The Task of Translating: Domestication or Foreignization?

Translation is not just about vocabulary and grammar. The main task of a translator is to allow a different audience with their own culture, history and literature to understand an original text. To what extent can the message be changed and still remain the words of the original author? How do you translate poetry and song? By sticking closely to the vocabulary? To the literal meaning? To the essence and emotion of the piece? How do you choose between domestication and foreignization? And what is the difference?

These are the kind of questions that the authors of the Jewish Enlightenment had to answer. By translating well-known works of English literature, such as Shakespeare, into Hebrew Isaac Salkinsohn and Peretz Smolenskin had to change cultural and historical references into something their Yiddish-speaking audience would understand and connect with. Indeed, Orthodox Jewish education focuses solely on Jewish history and the study of the Torah, ignoring the rest of history and secular literature altogether. Thus references to the New Testament or Greek mythology were not – and still aren’t – known by (ultra) Orthodox Jews.

To make the words of Shakespeare relevant to the Yiddish-speaking communities, names, places and religious festivities had to be “hebraised”. For instance Romeo is translated into Ram, an ancestor of King David who appears in the book of Ruth. Immediately he is positively connoted in the mind of the reader, as a crucial figure and a romantic man. Similarly Juliet becomes Jael, who historically saved the Israelites from defeat by killing Sisera, the leader of King Jabin’s army.  She depicts a strong-minded and independent character.

Whereas the first names are similar in sounds, the translation of the last names is based on meaning:  Montague becomes Abiram, “father of Ram” – who was also the arrogant leader of a gang of rebels – and the Capulets become Abijael, “father of Jael”.

ram un jael

This is what is referred to as domestication: modifying the cultural context of an original text to fit the background of the new audience, so that the meaning remains the same. In this light, Ram un Jael is a domestication. Thanks to the hebraisation of the original text, the audience understands the personalities of the characters, the relationship between the families and what is at stake.

We can now ask the question: has this Jewish audience read Shakespeare? I would argue that they haven’t. They read the story of forbidden love that Shakespeare wrote, but they did not read Shakespeare’s cultural context. And that to me is the most interesting aspect of Shakespeare’s literature, the reason why he is still famous today. By reading a domestication of his stories, they do not learn about the Elizabethan era and the Renaissance.

Foreignization on the other hand allows the second audience to immerse themselves into the original cultural and historical context. To me this is a much more interesting aspect of translation, as it transports the reader in time and space. Consequently the authors of the Jewish Enlightenment have not brought secular culture into the Yiddish world but rather new stories for them to enjoy.