Cultural Considerations for Translation

Cultural Considerations for Translation
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International translation services are, without a doubt, invaluable when it comes to helping companies market their products and services overseas. However, translating business materials that are intended for presentation to foreign audiences involves a much more complex process than simply converting words from one language to another. A significant amount of time should be dedicated to elements of localization if the translation is to be truly successful. By doing so, companies can protect themselves against their message inadvertently causing either hilarity or offence overseas.

What is localization?

Localization complements professional translation. It can be summed up as a form of modification that draws knowledge of local culture and customs and applies that to translated copy, so as to ensure it is appropriate for a new audience.

For example, if a company has an advertising campaign focused on the products users relaxing, ‘Put your feet up’ might be an appropriate slogan for Western audiences. However, in the UAE and many parts of Asia, displaying the soles of the feet is considered impolite, at best. Thus it would be appropriate for the translator to localize the copy in order to take account of this, by finding an alternative phrase that conveys the same meaning.

Why are cultural considerations so important during translation?

Taking account of cultural considerations is extremely important when it comes to translating marketing copy for international audiences. The whole point of marketing is to promote a product, service or cause. If the advertising material used to do so causes offence or unintended humour, the message behind the item being marketed can quickly get lost. The result? Plenty of money wasted on what should have been an effective marketing opportunity.

When companies consider the cultural elements of their corporate materials, this should include a review of both images and text. There are vast cultural differences across the world’s continents and businesses need to take these into account when presenting any material to new audiences.

Clothing and its religious significance is a key cultural consideration in Muslim countries for example, particularly in relation to whether or not women’s heads and faces are covered up. Any images used in a marketing campaign need to reflect this. The copy also needs to reflect local attitudes towards women, as well as towards those deemed to be minorities as a result of their ethnicity, sexuality or any other factor. Coors Light’s 2013 ‘Out Is Refreshing’ campaign, for example, celebrated sexual diversity. However, the message would need serious localization before being presented in one of the world’s 74 countries where being gay or bi-sexual is illegal.

This is an extreme example, but it makes a good point – taking county-specific cultural considerations into account is key to running a successful advertising campaign overseas. Even seemingly innocuous things such as colours, salutations and the way that prices are presented need careful attention.

Examples of country-specific cultural considerations

Each country is unique and enjoys a culture that it has developed over hundreds or thousands of years. These complex societal structures mean that international translation can be a tricky business. Professional translation is a far more valuable service than just inter-linguistic word conversion. It is an art that requires sensitivity to a great many elements, with culture being one of the key areas for attention.

In China, for example, mianzi – the concept of ‘face’ – is incredibly important. In all areas of daily life, it is essential to give someone the correct level of respect or personal dignity, based on their position in the workplace, family, society and so forth. Thus advertising copy written in the US (for example) that is intended to make the audience laugh at someone facing embarrassment, would not translate at all well for Chinese audiences. The idea that somebody losing face could be funny would certainly be lost in translation.

Similarly, Confucian values that would work well in advertising in China, such as humility, loyalty and obligation, may well be lost on cultures that place more emphasis on the value of dynamism and entrepreneurship. Confucian philosophy and the ideals of the American dream, whereby any individual who works hard enough can (theoretically) become successful, don’t necessarily make good bedfellows when it comes to advertising speak!

Family values is another good example of where cultural considerations can clash. The definition of ‘family’ varies from one culture to another. In India, family can mean the entire extended family – those related by marriage as well as by blood. To the marketing team at Kenneth Cole, it means gay married couple Joanna and Nicoleta Tessler and their little girl. Family can be a particularly tricky concept to convey in advertising, as it can mean different things within a culture as well. It has a subjective definition that can change as society continues to develop. An understanding of complexities like this is, therefore, essential to high-quality international marketing translation!

Culture and colour

Colour is (on the surface) a simpler cultural consideration to take into account. In China, red symbolises happiness. In the UK, it is the colour of love, but also of danger. In Japan, red represents energy, vitality and power. In India, purity, spirituality and sensuality are all associated with red. Red is lucky in Egypt and Iran, representing courage as well in the latter. However, in many African countries, red is the colour of death and in Nigeria it also symbolises aggression.

Green is another good example of the different meanings of colour. Many Western cultures associate green with health, life, nature and vitality. In many Eastern cultures it means much the same, representing fertility and new life. However, in China it can also mean infidelity, while in the UK it can mean jealousy. In the Middle East, green is the colour of wealth, luck and fertility – it is the traditional colour of Islam. In Mexico, green means independence. However, in some South American countries with dense jungle, green is the colour of death, and in Indonesia it is a forbidden colour.

Understanding such country-specific cultural considerations is essential for businesses that are looking to expand their customer base overseas.

Understanding cross-cultural business attitudes

Contrasting approaches to business is another area that needs to be appropriately reflected when advertising copy is translated. In India, for example, hierarchy is immensely important, and much attention is paid to an individual’s job title and position within a company’s structure. In face business cultures such as China, saving and giving face plays an incredibly important role. Meanwhile the rise of tech and digital startups in many European countries has seen an emphasis placed on a working environment that is relaxed and informal, with the theory being that this encourages creativity and passion.

The role of women in the workplace is also an important consideration. Women in some Middle Eastern countries, for example, are not free to work in as many roles as their male counterparts, as a result of cultural attitudes.

Gender segregation is another factor than can play a role in the presentation of women in the workplace, as well as in other areas of daily life. An advert in the UK might include men and women chatting in a group in a café. The same advert translated for a Saudi Arabian audience would need to incorporate a gender segregation wall, with women on one side and men on the other.

The dangers of cultural considerations in translation

Missing the significance of a cultural consideration when it comes to business translation can doom a company’s chance of success in a particular country. Presenting a brand in the wrong way and causing offence can lead to that brand being boycotted. A 2017 YouGov survey found that 21% of consumers have boycotted a brand. Figures like this can have a seriously detrimental effect on a company’s bottom line.

Reputational damage in the age of social media is hard to recover from. If that kind of damage results from your brand’s first foray into a new country, it can effectively mean that it’s your brand’s last foray into that country.

Even on a less public scale, cultural oversights in translation can be costly. Companies trying to develop new partnerships overseas need to tread carefully when communicating with potential partners, suppliers and investors. A mistake or misjudgement in terms of cultural considerations can be enough to scupper a great deal of hard work and good will.

The right way to tackle cultural considerations for international translation

Businesses looking to handle their international translations the right way are advised to use a reputable, professional translation agency with a history of delivering translations for the target languages and countries that the company is looking to communicate in. Translation and localization professionals are well placed to advise companies of the kind of cultural considerations they need to look out for – and to catch any missteps before it’s too late!