top of page

The Ethics of Cultural Translation 101: Translating Geography


Translating between languages tends to be a highly ethical practice, or at the least one that stimulates frequent conversation about ethics. This is especially true in the present day, when international discourse places high value on respecting other cultures. An ethical breach can take many forms, from misguided translation choices to intentional efforts to redefine a work of literature in a different and distortional manner. This series explores some of the ethical challenges translators face, either due to the challenge of the translation itself or willingly, while reflecting on the continuing debates between translators, translation scholars and others about what constitutes an ethical breach.

The Ethics of Cultural Translation 101 will be mainly divided into the following chapters of content:

6. The Ethics of Cultural Translation 101: Translating Geography

7. The Ethics of Cultural Translation 101: From Language To Motion Picture

8. The Ethics of Cultural Translation 101: Ideology

The Ethics of Cultural Translation 101: Translating Geography

Apart from writing the groundbreaking book After Babel, George Steiner is also known for having one of the most famous quotes on translation attributed to him: “without translation, we would be living in provinces bordering on silence” (Wynne, 2018). While this nugget of wisdom has many dimensions to it, the most compelling element of this poetic yet affirmative truth is the geographical component. Contrary to a popular expression often seen on social media and used to affirm a greater human unity, the borders between language are rarely arbitrary even if land borders sometimes reflect a different reality.

Figure 1: Photograph of George Steiner, author of After Babel, taken by Tom Pilston (n.d.)

The base definition of culture is usually, if not always, impossible to express without emphasizing some form of reliance upon either a geographic entity as one might see on a political geography map or physical environment. As research done by linguistic anthropologist David K. Harrison has shown, the depths to which a language can connect to its terrain are considerable, an example being the Tofa reindeer herders of Siberia. (Harrison, 2007, p. 57). The example Harrison provides of the Tofa language is the word döngür, or “male domesticated reindeer in its third year and first mating season, but not yet ready for mating.” Döngür, suffice to say, is virtually untranslatable into any major Western language. While some cultures, like the Sami of Northern Scandinavia, would find cultural points of linguistic reference due to a shared tradition of reindeer herding, most world cultures outside of the arctic and subarctic have virtually no comparable experience with reindeer. Even cultures with a shared environment may fall short of finding a common frame of reference: as Harrison mentions, Russian, the majority language of Siberia, has no word like döngür (Harrison, 2007, p. 57). Even so, literary translation seeks to at least meet halfway and give a curious reader perspective into a culture as different as the ones mentioned above. This, inevitably, makes geography a necessary topic to handle.

Figure 2: The Reindeer Classification System (n.d.)

Translation as Abuse and Geography

Linguistics professor Sharon Willis once observed: “Each language abuses the other… The resistances are certain elements that remain foreign to both languages, within both texts, like apfel. These are transferred all too easily from side to side, but are never translated” (Willis, 2018, p. 108). While more translation strategies help literary translators translate with greater faithfulness than most readily cynical commentators will admit, cultural geography is where the “untranslatable” roadblock becomes especially visible en route to the target language. The “risk of abuse,” therefore, increases exponentially.

Concerning geography, that abuse may result in language expressing a different cultural landscape in a weaker manner. A landlocked language, for instance, will likely feature a dearth of maritime vocabulary relative to, say, languages like English or Dutch polished by centuries of seafaring — a consideration that one can imagine must have influenced Joseph Conrad when choosing between writing in his native Polish, the French lingua franca or English. To avoid abuse à la Willis, a translator can generally take two paths should a satisfactory word not avail itself: introduce the word as an untranslatable, or invent a new word. This, naturally, would also depend on the rules each language has about it: while German is famously known for accepting spontaneous word invention on the part of its authors —most notably Nobel Laureate Günter Grass, coiner of zersingen, or “to sing-shatter” (Grass, 2009)—, English generally frowns upon the act of taking such liberties despite a shared linguistic ancestry with German. Why this is the case warrants a separate article, but in translation, it is just as much an act of consideration as it is a mild taboo for the possibility of large-scale abuse is always present.

Figure 3: Portrait of Günter Grass, photographed by Dominik Sadowski (2005).

Geography As Otherness

It is worth mentioning that as well as literary translators have to find a familiar point of reference in terms of geographical surroundings, so too can they intentionally use otherness to achieve the exact opposite result. While the question of finding the right words and style in the target language remains an obstacle with this course of action, strategies —such as opacite, mentioned in the previous article— lend themselves well. Even in English, a novel like Cormac McCarthy’s Blood Meridian relies on late 19th century and Western terminology so as to generate a legitimate otherworld. Once again, Venuti’s “domestic inscriptions” are at work (Venuti, 1998, p. 67).

Figure 4: Yukio Mishima, photographed by Kishin Shinoyama (n.d.)

Just as otherness can be interwoven into the artistry of a translated work of literature, so too can it lend itself to canon construction. In The Scandals of Translation, Venuti discusses the canon construction of the 50s and 60s in terms of Japanese literature (Venuti, 1998, pp. 71-75). Collaborating with academics, publishers chose a small selection of Japanese authors who conveyed what one might call a traditional presentation of Japan’s cultural landscape. Nowadays, Yasunari Kawabata, Yukio Mishima and Junichiro Tanizaki are iconic names in the West, with Kawabata having won the Nobel Prize of Literature in 1968. Venuti peculiarly found this course of action by the publishers disagreeable despite his general penchant for cultural otherness; these authors, after all, were chosen precisely because they had otherness, but in Venuti's view, otherness in language and otherness in cultural landscape are entirely two different things.

Nevertheless, the canon construction of these publishers was not as regrettable as Venuti believed. Cultural otherness is not only manifest in language but in cultural landscape; making authors like Kawabata and Mishima iconic, if anything, was a milestone in the history of literary otherness. While Venuti makes a valid point about the exclusion of other types of Japanese literature, the argument about the questionable popularity of those authors in Japan risks suggesting that only literature which is popular is worthy of being translated, a belief that ignores some of the most miraculous developments in the history of literature such as Edgar Allan Poe’s French translations rescuing him from oblivion when Poe had been all but forgotten in America. Translation, in this manner, assists obscure works of literature by giving them greater prominence when they might otherwise be forgotten. There is more to any form of art than simply holding a mirror to one society and trying to obtain a reflection.

Figure 5: Book cover of ''The Sound of Waves'', written by Yukio Mishima (1994)


Geography’s importance is nothing if not fundamental, given that literature is often the way through which many people visit other cultures when they don’t possess the means to travel. But as most other dimensions of the art of translation, geography too runs into ethical problems, ultimately boiling down to one choice for the translator: should the cultural landscape be chosen for its familiarity or its otherness?

In the case of Yukio Mishima’s tender novel The Sound of Waves, to hearken back to the previous example, the desolate island setting is unique especially because it is unusual and not the predictable literature of modernity (Mishima, 2013). While Mishima had a troubled relationship with his time, the novel by itself does not deny the existence of modern Japan; rather, it exists in its own time and place in a manner that can only be described as timeless. A love story can be set anywhere, but literary translation exists precisely in order to explore other lands, and unlike international travel, literature is not restricted to the present moment. As Portoguese writer Jose Saramago reportedly said, "writers make national literature, while translators make universal literature" (B, 2013).

Bibliographical References

B, F. (2013). Great Quotes on Translation. Trusted Translations. Grass, G. (2009). The Tin Drum. Houghton Mifflin. Harrison, K. D. (2008). When Languages Die : The Extinction of the World’s Languages and the Erosion of Human Knowledge. Oxford University Press. Mishima, Y. (2013). The Sound of Waves. Vintage. Venuti, L. (1998). The scandals of translation: Towards an ethics of difference. Routledge. Willis, S. (2018). Mistranslation, Missed Translation: Helene Cixous’ Vivre L’Orange. In L. Venuti (Ed.), Rethinking Translation: Discourse, Subjectivity, Ideology, 106–119. Routledge.

Wynne, F. (2018). Found in Translation. Head of Zeus Ltd.

Visual Sources


Author Photo

Felix Purat

Arcadia _ Logo.png

Arcadia has an extensive catalog of articles on everything from literature to science — all available for free! If you liked this article and would like to read more, subscribe below and click the “Read More” button to discover a world of unique content.

Let the posts come to you!

Thanks for submitting!

  • Instagram
  • Twitter
  • LinkedIn
bottom of page