Translation techniques: foreignisation & domestication

In the article about subtitling I repeatedly referred to the concepts of foreignisation and domestication. These concepts are common in the world of translation and may even take on more importance in the fields of literary and audiovisual translation. Do you know what they refer to?

Foreignisation and domestication are two translation techniques established by Lawrence Venuti, and refer to the way a translation is approached. Whenever translators start a new project, they choose one of these two strategies, even if they are not aware of it. This will condition the final result on the text.

To better understand these strategies, we must first get acquainted with the term “cultural referent”. A cultural referent (Mayoral, 1999) is any discourse element that refers to the distinctive features or elements from the source culture, which can cause comprehension problems for the target audience.

There are two main methods used to face cultural referents in a translation; foreignisation and domestication:

  • Foreignisation consists of adopting a global perspective focused on the original culture. Through this approach, the culture of the original text seeps into the target culture. The different cultural referents are kept and the aim is for the receiver to be aware that the text they are receiving (whether it is a book, a film, etc.) does not stem from their own culture and, therefore, their own language.
  • Domestication consists of providing a foreign text with elements that can be recognised in the target culture. This method implies a big change from the original text, as its cultural references (names, well-known characters from the original culture, play on words, etc.) are replaced with cultural referents from the target culture.


Which technique should be followed?

The preference for either domestication or foreignisation has changed over the years; just like how the names of kings and relevant historical figures have traditionally been translated (Queen Elisabeth II is known in Spain as “Isabel II” or Karl Marx used to be known as “Carlos Marx”).

Until the 2000s, domestication was the trend in Spain, which deeply affected the audiovisual industry. Films and TV shows were sometimes adapted to extreme and excessive lengths. Nowadays, however, translations lean more towards foreignisation.

Globalisation has affected the way we see and understand the world, and the cultural references that used to be unfamiliar are now the norm. Moreover, the American supremacy in the film industry, among other industries, has turned things like cheerleaders or high school proms into well-known concepts for most target audiences.

We can see an example of this change in trends through the Spanish dubbing of the TV show The Big Bang Theory. In the beginning, they opted for domestication and translated names like The Cheesecake Factory (the restaurant where Penny worked). However, as the show went on, they changed their approach to foreignisation and the English names were used instead. The mistake in this example is not the choice of one method or the other, but rather the sudden switching between the two, which can cause a negative effect on the viewer.

Of course, a translation must take into account many issues, such as the meaning and intention of the source text and the target audience. Therefore, if children are the target audience of a text, it would probably be best to adapt the cultural references to the target culture. Sometimes it is also possible or even common to combine both methods.


In conclusion

Foreignisation and domestication are two helpful translation techniques when facing the different cultural references that usually appear in texts. When it comes to choosing which one we want to follow, or rather to combine both, we must take into account not only the meaning of the source text but also its intention and the target audience.


Photo credits: image by macrovector, obtained from Freepik (

About Xerezade Ansedes López

Graduate Degree in Translation and Interpreting from Universidade de Vigo, Spain. Degree in English Language and German from Bangor University, UK. English teacher and translator and proofreader in the German and English to Spanish combinations. Published author.

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