Beyond Words and Rules: The Challenge of Translating Culture

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The following post is from Paul, an English teacher who lives in Argentina. Paul writes on behalf of Language Trainers, a language teaching service which offers foreign-language level tests as well as other free language-learning resources on their website.

On the surface, translation is about taking one text and reproducing it in a different language. But the translator’s job goes far beyond simply switching words from one language to another. Indeed, translations do not exist in a vacuum: the original text is rooted in a culture that is often quite distinct from that of the translated text. As a result, translators must carefully take into consideration the cultural significance of the original text, so that their translation will be as culturally relevant as the original.

As we will see, this often involves changing – sometimes radically – the original text in order to end up with a better cultural fit for the target audience. To see this in practice, let’s take a look at an English-language TV series, In Treatment, and its Spanish-language remake, En Terapia, which was produced several years later and follows the same storyline.

SCENE 1: A dramatic love confession

In Treatment is a fictional series that follows the life of Paul, a psychoanalyst, and several of his patients. One of them, Laura, is a doctor who recounts the struggles she’s having in her relationship with her boyfriend Andrew. In the first episode, we learn that the problems in her love life stem from the fact that she is, in fact, in love with Paul. Note that she does not explicitly state her amorous feelings, but rather strongly implies them:

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Laura, from the US version of In Treatment. Image via HBO

Laura: Andrew’s right. I am being unfaithful to him . . . I’ve been unfaithful to him for a long time.

Paul: So why haven’t we talked about this before?

Laura: I think we have. It’s been here all along. You mean to say you’re never noticed

it? . . . You’re surprised.

Paul: No, I’m not surprised, I just . . . I don’t follow what you mean.

Laura: This isn’t the reaction I was hoping for. Not at all.

In the Argentine version of In Treatment, the scene starts out almost exactly the same: Marina, the patient, says that she is being unfaithful to her boyfriend, and Guillermo, her therapist, asks why she hadn’t mentioned it previously. However, the scene deviates from the original version when it comes to the love confession itself:

Marina: Yes, I did mention it. It’s present all the time. Are you going to tell me that you didn’t realize?

Guillermo: I don’t … I don’t think that I … understand what you mean.

Marina: Then I’ll say it to you straight. I’m in love with you.

Marina: That wasn’t … the reaction I was hoping for.

The big difference here is that Marina outright declares her love for Guillermo, whereas Laura beats around the bush and relies on Paul to figure things out on his own. We see, then, that the writers of the Argentine version decided that it would be more authentic – that is, easier to relate to for the intended audience – if Marina expressed her feelings clearly rather than implicitly.

Thus, translating the original English-language script involved more than just changing the language. Rather, Laura’s personality was altered – i.e., made more “Argentine” – in order to make her a more relatable and realistic character for an Argentine audience.

SCENE 2: A military mission gone wrong

In In Treatment, another one of Paul’s patients is Alex, a fighter pilot who served in the US Navy during the War in Iraq. However, one of his missions went horribly wrong, which is the basis for why he now seeks therapy:

Alex: Does that mean anything to you?

Paul: No?

Alex: It wasn’t that long ago. A US Navy aircraft hit a target on the outskirts of Baghdad. Naval intelligence identified the structure as an insurgent safehouse – a bunker. Turns out it’s a madrasa . . . an Islamic religious school, boys like bees in a beehive studying the Quran. Sixteen of them . . . dead.

To an audience in the United States, Alex’s story is emotionally charged: it touches on controversial international conflicts, as well as deep-rooted ideals such as ethics, religion, and patriotism. Clearly, however, the writers of En Terapia were faced with a challenge in rewriting Alex’s storyline. Argentina was not involved in the war in Iraq, so it wouldn’t be nearly as impactful to stay true to Alex’s storyline in the American version. So, then, what did the writers do?

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Gastón, from the Argentine version of En Terapia. Image via TV Pública

Gastón: The Brotherhood Operative. Does that sound familiar?

Guillermo: No.

Gastón: It was a couple months ago, approximately. An anti-drug operative on the Triple Frontier. A ballistics expert who blew up a warehouse. Several families dead. A drug dealer who made an Identikit (facial composite), a drug dealer in prison. The news stations talking about a ballistics who sleeps well at night.

In Marina’s storyline, the writers deviated only slightly from the original script – they made Marina more direct than Laura. But in Gastón’s storyline, they changed the dialogue completely. Gastón did not participate in the war in Iraq, but rather the war on drugs; he didn’t explode a school in Baghdad, but rather a neighborhood near the Triple Frontier (of Argentina, Paraguay, and Brazil).

In Argentina, the conflict in Iraq is not an immediate national concern; drug trafficking, however, has posed serious security issues in the country’s recent history. Therefore, the writers decided that a story about drug trafficking would have roughly the same effect on an Argentine audience as a story about the war in Iraq would have on an American one. Rather than staying true to the original text, they fundamentally changed it so that its effect on the audience would be as similar as possible.

The above examples illustrate one of the most robust challenges that translators confront: how to make their translated text relevant for the target audience. This is an important trade-off: on one hand, they want to be authentic to the original text itself; on the other hand, they want to be authentic to the effect of the original text, so that it has the same impact on the audience. Doing so requires finesse, sensitivity, and a sound understanding of the culture in which the original text was written (and, of course, the culture of the intended audience).

Readers: what do you think about the changes that the writers of En Terapia made? Do you think they were effective? Would you have done the same thing? Let us know – leave a comment!

To see more suggestions for Argentine movies and series, check out Language Trainers’ Argentine film reviews, or contact [email protected] for more information.