Machine Translation, Translation, Translation Culture

The Importance of Culture in Translation

The Importance of Culture in Translation

Because culture gives birth to language, translation and culture are intimately connected. Meanings in both source and target languages are profoundly affected by their cultural context, especially in business translation. A phrase that appears easy to translate may actually contain cultural subtleties that, unless they are accounted for, can bring just the opposite meaning than is intended. So translation without deep cultural context can be dangerous, especially when meanings are critical.

Translation and Culture: Literal and Contextual Meaning

For every translated sentence, the translator must be able to decide on the importance of its cultural context, what the phrase really means, not necessarily what it literally means, and convey that meaning in a way which makes sense not only in the target language but also in the context of the target culture.

There are many institutions and practices that exist in one culture and don’t exist in other cultures. Deeply held belief systems, even commitments to truth vary from culture to culture. Each of these unique culturally based psychological entities is associated with words that have meaning in one language that is distinct to that language and not duplicated in other languages. How would those unique features of culture be translated? Only someone steeped in the cultures of both source language and target language can hope to make an interpretation.

Taboos and Value Differences

Deeply held taboos in one culture can be completely neutral in another culture. Translation must be sensitive to the moral, spiritual values associations of the words and symbols in the language to find meaning equivalents. The values dimension is where some of the worst translation confounding takes place.

When President Carter went to Poland in 1977, the State Department hired a Russian interpreter who was not used to translating into Polish. Through that interpreter, Carter ended up saying things in Polish like “when I abandoned the United States” instead of “when I left the United States”; and saying things like “your lusts for the future” instead of “your desires for the future.” The mistakes became a media field day much to the embarrassment of the President.

When Nikita Khrushchev at the United Nations uttered the famous phrase “we will bury you” it was a culturally insensitive mistranslation from the Russian which really meant “we will outlast you.” The mistranslation was widely interpreted as a threat of attack.There are many examples like that which point to the necessity for cultural sensitivity in translation. Mistakes have led to expensive product re-branding, tumbling stock process, and a vision of horns on Moses’ head.

Culture gives language different contexts. The same words passed from one culture to another obtain slightly or radically different meanings. Sometimes those meaning differences represent slight or intense value differences that could be critical in translations.

This post is written by Don Schaeffer, a content writer with Ulatus.

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