Culture Bumps: An Empirical Approach to the Translation of Allusions

This was my second selection from the DipTrans recommended reading list. Leppihalme takes a look at allusions (within the context of English to Finnish translations) and different strategies for their translation.

The cover of "Culture Bumps" by Ritva Leppihalme

It’s maybe an obvious thing that I kind of already know, but one of the more important things I took away from this was just how much of the Swedish canon (so to speak) I have yet to read. Leppihalme included all kinds of examples of English allusions in all kinds of books in the corpus for her study and helpfully reproduces them within the text, along with quantitative data on how often Finnish readers were able to pick up on them.

English speakers forget, maybe, that despite the pervasive reach of English, there are lots of anglophone concepts that never pick up international traction. This always trips me up, because I’m never sure which Americanisms have taken root in Sweden and which haven’t. Going through the qualitative data, there were lots of “but surely that’s a pretty obvious one!” moments, which in turn invited reflection: what would the Swedish equivalent be? Would I recognize it if I read it in a novel? I thought about all of the Swedish I still haven’t read: a great deal of Strindberg (and none of it in the original Swedish), The Emigrants, Astrid Lindgren, Tove Jansson, the Prose and Poetic Eddas, most of the Beck movies and all of the novels, Snabba Cash. Or Swedish translations of cultural touchstones like the Bible, Shakespeare, and Aristotle.

Leppihalme examines different strategies regarding translating allusions in the target text from a descriptive rather than prescriptive framework (though always noting when a particular translation choice deviates from the original, whether through loss or addition of nuance). The book is in no way a manual or how-to text; it’s simply an examination of current practices and noting how often they’re used and where.

The downside is that this is a relatively old text that hasn’t been reissued in a new edition. It predates the broadband Internet almost-everywhere era. Would her quantitative results today be different than they were back in 1991 when she was polling students? In an era when almost the entire sum of human knowledge is at your fingertips, are translators given less leeway when it comes to correctly understanding cultural allusions? Is it easier for them to look up expressions and phrases they suspect might be allusions or references? All of this is material ripe for updating, but it is anyone working on it?

 

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