Why translation and culture are the perfect partnership – you can’t have one without the other!

Posted: 11 Sep 2023

Translation and culture: never one, without the other.

It’s a strong statement, but a true one.

Just think, the words might be right in the translated language but if the cultural fit isn’t there, then that is where all the problems start…

And that is because it is not always possible to directly translate words, phrases, or even concepts. What works in one culture, might make little to no sense in another. And, in many cases, single words have no direct translation in other languages.

Take a look at some of these cultural blunders as an example of the importance of cultural awareness.

But that does not mean we cannot enter new markets or work out ways to adapt our thinking in order to literally and figuratively ‘speak their language’. You just need to ensure you are adopting a ‘cultural translation’ approach – the practice of translation while respecting and showing cultural differences.

As Kirsty MacEachen, Comtec’s Cultural Services Partner and self-professed ‘global nomad’ puts it, “there is no market too different from ours to engage with. You will just have to rely less on your intuition the further away you get from your cultural norm.”

It’s not merely the words we need to translate in order for our ideas to land well overseas. Our cultural differences often mean that the concept itself needs repurposing. As German Translator Rebecca Schneiders says, “if companies don’t have a good awareness of cultural attitudes and values in the first place, it can lead to really embarrassing results.” Understanding cultural perceptions, attitudes and interests is key to creating culturally sensitive and intelligent global campaigns. “When it comes to culture,” continues Rebecca, “our awareness of it can show up in the smallest ways, and have the biggest impact.” That’s why it’s crucial to think about culture at the initial strategy-setting stage, to ensure your translation work is not in vain—and you have the competitive edge in the market.

Read on to find out more about the essential role cultural awareness plays when creating and translating content.

Culturally accurate translations are no walk in the park

In many cases, there are no replacements for certain words, phrases or sayings. As Silvia Ferrero, a Spanish Translator and Interpreter says, “in the UK we use phrases like ‘I’ll put the kettle on’ to confirm someone’s arrival but, in another culture, this phrase might be taken too literally. You’ll get people asking for coffee instead, or worrying that the water will be cold by the time they get there.”

In cases such as this, translators need to find alternative routes to try and represent the source content as best they can. This usually comes in the form of transcreation (an amalgamation of translation and creative repurposing). It allows translators to use more creative licence and cultural awareness to create something that will ultimately make a lot more sense in the chosen market.

But, depending on how different the cultures are that you are translating for, it can be a very difficult process. Kirsty splits the globe into colours when trying to navigate how much ‘cultural stretch’ you’ll come across compared to your own market. Cultural stretch, in this context, refers to Hofstede’s model, which identifies six social dilemmas that all societies face. The model identifies how different countries resolve these social dilemmas and gives us a language to understand cultural differences.

These are:

  • How do we deal with power inequality in society?
  • How do we relate to the group?
  • What drives our motivation?
  • How do we relate to uncertainty?
  • What is our relationship to time?
  • How do we relate to pleasure?

If we take the UK, for example, we will experience some cultural alignment when working with the likes of Sweden and Finland, who are largely aligned with us on these six dilemmas. On the other hand, countries like Argentina or Brazil resolve almost all of these social dilemmas in quite different ways.

Understanding how far removed you are from the cultural status-quo of another market is very important when embarking on a new project. It could be the difference between opting for simple translation, transcreation, or a total overhaul of the campaign. Kirsty references this as the global/local dilemma: “It’s a constant challenge for marketeers. Where can we take something across a border, and where do we need to invest in localisation?”

What can we do to better incorporate culture into translation?

Involve culture from the beginning

Though navigating the nuances of different cultures is fraught with complexity, there are plenty of things you can do to simplify it when taking on a translation task. The best and most simple way is to bring culture into the conversation right from the start, to ensure – long before translation even takes place – that the idea itself will land across borders. Jessica Rathke, another key Cultural Services Partner to Comtec says, “for the most part, in the UK, we have a good level of cultural awareness, but we still frequently fail to bring cultural nuance into the translation process early on.” After all, it’s much easier to create something from scratch with cultural nuance in mind, than it is to try and force a difficult idea into something that works. A good translation partner should be able to help determine the level of creativity required based on use case. At Comtec, we have our own localisation spectrum that helps us and our clients work this out from the beginning.

Use native speakers when translating

Using native speakers when translating will ensure they have a deep understanding of the language and all its nuances. No matter how many languages you can speak, you are always your most expressive and accurate while using your mother tongue. It’s also beneficial to work with translators who reside in the language location, as you will have a much closer proximity to any trends and developments within the use of the language, as well as awareness of wider cultural impacts.

Communicate with your local markets

The same can be said for getting local markets involved, both pre- and post-translation. Your local teams will similarly have invaluable knowledge of the kinds of campaigns that have been a success (and ones that have, well, flopped!), as well as local attitudes and – perhaps most importantly – offer their own take on your content. Does it have the desired effect? Is it confusing? Do they think it’s relevant? For this, it’s useful to have a review process in place for them to look at content and share feedback.

Run a cultural audit – it’s not just about the words!

Another way to gain a deeper understanding of culture for translation purposes is to run cultural audits on any content you are hoping to localise. Cultural audits provide early insight into the changes required for a campaign or piece of content to ensure maximum engagement—which is why we’d recommend them long before you begin translating. Your budget will thank you too.

A cultural audit looks at anything from websites to marketing campaigns, and training and learning materials to brand guidelines, and will evaluate them against your chosen locations. Any issues surrounding gender stereotypes, images and visual cues, colours, religion and subsequent holidays, technology, education, formality levels and the use of idioms will be raised for closer discussion.  A cultural audit will also identify areas that may require less or more localisation than initially thought.

Silvia remarks, “As a translator you are often asked to translate slogans to go alongside imagery that won’t even work in that market. It’s not the copy that’s the problem, but the image itself.”

Get creative

One of the most useful things you can do to try and incorporate culture into the translation process is to stop seeing translation as a technical thing and start to see it as a creative practice of translating concepts between cultures. Roman Jokobson, one of the most celebrated and influential linguists of the twentieth century once said, “Languages differ essentially in what they must convey and not in what they may convey.” Language itself leaves much up to us to explore and craft.

In this talk by Mariam Mansuryan on translating literature, we’re shown that translations into other languages and cultures will not always be possible.

Sometimes, the very thing that makes a concept interesting cannot work in another culture. She uses the example of Harper Lee’s deliberate use of gender ambiguity in ‘To Kill a Mockingbird’, which is simply not feasible in languages where gender is always referenced upfront. In these instances, it is up to us to work out how we can adapt our idea, or make a call on whether we should use it at all.  

Adapting and catering to other cultures is, in a sense, an exercise in letting go of what we believe to be normal. This, in turn, offers us an excellent chance to be creative, and also become much more global in our thinking. Let’s face it, that’s no bad thing!

Do check out our full suite of Cultural Consultancy services to learn about all the things you can lean on us with when setting sail overseas.

We love sharing our knowledge and expertise on this, and many other language, culture, translation, and localisation-related subjects. Please do get in touch, our friendly team is always very happy to help.

Call us on +44 (0) 1926 335 681 or email info@comtectranslations.com.