English Language · German language · University

Context and Culture – What affect can this have on translation? Agatha Christie: A Case Study

‘What the development of Translation Studies shows is that translation, like all (re)writings, is never innocent. There is always a context in which the translation takes place, always a history from which a text emerges and into which a text is transposed. Translation involves so much more than the simple engagement of an individual with a printed page and a bilingual dictionary.’

(André Lefevere and Susan Bassnett, ‘Introduction’ to Translation, History and Culture, p. 11)

Provide a critical discussion of this view, drawing on at least one extended example. (Case Study focussing on Agatha Christie Poirot novels translated into German)

Since the 1990’s, translation studies has begun to move away from the cornerstone theories of equivalence and functionalism. Known as the ‘cultural turn’, the idea of cultural influence in translation studies was first introduced and developed by Susan Bassnett and Andre Lefevere in a series of essays. Lefevere and Bassnett maintain that translation is not purely a linguistic exchange process, but that ‘the larger issues of context, history and convention’ (Bassnett and Lefevere 1990:11) influence and impact the translation process, and how a work of translation is accepted into the target society and culture.

This essay aims to look at whether the changing history and culture of Germany in the 20th century has influenced the translation and publication of texts with particular reference to the works of Agatha Christie’s Poirot novels. This close comparative analysis will focus on two German translations of ‘Murder on the Orient Express’ in order to assess whether cultural impact can completely supersede translation studies at word level.

The notion of cultural turn seeks to empower translated texts as more than just a simple reflection of their source. The society that has commissioned a translation has the power to impact the resulting target text. Lefevere maintains that the power that is held in society – in this case study the power of politics – shapes the culture of that nation; in turn this cultural influence is reflected in the translations that society produces – not only in how the work is translated and the end product itself but also by the texts that are selected for translation. The ways these texts are exposed to their new audience can help those outside those cultures to understand how the target texts have been made (Lefevere 1990:27). Bassnett develops this theory further, stating that the conditions under which a text is ‘produced, sold and marketed’ to help us further understand the role the text plays in its target culture.

Agatha Christie published 33 Poirot novels during the years of 1920 to1975. A wide variety of German publishers have acquired the rights to the novels – most recently Atlantik Verlag in 2014. On par with their unassailable popularity in the United Kingdom, all Poirot novels have been translated into German – although not always in their original publishing order.  Despite their undoubted popularity in Germany, the process of translating these books for the German market is somewhat fragmented. Corresponding with the novel’s rights changing hands, some titles have undergone multiple translations, whilst others have only one official translation into German.  Poirot’s first novel ‘The Murder of Rodger Ackroyd’, published in 1920, has undergone two translations and two title changes; whereas ‘Sad Cypress’, published in 1940 in the UK, surprisingly only has one serviceable translation, ‘Morphium’, released during the height of World War Two.

It cannot be understated that during the 55 years between the publication of the first and last Hercule Poirot novel by Christie, that the political and cultural atmosphere in Germany changed immeasurably. The signing of the Versailles Treaty in 1919 after the First World forced Germany to make £6,600 million of reparations and accept the limitation of Germany’s army and naval capacity (National Archives). In combination with reparation payments, the economic crash of 1929 in America further contributed to economic turmoil and high unemployment. These factors ultimately lead to the rise of fascism in Germany.

By the time ‘Murder on the Orient Express’ had been published in the United Kingdom in 1934, the National Socialist German Worker’s Party (NSDAP) had already been in power for one year. Every day Germans were angry at the way they had been treated and what they had been forced to suffer.   Such was Agatha Christie’s popularity in Germany at that time, ‘Orient Express’ was translated and published in the same year as the original. For the majority of German citizens, the opulence and glamour portrayed by inter-continental rail travel was not just a distant reality; it was unobtainable. Literature symbolised a form of escape from the depression of everyday life. Not only did it represent a world that so distant from their own, but the story itself represented a very different subgenre of crime fiction, in comparison to those produced in Germany at that time. As an article in Der Speigel in 1956 noted,

„Es vermehrt noch das Rätselhafte des Christie-Erfolges, daß Agatha nicht nur die hemdsärmeligen Methoden der “hartgesottenen” amerikanischen Faustkämpfer-Kriminalstories vermeidet, sondern obendrein auch noch auf die psychologische Raffinesse des klassischen Kriminalromans verzichtet…“[1]

Andre Lefevere and Susan Bassnett have significantly influenced the direction of translation studies in the late 20th century. Both Bassnett and Lefevere support the notion of cultural influences in translation – not purely on an equivalence or word choice level – but in the sense that the cultural system itself exerts influence on the translation in the text selection and publication. Translation is a form of adaptation, or as coined by Lefevere ‘refractions’ (Lefevere 2012:205). Such refractions from the target culture influence how literature is accepted into the ‘native system’ (Lefevere 2012:205). At different points in time, these exertions may be more prominent and come to the fore, as evidenced by the outbreak of the Second World War, and the Nazi party’s subsequent ban of foreign crime literature as early as 1935 (Sturge 1999:138).

In the years leading up World War Two, more and more foreign literature became subject to racial and ideological approval; in order for a book to gain publication approval, it had to be ascertained how this work would contribute to the understanding of other nations. The characters of ‘Orient Express’ are central to the plot of the novel – it could only be in the United States of America that people of all classes, races and nationalities could congregate and interact with one another on daily basis. The majority of Agatha Christie’s novels contain at least one foreign character. In the case of the Poirot novels, the central character is a Belgian ex-police detective, who had been forced to leave his homeland and come to England as a refugee during ‘the Great War’.  Quite apart from the ban of ‘enemy’ work during the war years, it seems also likely that a central character who does not speak favourably of the Germans, would not be well received, particularly given that the memories of the First World War were particularly painful.

Given the vastly different historical and cultural contexts of the translation’s publications, it is necessary to reflect on whether this has had as much effect on the translations themselves, in addition to their availability and publication. The German version of Murder on the Orient Express was first published by Goldmann Verlag in 1934[2]  under the title of ‘Die Frau im Kimono’ [The Woman in the Kimono] translated by Elisabeth van Bebber. In comparison, the 1999 novel was released under a translation of the English title ‘Mord im Orient-Express’ by Verlagsgruppe Weltbild and was translated by Otto Bayer.

The most striking initial difference is the change of title. Given the fact that Christie’s sleuthing-novels were not considered as ‘psychologically sophisticated’ as those published by German authors, it seems likely that the decision to make reference to ‘the woman in the kimono’ is in order to better fit in with the norms of German crime-fiction at the time, rather than as a form of political influence.  The title romanticises the story – on the shelf, the reader would not necessarily have any idea of where the novel was set or even that this was a murder mystery.[3] After the release of the Hollywood film in 1974, the title in German was then changed to ‘Mord im Orient-Express: Der rote Kimono’ to better reflect and publicise the novel as the basis for the film. The later translation’s cover is composed of pictures from the 1974 film, in comparison to the 1934 cover, which depicts an illustration of the train.

More recent publications of ‘Mord im Orient-Express’ have seen British and German publishing houses moving away from using different cover designs. Since Atlantik Verlag bought the publication rights, reissues of Christie’s work have been printed with cover artwork commissioned for the British publications by HarperCollins. Though the same cover design has been clearly used a branding tool to help international readers recognise Christie’s work, it also reflects on how homogenous the work has become, and that the German publishing house has not been able to exert control over how the book would be printed and marketed in Germany. With the use of the same cover image, the German version is not able to stand independently from the original – it’s a part of the same whole. The book as an individual has been superseded by the branding of the Agatha Christie estate.

Whilst the political control of translations during the Nazi period has long since ended, the exertion of power over translation has never gone away. The 1999 reprint of ‘Orient-Express’ was published by Verlagsgruppe Weltbild. Weltbild is one of the top three leading book publishers in Germany and, at the time of the book’s publication, was controlled entirely by the Catholic Church. Weltbild has previously been accused of censoring and actively reducing access to homosexual, church-critical and communist material. Though Weltbild has not intervened in the case of Agatha Christie’s publications, it cannot be ignored that publishers continue to exert influence as to whether the public are able to access certain texts. In this case, religion has been seen to hold the power of whether views that directly oppose or challenge those held by the Catholic Church will be easily accessible.

The German target text by van Bebber is clearly presented as a translated book – the original author is featured at the top of the title page in capitalised, bold lettering, with the translator recognised underneath the title of the book in a much smaller font. To further illustrate that this is a work of translation, the phrase ‘Aus dem Englischen von Elisabeth van Bebber’ has also been included. Half of the adjacent page is dedicated to Agatha Christie’s biography as well as another short summary of the story (different to the blurb on the back cover) and a short list of the works translated so far.

Apart from the title of the 1999 translation, which clearly reflects the English title, this version is less obviously a translation from English. The title page also highlights the author’s name and the title, but the translator is mentioned in the context of translating into German, rather than out of English as in the previous case ‘Deutsch von Otto Bayer’, with Christie’s biography relegated to the inside flap on the back cover.  It could be the case that due to Agatha Christie’s popularity and fame, the publishers decided that it was unnecessary to highlight that this text was indeed a ‘refraction’.

To further emphasise the later translation as a replacement for the source text, the 1999 publication contains review quotes on the cover solely from German national newspapers; Süddeutsche Zeitung and Welt am Sontag. In contrast, the van Bebber translation only utilises one newspaper quote from The Times on the back cover.

Once again the first German translation does not assume the role of replacing the original – it makes it very clear to the reader that this book is a translation and from English – despite the fact that one might have assumed that given the circumstances and introduction of strict prohibition and interference in the publication of literature, that foreign cultural references might have been diminished or omitted. In actuality, the reverse is true. Van Bebber has seen fit on occasion to alter the occasional French expressions used by Agatha Christie to remind the source text audience of Poirot’s home-country, and even insert additional French phrases.

At the beginning of the second chapter, Poirot returns to his hotel to find a telegram summoning him back to England. In the original English version, Poirot exclaims ‘Voilà ce qui est embêtant’ [Well this is annoying] with the phrase replicated exactly in the second German translation. However, in the 1934 German version, this phrase has been shortened to ‘Ah, c’est embêtant’ [It’s annoying].[4] Whilst both undoubtedly convey the idea of annoyance, the shortened translation is more ambiguous  – the original statement likely states Poirot’s annoyance at being called back to England, whilst the second could be construed as being annoyed at the telegram’s arrival. However, it is more than likely that most Germans would not have had basic knowledge of French, and therefore shortening the phrase does not affect the flow of the narrative. Instead of omitting the phrase completely or translating it, van Bebber has decided to shorten it thus retaining the French language influences, but reducing the importance of understanding them for the target audience.

The translation of ‘Die Frau im Kimono’ further enhances the foreign cultural references; additional French phrases are inserted throughout the text; such as the use of ‘Mon ami’ between Poirot and his friend Monsieur Bouc.[5]

In an attempt to retain and enhance the foreign elements of the text, van Bebber also includes the use of ‘Mr.’ in the German text. Whilst this acceptable when referencing English or American characters– as it clearly denotes their nationality – the translator also uses ‘Mr.’[6] when referring to Poirot and Bouc. In the source text, the Belgian characters are referred to as Monsieur or ‘M.’ throughout. The use of additional English only further complicates the reading of the text – as the target audience now has to contend with a narrative written in German, occasional French interjections and phrases, with forms of address inserted in English more often than necessary.   Whilst it might be another intervention to help the audience to experience a foreign word that perhaps they are more familiar with, it would not have altered the tone of the text to translate Monsieur or ‘M.’ as ‘Herr’ to minimise the use of foreign terms. The use of three different languages more often than necessary does not enhance the foreignness of the text but in fact, only makes it more jarring to read and interrupts the flow of the narrative.

Whilst the cultural and historical contexts impacting the translation process cannot be ignored, it is not always the case that these influences will be depicted in the end translation as much as one would believe it should.  Translation is a linguistic process – but in the cultural turn, the importance of language is often diminished or omitted.  Whilst convention and culture may, and indeed do, exert influence on the translator and a text’s publication, neither Lefevere nor Bassnett give credence to the text being translated. Cultural theory looks at texts on a macro level, as a homogenous literary mass, without regard for the textual content. A study of cultural influence cannot be carried out without regard to whether and how these influences have changed or altered a text (Hermans 2014: 128).

As shown in the analysis of the two German translations of ‘Murder on the Orient Express’, it would be expected that given the circumstances of fascist control, that the foreign references in the first target text would be diminished and the original publication origin would be omitted. In fact, this was not the case; cultural references were not only maintained, they were enhanced and added to. The original 1934 translation does not seek to obscure the source text, and contrary to Lefevere and Bassnett’s belief does not exhibit the levels of cultural interference that would be expected from that time. It could be said, however, that the text goes further than the original text to ‘foreignise’ the language used, and give a clearer indication of the range of nationalities found on the train.

In comparison, the more recent translation of ‘Orient-Express’ also seeks to masquerade itself as a replacement for the original, with fewer linguistic changes, German newspaper reviews and with no reference to the source language on the title page.

The cultural turn as it stands does not acknowledge the influence of translators’ own decisions in the translation process. Despite what would be considered as a considerable cultural influence to the contrary, van Bebber’s translation often employs the use of ‘verfremden’ (foreignisation) as termed by Friedrich Schleiermacher. Without a close textual analysis and comparison with the source text and a later translation, looking at the culture of the time alone would not have provided an accurate reflection of the translation itself.

Within the cultural turn movement, it is possible to see echoes of Hans Vermeer’s Skopos theory; whereby the aim of the translation influences the text that is produced. However, unlike the cultural turn, Skopos is able to make allowances for outside influences – such as how the translator’s brief would impact on whether to foreignise or to domesticate– whilst focussing on how this will affect the target text. However it could be said that cultural influences shape a translator’s brief, thereby reflecting the time of the translation. Nevertheless, potentially cultural turn’s greatest weakness is the possibility for sweeping generalisations of the likely influence of culture and history, without a textual case study to attribute it to. Similarly, as this case study has proven, there are likely to be anomalies from what we would expect to see.

In order to enhance the accuracy of cultural theory, it might be advisable to couple a cultural study with one on norms – as both look at outside influences on translator’s choice. Gideon Toury’s Descriptive Translation Studies (DTS) theory introduces a three-step process of mapping source and target text segments to compare similarities and differences that could be linked to cultural norms of translation. Cultural turn theory would be strengthened by a direct textual comparison of multiple translations, where possible, which would highlight any ‘outside’ influences.

Despite the cultural turn’s limitations, it is important to note other factors, like those of political influence and cultural norms, can and indeed do affect whether a work of literature is even allowed to be translated into the target culture.

Whilst in this case study, ‘Murder on the Orient-Express’ was not subject to the harsh editing and alteration that later foreign literature would be subjected to, it cannot be ignored that the Nazi’s actively interfered in the translation process during their time in power. By banning literature from enemy nations, they not only diminished but eradicated the population’s ability to access certain novels that did not conform to their ideals.

When possible, having access to multiple translations from different time periods enables translation theorists to draw more accurate conclusions about cultural and historical influence by comparing texts created under different conditions.  Cultural turn theory would only be strengthened by being studied in conjunction with equivalence and functionalism theories to gain a more accurate depiction of the factors which contribute to a work of literary translation.


Christie, A, 2007, Murder on the Orient Express, HarperCollins: London

Christie, A, 1997, Mord im Orient-Express: Der rote Kimono, Goldmann Verlag (Elisabeth van Bebber, 1934)

Christie A, 2005, Mord im Orient-Express, Verlagsgruppe Weltbild, 2nd Edition (Otto Bayer, 1999)

1956, LITERATUR / AGATHA CHRISTIE: Das Mord-Vergnügen [Online] Der Spiegel Available at: http://www.spiegel.de/spiegel/print/d-43062429.html [Accessed 27 October 2016]

Bassnet, S, and Lefevere, A, 1990, Translation, History and Culture, Pinter, London and New York

Bassnet, S, and Lefevere, A, 1998, Constructing Cultures: Essays on Literary Translation, Multilingual Matters: Clevedon

Corrigan A, 2015, Applying Gideon Toury’s Descriptive Translation Study (DTS) to the German translation of Harry Potter, Undergraduate Dissertation: Cardiff University

Hall, M.G., 1994, Der Paul Zsolnay Verlag. Von der Gründung bis zur Rückkehr aus dem Exil, Niemeyer Verlag: Tübingen

Hermans, T, 2014, Translation in Systems : Descriptive and System-oriented Approaches Explained, Routledge: London and New York, Pages 126-131

Keratsa, A, 2005, Censorship in European Environments, Translation and Politics Journal [Online] Vol. 9, No.3 Available at: http://www.bokorlang.com/journal/33censorship.htm [Accessed 28 October 2016]

Munday, J, 2008, Introducing Translation Studies: Theories and Applications, Chapter 8: Cultural and Ideological Turns, Routledge: London and New York, 2nd edition, Pages 124-141

National Archives, The Great war, [Online] Available at: http://www.nationalarchives.gov.uk/education/greatwar/g5/cs2/background.htm [Accessed 4 December]

Reinert, B, 2011, Ausgefiltert, Frankfurter Rundschau [Online] Available at: http://www.fr-online.de/ [Accessed 4 December  2016]

Sturge, K, 1999, ‘The Alien Within’: Translation into German during the Nazi Regime, Doctoral Thesis: University College London [Online] Available at: http://discovery.ucl.ac.uk/1318013/ [Accessed 28 October 2016]

Sturge, K, 2002, Censorship of Translated Fiction in Nazi Germany, TTR : traduction, terminologie, redaction, Vol. 15, No. 2, Pages 153-169

Venuti, L, 2012, The Translation Studies Reader, Chapter 4: Schleiermacher, F, On the Different Methods of Translating, Routledge: London and New York, 3rd edition, Pages 43-63

Venuti, L, 2012, The Translation Studies Reader, Chapter 13: Lefevere, A, Mother Courage’s Cucumbers: Text, System and Refraction in a Theory of Literature, Routledge: London and New York, 3rd edition, Pages 203-219

Verlagsgruppe Weltbild, Zahlen und Fakten, [Online] Available at: http://www.weltbild.com/weltbild-gruppe/zahlen-und-fakten/ [Accessed 4 December 2016]


Figure 1: Change in use of French

English German Translation 1934 German Translation 1999
Voilà ce qui est embêtant’ murmured Poirot vexedly. [25] Ah, c’est embêtant!’ [It’s annoying] murmelte Hercule Poirot verdrießlich. [12] Voilà ce qui est embêtant’ [Well this is annoying] brummelte Poirot verärgert. [17]


Figure 2: Additional use of English

English German Translation 1934 German Translation 1999
“You are fanciful, mon vieux,“ said M. Bouc. [29] « Sie sind phantasievoll, mon vieux », sagte Mr. Bouc. [14] „Sie haben eine lebhafte Phantasie, mon vieux“, sagte Monsieur Bouc. [19]


Figure 3: Additional use of French

English German Translation 1934 German Translation 1999
“Do not distress yourself, my friend,” said Poirot. “I must travel in an ordinary carriage.”[32] « Regen Sie sich nicht auf, mon ami. Ich werde dann eben in einem gewöhnlichen Wagen die Nacht verbringen » [16] „Grämen Sie nicht, mein Freund“, sagte Poirot. „dann muss ich eben in einem normalen Abteil reisen.“ [21]


[1] ‘It also increases the mystery of Christie’s success, that Agatha not only avoids the shirt-sleeve methods of the ‘hard-boiled’ American pugilist crime-fiction, but also renounces the psychological sophistication of the classic crime-fiction…’ Agatha Christie: Das Mord Vergnügen, Der Spiegel, 1956

[2] Comparison centres on the original translation from 1934 – the book itself is a reprint from 1997.

[3] In 1951 the title was then changed again to ‘Der rote Kimono’ – a reference to the red kimono worn by the ‘woman’ that the passengers claim to have seen on the train.

[4] Appendix: Figure 1

[5] Appendix: Figure 3

[6] Appendix: Figure 2a


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s