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Why Cultural Knowledge is Key for Successful Translations

Posted by G3 Translate on November 1, 2017

Jimmy Carter and Edward Gierek in Poland, 1977Remember that time in 1977 when President Jimmy Carter abandoned the U.S.? No? Oh yeah, that’s because it never happened. But that’s what he said in his address during a visit to Poland – in the first trip of his presidency. At least, that’s what the Polish audience thought he said. What he actually said was, “…when I left the U.S.” It’s just the difference between going on a business trip, and turning your back forever on the country you have been elected to represent. It’s also a real-world example of an interpretation mistake caused by a lack of cultural understanding. 

It seems obvious that there is a close relationship between culture and language. What is not immediately obvious is that it’s not a static relationship. It is dynamic; always changing. As social norms change, a language continues to evolve. While it isn’t often the actual grammar, syntax or structure of a language that changes, nuances are always in flux; meaning is tied to experience.

So when translation services are needed, or a survey needs to include responses from a global audience, cultural knowledge becomes the key to successful translation. 

Of course, a mistranslation like Carter’s caused embarrassment and necessitated clarification. But he was guaranteed 4 years in office to make up for it. Few businesses have the luxury of guaranteed years. For most businesses, embarrassing translation errors to their core branding platform run the risk of alienating an entire market.

Go Brainiff - Fly in Leather!Consider marketing Braniff Airlines in the 80’s. The airline was touting their new leather seats with the “Fly in Leather” campaign in the US. Well, they took that to market in Latin America without realizing it meant “Fly Naked” to their Mexican audience! The California Milk Board also took their totally famous "got milk?" campaign to Mexico, but the original translation amounted to asking, "are you lactating?" The truth is that direct translation does not always work.

Every day we deal not only with translation, but specifically with translation within the marketing research and insights field. Companies spend huge budgets surveying and analyzing changes in culture, buying habits and brand perceptions. They want to know what consumers think of their products and services. But what if, through improper language, their survey isn't even measuring what they intend to measure? Could a lack of understanding how culture - even pop culture -  affects translation result in bad data and missed insights?

Could a lack of understanding how a culture - even pop culture - affects translation result in bad data and missed insights?


Here’s some food for thought on why cultural knowledge is key for successful market surveys, focus group instructions, and qualitative and quantitative marketing research efforts. 

Literal and Contextual Meanings

For every sentence that we translate, we look beyond the literal sense of the word and think on the spirit of the issue to convey. We consider each phrase within a cultural context beyond the literal meaning. We further consider the demographic of the target audience for further social queues, for colloquialisms and slang usage. This understanding of culture when choosing carefully between two equally "accurate" words can make a huge difference in getting meaningful responses. This kind of understanding only comes from total cultural immersion.

There are many institutions and belief systems that may exist in one culture but that are absent in another. Even commitment to truth may vary from one culture to the next. There will be words in one culture whose meaning in one language cannot be duplicated in another. In order to translate these unique features of a culture, you would need someone who has an in-depth understanding of the culture of both the source and target language.

Waldeinsamkeit - the feeling of being alone in the woods - No direct equivalent from native German to English

Conversely, a culture will give context to translation. Sometimes, these differences can be crucial in the value difference of the translation. Even when language inherits words from another culture, the meaning is tweaked in the adopted culture and still requires cultural understanding for proper translation. 

National and Regional Differences

Cultural nuances occur even within the same language. Spanish has an obvious example with stark differences between Spanish used in Spain (referred to as Castilian) and Spanish used in Central and South America. You might think "taco" is a Spanish word, but it is actually a Mexican invention. Spaniards do not consider this a food object; not only are Mexican tacos not on the menu, but the word taco actually could mean any of the following: "wedge; wad, plug; billiard cue; blowpipe; ramrod; short, stocky person; [or] short, thick piece of wood.” In some regions, the word “taco” is a generic way to refer to any bad word. 

Want to look at the same concept even closer? Let’s imagine that you’re thirsty, and you want to buy a carbonated beverage. Do you order a pop, a soda, or a coke? That depends largely on where you’re located in the U.S. In New York, the beverage is referred to as “soda.” In Chicago, it’s “pop.” If you happen to be in Mobile, Alabama, all carbonated beverages are “Coke.” (“What kind of Coke do you want?” – “Pepsi.”) It’s so complicated, there’s a map for it.   

 This is not an isolated case, either. Many other words in the U.S. are heavily impacted by region (sneakers vs. tennis shoes, for instance.)  

Values and Taboos

Every culture has deeply held taboos, which may hold no value or meaning in another culture. When making a translation for commercial purposes, it is important to be sensitive to the moral and spiritual values of a culture. The value of words and their historical use is where many inexperienced translators tend to lose their way. In translating a personal hygiene study into Arabic, for instance, one would be well advised to remove all questions related to sexual activity. It would not be well received by the respondents.

Material Culture

Food is among the most important expressions of culture. Terms used to describe food can have a broad meaning. Thus, only a person with a deep cultural knowledge should be hired to perform translations related to food. For example, the French have numerous words to describe wine. A translator who is unaware of the French culture, will undoubtedly get this wrong. For a company trying to sell their wine or understand consumers' perspectives on their goods, they may end up unintentionally describing it as low-quality stuff, thus making it hard to sell.

Cultural References

When trying to translate something, cultural references are important. A purely literal translation cannot grasp this context. The result is that it may end up being a PR disaster for a company. Certain words can have a deep impact on readers because of historical injustices. Consequently, a translation may end up being inadvertently offensive. In terms of marketing surveys, an understanding of colors and their historical or political connections can save companies time. Orange Telecom faced a national rebrand in Northern Ireland due to the affiliation between the company name and the fiercely divisive use of orange to represent Protestant rule. Using colors within a survey should take these cultural experiences into consideration.

No matter what your marketing translation need, we're ready to create a truly meaningful translation for your global work. Think you've suffered from poor survey translation in the past?

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