Translation, Translation Culture

Understanding Cultural Nuance In Your Translation

Cultural Nuance in Translation

A pinto bean in America is just something you cook up for dinner, but you won’t find them on many Portuguese tables. The Pinto car is a 1970s automobile from Ford. When Ford wanted to market their car in Brazil, sales did not go well.

In retrospect, Ford should have hired a translator experienced in cultural nuance to rebrand the car. Why? In Brazilian Portuguese the word pinto translates “tiny male genitals”, not exactly a name that says “luxury ride” or even “safe car”, and not what you want to be served up for the family meal.

Translation involves far more than exchanging words from one language to another. Words rarely have a one-to-one relationship, but there are more concepts that are translated. When faced with idioms, colloquialisms, metaphors, symbols, and the like, there are few ideas that keep the cross cultural boundaries intact.

No computer software in existence today can compensate for cultural nuance. The only way to avoid a translation that simply means nothing to the reader or, worse, creates a cultural faux pas, is to ensure your translator is a native speaker fluent in both the source and target languages. Not only will you be assured of grammar and syntax, but your translator will be able to make your text culturally relevant.

Understanding Cultural Nuance

Contracts: Beyond advertising and marketing campaigns, contracts are laden with cultural nuance. In many cultures, there are entire sections of an English contract that are left out because things are simply “assumed”. While you don’t want to offend by insisting that things be put in writing which hasn’t been written down for 1,500 years, you need to understand the terms of your contracts.

In the same way, you may have contractual expectations that are going to be very offensive in the culture in which you are hoping to do business. A translator familiar with the language, culture, and nature of your business can help you avoid these hidden pitfalls.

Etiquette: Other cultural nuances exist in gender roles, casual and formal text, and etiquette. English is a very factual, no frills language. Many cultures consider this rude and inappropriate. For instance, in Japanese, you would never address an elder and child in the same way. There are formalities for speaking to a man versus a woman, and you can even tell the gender of the speaker by the terms used.

Consider the simple English phrase “I love you”. In Hindi, the phrase is different if a man is speaking to a woman or a woman to a man: Main tumse pyar kartha hoon (male to female), main tumse pyar karthee hoon (female to male).

There is another variant if the person you are speaking to is an elder or one you don’t have a close relationship with. In this case, you would change tumse to aapse: main aapse pyaar kartha/karthee hoon.

Further, the word “love” may be replaced with ishq or mohabbat the same way an English speaker might say “I adore you” or “I desire you” and the subtle differences between the hint of sexual love and friendship love has to be understood as well.

While you are not likely to be translating love in an academic or business writings, the rules of etiquette are every bit as formal in these environments. Even casual slips can range from unprofessional to rude and offensive.

Figurative Speech: The Japanese language also is not large on innuendo and sarcasm. This is a linguistic characteristic that is not present in the Japanese culture. A translator who is familiar with the Japanese language and culture would take the hidden and subtle English meanings and explain them to the Japanese audience.

English is also filled with metaphor, simile, and analogy. Very rarely does figurative speech translate well from one culture to the other, and since there was a reason for the subtle variance of language, it is often wise, instead of translating intended meanings, to translate a figurative phrase or story that has the same relevance or meaning within the target culture.

It cannot be stressed enough that when choosing translation services you find a translator that possesses a native-level fluency of the source and target languages, understands the cultural nuances of both languages, and has an expertise in the content you are translating.

In the western world, we can often brush off a cultural slight without a second thought, this is not so in many parts of the world. Perfecting cultural nuance in your text is something you absolutely need to get right the first time.

This post is written by Robert Stitt, a content writer with Ulatus.

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