An expat chat
When you listen to expats talking together about their new country of residence, sometimes you hear strange words pop up. This is usually the result of what you could call the expat approach to translating difficult-to-translate or non-equivalent terms.
You might hear, for example, native English speakers living in Spain throwing about terms like DNI, NIE and NIF. All of which can be translated into English. So why do they use the Spanish terms? Probably, because it’s easier and avoids confusion. It’s the logical thing to do as all those in the conversation understand these straightforward yet culturally specific terms, and, more importantly, because they are actually talking about these particular foreign things and not some fuzzy equivalents that may or may not exist in their countries of origin.
Near and far audiences
This not translating of terms—known in translation theory as transcription or using borrowings—is a source-language (SL) oriented approach that can be useful for what Kierzkowska refers to as “near audiences”, of which expatriates or immigrants are a good example.
Near audiences are anyone with “a relatively good knowledge of the SL culture”. In the case of legal translation, other examples of near audiences are academics and lawyers with good source-culture knowledge, although you’d probably also classify lawyers without such knowledge as a near audience because, depending on the context, someone with a legal background should be able to understand foreign legal concepts without requiring too much domesticating of the terms.
Obviously, using a borrowing won’t always be appropriate. When our happy group of expats are talking to people who don’t know much about Spain, they’re unlikely to use these terms because they know they won’t be understood. Instead, they might use terms like identity card/number for DNI, foreigner ID number for NIE and tax number for NIF. Depending, of course, on the context. Because these terms do serve different functions and may require different translations according to the context.
When translating terms like DNI
Is the translation for foreigners living Spain? If so, the translation of, for example, “DNI” might be DNI (card/number), NIE (document/number), resident’s card, passport or photo ID, depending on whether the text is referring to the actual document or just the number associated to both the card and the holder. It also depends on whether the text is asking the reader to do something with an equivalent to the DNI (an equivalent because only Spanish nationals are issued with DNIs) or just talking about the term in general, for instance, in an article about the new e-DNI card.
The translation may also be for a “far” audience (i.e., an audience with little knowledge or interest in the source culture). In this case, Spanish ID card/number is usually the way to go. However, it does still depend on the function of the term in the context and the purpose of the translation. Driver’s licence, photo ID, tax number or 18+ card may also be appropriate, particularly in translations that are not specifically about Spain (e.g., in product descriptions or other types of marketing texts for Spanish products sold abroad), or that are about Spain but in which the term is not important (e.g., perhaps in a novel). What’s the point of bothering a reader in a far-off land with talk of DNI cards in a fantasy story set in Barcelona that could be set anywhere?
Useful distinction and non-equivalence indicator
The distinction between near and far audiences is a useful one. More so, I think, than just referring to expert and non-expert audiences as it takes into account and better classifies non-expert audiences like immigrants or expatiates who have a good understanding of the source culture and the intricacies of terms such as DNI, which you’d think are so basic that they’d be easy to deal with yet are in fact culturally unique enough to demand special attention on occasions. Near audiences should know these terms, whereas far audiences probably won’t.
In fact, one indicator for determining when you have a culturally specific term on your hands is to listen to what foreign residents (or yourself, if you are one) do with it when talking in their native languages. If they don’t translate it, it’s probably a non-equivalent term that may require some extra consideration when you come to translate it.
Key concept, further reading
Far and near audiences (Kierzkowska). Found in Biel, L. (2009) ‘Organization of background knowledge structures in legal language and related translation problems’, Comparative Legilinguistics. International Journal for Legal Communication. 1, pp. 176-189.