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Why Culture Matters in Translation

Why Culture Matters in Translation
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Translation is the process of shifting words from one language into another. Where does culture come into that?

As we’ve seen through centuries of lexical evolution, from slang, to sayings, to slogans, from dialects and accents to idioms and colloquialisms, it’s often the people behind the words who carry the influence on their meaning. The meaning of a language is influenced by the speaker and, as such, variations exist and develop between different languages.

Cultural Hurdles

Culture plays a crucial role in determining the definition, or rather, the significance of a word. Take, for example, the Chinese word for ‘four’. Translated, four means four – the word itself is nothing more than a numerical measurement, totalling the same amount whether in English, Chinese, or any other language.

However, the cultural significance of the number four is so paramount that certain apartment blocks in China refuse to include it on any of their doors. No Chinese military vehicles have the number four assigned to them, and no one dares mention ‘four’ in the presence of a sick person. Astonishingly, recorded death rates from heart attacks for Chinese people even peak on the fourth day of each month.

This phenomenon is called tetraphobia, and it’s to do with the fact that the Chinese word for ‘four’ sounds incredibly similar to the Chinese word for ‘death’. Without proper awareness of the cultural nuances involved, an English business owner might attempt to close a deal with a Chinese corporation by offering them a well thought out, smooth, succinct proposal – but if it includes the number four, that’s it. The deal’s off.

Marketing Blunders

Incorporating culture into translation comes with its own set of issues when attempting to pivot your marketing to appeal to international audiences. 

As the aim of marketing is directly to connect with the consumer, making sure various marketing messages will make that connection overseas, possibly across multiple sets of demographics, can be challenging. Even if you find an accurate translation of your existing marketing slogan or tagline, will, for example, a German audience receive the same marketing message as the original English copy? Will those translated words carry the same cultural significance, or the same humour? Are there any historical or political events at play in a specific region that could inject those words with the potential to cause offence?

Successful marketing campaigns require much more thought than just translating words. An example we can look at is the infamous launch of the Ford Pinto, a subcompact car, which was introduced to the Brazilian market with high expectations of fast and furious sales.

However, after these failed to materialise, the Ford Motors marketing team made the startling discovery that ‘pinto’ was a local slang term used in Brazil to describe less than well-endowed men.

Asides from embarrassment, this blunder also cost Ford an incredible amount of time and money, as they then had to replace all insignias on each offending vehicle with new imagery to match the new name, Corcelo (meaning ‘horse’).

How Can I Incorporate Culture Into Translation?

Use Native Speakers

For a deep, total understanding of a language, using native speakers is a must. However fluent a multilingual translator might be, or however sophisticated an automated digital translation service is, there will never be a more accurate translation than a person using their mother tongue. In terms of cultural significance, using a native speaker who resides in the location you’re wanting to reach with your content is also important, as you’ll be able to access a deeper understanding of the local cultural impacts (at Brightlines, we always use native speakers in our translation services to ensure complete accuracy every time.)

Conduct Local Market Research

Getting local markets involved can really help with the translation process as you’ll gain access to a wealth of invaluable knowledge, such as the most and least successful marketing campaigns within the area, as well as local attitudes and approaches to certain content, advertising, or products. You can also use this as an opportunity to test out your content on your desired market, and monitor its effects.

When conducting local market research, consider these three areas:

  • What area do you want to focus on? This includes the scope and size of your local market area – how far does it extend? 
  • Who is your ideal customer? Create a comprehensive profile of your target demographic – who is going to buy your product or service? Why do they want to buy from you, specifically? What’s their age and income level, and what do they do for fun? The more detail you can flesh out your profile with, the easier it will be to determine how you’ll market your product across different languages.
  • What’s the competition like? You can easily check out the local competition in the area with the help of online tools such as Google Maps, or SEO software to identify keywords searched within the area.

Seek Out Professional Support

Above all, getting the help of a professional is key to translating with complete precision and avoiding any risk of inaccuracy, embarrassment, or at worst, insult to another culture. At Brightlines, we offer a complete translation and localisation service for a range of businesses and formats.

Translation goes beyond making a carbon copy of a set of words. Honouring the intricacies of different cultures and all of the political, social, and historical nuances that come with our diversities is key to connecting your business with different markets on a global scale.

Navigating culture in translations doesn’t have to be scary – get in touch today to find out how we can help you translate your marketing, documents, and content, keeping culture at the core.