Skip to main content

Navigating cultural sensitivities and challenges

You can be the bridge of two worlds by building cultural awareness and sensitivity over time.

Expressing cultural differences and sensitivities might sometimes come as a challenge, especially if you are not a native speaker of the language you are translating in. As you are the bridge between cultures, your goal is to help people to communicate across linguistic boundaries.

But to be able to do that, first, you have to understand the linguistic, cultural, and regional nuances of your target audience.

Let’s explore together some of the most common challenges, why it’s important that you recognize them, and how to navigate them successfully.

Why is it important to recognize and work on them?

  • Accuracy and clarity

Cultural context heavily influences language usage, expressions, idioms, and metaphors. By understanding the cultural nuances, you can convey the intended meaning in the target language, ensuring that your translation is clear and culturally appropriate. Without this knowledge, translations may lose their intended impact or even result in misunderstandings.

  • Cultural sensitivity

Translations are not just about transferring words from one language to another; they involve conveying cultural values, norms, and perspectives. Being aware of cultural sensitivities allows you to avoid potential offense, disrespect, or misrepresentation.

  • Localization

Localization goes beyond translation by adapting content to suit the target culture. It involves considering cultural references, customs, and preferences to make the translation sound natural and relatable. Understanding the cultural context allows you to adapt elements to align with the target culture.

  • Audience engagement

Translations that resonate with the target audience’s cultural background are more likely to engage and connect with them on a deeper level. Cultural nuances evoke familiarity, making the audience feel understood and appreciated. This enhances their engagement with the content, whether it’s a PR message, a movie synopsis, or any other type of translation.

What could go wrong, though?

A famous example is the HSBC Bank.

In 2009, HSBC Bank launched a campaign with the slogan “Assume Nothing” in various countries. However, when translated into several languages, including French, it was rendered as “Ne rien supposer,” which can also be interpreted as “Don’t Assume Anything.” The translation caused controversy in French-speaking regions, as it was perceived as negative, conveying a lack of trust. Even if accurate, the translation failed to capture the intended positive message. In other countries, the slogan was translated as “Do Nothing.”

In the end, the bank spent $10 million to change its tagline to “The world’s private bank,” which has a much more friendly translation.

If you want to take a break and entertain yourself a bit, Business Insider has gathered 8 Slogans That Made No Sense Overseas.

These examples highlight the importance of considering cultural appropriateness alongside accurate translations. Even if a translation is linguistically correct, it can still fail to resonate or convey the intended message if it doesn’t align with the cultural norms and context of the target audience.

What can you do in such situations?

Of course, no strategies will ever be error-proof. But there are ways in which you can build your cultural awareness and sensitivity over time, which will reduce the chances of making such mistakes. Here are some of them:

  • Study the cultural context

Gain a thorough understanding of the cultural context associated with the target language, including idioms and metaphors. Learn about the history, customs, social norms, traditions, cultural nuances, and current events that may influence the meaning of words and phrases. Consider the cultural connotations behind certain words or phrases and adapt your translations accordingly.

  • Stay updated on language and cultural changes

Languages and cultures evolve over time. You can stay updated on language and current cultural trends, slang, and cultural shifts through media outlets, social media channels, local newspapers, news programs, and cultural magazines. This will help you stay in touch with the evolving cultural landscape and avoid outdated or inappropriate translations.

You can also join social media groups (like Facebook groups) with people from the country of your target language. Observe how they interact, how they use language, and if you can spot particular customs. This will enable you to reflect on the contemporary usage of language and cultural references in your translations.

  • Immerse yourself in the culture

It’s important to immerse yourself in the target language’s culture as much as possible. You can attend events that celebrate the culture you are translating, such as exhibitions, concerts, and performances. If this is not feasible, you can read books, watch movies or TV shows, listen to music, and interact with native speakers as much as possible (even if only online) from that country.

If you’re not sure what movies to watch, you can simply search for the target language + “movies IMDb”, i.e. “German movies IMDb”, and you will find a list of the best movies made in that country.

  • Travel and experience the culture firsthand

If feasible, travel to countries where the target language is spoken. This will allow you to experience the culture firsthand, interact with locals, and observe their customs and behavior. This immersive experience will provide valuable insights for your translation work and will help you capture the nuances and references specific to the culture.

  • Connect with native speakers

Connect with people who are native speakers of the language in which you are translating. You can easily do that on Quora, by following the topics related to the language, culture, and events from that country. Engage in conversations, seek their opinion on specific issues, and ask for clarification on cultural aspects that may be unclear to you. Engage in discussions to better understand cultural perspectives, and seek clarification on idiomatic expressions. Their input is invaluable in ensuring accuracy and cultural authenticity.

  • Embrace lifelong learning

It’s vital to approach cultural understanding as part of an ongoing learning process. You can attend online events related to the target language and culture, and connect with fellow translators. This will provide opportunities to learn from experienced professionals, share insights, and stay informed about best practices in translation within the target culture.

Whenever in doubt, you can ask colleagues, or native speakers of the target language who are familiar with the culture you are translating for.

As an editor/reviewer working with a language in which you are not a native speaker, you can build cultural awareness and sensitivity over time, ultimately leading to more accurate and effective translations.

Remember, cultural understanding is an ongoing process, and dedicating time and effort to developing your cultural competence will greatly contribute to the quality of your translations and the success of your career.

Navigating cultural sensitivities and challenges was originally published in Unbabel Community on Medium, where people are continuing the conversation by highlighting and responding to this story.