Translation and Etiquette: Is It Ever Just a Formality?

You likely won’t be addressing many letters to a Roman Emperor, but a few centuries ago the old quill would have drained half an ink bottle just penning his title if you were addressing the Roman Emperor Commodus: Caesar Imperator Lucius Aelius Aurelius Antoninus Commodus Augustus Pius Beatus Sarmaticus Maximus Germanicus Maximus Britannicus Maximus, Pax Orbis, Invictus, Romanus Herculaeus, Pontifex Maximus, Patria Patriae, Amazonius Fortunatus, Consul for the Seventh Time, Imperator for the Eighth Time, Tribune for the Eighteenth Time.

The modern equivalent was discovered in England when CNN found what they believed to be the world’s longest modern job title in 2005: Temporary part-time libraries North-West inter-library loan business unit administration assistant. Imagine the slight, personal embarrassment, and shame if your letter were simply addressed to the North-West inter-library loan business unit administration assistant. What’s in a title, indeed.

If this sounds a bit over-the-top to you, be careful. When preparing text for translation into other languages, a little time spent checking names and honorifics can be of great worth. While the modern western world often dismisses the great importance of names and titles, many countries still place great value upon such formalities.

It has often been said that the key to effective business writing is to first understand your audience. This task includes knowing the cultural formalities that could be the difference between your correspondence being read, accepted, and approved, or having your papers relegated immediately to the garbage can while having your name added to the country’s persona non grata list.

Formal Considerations in Translation

There are many times that formality may enter into your writing when dealing with an international audience, which may include:

  • Giving credit to the co-author of a paper or book.
  • Recognizing somebody in your acknowledgments.
  • Addressing a formal business letter.
  • Referencing individuals in your text.
  • Mentioning any sort of deity in your text.
  • The creation of legal documentation.
  • Understanding the various levels of formality when addressing people within a culture.
  • Understanding the varied gender roles within different cultures.

Within many cultures and languages, there are varied levels of formality based upon who you are and who the person you are speaking to is; the formality may also change based upon the person or persons of whom you are speaking. This type of “honorific” phrasing is based upon context and the social status of the individuals involved. Since a business or academic arrangement is formal by its very nature, to stray from social etiquette could prove to have very unfortunate results.

Honorifics do not just involve titles, but the words used in a sentence may need to be changed as well. Most European languages have different pronouns (consider the French tu and vous or the Spanish tu and usted). Other languages, like Javanese, have three different variants for many words (such as house) based upon the social status of those involved.

There are many variants of colloquial Arabic, but a formal Arabic is used in all business writing. In the Japanese honorific “keigo” there are three main categories of formality and a subcategory to “beautify” the language; each one has its own lexemes and verb endings. The Chinese and Japanese also have special rules about age.

In Russia, business credentials are of the utmost importance. If the title of the person writing (or at least signing) the correspondence is not of at least a similar equivalent to the person being addressed, this could be considered an affront.

Americans, and several other western countries, have moved toward a more gender-neutral approach in their writing and language. This is not considered proper in many cultures and could cause issues and/or offense.

Legal documents should always be written with the intended audience in mind.

Addressing Formality in Your Writing

While your translator may be able to make changes in the text to align it with the cultural and linguistic norms of the target language, you can save time, money, and the embarrassment of not knowing what your document says once it is translated by thinking about a few things during the writing process.

Formal writing does not mean adding additional wordiness or complex vocabulary. In fact, when writing in a formal style, excess verbiage is highly discouraged. The more concise and targeted your points are, the better. What formal writing should pay attention to includes:

  • Addressing people by their proper titles
  • Avoiding slang and colloquialisms
  • Avoiding the use of contractions
  • Choosing the correct pronouns
  • Writing out abbreviations
  • Use of short, simple sentences

To many in the west, formality in business is a waste of time. To those with this mindset, doing business overseas may not be the best of ideas. After all, cultural sensitivity is every bit as important as the message you hope to get across with your information. You can have the best write-up in the world, but it won’t matter if it does not get read.

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