Translation Services and Differences in “Common” Culture

The United States and most major nations of the world are vast lands. Sadly, a great number of authors and translators have never traveled the globe and possess a limited knowledge of its wonders. They do not fully grasp the plethora of world cultures let alone the regional cultures alive within individual countries. As a result, people often possess inaccurate cultural representations, believing, instead, a highly stereotyped idea of a nation or people.

Cultural language is very important to the people who speak it. Language often does more than communicate ideas, it can represent who you are as a person. Further, language often elicits highly emotional responses to words, phrases, or topics associated, or never associated, with a person’s language or culture. Authors and translators can get themselves into trouble if they do not realize how deep-set these allegiances run and how presenting a conflicting message could be viewed in a negative light.

A Look at Some Cultural Distinctions

By percentage, more foreigners than American citizens have seen the Statue of Liberty, though most people in the United States are familiar with the iconic landmark. Conversely, tourists might visit Alaska and see the Yukon Quest or Iditarod dogsled races and assume all Americans enjoy dog sled racing and are familiar with the sport. If these tourists traveled to other parts of the country and wanted to impress the locals with their knowledge of American culture by discussing dog sled racing, they would likely find many blank stares and quizzical looks.

Most Americans associate Gandhi with India. Yet, there are areas of India, such as Goa, where Gandhi was not a central figure and did not play a prominent role. Goa was a Portuguese colony and remained under Portuguese rule for more than 25 years after the British left the rest of India. A marketing campaign featuring Gandhi in Goa would show a definite lack of cultural awareness.

In Spain, everybody is going to understand Castillian Spanish; however, if you want to truly localize your approach, you need to understand the vast differences between the Spanish and Basque languages. Basque is the oldest language in Europe and will be understood by the Basque people. They will love you for translating your documents into their prized language, but the Basque will be the only ones who understand it, so make certain your target audience is accurately chosen.

Many people around the world think of the holiday celebrated on May 5th (Cinco de Mayo) as a Latino festival. In fact, it is a Mexican festival commemorating the Mexican victory over French forces in 1862. If a Cinco de Mayo theme was presented as a theme for materials being addressed to a Latino people group, it would be considered highly offensive. Individual Latino groups take great pride in their national heritage and assuming that all Latinos celebrate Mexican holidays would not go over well in Puerto Rico, Cuba, Panama, etc.

Understanding the Dilemma of “Common” Culture

There are few things more important in a translation than proper editing. After all, translation is not exchanging one word for another, it is accurately representing an idea from a source language to a target language. Sometimes, the computer, or even a human translator, did not understand the cultural implications of a translated text. They “assumed” that the Basque viewed themselves as Spaniards, that Latinos all love Cinco de Mayo, that all Americans love to dogsled, that Indians all equally revere Gandhi, and so forth.

By making stereotyped judgments about culture, mistakes can be made that might sink your campaign, delay the launch of your product, or offend your target audience. At other times, examples in an academic text will have no meaning because the people to whom you were writing did not understand the references you falsely assumed they would comprehend.

The key to avoiding issues with culture is to ensure your translation team not only has native-level fluency in the source and target languages, but that they also have a current, native-level understanding of the source and target cultures.

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