Give a critical account with examples of the strategies available to the translator to deal with culturally specific items, which arise, in translation.

Give a critical account with examples of the strategies available to the translator to deal with culturally specific items, which arise, in translation.


It is commonly agreed that the act of translation involves the conveyance of a message from one language to another, however, as Komissarov states, “Translation from language to language is ipso facto translation from culture to culture” (1991, p.12). Hatim and Mason’s description of translation agrees with this opinion stating that the message must cross “cultural and linguistic boundaries” (1997, p. 1) in order to be clearly understood, while George Bernard Shaw’s[1] much referenced comment that “England and America are two countries separated by the same language” gives us a clear indication that, when it comes to translation, knowledge of language is not enough and an appreciation of culture and customs is paramount.

Deterministic machine translation

A notorious for missing the point and the errors that are thrown up obvious, and often comical, in the target language such as the original Chinese translation of the Kentucky Fried Chicken slogan “finger-lickin’ good” which read “eat your fingers off” (Wolter, 2010). Culler states, “If language were simply a nomenclature for a set of universal concepts, it would be easy to translate from one language to another. One would simply replace the French name for a concept with the English name.” (cited in Baker, 1992, p. 10). This circumstance rarely presents itself and lack of equivalence, especially in the case of culture-specific words and concepts, is one of the main challenges faced by the translator. It is particularly evident within the realm of literary translation where the source-language culture plays a significant role and the emphasis is on recreating a piece of writing that is “true to the original, as well as being equally enchanting” (G. Paul, 2009, p.1). The translator must therefore not only have a good knowledge of both languages and cultures but a set of tried and trusted strategies to employ to overcome difficulties in transferring cultures within literary translation.

This essay will concentrate on literary translation, with an emphasis on translation strategies available to deal with areas of cultural relevance within children’s literature.

It will focus on the novel Le Petit Nicolas, (Goscinny & Sempe, 2007) and its translation Nicholas (Goscinny & Sempe, 2005); a book full of culture-specific phrases and concepts, which will offer an insight into the challenge of translating from “culture to culture” (Komissarov, 1991, p.12). To review the author’s processing of culturally specific items and develop a schema of success and failure that meaning can be drawn from, Javier Franco Aixela’s model of strategies available to the translator when translating items of cultural relevance will be used (1996, pp 52-77).

The first step in this assessment must be to define what constitutes an item of cultural significance. As Aixela points out, it is easy to identify more common culturally specific words, such as personal and place names, however, an overall explanation of cultural specificity is in itself rather challenging as “everything is culturally produced, beginning with language itself.” (1996, p. 57). For instance, Aixela gives the example of translating the word “lamb” from the Bible for the Eskimo people; while this would not pose a problem to a source culture (SC) where this animal is known as having connotations of being helpless and sacrificial, it would for a SC where the animal is either completely unknown or unknown in that capacity (ibid, pp. 57-58). Aixela terms an area of cultural significance as a ‘culture-specific item’ (CSI), which he defines as:

“Those textually actualized items whose functions and connotations in a source text involve a translation problem in their transference to a target text, whenever this problem is a product of the non-existence of the referred items or of its different intertextual status in the cultural system of the readers of the target text.” (ibid, p. 58)

This essay will use Aixela’s definition of ‘CSIs’, which are anything linked to the SC that either does not exist in the target culture (TC) or carries a different meaning in that culture, when identifying areas of cultural relevance within Le Petit Nicolas. While this definition makes it possible to identify CSIs within a given text, it is worth noting that a CSI, like language and culture themselves, is liable to change; Aixela states that “objects, habits or values once restricted to one community come to be shared by others” (1996, p. 58). It is possible to extrapolate Aixela’s theory further than this as the evolution of cultural significance can also affect a single language, for example, ‘car crash’ previously just another way of saying ‘motoring accident’, was recently admitted into the Oxford English Dictionary carrying entirely different cultural connotations of celebrity misadventure (Alleyne, 2008 I pinched this from the 2011 inclusions..) . It is therefore important to remain flexible in identifying and handling CSIs.

With a definition of a CSI it is possible to concentrate on the strategies available for translating them. Aixela splits his strategies for dealing with CSIs into two main categories – ‘Conservation’ and ‘Substitution’ (see Tab. 1 & 2) (1996, pp. 61- 65). The strategies within the category of ‘Conservation’ focus on preserving the CSI in the TT in some way and therefore support Schleiermacher’s notion of ‘Foreignizing’ whereby the translator emphasises cultural differences from the ST in the TT (in Venuti, 2008, p. 20); conversely, ‘Substitution’ strategies aim at replacing the source-culture item with one from the TC and therefore correspond to the contrasting view of ‘Domesticating’ the TT (Ibid, p. 18), and Nida’s theory of ‘Dynamic Equivalence’ which places the focus on the target reader and thus the TC over that of the SC (2000, p.156). The general consensus at the present time, as put forward by Gill Paul, is that a good literary translation must “reflect cultural differences, while drawing parallels that make it accessible […]. It should be read by readers in its new language with the same enthusiasm and understanding as it was in the old.” (2009, p. 1). Both ‘Foreignization’ and ‘Dynamic Equivalence’ place unnecessary limitations on the literary translator and hence the TT and, if followed to the letter, would not produce Paul’s ‘good literary translation’. Therefore, in incorporating an element of each theory, Aixela’s strategies (listed below) strike the right balance:

Table 1. Conservation Strategies

RepetitionStraight transference of CSI from ST to TT.
Orthographic AdaptationTransliteration or transcription of CSI from ST to TT.
Linguistic (non-cultural) translationUsing a target language version, which is based on pre-existing translation and can still be recognised as belonging to the source culture.
Extratextual glossOne of above strategies plus addition of information in form of footnote, brackets etc.
Intratextual glossOne of above strategies plus addition of information in main body of text.

Table 2. Substitution Strategies

SynonymyUse of a synonym to avoid repetition of a CSI on stylistic grounds.
Limited universalizationUse of another CSI from source culture to replace the more incomprehensible one in ST.
Absolute universalizationReplacing CSI with a neutral reference, thus removing any exoticism.
NaturalizationReplacing CSI with a CSI from the target culture.
DeletionRemoving all elements of CSI for ideological or stylistic reasons.
Autonomous CreationAdding a cultural reference to TT that is not present in ST.

The data in Tables 1 & 2 are from Translation, Power, Subversion (pp.61-70) by R. Alvarez and M. C.-A. Vidal, eds.(1996), Clevedon: Multilingual Matters

Viewing the ST (Goscinny, 2007) with the strategies outlined above we can start to identify thematic CSIs that cause issues for the target TT and would likely cause unnecessary confusion. Translation of the French children’s names was a particular challenge; Aixela generally advocates ‘Conservation’ strategies of ‘Repetition’ or ‘Orthographic adaptation’ (Tab.1) for dealing with names (1996, pp. 61-62), however with French names, there is the obvious issue of pronunciation such as with the Eudes and Joachim. While pronunciation is not a necessity when reading, it does aid character recollection and thus the ability to emphasise with a character. In addition to pronunciation, the names also carry underlying connotations and stereotypes such as popularity, whether they are modern or old-fashioned and what type of person the name evokes in the imagination that would not transfer to the TT.

While elements of these issues may be overcome by the fact that in the ST there already appears to be what Aixela terms ‘Intratextual gloss’ (Tab. 1) in the form of descriptions of the characters, the issues concerning pronunciation highlight a weakness in the strategies of ‘Repetition’ and ‘Orthographic adaptation’. This weakness calls for the translator to be sensitive to external factors affecting translation decisions. Aixela terms these factors as ‘Supratextual’ variables, which include the genre of the ST, the translation brief and the intended audience (1996, pp. 65-66). The translation by Anthea Bell of Le Petit Nicolas was undertaken in 1978, when translation norms looked to adhere to viewpoints such as Nida’s ‘Dynamic Equivalence’ while attempting to “produce on its readers an effect as close as possible to that obtained on the readers of the original” (Newmark, 1981, p39). The reference to the ‘readers’ above is an important one; In Principles of Correspondence, Nida states that the translator needs to understand the audience in terms of their ‘decoding ability’ and ‘potential interest’ (in Venuti, 2000, p. 155). Le Petit Nicolas is a classic piece of children’s literature that is enjoyed by young children and adults alike. While this book is enjoyed by an adult audience, the main readership would fall into Nida’s category of “The capacity of children, whose vocabulary and cultural experiences are limited;” (in Venuti, 2000, p. 155); this indicates that Aixela’s ‘Conservation’ strategies of ‘Repetition’ or ‘Orthographic adaptation’ for dealing with names, would not be suitable here. In order to overcome this, the ‘Substitution’ strategy ‘Limited universalization’ (Tab. 2) could be employed, which would have made it possible to keep French names without losing any understanding on behalf of the target readers; for example changing ‘Eudes’ to ‘Edouard’ or ‘Joachim’ to ‘Jerome’. This strategy would be more in tune with today’s translation norms and would fulfil Paul’s ideal of a good translation that “allows a reader to experience first hand a different world – hearing the sounds, tasting local fare, seeing the sights” (2009, p.55).

Translator Anthea Bell uses English names in place of the French ST versions and this approach corresponds to substitution strategy of ‘Naturalization’ (Tab. 2). The choice to remove all elements of French from the names is a bold one; ‘Naturalization’ is rarely used in literature, however it was once a common strategy for translating children’s stories (Aixela, 1996, p. 63) and this, along with the above mentioned supratextual factors, may have influenced this decision.

While ‘Repetition’ proved inappropriate in translating Christian names, it would be possible to preserve elements of the SC in the TT by using this strategy for other CSIs.

There are a number of references in the ST to food items specific to French culture; these include ‘pain au chocolat’, ‘Camembert’, ‘Roquefort’ and ‘frites’. Aixela states that “in the Western World there is a clear trend […] towards maximum acceptability […] towards ‘reading as an original’” (Ibid, p. 54); this sentiment promotes the use of ‘Conservation’ strategies such as ‘Repetition’ – ‘pain au chocolat’ to ‘pain au chocolat’ and ‘Linguistic (non-cultural) translation’ – ‘frites’ to ‘French fries’. These strategies definitely have their appeal in today’s society where globalisation has meant that food items such as ‘pain au chocolat’ and ‘French fries’ are readily available in our shops; however, these terms may not have been suitable in the late seventies when the ST was translated – again this indicates that words change their meaning and distribution over time and to quote Aixela once more, “objects, habits or values once restricted to one community come to be shared by others” (1996, p. 58). Lack of availability and hence knowledge about French food may be the reason behind Bell’s decisions in her era, which once again correspond to Aixela’s ‘Substitution’ strategies of ‘Limited universalization’ for ‘pain au chocolat’ where it was translated as ‘chocolate croissant’ (something entirely different in today’s supermarkets) and ‘Naturalization’ for ‘frites’ which became ‘chips’. While both ‘Limited universalization’ and ‘Naturalization’ are perfectly valid strategies for translating CSIs such as food items, their overuse will eventually lead to ‘Domestication’ of the ST (Schleiermacher in Venuti, 2008, p.18), which is not in line with Paul’s description of ‘a good literary translation’ (2009, p. 55).

‘Repetition’ of Camembert and Roquefort, which appear in the ST as part of an amusing tale between two of the characters who are trying to recall the fable The Fox and the Crow (ST, pp. 45-48, TT, p. 34), would clearly correspond with Paul’s ideal of allowing the target reader to personally experience the ST world (2009, p.55), however, it may lead to a lack of understanding due to the nature of the target audience who probably do not have knowledge of such delicacies as Camembert or Roquefort. In the fable by Aesop the crow has a piece of cheese in its beak (Crow and the Fox, n.d.) and in the ST the two boys are arguing over whether this piece of cheese is Camembert or Roquefort:

“[…] d’un corbeau qui tenait dans son bec un roquefort.[…] « Mais non, a dit Alceste, c’etait un camembert. » (ST, pp. 45-48)

[of a crow who had in his beak a roquefort […] “but no, said Alceste, it was a camembert”]

‘Limited universalization’ – choosing a more general French cheese, or ‘Naturalization’ – using an English cheese, could solve this problem, however, the next remark made by one of the boys highlights the need for an understanding of the CSI’s treatment in the ST and how this affects the choice of strategies (1996, p. 69-70):

« Pas du tout, a dit Rufus, le camembert, le corbeau il n’aurait pas pu le tenir dans son bec, ca coule et puis ca sent pas bon ! » (ST, p. 48)

[Not at all, said Rufus, the camembert, the crow would not be able to hold it in his beak, it runs, and then it doesn’t smell good!]

Bell opts for ‘Repetition’ in the TT which is one of the only times that she uses a ‘Conservation’ strategy (1996, pp. 61-62) and for this reason the CSIs feel out of place within a TT that has, for the most part, been domesticated. This observation underlines the need for an equal balance in the use of ‘Conservation’ and ‘Substitution’ strategies when translating CSIs.

The possible use of the ‘Conservation’ strategies ‘Extratextual’ and ‘Intratextual gloss’ (Tab. 1) emerged when translating the CSI in the form the job title ‘le surveillant’. ‘Le surveillant’ is a term ‘restricted to the source culture’ (Aixela, 1996, p. 56) and, at the time of Le Petit Nicolas, it was an adult in charge of study and discipline (nowadays a ‘surveillant’ is more likely to be a fellow student and not in charge of discipline – equivalent to a monitor or prefect in a British school). As there is no linguistic equivalent in the target language this poses a problem, which could be overcome for the translator wanting to keep an element of the SC in the TT by using such ‘Conservation’ strategies:

“monsieur Dubon, le surveillant, nous a conduit en classe” (ST, p. 23)

“Mr Dubon, the surveillant (the person in charge of study and discipline in a school), led us into the classroom” (My translation using ‘Extratextual gloss’)

“Mr Dubon, who is the school’s surveillant in charge of discipline, led us into the classroom” (My translation using ‘Intratextual gloss’)

These approaches conserve the CSI in the TT; however, they interrupt the flow of the text and are therefore not ideal options for literary translation. This draws attention to a need for the translator to decide between which is more important: the fluidity of the TT or the preservation of the cultural elements present in the ST.

Analysis of the TT has shown that, as with the Christian names, Bell opts to maintain the flow of the TT and chooses ‘Naturalization’ here using ‘one of the other teachers’ (TT, p. 17). While this does not interrupt the flow of the text, it is not correct and does lead to some confusion as to why their class teacher allows ‘one of the other teachers’ to constantly interrupt lessons and discipline her pupils.

The nickname for the ‘surveillant’ in Le Petit Nicolas is ‘Le Bouillon’ – a type of broth usually made with meat and vegetables like a stew. It may be possible to use the ‘Conservation’ strategy of ‘Linguistic (non-cultural) translation’ (Tab. 1) for ‘Le Bouillon’ renaming it ‘stew’, however, what Aixela terms as ‘intratextual’ factors relating to this CSI, namely how the CSI is treated within the ST itself such as its cultural consideration, its significance and replication will mould how it is dealt with in translation (1996, pp 69-70); the reason why the boys use this nickname would make a CSI translated using ‘Linguistic (non-cultural) translation’ confusing for the target reader:

“On l’appelle comme ca, parce qu’il dit tout le temps : « Regardez-moi dans les yeux », et dans le bouillon il y a des yeux.” (ST, p. 23)

[one calls him like that because he says all the time ‘look me in the eyes’, and in stew there are eyes]

This reason is quite clearly culturally specific; it refers to the fat in the broth that gathers in circles on top of the water, which in French culture are seen as ‘eyes’. As this is not something that the target reader would instantly think of, it is not possible to use any of Aixela’s ‘Conservation’ strategies here without having to include a lengthy and disruptive explanation within the TT. In line with Bell’s other translation decisions for names, the terms have been ‘naturalised’ and the CSI has become ‘Old Spuds’, which allows the reason to remain the same as in the ST albeit with the reader enjoying a differing mental image. While ‘Naturalization’ can be seen to have gone against the ideal of a ‘good literary translation’ in domesticating the CSI, it is sometimes a necessity in order to preserve as much of the content of ST as possible.

Another challenging CSI is a confluence of two of the above themes in Le Petit Nicolas, namely food and culture. ‘le gouter’ (an after-school snack usually given at 4pm) is a ritualistic snack that forms part of the French way of life and should not be confused with the evening meal, which is served much later than in the UK. For this reason one could use a ‘Conservation’ strategy such as ‘Intratextual gloss’ (Tab. 1) however, as previously discussed this strategy impedes the flow of literary texts and therefore the ‘Substitution’ strategy ‘Absolute universalization’ (Tab. 2) may be a better option:

« j’ai pas envie d’etre en retard pour le gouter ! (ST, p. 37)

“I don’t want to be late for our after-school snack which is usually given at 4pm!” (my translation using ‘intratextual gloss’)

“I don’t want to be late for snack-time!” (my translation using ‘Absolute universalization’)

Interestingly, Bell has again employed the ‘Substitution’ strategy ‘Naturalization’ to translate this CSI (1996, p. 63):

‘I don’t want to be late for tea!’ (TT, p.27)

While this option may have been suitable when the translation was published, it would now lead the target reader to believe that the children are having their evening meal.

The ‘Substitution’ strategy of ‘Deletion’ (Tab. 2) is preserved for CSIs that are considered “unacceptable on ideological or stylistic grounds” (Aixela, p. 64). Aixela states that the “nature of the CSI” in terms of any pre-established translations it may have, its transparency, its ideological status and what culture it refers to all influence how it is treated in translation (1996, pp. 68-69); an area in the ST that this would be considered is within the story Djodjo regarding the English student (ST, pp 59-65). On being introduced to the English student George the French boys notice his teeth and comments on them:

“Il a souri et nous avons vu qu’il a des tas de dents terribles. « Le veinard, a dit Alceste, […] avec des dents comme ca, il doit mordre des droles de morceaux ! » (ST, p. 59)

[he smiled and we saw that he had loads of awful/huge teeth. “Lucky thing, said Alceste […] with teeth like that must be able to eat lots of things!”]

This stereotypical image of poor English dental care is specific to the SC and may offend the target audience if it were to be kept in the TT. If Kelly’s opinion in her work on the ideological implications of translation, that the translator “she should be aware of the pitfalls of stereotypical images, and attempt to avoid them” is to be adhered to then ‘Deletion’ would be an appropriate strategy here (1998, p. 63). However, this strategy involves major changes to the ST and places the importance of target-audience views above that of the message of the ST and should only be used if the translator sees no other working solution. Analysis of the TT shows that Bell also uses ‘Deletion’ for this CSI and goes further in changing the CSI by using ‘Autonomous creation’ – changing the name of the student to a Dutch name, and thus his nationality from English to Dutch (1996, p.64).

Le Petit Nicolas gives us a wide range of CSI’s in action and permits the evaluation of Aixela’s strategies in parochial areas such as naming conventions, cuisine and social structures and stereotypes. All of these challenge and inevitably force a course of action and stylistic choice from the translator. The strategies employed in Le Petit Nicolas have not always produced the best fit or proved the most enduring, e.g. ‘chocolate croissants’, but they clearly show that translation is an art not a science as indeed it should be in the realm of literary translation.; I

It is often factors outside of the ST that will have a bearing of the efficacy of each strategy. The analysis of the items of cultural significance and the strategies used to translate them in the essay epitomises the quintessential tensions of translation. While it can be helpful that translation theorists such as Aixela create models for translation that should be followed a priori, it is often not the case that these models can be taken off the shelf and applied to all translations. Sometimes to coin a business expression the real test comes when ‘the rubber hits the road’ and the need for pragmatic responses to CSIs gives Bell and all involved in translation a raison d’etre and a place that currently cannot be filled easily by mechanistic rule sets.


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