¿Madeleines or muffins?

One of the most interesting things about translating children’s books is the translation of cultural references, as in words and expressions that are characteristic of the culture of origin. These references can be about food, places, names, holidays/festivities, etc.

The translator –or the publishing company– must decide whether the translation is going to be focused on the source culture (the country of origin’s culture) or the target culture (that is, the culture in which the readers of the translated version are set in). Depending on the decision, the translation will use domesticating strategies, so that the reader will have the illusion that the original book was written in the reader’s language, or foreignizing strategies, which make the reader realize the differences between his/her culture and the source culture.

An example of this could be the translation of the French word madeleine. French people are used to eating this delicious pastry, so when they read in a book that the character was eating a madeleine, they can picture it very vividly. However, American people could have more problems imagining that same scenario. The Wikipedia describes a madeleine as a “small sponge cake” (which really fails to do justice to this scrumptious baked good). It is indeed not the same thing.

French madeleines
American muffin
American muffin

So if we were to translate the expression in a foregnizing way, we would keep the word in French and maybe –this is optional– we could add some footnote explaining the meaning of such word. If we chose a domesticating translation for American readers, we could translate it as a “muffin”, or as a “madalena” if the translation was going to be published in Spain (madalena is quite a close pick, but still it’s not the same as the French counterpart). This kind of translation would make the reader closer to the original book, so the reader wouldn’t feel the “strangeness” of a foreign word but at the same time the reader would be deprived of the “real” thing, he wouldn’t be able to learn a new cultural concept and, on a more personal note, we would be plainly lying to the reader.

Now, lying when translating is not a new concept (wink to the traduttore, traditore expression) and sometimes it is a necessity. Some people believe that leaving the original expression is not properly translating but when you face a word that doesn’t exist in the target culture, you’re basically left with two choices: tell the truth or tell a lie. The majority of the translators opt for telling a lie (just a tiny little white lie to keep the reader engaged in the reading) but personally I agree more with the translation movement that believes in keeping the original references as much as possible or explaining them, in order to not lose the culturality of the text and allow the reader to know more about the culture of origin.

This is particularly hard in the children’s world because publishing companies prefer to domesticate translations in order to make it easier for the children to engage in the reading and therefore promote reading amongst the youngest readers. However, I believe in the ability of children to understand foreign concepts and I also think that if we “naturalize” the texts to make them easier to read we will just promote ignorance and simplicity.

Finally, I just want to add that I am in favour of foreignizing cultural references, which does not mean that I always choose this strategy when translating books. It is not the same to translate madeleine as “muffin” than to translate Brinkley (the dog) as Motas. The first one is a cultural concept, which denotes a French feature, whilst the latest is a simple name in English that can be translated in Spanish with a more natural name without compromising the culturality of the original text.

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