Translation, Translation Culture

The Complexity of Signs, Symbols, and Measurement in International Translation

International translation

Semiotics is the study of how signs and symbols are assigned meaning. The translator you choose must have an understanding of how the target culture will react to the icons and symbols used in your business and documents. For example, Nike had to recall its products when a decoration meant to symbolize fire on the back of their shoes resembled the Arabic word for Allah.

The McDonalds and Coca-Cola symbols transcend cultural barriers as icons identified and loved worldwide. Not every sign or symbol falls into this category. A picture of a hand giving the “okay” sign or the “V” for victory, for example, are completely different situations. The “V” would be considered rude and vulgar in many parts of the world, the equivalent of a middle finger in America.

The okay sign in several countries represents a private orifice and would not be appropriate in your presentations or correspondence. Think about how many signs you have seen in America with a cartoon character giving the thumbs up to represent a job well done. Put that same sign in Greece or Australia and your company would be telling their customers to “sit on this”.

Signs, Symbols, and Translation

Symbols are often deeply rooted in the source language culture. They are understood by the writer and those familiar with the language, but without the proper societal context, many symbols do not readily translate into other languages. Further, even within a given society, signs and symbols are subject to a wide variety of connotations. While most mathematical and scientific signs and symbols have an international understanding, a star, cross, or carrot symbol may not be the same in the United States, India, Japan, or China. Even symbols that we expect everybody to know, like the red cross, do not translate to all cultures. In many Arabic cultures, the red cross is a red crescent. Think about it the other way, if you received a document with a large red crescent symbol on it, would your first thought be about emergency services?

Many of the signs and symbols we use are tied to our schooling and childhood. It is important to remember that there is a tremendous variation when it comes to educational systems, styles, and methodologies. When businesses or academics seek to tie their personal experiences into their work, translation can become murky. In most American school, when a teacher puts a star on the paper, any star, it represents excellence. In many countries, the color of the star has great meaning. When your document includes signs and symbols on charts, graphs, pictures, or representations, it is important to think about how your target audience will interpret it.

The Challenge of Translating Money

The dollar sign is not the universal sign for money, not every culture is going to put the comma in the same place when separating numbers, and often translators must do more than a convert money from one currency to another.

Countries refer to numbers and money in different ways. For instance, in India money is often referenced by the numeric designations of lakhs and crores. A skilled translator would not simply convert US dollars to rupees, but would phrase the translation in a way that made sense to those reading the translated text. In many Middle Eastern cultures, the “cents” are offset with a comma and not period. This is important because the dot represents a zero and an American zero looks very similar to an Arabic five. Translators not familiar with these concepts may move the commas or decimal points only to completely change valuations. Authors creating forms may limit space in preset form fields according to their understanding of numeric alignment, not realizing that they are creating problems for international users.

Standardizing Measurements for Translation

Beyond differences between Unites States weights and measures and the metric system, translators must address many other issues when working with measurements. For example, something so simple as measuring and writing time, dates, and age can be quite challenging and make significant differences in your documents.

Many countries do not put their dates in the same order. Writing 6/12/15 could be a full half year off if not translated properly. After all, this date could represent June 12 or December 6. Half ten is not five when talking about time in Britain, this is simply how they say 10:30. Time in the United States is almost always written with a clarification of the time zone. India and China each have only one time zone despite the large physical size of their respective countries. The concept of time zones may be foreign to many readers and 9:35 EST may be lost in translation. On the other hand, if a document is being translated into English, the reader is going to want to know what time zone is being referenced. Using Greenwich Mean Time can help avoid this issue, but your readers must understand their relationship to GMT.

Even measuring or calculating age is not always a simple task. In documents where age is of importance, it is important to clarify what is expected, or you may have two people born on the same day with different ages. Several cultures count a child as one-year-old upon birth. Therefore, 12-months later the child would be 2-years old. This could be an important issue on business documents, legal documents, education documents, and other documents where age is important.

Keeping the internationalization of signs and symbols, time and dates, weights and measures in mind when you are preparing your documents will help translators immeasurably. Not only will it speed up the translation process, but it will greatly decrease the likelihood of a mistake being made. To avoid embarrassing or costly issues down the road, when choosing a translation service, it is imperative that your translators not only understand the written language of the source and target languages but the cultural iconography and semiotics as well.

Share your thoughts