What is Foreignization? Part 1

Last week I saw a post on a Facebook group for literary translators asking whether “foreignization” was still a practice used in translation today and if so, was it not solely used to exoticize a text. For those of you who may be unfamiliar with the term, foreignization or “to foreignize,” means to retain words and concepts in the original work even in translation. For instance, if you were reading a text about bull fighting the translator might choose to retain the word corrida as an act of foreignization. Readers of the text will recognize immediately that corrida refers to bull fighting, without being lost in the process of reading.

What shocked me about the Facebook query was its tone, and the suggestion that all foreignization could be used for was to exoticize. While the literary market definitely has a penchant for marketing the exotic, the Martinican writer Patrick Chamoiseau being referred to as the “Caribbean Gabriel Garcia-Márquez” immediately comes to mind, translators can and do use foreignization as a technique to protect the indigeneity of the original. While the poster, and others in the thread, kept making reference to translations of texts featuring one foreign language (Italian, Spanish, French, etc.), I believe that foreignization is perhaps most useful when translating polyglot texts or works featuring various dialects and registers.

I recently read Jordan Stump’s translation of Scholastique Mukasonga’s non-fiction work Cockroaches (Inyenzi; ou Les cafards) from Archipelagos Books and was struck by how through foreignization Stump was able to engage with Rwandan readers by retaining words in Kinyarwanda. One of the most remarkable passages of this harrowing book of memory, loss, and genocide is when Mukasonga explains how her family made urwarwa, or banana beer.

But on some days there was no question of prayers and processions, even for my father. Those were the days when we made banana beer, urwarwa. Making urwarwa was a major undertaking, requiring a great deal of time and the participation of the whole family, and even the neighbors. Those were festival days (Mukasonga 56).

First, the author has already “translated” the idea of what urwarwa is to her French readers. If Stump had erased the Kinyarwanda word, the cultural aspects of the passage would have been flattened and “domesticated” for an English-speaking readership. As Mukasonga walks us through the process, Stump continues to include the Kinyarwanda words, “now you have the juice––umutobe indakamirwa” (58). Perhaps rather than simply a matter of a “faithful” translation, which as Edith Grossman has pointed out is impossible, Stump allows readers of Cockroaches to feel foreign, to immerse themselves into the making of urwarwa. Even as I write this, I think it is important to have to write words in Kinyarwanda and other languages, essentially to have to meet the work in translation, the author, and the author’s culture on their own terms.img_0832.jpeg

In a work of creative non-fiction like Cockroaches, where the author recounts stories of murder, genocide, loss, and trauma, foreignization is not only important, but necessary. One of the main purposes of the book is to remember, to fight against forgetting. Mukasonga writes about her family, “the murderers tried to erase everything that they were, even any memory of their existence” (165). When the stakes are as high as they are in Cockroaches, it is easy to see the import of retaining cultural lessons facing the threat of erasure.

img_0833.jpegHowever, as a final response to the Facebook question about foreignization, it is a practice that may aid us as readers in confronting what Ghanaian-Jamaican poet Kwame Dawes has called a failure of the imagination. Dawes explains that racism, sexism, and other forms of hate are a result of a person failing to imagine themselves in the place. A failure of empathy. To foreignize translations can certainly work the other way, especially when used to exoticize a text, but it might be the best way to expose readers to cultures and concepts other than their own.


In a later post I will talk about my own struggles with practicing foreignization.

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