spanish-speaking English characters went beyond strictly linguistic questions to include social behaviours as well. The degree of physical contact between different characters, for example, while seeming quite natural in a Spanish context, at times seemed to go beyond the limits of the English, who are typically rather more reserved. At one point in the story, Charlie gives Miss Rotherwick (a family friend who becomes a mentor to the two kids in their time-travelling adventures) an affectionate kiss on the cheek. Is such a gesture a bit too much for an 11-year-old English boy? Should it be toned down to some more restrained gesture? Ordinarily, such an adaptation would be an appalling case of domestication, precisely the kind of assimilation to the norms of the target culture that Venuti rails against. But in this case, given the target-culture setting, such assimilation is just what is called for. Or is it?

As part of the final review process of the translation, I adopted a somewhat unique strategy: I read the whole story to my own daughter, Isabella, who is an avid reader herself and a big fan of just this type of fantasy literature (we had previously read the Harry Potter books together, among many other series). Reading your translations aloud is of course an excellent proofreading strategy for catching awkward phrasings and minor errata that might otherwise go unnoticed, and in this case it also gave me a chance to hear the characters speak and ensure that their voices rang true to their individual personalities and to the broader cultural context. But above all, it gave me the opportunity to receive input from exactly the kind of reader that the book itself is intended for, and Isabella’s keen ear helped me to identify a number of little nuances that I hadn’t considered previously. She even resolved the dilemma of Charlie’s kiss with just the kind of astute reasoning the problem required. “You don’t think it’s a bit out of character for an English boy?” I asked her. “Normally I guess it would be,” she replied. “But Charlie’s more affectionate than most boys.”

And with that simple observation, Charlie Wilford escaped what might have been an instance of over-domestication.


Venuti, L. (2008). The Translator’s Invisibility: A History of Translation.

Cassana, C. T. (2017). El misterio de la reina Nefertiti.

Cassana, C. T. (2018). The Mystery of Queen Nefertiti.

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