It’s easy to fall into the trap of thinking that translating non-fiction is easy. Surely translating fiction is a trickier task than translating non-fiction, due to the built-in creativity and subjectivity ingrained in fiction? You might think, doesn’t translating non-fiction simply involve selecting the most prudent word choice?
Well, as it turns out, there are various challenges in translating non-fiction, which are often less apparent in works of fiction. We’re only too familiar with these subtle nuances as we translate a huge amount of technical literature!
Of course, it all depends on the type of translation task that awaits you…
The difficulty of translating a culture
In anthropology, colour theory shows us just how complex understanding a different culture can be, when it has different established ways for communicating the fundamentals of the world around us.
Basic Color Terms: Their Universality and Evolution (1969) by Brent Berlin and Paul Kay posits that there are seven levels to how all cultures around the world interpret and name colours. Stage I languages only have words for black and white (dark and cool), whereas Stage VIII languages, such as English, have eight or more basic colour terms.
Now imagine how anthropologists and newly discovered cultures would communicate. What if the anthropologist wanted to say that they wanted someone to pass them the red bucket out of a collection of blue buckets – how could they do this, without immense confusion and patience? How do you define colours to people whose own languages lack a concept for more than a limited number of them?
This difficulty extends to cultures we’re more familiar with. Imagine translating a non-fiction work about ancient religious customs in Japan to a Western audience. While we might be interested to learn more, there would be a significant barrier to understanding, due to the customs, local traditions and knowledge gaps we have of this area. It’s like trying to understand and speak a language fluently using just a standard phrase book.
Even publishing giants like Amazon have trouble translating non-fiction
Amazon Crossing, Amazon’s own publishing house, is now the largest fiction translation house in the US, but says most non-fiction books are ‘too culturally specific’ to be of interest internationally.
Now, cross cultural non-fiction is more easily translated – things like product manuals, restaurant menus, even websites. But when you get into the nitty gritty of a country’s unique culture, things get a bit more thorny.
First of all, with non-fiction, translators often have to fact check the work they are translating to avoid printing mistruths. This only gets more difficult when the events in the book are not recent. Fiction has no need for fact checking, so the bulk of the task for translators is to simply find elegant and accurate ways to translate words, phrases and concepts into the target market’s language.
Secondly, and perhaps most pressingly, the niche cultural and sub-cultural practices which make up non-fiction works are often untranslatable, or at least the reader won’t have the baseline of knowledge to understand the nuances of a cultural practice.
For instance, consider the vast differences between the approach to individualism across cultures. Western and Eastern cultures have wide cultural differences. America and Japan are polar opposites on the subject – the sentence ‘she’s a real individual’ in the US would be considered a compliment in a culture that celebrates individuality, uniqueness and the pursuit of happiness.
In Japan, this sentence would be frowned upon. The idea of sticking out and not valuing collectivism above the self might be considered shameful and an unappealing attribute. The words are the same, but the context is different, and it speaks to a concept that goes beyond raw translation.
How then could an American non-fiction self-help book around expressing your personality be effectively translated into Japanese? At the very least, the translators would be faced with a huge challenge.
There’s still room for translating non-fiction
It’s clear that countries and cultures around the globe have different interests. This poses a challenge for translators. Which subjects are relatable enough that they make a strong a case for translation?
Amazon Crossing has found that human interest life stories are often popular in overseas markets, and as we mentioned, things like product manuals, business strategies and websites all benefit from professional language translation services.
In summary, technical subjects, which require there to be a strong consensus and shared learning across borders, as well as professional services and non-fiction business content, are all contenders for translation across countries and cultures.
If your company is exploring overseas markets, make sure you work with a professional language translation service provider to help you take your message to new audiences. Contact the team at Bubbles Translation today.