GUEST POST: Kyle Conway on ‘Putting Translation back in Cultural Translation’

Putting Translation back in Cultural Translation

by Kyle Conway

In the growing literature on cultural translation, something strange has happened: translation seems to have fallen out of the discussion, in favor of culture and politics. Boris Buden and Stefan Nowotny, for instance, concluded their “Introduction to the Problem” of cultural translation by asking, “[I]s ‘democracy’ simply a wrong answer still waiting for a correct question? The search for this question, and nothing else, is cultural translation.” Anthony Pym responded by saying he was “appalled” that Buden and Nowotny were “apparently unable to break ‘cultural translation’ down in terms of appropriate distinctions (like the one between translations as products and translating as a process).” But Harish Trivedi beat Pym to the punch, objecting – even before Buden and Nowotny published their introduction – that unless scholars returned to questions of language as such, “we shall sooner than later end up with a wholly translated, monolingual, monocultural, monolithic world. And then those of us who are still bilingual, and who are still untranslated from our own native ground to an alien shore, will nevertheless have been translated against our will and against our grain.”

I’d like to put “translation” back in “cultural translation” by identifying a point of common interest between those who, following Buden and Nowotny (and Homi Bhabha before them), focus on culture and politics, and those who, following Pym and Trivedi, focus on language. That task isn’t original to me, as many people in translation studies, not to mention anthropology, have asked how to render cultural dimensions of language effectively. But my approach, I think, is new, and it grows out of a definition of cultural translation I’ve been refining (in its incipient form here, then more explicitly here, then reworked here, and now here).

My definition of cultural translation has three parts. It is (1) a way to come to understand an object or text (2) whose meaning derives from a shared interpretation of the world. It takes place (3) through conversation and exchange. Parts 1 and 2 are about culture. Part 3 is about translation.

To illustrate, here’s a little story. Imagine I’m sitting on the bus. It’s a cold November day (I live in Ottawa), and I’m riding home. You get on the bus and take the only open seat, next to me. Curious person that you are, you strike up a conversation. Amicable person that I am, I’m happy to engage.

“That’s interesting,” you say, pointing at my phone, where you see a strange looking hunk of preserved fish. “What is it?”

“That,” I announce, “is Christmas dinner, if only I can find a place to order it. It’s lutefisk. Ever heard of it?”

“Can’t say that I have. Is it any good?”

I draw a deep breath. “Well, it’s tradition. It’s cod soaked in lye, which acts as a preservative. But lye’s a poison, so you have to soak it out before you cook it.”

“Sounds tasty,” you say. It really doesn’t, but you’re nothing if not polite. “It reminds me of the salted cod my family eats on Christmas eve.”

“Sorta. I hear that’s what Italians eat. Lutefisk is a Norwegian-American thing, but I’m told that my relatives in Norway won’t touch it.”

“Do you have it with tomatoes and capers?”

“Heavens no. When you cook it, it’s a bit like fish-flavored Jell-O. We soak it in butter and bury it in our mashed potatoes. If you’re really daring, you eat it with hot mustard.” I pause. “It’s an acquired taste.”

So what does this story illustrate? It’s about (1) one person – you – trying to understand an object, lutefisk, (2) whose meaning derives from an interpretation of the world – mine – that I share with other Norwegian-Americans, largely from the states of North Dakota and Minnesota (where I’m originally from). It (3) takes place through our conversation, or, more to the point, our back-and-forth exchange of signs. You propose “salted cod” as a way to understand “lutefisk,” a reasonably good translation – both are traditional Christmas eve dinners, both involve cod, both likely evoke feelings of warmth and family. When you propose “tomatoes and capers,” I respond with “mashed potatoes.” We trade one set of signs for another – “salted cod” for “lutefisk,” “mashed potatoes” for “tomatoes and capers” – in the same way that translators trade words in one language for words in another. At a structural level, the actions are the same: they are exchanges based on varying degrees of equivalence. The main difference is that translators in a conventional sense work with a more restricted set of signs. (I’m simplifying, of course. Translators are among the most culturally aware people I know, and the way they rewrite texts is anything but mechanical. But that’s a blog entry for another time.)

This is how I put “translation” back in “cultural translation”: I focus on the substitution of signs. What are the implications of this approach? First, it reveals ways that symbolic worlds come to intermingle. In my example, your horizon is expanded, even if only a little bit, as you imagine how this strange object appears to me. This is not a merging of horizons in Gadamer’s sense, but, come on – we’re just riding the bus home.

Second, this approach reveals ways that the boundaries separating people with shared interpretations of the world are porous. Not that a simple conversation on the bus makes you a Norwegian-American from North Dakota, of course. But we have conversations like this all the time. Perhaps your curiosity about lutefisk will stop there. Or perhaps it will grow. That’s how I ended up where I am now – curiosity drove (and drives) me to keep adding hyphens to my hybrid identity. My Norwegian grandparents immigrated to the United States (a hybrid place if ever there was one) a century ago, and now I’ve immigrated to Canada, where I teach in English and French (a language I learned because I encountered it when I was young and have been fascinated by it ever since). Not that there’s anything special about my Norwegian-American-Canadian francophile identity. As Jan Nederveen Pieterse argues, we’re born hybrid: “Hybridity is unremarkable and is noteworthy only from the point of view of boundaries that have been essentialized.”

For discussions of cultural translation, this approach also reveals the point where concerns about culture and about language intersect. Buden and Nowotny are interested, ultimately, in the strategies people adopt in exchanges like the one I’ve sketched here. Thinking of cultural translation as an exchange of signs – like translation in a conventional sense, but broader – makes it possible to explore those strategies (as I do here and here).

My definition of cultural translation raises other questions. It deviates from the one adopted by this blog in its emphasis on meaning rather than transformation. As it happens, this blog’s definition is very close to the one Enrique Uribe-Jongbloed and Hernán David Espinosa Medina – collaborators of mine working in Colombia – have proposed for what they call “cultural transduction.” It will be crucial to work through these definitional questions as we investigate cultural translation, and I’m glad for the opportunity to post my thoughts here. I’d love to hear your thoughts – you can find my contact into on my faculty webpage.


Kyle Conway holds a PhD in communication arts from the University of Wisconsin-Madison, and he joined the University of Ottawa in 2015. In his research, he examines different borders—linguistic, cultural, geographic, religious—and the tolls they exact when we cross them. 

Much of his work focuses on translation in the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation. His first book, Everyone Says No, asks how the Corporation’s French and English services translated Canadians for each other during the constitutional debates of the early 1990s. His most recent book asks how the CBC’s Little Mosque on the Prairietranslated Muslims for non-Muslim viewers. 
His other area of focus is the Great Plains and the Prairies. He has edited a book about the paradoxes of the U.S.-Canada border, and he recently published a volume of essays about the social effects of the oil boom in western North Dakota.

CLUSTER STATEMENT: Cultural Translation in History, Heritage and Archives

Each of the six research clusters at BCMCR have produced a statement on what cultural translation means for researchers in their area. The statement for the History, Heritage and Archives cluster is as follows:

“Cultural translation informs two interrelated strands in the work of scholars in the Histories, Heritages and Archive cluster. First, researchers frequently use and explore how processes of cultural translation interact with the development and circulation of national identities. This can range from videogame history, where scholars explore how Britishness is formed and transmitted by internationally-developed products, to histories of internationalism, where researchers examine how ideas like non-violence are promulgated globally through international conferences. Secondly, the cluster’s work is attentive to the way culture is or is not translated through time. This might mean viewing the archive as a translator, or as facilitating the process of translation, or indeed exploring how the archive might be in some ways an obstacle to the ‘temporal’ transmission of culture. Finally, when the archives in question are those not traditionally supported via state institutions, particularly local music archives, questions of cultural translation – what is preserved, what is lost, by who, for who – take on a pressing political exigency.”

You can find specific examples of research from History, Heritage and Archives scholars at BCU  here.

CLUSTER STATEMENT: Cultural Translation in Journalism, Activism and Community

Each of the six research clusters at BCMCR have produced a statement on what cultural translation means for researchers in their area. The statement for the Journalism, Activism and Community cluster is as follows:

“Researchers in the Journalism, Activism and Communities cluster often operate at the intersection of media and politics, and so tend to highlight the dimension of politics and representation when questions of cultural translation are raised. Scholars in this cluster might look at the role of journalists acting as (good or bad) cultural translators, individuals or organisations who select and reframe local issues as part of hyperlocal journalism. Research also explores how activist and cultural critique is transformed by and through different media – whether that means examining critiques of Neo-imperialist hegemony in the Iraq War emergent in video games, or anti-austerity activism within contemporary artistic practice. In this way, the cluster’s work is testament to cultural translation’s concern with the implicit and explicit power relations that run between the translator and the translated, between the source and the target.”

You can find specific examples of research from Journalism, Activism and Community cluster scholars at BCU  here.

SEMINAR SERIES: Popular Music – Heavy Metal Cultural Translation

by Simon Crisp.

In this recent BCMCR research seminar, two speakers addressed issues of cultural translation applied to heavy metal music. Prof Karl Spracken (Leeds Beckett University) considered various translations involved in the use of throat singing in the genre, while Dr Niall Scott (University of Central Lancaster) looked at the problem of nostalgia in heavy metal, promoted in part by Pat Boone’s 1997 big band compilation of heavy rock and heavy metal hits.

Here I will be focusing on Karl’s talk: Throat-singing as extreme Other: an exploration of Mongolian and Central Asian style in extreme metal.

In his presentation, Karl talked briefly about the history of throat singing, and its use in pre-modern folk culture and music from areas such as China, Mongolia and Tuva. However, it was as he continued to detail examples of how throat singing has recently been deployed in the heavy metal music of artists including Tengger Cavalry and Darkestrah that I questioned the many ways in which its cultural translation could be considered from a variety of perspectives.

It was interesting to think about the intentions of the artists regarding their use of throat singing, and what they were trying to convey, as well as how the audience received it. For example, Karl suggested that while groups like Tengger Cavalry might include throat singing in an attempt to be more authentic to a heritage, others could use it to invoke associations with the anti-modern. Reflecting on this, I found myself questioning the relationship between cultural translation and cultural appropriation, specifically in terms of the original intention of the artist. For example, if two songs sound similar, but were created with different intentions, what does this mean for their role in cultural translation, and how we as observers treat them?

Karl also talked about the reception of the music by heavy metal fans who can see the use of folk music such as throat singing as a way of performing hegemonic masculinity and ideas of national identity. Here the audience is translating the sound of the throat singing into having an array of conceptual, cultural meanings. Because throat singing can be seen as an ‘extreme other’ for many metal fans, Karl said the act of liking or listening to it could also be a form of social capital within the music scene, adding to how the concept of cultural translation can be applied to it.

Another issue I came away from the session thinking about was how do other people for whom throat singing is part of their heritage might consider its translation and use in metal music? Irrespective of the intentions of the musical artists, how do they feel about its repurposing in this form, and indeed the cultural connotations it can be used to convey? Not only could this apply on an individual level, but also regional or national authorities who can seek a level of ownership over forms or cultural heritage.

Having formerly worked as a journalist, Simon Crisp is currently completing the MA in Media and Cultural Studies at BCU. He is interested in researching the role of media representations in creating modern yoga practices. He can be found on the web and on twitter.

EVENT: Cultural Translation Symposium

BCMCR Cultural Translation Symposium

We are looking forward to welcoming you to BCU on Thursday 21 June 2018 to our final event in the ‘Conversations on cultural translation’ series. We will be hosting a number of speakers to discuss cultural translation in a wide range of contexts, from translation practice to jazz.

Please sign up to our eventbrite here by Thursday 14 June 2018 so we have a good idea of numbers for catering.

11.30am | Registration open

Refreshments will be provided.

11.55am | Welcome

12.00pm | Keynote – Dr Sarah Maitland

1.00pm | Lunch

A buffet lunch will be provided

1.30pm | Session 1

Marie-Christine Boucher, ‘”Meine Gegenwart, überschrittene Zukunft“: [Cultural] Translation in Transnational German Literature’

Sorcha O’Boyle, ‘The native made foreign: alienation and healing through intra-cultural translation’

Xihuan Hua, ‘Chinese Social Process and the Identity Transformation of Nushu Cultural Transmitters–A Perspective of Nushu Cultural Translation’

Annette Naudin, ‘The role of cultural translation in developing diverse cultural leaders’

2.45pm | Break

Refreshments will be provided

3.00pm | Session 2

Anja van de Pol-Tegge, ‘The Sorrow of Belgium (Hugo Claus)– a case study on stereotypes in German literary translation’

Dunya Ismael, ‘Retro-cultural Translation: a new perspective towards neutralising power balance’

Sid Peacock, ‘Cultural Translation in Transnational Jazz’

4.00pm | Closing remarks

BLOG POST: Craig Hamilton on ‘Popular Music Reception and Data’ part two

Popular Music Reception, Data, and Digital Technologies (continued)

by Craig Hamilton

Part two of two. For part one, click here

A starting point is Webster et al’s (2016) argument that a key function of automated recommendation in digital music interfaces is the leveraging of a competitive advantage in a crowded and undifferentiated marketplace. When all services offer the same (or largely the same) catalogues of music, at similar price points and in similar ways, one of the only competitive spaces that remains is the quality of listening experience delivered. As Vanderbilt (2016) shows, in the construction and iterative rationalisation of automated recommender systems, implicit feedback – which can be understood as data gathered about which songs are played, skipped, shared, or added to playlists – is often viewed as a more useful ‘raw’ material than the explicit feedback volunteered by users in the form of star ratings, purchases or reviews. It is here where complex and inter-related acts of cultural translation occur: from the reduction of an individual’s experience with a song to a data point, through the algorithmic processing of that data at scale, to the foregrounding of one type of music over another to publics via dynamic interfaces – whereupon the cycle repeats.

Tania Bucher’s concept of “the algorithmic imaginary” (2016) is a useful way of thinking through this. It allows us to understand both how data-processing impacts upon experience, but also how experience impacts upon the design, function and use of algorithms. The algorithmic imaginary can be observed in action through a consideration of automated music recommendation services in particular: data is gathered on listener activity from which abstracted inferences of taste are derived; leading to recommendations that can positively or negatively influence choice; which in turn creates data about listener tastes; and the process repeats. Interestingly the decision of a user to ignore a recommendation is equally important here because it too creates data that is used to tweak recommendation algorithms. It is important also because although ultimately listeners can choose whether or not to follow recommendations, they cannot chose whether or not their activities are recorded and subsequently used in the creation of recommendations. Our relationship with such systems is thus not entirely top-down, but rather one of co-production that is based on an unequal relationship. The conditions under which the user operates are not entirely known and are inescapable as long as the user continues to use Spotify, ultimately helping produce consequences in the form of recommendations and dynamic changes to the user interfaces that foreground or not particular content. It is in around these points where debates of the potential outcomes of relationships between cultural practices and digital monitoring find their foundation.

Tufekci (2015), for instance, highlights the negative reactions to Facebook’s emotional contagion study (Kramer et al., 2014), which measured the emotional effects on users of different types of content, and argues that questions around the potential harms/benefits of the algorithmic production of experience have moved “beyond hypotheticals” now that “algorithms act as de facto gatekeepers of consequence” (2015: 206). Claims of this kind have gained considerably more traction in light of recent developments around Facebook and Cambridge Analytica. In terms of popular music, however, this is not limited to the delivery of recorded music via digital interfaces. Bucher’s algorithmic imaginary is also at play in the foregrounding of media content and advertising through social media and news media platforms, and increasingly in the promotional and A&R activities of record companies (Thompson, 2014). These are all areas where algorithms, fuelled by consumer activity data and cultural content metadata, are deployed as subjective decision makers.

The irony amidst all this is that the systems and practices causing the concern are facilitated partly by users’ engagement with digital interfaces. As such, the users themselves are can also be viewed as the ‘agents’ facilitating the translation of a cultural form from one context to another. Spotify would not be able to offer Discover Weekly in its present form if people did not use their system to create playlists. Likewise, the recent debates around Facebook, Cambridge Analytica and the implications for elections, would not exist without the users and their everyday use of the platforms concerned. Van Dijck (2014:1) argues that user data has become “a regular currency for citizens to pay for their communication services and security – a trade-off that has nestled into the comfort zone of most people.” This uneasy covenant has been described by Barnes (2006) as a “privacy paradox”, where people are uneasy about the information collected about them, which they know will be packaged and monetised, but nevertheless accept this as a condition of using certain services. As such, listeners, users, and publics have their roles, agencies and choices and are by degrees similarly implicated in the concerns raised by Bucher, van Dijck, Tufecki and others. It is in the tensions that exist between these relationships that I find the location for my own research into popular music reception, data and digital technologies.

One of the key research findings from my doctoral analysis of the thousands of text-based reflections gathered by the Harkive Project indicated that respondents are developing intriguing new cultural practices based around their engagement with a variety of digital, online and data technologies. From this I have speculated on plans for post-doctoral work that will involve the creation of tools and interfaces that could enable us arrive at more meaningful, critical and reflexive relationships with the data technologies that are now so central to our everyday lives – in other words, for users to better understand the forms, processes, roles and agencies that are in play when cultural translation occurs during their everyday acts of music reception. My hope is that work in this area may contribute to wider debates around data literacy and critical data/algorithm studies, and I look forward to seeing what Harkive 2018 will tell me about this on Tuesday 17th July.

Craig Hamilton is a Research Fellow in the School of Media at Birmingham City University. His research explores contemporary popular music reception practices and the role of digital, data and Internet technologies on the business and cultural environments of music consumption. This research is built around the development of The Harkive Project (, an online, crowd-sourced method of generating data from music consumers about their everyday relationships with music and technology. Craig is also the co-Managing Editor of Riffs: Experimental Research on Popular Music (

Useful links

The Harkive Project website:

Harkive on Twitter:

Harkive on Facebook:


Adorno, T.W., Simpson, G., 1942. On popular music. Institute of Social Research.

Barnes, S.B., 2006. A privacy paradox: Social networking in the United States. First Monday 11.

Bourdieu, P., 1984. Distinction: A social critique of the judgement of taste. Harvard University Press.

Bucher, T., 2016. The algorithmic imaginary: Exploring the ordinary affects of Facebook algorithms. Inf. Commun. Soc. 1–15.

Cohen, L., 2004. A consumers’ republic: The politics of mass consumption in postwar America. J. Consum. Res. 31, 236–239.

Kramer, A.D., Guillory, J.E., Hancock, J.T., 2014. Experimental evidence of massive-scale emotional contagion through social networks. Proc. Natl. Acad. Sci. 111, 8788–8790.

Lears, J., 1995. Fables of abundance: A cultural history of advertising in America. Basic Books.

McCourt, T., Rothenbuhler, E.W., 2004. Burnishing the brand: Todd Storz and the total station sound. Radio J. Int. Stud. Broadcast Audio Media 2, 3–14.

Tufekci, Z., 2015. Algorithmic harms beyond Facebook and Google: Emergent challenges of computational agency. J Telecomm High Tech L 13, 203.

Vanderbilt, T., 2016. You May Also Like: Taste in an Age of Endless Choice. Knopf.

Van Dijck, J., 2014. Datafication, dataism and dataveillance: Big Data between scientific paradigm and ideology. Surveill. Soc. 12, 197.

Webster, J., Gibbins, N., Halford, S., Hracs, B.J., 2016. Towards a theoretical approach for analysing music recommender systems as sociotechnical cultural intermediaries, in: Proceedings of the 8th ACM Conference on Web Science. ACM, pp. 137–145.

BLOG POST: Craig Hamilton on ‘Popular Music Reception and Data’

Popular Music Reception, Data, and Digital Technologies

by Craig Hamilton

Part one of two. For part two, click here

My research explores contemporary popular music reception practices through the development of The Harkive Project (, an annual, online, crowd-sourced method of gathering text-based reflections and other data from people about the detail of their everyday engagement with popular music. Since 2013 the project has gathered over 10,000 stories, and will run again on Tuesday 17th July 2018.

The volume and complexity of the data gathered by the project, along with the experimental methodology I have developed in response, are a useful means by which to engage with BCMCR’s current research theme of cultural translation. The basic idea of a cultural form moving from one context to another, implying an agent (or agents) doing the moving, neatly encapsulates contemporary conditions of popular music reception.

This can be considered more fully in terms of acts of popular music reception – which Keith Negus’ (1997: 9) describes as ‘how people receive, interpret and use music as a cultural form while engaging in specific social activities’ – being understood as a cultural form that ‘move’ from the context of our everyday engagement, and into another – the abstracted realm of data points and statistical analyses. In my research I have employed similar data collection methods and computational analytical techniques to those used by key players in the digital music space, which has provided me with a means of not only exploring the data I had gathered, but to simultaneously offer a route towards a critical engagement with the role that such systems play in music reception once the results of analyses are deployed via dynamic interfaces. Harkive, in this sense, is simultaneously as agent in a process of a cultural translation, and also a means by which similar processes can be broken down and observed.

It is worth pausing to consider, however, that in capturing, analysing and reflecting back individual and collective music taste and activities in the form of recommendations, companies such as Spotify are engaged in a practice that is not entirely new in terms of commerce (see: Cohen, 2004), the media industries (see: Lears, 1995) or indeed music specifically (see: McCourt and Rothenbuhler, 2004). However, the scale and degree of fine detail involved with the processes of creating machine-derived recommendation systems through digital interfaces, along with the relative novelty yet growing centrality of streaming as a mode of music reception, suggests that long-standing debates around individual choice and agency (Adorno and Simpson, 1942) and the role of the cultural intermediaries in terms of cultural goods (Bourdieu, 1984) ought to be revisited.

Continued here

GUEST POST: Kevin M. Flanagan on ‘Translating Chrono Trigger’

Adapting and Translating Chrono Trigger Across Time

by Kevin M. Flanagan

This short piece is meant to introduce readers to what is at stake when we talk about adaptation and translation in relation to videogames. It is meant to summarize material explored in greater depth in both my chapter in the Oxford Handbook of Adaptation Studies (2017) and the issue of Wide Screen Journal that I edited in 2016. In the interest of keeping things as coherent as possible, I’ve opted to highlight some “pivot points” in adaptation and translation as applies to one specific game: Chrono Trigger, a Japanese role-playing game (JRPG) developed by Square and originally released for the Super Nintendo/Super Famicom console in 1995. The game follows a silent protagonist, Crono, across many different time periods, and includes choices that affect the outcome of the narrative (there choices about whether or not to take characters, and the player must consider how their actions in the older timelines affect the world in later periods). Crono and his fellow adventurers are thrust into a high-stakes quest wherein they must thwart the primeval Lavos, a monstrous being that seems destined to destroy the world. In a somewhat rudimentary and scripted (though surprising–especially for 1995) way, the game can be said to “adapt” to player choice, and players who opt for different choices will find that their endgame, and the fate of the world, can be quite varied as compared to other playthroughs.

A look at Chrono Trigger’s conception, release, and afterlife–it is a much-loved game that Square has tried to keep available in various ways over the past two decades–indicates that to speak of “videogame adaptation” is to speak of a whole process that happens at many different levels.

A conventional place to start is to focus on production. In a loose sense, Chrono Trigger is an amalgamation of influences (The Time Tunnel, Alien, Quantum Leap, etc), yet is mainly regarded as an original intellectual property (in other words, it is not a one-to-one adaptation of a specific text). For lead designers Takashi Tokita, Akihiko Matsui, Yoshinori Kitase, and producer Kazuhiko Aoki, it is the game is a deliberate innovation within a cultural defined tradition, the console JRPG, a genre that the team had practically invented over the previous decade. While there is much more to the game’s conception and production–the Wikipedia article gives a thorough overview–it is worth highlighting how one key element of a videogame is the sometimes ultra-narrow specificity of playability: Chrono Trigger was designed for a specific platform, and as the game has been released for new platforms and devices (the Playstation, the Nintendo DS, the Wii Virtual Console, Steam), the game is adapted anew to suit the technological specifications of its new operating system. Thus, one key moment is tracking how a game is adapted/readapted as it is “ported” to new platforms. This sometimes requires that key assets be re-thought: “updated” graphics, a remastered soundtrack, and so on. One of the paradoxes of videogame adaptation is that what may be regarded by programmers and producers as improvements are often disliked by players. For instance, graphical alterations for the recent Steam port were so disliked that Square patched the game so that it would look more like the original SNES version.

This brings up another key pivot: the degree to which videogame users and fans translate and adapt games in their own ways. For Chrono Trigger, this means two decades of fan creative production that adapts, updates, expands, re-emphasizes, and edited the game to taste. Chrono Trigger has inspired extensive fan fiction, from a poem about peripheral character Cyrus to an attempt at officially adapting the game to novel form. The practice of “rom hacking” has allowed fans to build new games using the engine and assets of the original. One high profile example is Chrono Trigger: Crimson Echoes, which is as yet unfinished.

A key form of adaptation for the “cultural translation” project is localization, the process by which a game is made to suit a new regional or cultural market. Going beyond what might generally be regarded as the remit of translation, localization often opts for familiarity and specific literacies over strict accuracy. For instance, in adapting the Famicom game Saiyūki World 2: Tenjōkai no Majin (in its original form, itself an adaptation of Sun Wukong’s Journey to the West narrative that is so central to Chinese folklore), Jaleco completely re-skinned the sprites, remade the protagonist as a somewhat culturally insensitive Native American warrior, and gave the game the punny title Whomp ‘Em. Localization work on Chrono Trigger across its various releases has been less dramatic, but still fascinating. Clyde Mandelin writes about how the English translations for the valorous knight Frog took liberties in emphasizing his courtly manner of speech that were not literally apparent in the Japanese version. Fans have tracked the differences in versions with characteristic zeal, noting differently named items, characters and dialog with changed implications.

The above just scratches the surface of videogames’ engagement with issues of cultural translation. For instance, a sociologist might study the cultural-symbolic value of videogames in different parts of the world, or an art historian might go in-depth on how iconography gets reimagined as games are released in parts of the world with different dominant religious associations.

Kevin M. Flanagan is a Visiting Lecturer in the Department of English at the University of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. 

KEY READINGS: Homi Bhabha on ‘How Newness Enters the World’

Homi Bhabha’s model of cultural translation is deeply influential. The main argument is set out in a chapter of his 1994 book, The Location of Culture, titled ‘How Newness Enters the World: Postmodern space, postcolonial times, and the trials of cultural translation’ (pp. 212 to 235).

It builds on work on poststructuralist efforts around deconstruction, and as such forms a key part of postcolonial theory. Bhabha sees cultural translation as a discursive practice or strategy. By that I mean a method of carefully negotiating various discourses either through literal practice and action or the production of literature, culture, media, analyses and knowledge-making. The discourses of particular concern for Bhabha are connected unsurprisingly to issues of the migrant, the first- or second-generation immigrant, particularly those individuals and family groups moving from post-colonial countries to the West.

Bhabha’s work seeks, in part, to answer a series of related questions about how individuals from a minority might survive within a (implicitly or explicitly) violent and oppressive majority culture. In that sense, his theory has an clear straightforward ethical concern: how are migrants from postcolonial countries supposed to live when they migrate to the countries that oppressed them – do they assimilate, or should they strive to retain their heritage somehow?

The answer he puts forward is cultural translation: a way of rewriting oppressive (Western) discourses in order to expose their internal contradictions, to collapse their structural integrity, and to open up a space for something new. When Bhabha questions ‘how newness enters the world’, he’s thinking less about literal chronological newness and more about how a migrant might take the discourses that structure Western culture and refashion them into something particular to his or her life, something totally novel, unseen, unshackled from pre-formulated stereotype or regressive fantasy, and therefore untainted by – or even escaping – the workings of Western (colonial) power.

Blasphemy, here, is the slippage between the intended moral fable and its displacement into the dark, symptomatic figurations of the ‘dreamwork’ of cinematic fantasy. In the racist psychodrama staged around Chamcha, the Satanic goatman, ‘blasphemy’ stands for the phobic projections that fuel great social fears, cross frontiers, evade the normal controls, and roam loose about the city turning difference into demonism. The social fantasm of racism, driven by rumour, becomes politically credible and strategically negotiable: ‘priests became involved, adding another unstable element – the linkage between the term black and the sin blasphemy – to the mix. As the unstable element – the interstice – enables the linkage black/blasphemy, so it reveals, once more, that the ‘present’ of translation may not be a smooth transition, a consensual continuity, but the configuration of the disjunctive rewriting of the transcultural, migrant experience. (Bhabha, p. 226)

As those familiar with deconstruction will note, Bhabha’s cultural translation has a flavour of Derrida’s interpretive practice to it. This would be the analytical and rhetorical method by which the internal structures of a canonical text are exposed as in some way ultimately contradictory, subverted or inverted, and shown to be dependent on a typically excluded ambivalent ‘third term’. But Bhabha describes cultural translation as creating a kind of ‘third space’, both Western and Other and also properly neither, something that falls in-between, a space where the logical structures that underpin the west (and hold it in a space of conceptual dominance over an Other) collapse.

Although cultural translation might seem a little abstract, Bhabha uses an example that nicely illustrates his point. In The Satanic Verses, Salman Rushdie invokes two contradictory discourses – the discourse of the liberal Western subject, and the discourse of the fundamentalist Muslim. Rushdie’s novel takes cultural objects in the ‘minority’ discourse – figures from the Qur’an – from a register of holy religious writing and places them within a register belonging to the major Western discourse, literary satire. As his novel unfolds, it becomes clear that the cultural translation of Qur’anic figures like this exposes an underlying binary structure shaping both Western and Islamic discourses (the authentic and original ‘true’ text vs. the false text, the copy). The translation is conducted in such a way as to show up and subvert this binary (a sacrilegious move that was largely responsible for Rushdie’s fatwa), and so to create a space for new values to associate with the text that are better applicable to the migrant’s specific circumstances.

Cultural translation is not, therefore, simply a process whereby minority cultures are incorporated into the West’s fantastic assimilatory behemoth, as in Talal Asad’s model. Rather, cultural translation is a way for minority subjects to claim a degree of agency within a majority culture. As Buden et al write:

Bhabha proposes the concept of the ‘‘third space’’, as the space for hybridity, the space for subversion, transgression, blasphemy, heresy, and so on. But hybridity is also the space where all binary divisions and antagonisms, typical of modernist political concepts including the old opposition between theory and politics, cease to hold. Instead of the old dialectical concept of negation, Bhabha offers the idea of negotiation or cultural translation, which he believes to be in itself politically subversive, as the only possible way to transform the world and bring about something politically new. In his view, then, an emancipatory extension of politics is possible only in the field of cultural production, following the logic of cultural translation. (Buden et al, p. 201)

This definition is, it goes without saying, an immensely political one. I can’t help but connect it up to other discursive practices, like Afrofuturism, and indeed like the experimental artistic practices that developed in Brazil under the banner of tropicalia and anthropofagismo. The idea of taking cultural forms and reclaiming them is a powerful way of thinking about how cultural production and reception is negotiated more broadly.


Bhabha, Homi K. The location of culture. Routledge, 2012.

Buden, Boris, et al. “Cultural translation: An introduction to the problem, and responses.” Translation Studies 2.2 (2009): 196-219.