Translation Ethics Case Study: Dating Article

Photo by Miroslava on Unsplash

Russian journalist and feminist Nastya Krasilnikova (Настя Красильникова) recently came across a sexist article in the Russian version of GQ. (Nastya’s post in Russian is available in her Telegram channel.) The article is written from a man’s perspective and warns the reader about women who do certain things on the first date.

However, following the link to the American GQ magazine, where this article first appeared, Nastya discovered that the author, Sophia Benoit, was a woman. Moreover, the story didn’t refer to a female romantic interest but rather used “they.” It appears that many points in the translation have been changed beyond simple cultural adaptation. Here are some tips from the Russian story, along with my translation, compared to the original English passage.

Russian article Back-translation of Russian passageEnglish article
Ваша спутница не ест хлеб (она потом и вам запретит). Your date isn’t eating the bread (later she won’t let you do it, either). They don’t eat any bread out of the bread basket.
Вы заказали слишком много блюд и смогли осилить не все, и спутница попросила завернуть остатки пищи с собой, чтобы забрать домой. Кажется, готовить она не будет вам никогда. You have ordered too much food and couldn’t eat it all, and your date has asked to get it to go. It looks like she’ll never cook for you. They take your leftovers home.
Она не смотрела «Телепузиков» (бегите, потому что ей, скорее всего, нет 18). She hasn’t seen Teletubbies (run because she’s likely not 18 yet). They didn’t like Paddington. (Run, don’t walk.)

Lev Pavlov is listed as the other author of the Russian article. I have no relationship with GQ and don’t know their editorial policy, so I cannot comment on their choices from a business practices perspective. However, I would like to use this adaptation as a case study in translation ethics and to discuss some decisions that have to be considered during translation.

Photo by Leone Venter on Unsplash

What Changed in the Russian?

In looking at the kinds of strategies that were used in the Russian version, I was able to roughly categorize them into the following groups.

Cultural adaptation

These are changes that were probably made because the translators/editors felt like the references from the English text would not be easily understood by the Russian audience.

Example: Paddington changed to Teletubbies

While this kind of change is to be expected, translators should take care to use substitutions that are truly equivalent. Teletubbies originally ran 1997 to 2001, so they are presented as something your female date should have watched growing up. However, because both Paddington and Paddington 2 are mentioned in the US edition, the text likely talks about Paddington the 2014 movie. In that case, Paddington is included in the US story not as a proxy for your date’s age but as a humorous yardstick for good taste.

Changes that go beyond adaptation

These changes might have been made because the Russian team felt like a different message would be more appropriate for their audience, even though the original story was easy to follow.

Example: change from the neutral “they” to the gendered “she” and female forms throughout

Even though you could refer to a date of either gender in the Russian, for instance, by using both the male and the female form, the GQ team set up the situation with a male narrator and a female love interest. Even though the writer of the English article is a woman, the Russian text uses masculine forms to talk about the narrator’s childhood memories.

Possible misunderstandings and attempts to explain them

These are subtle cultural or, more precisely, structural differences that the Russian team might have missed. After misinterpreting the contention with a certain behavior, Russian GQ tried to make sense of it by providing comments rooted in assumptions about gender expectations.

Example: “your date takes your leftovers home” replaced with “she asks to wrap the leftovers to go”

The English implied that taking someone else’s food is rude. The translation, however, assumes that asking for food to go is bad manners in and of itself. Perhaps the translator did not know that getting leftovers to go is widely accepted in the US. They presented this action as problematic and introduced a justification that was not present in the English: a woman getting leftovers to go will not cook for her male partner, and that is a cause for concern.

Similarly, the US article talks about the bread slices or rolls that are placed on the table before the main course. Not eating the bread is presented as wasteful because it will have to be thrown away. The Russian story misses the food waste angle and suggests that a woman who doesn’t eat any bread will end up imposing her constant dieting on you.

Photo by Mae Mu on Unsplash

Who Decides on the Changes?

There is no arguing that adapting a text for a new target audience is often inevitable. The question is who gets to decide what changes are made and whose interests the translation should serve. I cannot provide a definitive answer to this question but will present several stakeholders whose interests need to be taken into account.

  1. The writer of the original article may want to have her ideas represented accurately or at least to be notified or asked for permission when changes are made.
  2. The original publisher may want to have a consistent message in all their affiliated publications. If the corporate HQ brands itself as moving with the times, it may be disappointed to discover how its English texts are represented in regional editions.
  3. The Russian publisher may want to adapt US-written texts to the perceived needs and assumptions of its domestic audience.
  4. The Russian audience may want to get an accurate idea of what was published in the American GQ not distorted by misogyny and elitism.
  5. The translator may want to represent the original text and author accurately but also to take into consideration the needs and wishes of their client and target audience. The translator’s business and professional reputation hinges on it.

There are many other forces that shape the translation process. It does not appear that all parties’ interests were carefully weighed against each other or that the author was consulted. This goes beyond the realm of translation into the larger context in which the translation is produced, including work for hire and the moral rights of authors. In any case, I believe stakeholders could benefit from a more transparent translation process and a clear attribution of where ideas come from. Can you think of a better way this translation might have been handled?

Published by Maria

Translator currently living in upstate New York.

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