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Footnotes in translation? Why?

Almost no work can do without footnotes and comments and They are often used by authors: sometimes, not all information can be placed within the text itself and then we have to make deviations. But footnotes are most common in translations, because different languages and cultures mean that you need to explain things, especially in professional or popular-scientific literature.

It’s easy to add footnotes wherever you need them. The question is, is it necessary? And is there an alternative?

Entering explanations is very convenient, but they tend to “break” the main text and distract the reader’s attention. If the reader is distracted several times on each page by the footnotes at the bottom, he will be confused or miss an important semantic detail. In the end, the reader may get tired of being constantly interrupted, and he or she will simply start ignoring digressions that may contain important information.

The abundance of explanations of foreign realities, idioms and expressions in a literary translation indicates that this is a translation that the translator has not fully adapted to his or her native language. In technical, scientific and popular-scientific translations, footnotes are a must, but even here you can overload the text in such a way that it becomes unreadable.

An example is James Elkins’s popular science book Why You Can’t Teach Art, translated from English. On average, there are five or seven excerpts per page, referring to the end of the book. Yes, I cannot do without references to sources, and most likely there is the same number of references in the original work, but it would be better if I just listed the references at the end of the book and added page numbers to each source. This way the translation would be easier to perceive visually, and readers would not have to constantly refer to the end of the book.

So, how do you approach putting footnotes and comments in a translated text?

The first step is to minimize the number of footnotes by selecting them. There is no need to explain each toponym or name. If the written text loses nothing without explanations, they can be omitted, and the reader can satisfy his curiosity by looking in a dictionary or on the Internet. Thus, there are not many places that need commentary. These can be realities of another culture (local expressions, humor, traditions), allusions to literature, history or mythology, quotations, terms and borrowed words.

If what is written does require clarification, it can be done within the work itself, combining them with the author’s text, without giving separate footnotes.

For example, the story “Silent Fish,” by the contemporary German writer Larissa Boening, describes a fishing scene in which a fisherman, after catching a fish that is too small, always releases it back into the river with the words, “You are weighed on the scales and found very light!” No annotation is given in the original, but the inversion suggests that this is some kind of sustained expression. Indeed, it is a quote from the Old Testament Book of Daniel. It has a canonical translation, and the translator has no right to translate the quotation anew, more storied. In that case, one must somehow explain to the reader what is behind the words, because not everyone is that familiar with the Old Testament.

The easiest way is to put a footnote or endnote and explain where the phrase comes from.

Another option is to give comments in parentheses. “You are weighed on the scales and found very light! – Daddy said then (quote from the Old Testament).”

Or you can give a hidden commentary, allowing yourself to interfere with the author’s text. “You are weighed on the scales and found very light! – said the pope then, quoting from the Old Testament.”

The latter option provides the necessary clarification but does not distract the reader and thus solves several problems at once.

The same technique, the introduction of hidden footnotes, is suitable when a paragraph or a whole page needs to be interpreted.

In the story Elva by the German-speaking author Imran Ayat, there is a scene of a car wash where a bucket of water is poured over the departing car. This custom is common in Turkey, whereby departing cars are wished a safe journey and an easy road. The European reader, if he is not familiar with this tradition, may interpret this action as impolite, so the scene needs to be explained. But not a footnote to a large fragment. Here, too, the translator is better off resorting to a hidden footnote: at the end of the sentence describing the ritual, you can add “wished you safe journey” or “according to Turkish tradition, wished you good road.”

Of course, the translator decides on a case-by-case basis whether it is appropriate to interfere with the author’s text and whether it would not be more correct to remain in their own translation territory without going beyond footnotes and comments. But keeping footnotes to a minimum, or even their complete absence, improves the visual aspect of the work, making it easier to read, and allows the reader not to be distracted.

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