Translation, Translation Culture

Translation Issues Associated With High-context and Low-context Cultures

Translating and interpreting language is a challenging endeavor, but it becomes increasingly more complex when you need to translate what is not said. In many cultures, there is as much meaning to nonverbal cues as verbal ones, and in other cultures you never jump right into business without formality.

When presenting your work, research, or business information, a direct translation may technically relay the information, but did your readers understand it the way you meant it? Did the information fit within the reader’s culture; was the presentation glorious or, heaven forbid, offensive.

Are You Translating for a High-context or Low-context Culture?

In the 1970’s, anthropologist Edward T. Hall coined the phrases “high-context culture” and “low- context culture.” In his work, “Beyond Culture”, Hall described these two different types of cultural relationships as they applied to information.

  • High-context cultures: Much of the society’s communication takes place through contextual elements (body language, tone of voice, even a person’s position or standing) and not entirely the spoken or written word.
  • Low-context cultures: Information is predominately transmitted through language, and the linguistic rules are clear and explicit.

Translation services must understand that people in different countries are going to decode information differently based on their cultural expectations.

Hall included most of the Middle East, Asia, Africa, and South America in his list of high-context countries. In these countries, extra information is welcome and the language is often flowery. Topics are often less direct and more formal. The story is told of a Japanese business leader who complained to his American counterpart, “When we say one word, we understand ten, but here you have to say ten to understand one.”

In contrast, when dealing with North America and Western Europe, the low-context cultures, value getting right to the point. There is less formality and flowery language if frowned upon: simply set up the problem and solve it. Precise words with exact meanings are favored and are expected to be taken literally.

While no culture is entirely high or low-context, it is paramount to know your audience before you submit your material.

In short, translating across cultures involves a whole lot more than swapping out words. This is often where machine translation breaks down.

Understand How Culture Impacts Writing

One of the main impacts cultural context has on writing is in how much detail you need to get your point across. Those writing from a high-context culture often assume that everybody already understands meanings and context so they will not include the details that a reader from the outside may need to help them understand the foundation of the argument or basis for an approach.

Low context cultures tend to assume that everybody interprets their writing literally so they say what they mean, forgetting that information is taken in an entirely different light based on the cultural context in which it is interpreted.

Translation accuracy is more than just choosing the right words, it is ensuring the reader receives your thoughts in the way you intended.

For example, a business contract from a high-context culture may not include the exacting information a low-context culture would expect because many elements of contracts are simply understood. This can lead to problems when those “assumptions” get called into play.

The same contract, written from a low-context culture perspective may appear untrusting or rude to the high-context culture reader because of the overly clear and explicit language.

Bridging the Cultural Gap with Translator Fluency

When in doubt, research the culture for which you are having your document translated. Adjust your writing to ensure the receipt and comprehension of information the way you intended. One approach is to gather similar writings that were well received and use them as a template. Another is to talk to somebody familiar with the culture and get feedback on your document before you submit it for translating.

If you don’t have the time or resources to do the research and investigation, at least choose translation services which specialize in the language, cultures, and niche that you are writing about.

For example, if you wanted a medical paper on cardiac health translated into Japanese, it would be beneficial to have somebody intimately familiar with not only the Japanese language but also the Japanese culture and cardiac medicine. A biochemist would want an expert in biochemistry to translate their document, but it is just as important to ensure that translators have cultural and linguistic fluency in the target language.

People speak English all over the world but interpret things quite differently. In the same way, the cultural context of your international audience will cause your text to be read in many different ways if not properly prepared.

Levels of proficiency in speaking, reading, and writing vary, as do the cultural contexts of the reader which greatly affects the interpretation of your information. Due to the differences in high and low-context languages, a document machine translated into Swedish, French, German, and Japanese has a significant chance of being misunderstood and attaining different outcomes from the readers in each culture.

By seeking out translation services whose translators have native-level fluency, cultural fluency, and subject matter expertise, your chances of translation accuracy increases exponentially. To not do so could be catastrophic. After all, it only takes the viewing of one graphic interpreted as offensive, one slogan taken out of context, or one measurement to be assumed, for everything to go haywire. That is not to say that the readers do not have enough intelligence to clarify the information, but how much confidence does that give them in your ability to put forth straight, logical, and comprehensible information?

This post is written by Robert Stitt, a content writer with Ulatus.


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