Translation and Cultures: Why You Can’t Just Have a Cup of Coffee!

Have you ever walked down the street and just known somebody was a foreigner or tourist? This question is easier to ask in America where there is such a blended populace. Yet, even in more homogenous countries like India or China, residents can often tell if someone is not from their region by a person’s style of dress, regional language, or cultural quirks.

One of the great giveaways is food and drink. Consider the order of a simple cup of coffee.

In America, even in novelty coffee shops such as Starbucks, coffee is coffee. Hot water runs through coffee grounds to produce a cup of black liquid. If you want something different or added to it, you ask for it. Typically, extras such as cream and sweetener are provided as condiments at the table. A coffee with flavored syrup, or coffee with whipped milk (latte or cappuccino) requires a specialty order. Espresso is rarely used as an everyday beverage, except in pockets of the country where immigrant culture has favored that drink. Coffee of any sort can be ordered any time of any day and not be seen as strange.

In Italy, coffee is mainly used to complete a meal. In the morning, a cappuccino is just the thing, but it has been ordered standing since sitting at the table and drinking costs extra. No Italian orders a cappuccino after breakfast. It’s too heavy, and no Italian would ever order a coffee or espresso to drink with their meal. These drinks are expressly consumed after the meal has been completed.

In France, coffee is a social drink. People love to sit and sip a café. Note that they sip café and not filtered coffee, café Americana, as the equivalent of a café is much closer to an espresso. Unless they are having a pastry, the french tend to leave the café crèm and café au lait to the tourists, and café Americana is most definitely a tourist drink. As in Italy, any variation of coffee with milk is a morning only treat. Black coffee, usually espresso, is taken the rest of the day, and never with food.

Throughout the Arabic world, “Gahwa”, a type of Arabian coffee, is served all day and night as a part of a ceremonial greeting. It does not matter if it is 5 am or 11 pm, if you are visiting or doing business with an Arab, you will be offered a cup. The green bean drink is nothing like American coffee and has a rather bitter flavor. Within the Bedouin culture, the coffee is never sweetened but simply served with dates. Throughout the region, coffee prepared the “Turkish” way is very popular. The grounds are put in a pot filled with water and held over the fire until it foams. You need to specify how dark you want your coffee as it can be very, very dark and thick. It is also loaded with sugar. You will learn never to drink the cup to the bottom as the grounds are there. Among the younger generation, Starbucks and other international chains are the craze.

Translation and the Art of Coffee

What does international coffee culture have to do with translation? Foreigners can be spotted a mile away. Even though the basic premise is the same, ordering coffee, the culture varies tremendously from country to country. When a person does not follow cultural norms, they stick out. They may have dressed right, gone to the same place as the locals, and done everything a local would do, but the little things gave them away.

When you are ordering coffee, many faux pas can be overlooked. When your translations do not sound authentic, it is quite a different story. Too often, clients will settle for a “looks right, sounds right” approach to translation instead of sticking to the core characteristic of any quality translation service: you won’t be able to tell it wasn’t written by a local.

When seeking your translation service, ensure your translator has native-level fluency in both the source and target language and culture. In coffee terms, make sure they not only know how to order it but know what to order. You also want to make sure your translator has an expertise in your specific field. After all, you spent your whole life learning your trade. Do you really want somebody who has no expertise with your business or in your industry deciding how to word your documents?

The final word: prior to finalizing your translation service agreement, make sure you have secured a level of service that is going to make your document sound as if it was written in the target language. Or, to put it another way, don’t be the one ordering a cappuccino with your dinner pizza in Italy because your translation service didn’t have the ability to completely and accurately localize your documents.

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