I am an Easterner. I have been translating a novel, that is originally written in my native language, into English. During the process, I have also been learning about cultural things, meant to adjust my lines to the Western habit/culture because this novel is supposed to be published in Western countries by the author (he lives in Europe).

Anyone could give me some suggestions please? I would post my questions regarding the obstacles I have met whilst working on this novel, if some of you are interested in sort of discussion.

How about this line:

a metal tubular-framed plastic covered cupboard

Is it fine to picture a plastic cupboard with metal corners?

  • What do you think if you have to translate a book and shift your cultural view whilst doing that? You would think it is a rare case?
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    Hi DC-Des, welcome to Writers SE. Stack Exchange isn't like other boards. We aren't a discussion forum. Posts here need to be clear, answerable questions with the potential to help others. Please see our FAQ: writers.stackexchange.com/faq We can help you with making your writing sound more like a native speaker, but we cannot do cultural research for you. Commented Apr 6, 2013 at 0:55
  • Hi Lauren, thank you! how about these lines: a metal tubular-framed plastic covered cupboard to picture a plastic cupboard? Commented Apr 6, 2013 at 0:58
  • Please make that part of your question (click on edit above) and the community can help you work on it. Commented Apr 6, 2013 at 12:29
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    Ok, @Des, you have totally lost me. (Additional confusing, because the comments are merged now from your other question into this one). First: you tagged this question with "novel" and mentioning translating a "novel", but you say it is non-fiction and also tagged it with "technical writing". All in all highly confusing. Please specify as precisely as possible, what it is about that you want to translate. Give us more details. Answers to this kind of question depend heavily on context. And that's missing. Commented Apr 7, 2013 at 16:11
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    Is this about Eastern European, Middle Eastern, or Far Eastern? All of these are "East" of the "West".
    – Double U
    Commented Feb 16, 2019 at 21:34

3 Answers 3


Writing isn't generally a place where you can live by hard and fast rules or quick and dirty little tricks; you generally have to go by feel, and the only way to really get a good, strong feel of what works is just to write a lot. That being said, you're sort of asking here about how to describe things, and there kind of is a trick to this in Western literature at the very least: when you describe a room or a landscape or whatever, pick out a few little details - 3 to 5 is all you usually need - and mention them in passing. If there's something that is going to actually be used in the scene, make sure that's one of the 3-5 things. If you really want to linger on it, you can describe it in terms of the same 3-5 aspects, but bear in mind that this is also revealing extra information about the importance of this item to the audience.

I first saw this "trick" in a letter from Chekhov to a fellow writer, but I know that Stephen King also invoked it in his book On Writing.


Translating another writer's book, you are limited: you have only the words that the author wrote. You get to move them around, because grammar has to match. You get to look for expressions in the target language that match expressions in the source material. You get to struggle with semantic gaps, and do your best to fill them. You do not "localise" the work, as it were.

What does that mean? It means that culturally, your point of view remains source-culture. If in the source culture giving a woman a red rose means "I hate you", and in the destination culture it means "I love you", you keep the red rose. At most, you may add a "translator's note" as a footnote, explaining the situation.

Your translation must be perfectly legible in the destination language. It should read as if written in the destination language, set in the source culture. That means correct word usage and correct grammar, and also correct language register. Your "metal tubular-framed plastic covered cupboard" doesn't do that. I struggle to assign any meaning to that phrase. "Covered cupboard" - as opposed to one that has no cover? Or does it have some additional cover, like a curtain over it? "Plastic" - OK, the cupboard is made of plastic. But wait, you said just a moment ago that it was made of metal? "Tubular-framed" - so its frame is one big tube? How does that even work? If what you mean is a plastic cupboard with metal corners, that's what you should say - "a plastic cupboard with metal corners". Grammatical structures do not transfer between languages - you've got to adjust for that.

At the same time, your translation must also read like the source - you cannot change the culture, the setting, etc. If it's happening in Naples, you can't move it to "New City". If measurement is in yards, you can't convert to meters. If characters are celebrating Novy God, it's not Christmas.

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    I think what is meant is somebody built a frame using metal pipe and then affixed plastic walls, roof, door, shelves, etc to make a cupboard, aka pantry or cabinet, for storing food and/or kitchen goods (dishes, glasses, pots and pans). Modern homes have large kitchens with built-in cabinets above and below the counters. In older homes (and mine) the pantries can be separate movable pieces; I have some 7 1/2 feet tall (2.3 meters). I'd expect a normal rectangular frame, made of pipe/rods. No more intrusive than the wood framing inside a cupboard. For equal strength less steel is needed.
    – Amadeus
    Commented Feb 17, 2019 at 11:55

Context is the key here and that on several levels.

First: You want to adapt the Western style/culture to the translation of the novel. I doubt, that this is a good idea. Translations normally do not try to change the context of the novel. And the context of that book is the Eastern culture. So for me the way to go would be conserving as much as possible of this other culture, because that's probably one of the things that makes the story unique. Many readers like stories from other cultures.

Second: Describing a cupboard is only interesting within the embedded context. Why is it important to describe the cupboard? Does some use it? Put things in there and you describe the splintered plastic cover? Description combined with actions is a good way to build pictures in the reader's head.

If that's not done in the original novel, then maybe just "a metal cupboard covered with plastic" is enough.

As I said, all depends on context.

  • I am just trying to translate and thinking because this novel would be read by the Westerners, so I am serving the best as I could. I consider that some certain conditions should be referred to the situation in the West. What would you think when you read these lines, John? 'That morning was still dark and quiet. There was only the firewood and the jati leaves' vendor.' Commented Apr 10, 2013 at 8:18
  • I think we have an communication problem, @Des. Context, what is the context? Commented Apr 10, 2013 at 8:32
  • I could go with you for "a metal cupboard covered with plastic". The cupboard itself is simple, commonly used for those who stay in their boarding rooms. The matter appears (the metal tubular part) when I have to translate these lines: "The metal cupboard covered with plastic, in fact, was not easy to assemble. Although there was the picture to guide, still there a useless metal tubular left, which could not be assembled in any side. They might make mistake whilst doing it." Commented Apr 10, 2013 at 8:53

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