Translation Challenges: When Customs Don’t Translate

When cultures clash, the repercussions can be serious. Part of the globalization and localization process for your documents needs to include the testing and editing of information that could lead to a negative fallout.

The Economist ran a story on December 25, 1993, recounting the story of a famous cultural faux pas. The article told the tale of a “Japanese department store, desperate to appear westernized and with-it, mounted an extravagant Christmas display, featuring a life-sized Santa Claus, crucified upon a cross.” To most westerners, Christian or not, this would appear to be a political or religious statement and not a cultural gaffe. However, consider that less than two percent of Japan’s population is Christian. They do not have the cultural background to recognize the importance of the cross, Jesus, or Santa. They would not understand that the cross is for Easter and Jesus, not Santa, is paired with the cross. To the Japanese several decades ago (remember there was no Internet for a quick Google search), the idea of pairing two Christian icons must have simply made sense. There was no reason to put Christmas down, since the Japanese love to celebrate the non-religious ceremony of ‘Kurisumasu’ complete with decorations, music, and festive lighting.

While the reasons behind the misstep may be innocent, many western Christians did not take it that way. If you don’t yet understand the harsh realities behind cultural clashes when religion is involved, simply think about any time a cartoon was drawn of the Prophet Mohammed. While the offense makes no sense to those who do not come from an Islamic culture, the heresy is worthy of a fatwa to those who are from such a background or belief system.

In 1958, The Mary Chocolate Co. in Japan was instructed to celebrate a western festival called “Valentine’s Day”. One of the company’s leaders was living in Paris and instructed the company in the process. Not understanding the background, intent, or purpose of the holiday, things got a little bit confused. It turned out that Valentine’s became a time for women to buy chocolates for men in order to express their feelings of love. Today, women give Giri-choko (obligation chocolate) to all sorts of men, even those they have no romantic feelings for (don’t get the wrong idea if a Japanese lady gives you chocolates on Valentine’s Day).

What Cultural Conflict Means for Translation

When documents contain references to customs that do not have a cultural reference point, a simple transliteration is often not possible. Case-in-point, Christmas and ‘Kurisumasu’ have very different meanings to this day. The intent of your text may have been an expression of religion, giving, or charity, but, in Japan, they could realistically elicit thoughts of expensive jewelry and sneaking off to a hotel room with scantily clad women dressed as elves.

Dia de los muertos, the Day of the Dead, is popular in many Latin cultures. Today, many people have seen the celebrations in movies or television shows, but the meaning is completely lost on those who do not understand the symbolic meaning of the icons or the deep reverence many of the people have for the ancestors being celebrated.

It’s not just holidays that don’t always translate. Customs and culture are integrated into every area of our lives. From when and how we speak to how we dress, your perspective of the world is influenced by your culture. In fact, there is a humanistic culture, a heritage-based culture, an ideological culture, an anthropological culture, and so forth. What happens when corporate culture conflicts with the international or localized culture that your documents are being translated into?

For example, in many companies in Russia or India, documents sent across hierarchical lines can create major problems. The translation may have been understandable and accurate, but because a supervisor in your country sent the material to a subordinate in the Russian or Indian company without going through the supervisory channel, you may not get the response you desire – if you get a response at all.

A Harvard Business Review article summarized the time a U.S. business manager needed information from her staff in India. She wrote them asking for input but got no response. She said, “The lack of communication is astounding.” She spoke to the supervisor, Sanjay, who said, “Sarah sends e-mails directly to my staff without getting my OK or even copying me. Those e-mails should go to me directly, but she seems to purposefully leave me out of the process. Of course, when my staff receives those e-mails, they are paralyzed.”

Within the American business model, working through the supervisory channels if often viewed as a waste of time and efficiency. If you need something, you ask for it. Everybody from every level has access to everybody at every other level. There are still protocols, but they are not strictly enforced.

A further example can be found in a business document sent from an American company to its international facilities. A group of executives was coming around to each location with inspectors. There was to be a standardized routine for the visits. One of the requirements was a “meet and greet” with light appetizers during the first evening. Imagine the surprise when there was, in fact, no standardization among the locations when it came to this simple task. Even basic words such as “evening”, “light” and “appetizers” had very different meanings.

What the Implications of Cultural Translation Means to You

When you are considering the translation of your documents, you need to be very clear about your expectations on transliteration and transcreation. What words, phrases and concepts do you want converted into target language equivalents and which do you want fully explained or even changed into equivalent concepts.

In addition to being clear about your expectations, ensure your translation team has expertise in the target culture. A machine or CAT translation alone is not going to catch the words and concepts that do not accurately translate across cultures. Neither will a person who does not have a native-level understanding of the culture.

If you want to save time and money during the translation process, you can start by “internationalizing” your documents. This entails eliminating concepts that will not likely translate and replacing them with universal ideas.

When companies internationalize, it is not just geographic borders that get crossed. Many times people’s understanding, assumptions, and belief systems can interfere with message comprehension. Ensure your translation service knows the intent of your message and the degree to which you want your information localized and are adjusted to meet cultural norms.

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