Information Transfer and “Otherness”

Translation as a skill serves many functions, be it via interpretation or by the pen. One of those important functions is to make the art of literature accessible to other cultures, especially the speakers of other cultures. Even Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone is technically a translation from Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone. What part of the editing process makes this a translation? Cultural “otherness,” brought from the source to the target by “information transfer.” Translations, to quote translation scholar Michael Cronin, “bring foreign elements, extraneous ideas and fresh images into cultures which, without the kick start of otherness, remain stalled in an eternity of mediocrity” (2012, pp. 28).

Translation, as a result, functions as a filtered funnel through which cultural otherness leaks into the target language. But what is “otherness” and how does it manifest itself in another language when the target language is not the same as the source language?

Brueghel, P. (1560). Tower of Babel. [Painting].

What is “Otherness?”

Most translation scholars take it for granted that their reader understands the term “otherness” – it does, after all, refer to an “other”. George Steiner describes the core language of translation in his landmark book After Babel:

A translation from language A into language B will make tangible the implication of a third, active presence. It will show the lineaments of that ‘pure speech’ which precedes and underlies both languages. A genuine translation evokes the shadowy yet unmistakable contours of the coherent design from which, after Babel, the jagged fragments of human speech broke off. (Steiner, 1975, pp. 78)

“Otherness”, simply put, is the residue from the source language, or language A, that is not, or at least not understood, to be a part of the Babelian “third, active presence” Steiner illuminates (1975, pp. 78). Be it on the margins or intertwined with the core, universal Babelian language, “otherness” manifests itself in many ways in the target language. It may be a unique word that does not exist in the target language, or language B – Švejkovina in Czech, for instance, or dumasien in French; in philosophy it might be the Heideggerian term Dasein, a fusion of ‘existence’ and ‘being’ (Clark, 2002, pp. 15). “Otherness” might also be re-manifested in language B by keeping elements of the language structure from language A. The process of importing “otherness” into language B is called “information transfer.” While the term can refer to any kind of information being translated, among translation scholars the term tends to refer more specifically to the transmission of “otherness”.

Unknown Artist. (n.d.). Information Transfer. [Media from Wix].

While the integration of “otherness” into a translation may be a welcome challenge for many translators, it is a challenge nonetheless. In the practical sense, however, a highly consequential question emerges which any translator worth their salt can ill afford to ignore: how much “otherness” should be transferred? Translation scholar Maria Tymoczko explains the outcome when “otherness” is translated into a new language for the first time:

the translator must make some decisive choices about which aspects to translate – that is, to choose consciously to translate selected facets of the literary information in the text – or the translator must seek a format that allows dense information transfer through a variety of commentaries on the translation. This is why initial translations of unfamiliar texts are so often either popular or scholarly: the former are usually severely limited in their transfer intent and minimally representative of the metonymic aspects of the source text, while the latter allow a good deal of metatranslation to proceed, presenting quantities of information through such vehicles as introductions, footnotes, appendices, parallel texts, and so forth. (Tymoczko, 1999, pg. 48)

Statue of James Joyce in Trieste, Italy.

An extreme example of “the latter” made the news in 2013, when the first third of a Chinese translation of Finnegan’s Wake, novel by Irish author James Joyce, was published in the language for the first time. The news reports mainly scratched their heads over on how such a famously dense book became a bestseller. But another remarkable feature of this translation was the footnotes. As Didi Kirsten Tatlow of the New York Times wrote: “The first iconic sentence…takes up three lines in Chinese but requires 17 lines of footnotes” (Tatlow, 2013, para. 11). Tatlow later quoted the translator, Dai Congrong, as saying, “[For] About 8 out of 10 of the words I have to write footnotes.” (Tatlow, 2013, para. 14) Finnegan’s Wake is, as mentioned earlier, an extreme example not only in the amount of “otherness” a translator must transfer into language B; the translator in this case chose to translate as much “otherness” as possible, a choice not every translator will make. The amount of “otherness” a translator must translate ultimately depends on the work of literature one chooses. This is especially true in the age of globalization.

Sadahide, U. (1807). Picture of a Salesroom in a Foreign Mercantile Firm in Yokohama. [Woodblock Print].

The Domestication of Otherness

Upon dealing with the publishing industry and the results of their translated work into Steiner’s “language B,” most translators soon realize that while translation is one of the greatest methods of cross-cultural connection, it is also, paradoxically, a form of domestication. As translation scholar Lawrence Venuti writes, “The foreign text, then, is not so much communicated as inscribed with domestic intelligibilities and interests” (2012, pp. 468). Polish literature in English translation is a classic conundrum, as translators have had a history of not knowing how to relate “Polishness” with the Anglo reader. As Polish-to-English translator Benjamin Paloff condescendingly said in an interview, “The idea that we should read Henryk Sienkiewicz because he is very important for Polish national consciousness is an almost absurd notion to the average American reader. Why should we care?”(Glinski, 2016, para. 37) The numerous ways in which Paloff is objectively wrong are worthy of a separate article. But the point Paloff makes is pertinent: the translation must be relevant to the reader in the target language if the translator wants it to be read once published. Which the translator ideally should want.

Irrespective of their importance in language A, the need to translate for readers of a certain language results on one hand in the categorization of similar writers into familiar categories. Stanisław Lem is a notable example. While categorizing him as a science fiction writer is not erroneous per se, the traditional stigma shown towards the science fiction genre in the Anglo-American world not only neutralizes the multiple alternate dimensions to Lem’s work that do not have any direct relationship to Anglo-American science fiction; it corrals his “otherness” into that of science fiction, assuming Lem’s “otherness” is noted at all. Lem, having lived and written in Communist Poland isolated from Anglo-American science fiction trends, viewed the entire Anglo-American science fiction world as a world of “otherness”: in his essay Science Fiction: A Hopeless Case – With Exceptions, Lem refers to the sci-fi criticism of Damon Knight and James Blish as “ethnological protocols of several explorations into the exotic land of science fiction.” (1984, pg. 47) Just as Lem’s stories shine with “Polishness” among the Anglo-American science fiction works with which he is categorized, so too did Lem view Anglo-American science fiction as something exotic and “other” into which he was thrust.

Czapska, K. (n.d.). Stanisław Herman Lem. [Drawing].

On the flip side, however, Lem is considerably, and disproportionately, more famous in the Anglosphere than Sienkiewicz, an early Nobel Laureate whose status in Polish society is nothing short of titanic. The ability to categorize, to “domesticate”, Lem and the inability to do so with Sienkiewicz, excepting his novel Quo Vadis (Krzyżanowski, 1996, pg. 339), means that Lem’s novels have had a greater success of being incorporated into other cultures’ canons than Sienkiewicz, despite the enormous disproportion to the stature both writers have in their native Poland and among readers in the original language. This is where Venuti, a big advocate of “otherness,” raises a point worth considering:

Translation never communicates in an untroubled fashion because the translator negotiates the linguistic and cultural differences of the foreign text by reducing them and supplying another set of differences, basically domestic, drawn from the receiving language and culture to enable the foreign to be received there. (Venuti, 2012, pp. 468)

As both Lem and Sienkiewicz are authors not only of great importance but great quality and intermittent periods of popularity, including the “unexpected renaissance” brought about by the W.S. Kuniczak translations in the early 90’s (Krzyżanowski, 1996, pp. 338). The success, or lack of success, each author has had depend not only on categorization; the receptiveness of the literary works’ differences to the audience of the target language also matter. As Lem’s fiction had instant appeal to the science fiction community, he became a science fiction writer as opposed to the “Lemesque” writer he truly is.

Tański, C. (n.d.). Henryk Sienkiewicz. [Painting].

The differences the audience is receptive to may also change over time. As Jerzy Krzyżanowski recollected in the Polish Review, an 1890 review of Sienkiewicz’ Trilogia in Literary Review cited the “Homeric spirit in its descriptions” (1996, pp. 338) If Sienkiewicz’s popularity has not endured in America, it may be that the domestic differentia Venuti cites were simply not aimed at the target readers as precisely as they could have been by past translators. Even more probable than Paloff’s simplistic dismissal is that aspects of the older translations such as the aforementioned “Homeric spirit” may no longer resonate with the average Anglo-American reader, making it an outdated differential.


Transferring "otherness" into another language is a process that can risk becoming lopsided. But whether it's too much or too little, the "otherness" of a culture will almost always become domesticated somehow. It ultimately depends on how much "otherness" the literary text is imbued with. There is, however, an unresolvable challenge that would keep many translators awake at night: the "otherness" of writers like Sienkiewicz’ may well be impossible to domesticate.

Bibliographical References

Clark, T. (2002). Martin Heidegger. Routledge. Cronin, M. (2007). Translation and identity. London Routledge. Cronin, M. (2012). Translation and Globalization. Taylor and Francis. Gliński, M., & Paloff, B. (2016, January 7). Is It Worth Translating Sienkiewicz? An Interview With Ben Paloff. Krzyżanowski, J. R. (1996). Henryk Sienkiewicz’s Trilogy In America. The Polish Review, 41(3), 337–349. Lem, S., & Rottensteiner, F. (1984). Microworlds : Writings on science fiction and fantasy (pp. 45–105). Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, Publ., Cop.Science Fiction: A Hopeless Case - With Exceptions Rowling, J. K. (1997a). Harry Potter and the philosopher’s stone. Bloomsbury. Rowling, J. K. (1997b). Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone. Scholastic Inc. Steiner, G. (1975). After Babel. New York Oxford University Press. Tatlow, D. K. (2013, June 14). Joyce’s “Finnegans Wake” Takes Off in China. IHT Rendezvous. Tymoczko, M. (1999). Translation in a Postcolonial Context : early irish literature in english translation. Routledge. Venuti, L. (2012). The translation studies reader (L. Venuti, Ed.; pp. 468–488). Routledge.Translation, Community, Utopia

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