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From Philadelphia to Filadelfia and Everywhere in Between: The Case for Cultural Awareness of your Target Market

Posted by G3 Translate on September 15, 2017

Through professional and culturally relevant translation you can break through language barriers to not only communicate your thought but also do so in a way that helps the listener engage in a meaningful way. The translator should take the burden of not only translating the very words of the message, but also be sure they are conveying the meaning. Cultural awareness is imperative because culture is much more tightly bound to language than most people understand at first glance.

Translation is not just about substituting words and making meaningful statements. The translator also has to convey the message in the intended tone. Sometimes, this task can be difficult, and the translator has to be creative when communicating the message for a diverse target market.

Cultural subtext is imperative in language and translators should reflect the intended meaning in their works. The translator should also strive to learn the ideologies, value differences, and taboos in both cultures so that they can convey the intended message without distorting its meaning.

Interpreting idioms is one of the factors that require cultural awareness. For instance, the Italian phrase "Trattare a pesci" in faccia literary translates to “treat you with fishes in your face”. Certainly, this phrase sounds absurd and nonsensical when literary interpreted into English. However, the phrase is an idiom meaning to disrespect.

A translator who has no knowledge of the culture will probably have to seek clarification from a third party. However, other phrases might pass unnoticed. If an idiom makes sense in its literal translation, a translator with no cultural knowledge of the source translation will most likely miss it, and in the process distort the meaning of the statement. 

Translators who are culturally aware will try to substitute the idiom with a similarly structured target language expression that has the same meaning. In cases where a suitable alternate idiom is lacking, it would suffice for the translator to include the real meaning of the idiom.

In other cases, the language used to express gratitude, respect or even disdain might vary from its literal meaning due to the cultural influence. In such a case, the translator should be culturally informed to notice this variance. A good example is from the Indian culture where respect to an elder is conveyed by addressing them in the plural. Hence, a translator has to be aware of this social norm and relay the intended respectful address in the target language.

Cultural awareness also extends into the business realm of branding. Some brands might have been extremely successful in their industry in a certain country that the brand name is used in place of the product name. An example is where one might ask for a “coke” when all they really want is a soda. Therefore, when doing market research in a foreign country, the interpreter should be aware of such social construct and ensure that they distinguish between the popularity of a brand and its name.

The cultural significance of an object can also go unnoticed to a person who is not aware of the culture. For instance, certain foods and flavors might be used in various cultures to signify a special occasion. While the source translation might not elaborate on this significance, it is the duty of the translator to express this cultural importance in a meaningful way.

Value difference is also a significant aspect of culture. Certain values may hold true for communities and even nations. In Switzerland,  time is a valuable asset and being late is often unacceptable. However, there are other places where 10 means 10:30 and this unwritten agreement is universally known by both parties. Therefore, a translator dealing with the two cultures should be keen to point out these differences to the respective parties so as to avoid any unintended disrespectful behavior.

Taboos and omens also vary from one culture to another. An animal or a natural occurrence can be considered as a sign of good luck in one culture and a bad omen in another. In Greek culture, an owl is a symbol of wisdom, and this cultural significance stems from the Greek mythology. Thus, referring to someone as an owl in Greece might be a sign of respect and acknowledgment of their wisdom, but in India, it is a blunt insult. Here, an owl symbolizes foolishness due to its role in the Indian mythology. Therefore, a translator has to be well aware of the different omens and symbolisms in both cultures so that there is no distortion in meaning.

Interpreting culture is not an easy task. Some of the concepts can only be grasped by a person who has extensive knowledge of the culture. Expressing these meanings in words is not always possible, but an interpreter who understands them can try their best to find an equivalent in the target language.

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Tags: Cultural Nuance

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