The expat approach to translation: When not to translate a word

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.

* Images courtesy of Auswandern Malaysia and Andres Rueda

Written by Rob

Rob Lunn is a freelance legal translator based in Spain. He translates from Spanish and Catalan into English.

10 comments to “The expat approach to translation: When not to translate a word”
  1. Pingback: The expat approach to translation: When not to translate a word - Legally Yours from Spain | Machine translation |

  2. While not an expat (in fact I am native in Spanish, LatAm variety, born, bred and working in my Southern Cone country of birth), I am confronted daily, as a translator, with these choices: “translate or not translate: that is the question”, to paraphrase you know who. What I usually do, is this: if there is an equivalent, and a well-established one at that, such as for instance IVA = VAT, I go for the equivalent. When there is not, and the term is peppered throughout the text, and it is pertinent to the SL, I write a short explanation between brackets the first time it shows up, and then continue with the SL acronym. I always assume that I am writing for a mixed audience: geographically far but culturally near.
    BTW, I would translate NIE in all cases to avoid confusion with the English accounting acronym for Non-Interest Expense.

    Very nice post, congratulations.

    • Hi Nelida,

      Reading your comment made me think that my choice of examples could have been better. They’re all acronyms. I was, though, actually referring to any type of culturally or legally specific term that doesn’t exist in the target language/legal system.

      I can’t think of too many contexts in which the NIE ID number might be confused with the accounting term, so I’m not sure if that would often be a consideration, but I see your point. We should always be on the lookout for this type of potential confusion.

      Thanks for your input!

  3. Great article!

    This reminds me of my ERASMUS days where I’d be having a chat with my Irish friend and throwing in random German words. We soon realised that we were talking in a strange mixture of German and Hiberno-English intelligible to none but ourselves!

  4. Very informative article. It is very difficult to choose the right word. It reminds me to my studying at the university where I faced this subject. I thought about it.

    • You’re right. It can be tricky to decide on the best solution for a given context. But that’s one of the nice things about legal translation: In theory at least, there should be a higher probability of culturally/system-unique terms coming up than in some other types of translation. Thanks for your comment.

  5. Accurate legal translation services are difficult to find, considering the differences between the common law, (Anglo American) and civil law (continental) you need someone familiar with the concepts of roman law to translate in the right way the legal texts, unfortunately not every translator is familiar with this.

    • That’s true, Cole, and a good point. It’s important to know the differences between the different legal traditions and systems.

  6. Aside form acronyms.US, Irish and British expats in Spain – as opposed to resident Brit etc. lawyers – always talk about their (public notarial) ‘escritura’ (note the ‘escrow’ deeding process in the US) of their land conveyance, as opposed to the first-stage contrato de compraventa privado.

    If the chain of unregd. title needs to be restored by ‘an expediente de dominio’, then that’s what expats, rather than expert conveyancing Solicitors and Chancery Barristers back in Blighty, are going to use. There’s really no point arguing over a pint about these labels.

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