How Does Culture Impact Language in Translation

How Does Culture Impact Language in Translation

Last Updated: January 11, 2024By

Good translations are derived from more than just language fluency. Translators also need to have a unique cross-cultural understanding that allows them to calculate for cultural differences that may be generated by religion, politics, socioeconomic differences, standards of living or even something as simple as audience and tone appropriateness.

I myself have experienced times where I have been translating a text in my source language – Bulgarian, and came across a word or phrase that would be highly offensive in English but is not considered as too harsh in Bulgarian. Knowing this, I have on these occasions notified the client and explained the situation and then (if agreed by the client of course) toned down the language used in the target text, i.e. the English text. Of course, the same works the other way around too – there are phrases and expressions in the English language that are considered to be very aggressive, abusive or offensive in Bulgarian.

To elaborate on the above, I can give you an example of a recent personal experience of mine. A short while ago I was translating an official employee’s complaint that would possibly get used in court; the employee had described their boss with what would be considered in the UK as rather foul language indeed. I could have simply translated this language as it was into the English equivalents but having a thorough understanding of the Bulgarian language and culture, I knew all too well that it was not intended to sound as aggressive in Bulgarian as what it would sound translated into English. The words used, despite being considered as strong curse words in English, would only be considered as moderately rude or offensive in Bulgarian. After informing the client of this matter, they were perfectly happy for me to translate the phrases in question into the appropriate, less-offensive equivalents in English. Note: This is also why a text cannot simply be translated word for word into another language, as culture plays a big part in the translation process, as well as language knowledge but that’s another story in itself.

It has been said that it takes more than simply just knowing two or more languages in order for somebody to become a translator, as you need to be able to naturally relay the message in the style and context in the target text without there being any signs that the text has been translated and not written from scratch in that language. This is true however, cultural knowledge is essential too even though it can sometimes be overlooked. And cultural knowledge comes from living in the culture where the language is spoken.

 

With that said it is worth thinking about brand names and anything that is nationally famous in one country but is not so well known in other parts of the world. Take Starbucks for example, now as most of you will know this is the name of a globally famous coffee shop chain but if it just so happened that a translator was unaware of this when translating a text about Starbucks coffee shops then they may attempt to translate the two separate words “star” and “bucks” or may get totally confused and think of the character Starbuck from Moby Dick. Cultural knowledge is a vital skill for a translator and taking the time to do some research is very important too!

 

As well as working full-time as a translator, I have also purchased translation services myself and have seen firsthand the mistakes a translator can make when they are unaware of cultural differences between the languages in which they work. When I was a child and before becoming a translator, I moved to Bulgaria with my immediate family. Not long after moving there, my family and I (my parents, sister and I) all had to have our personal documentation translated into Bulgarian. It was as this point that it became very clear to me how important it was for a translator to have cultural and factual knowledge of the countries where their working languages are spoken. One of the major mistakes that most of the translators who I dealt with made was that they considered my mother’s and sister’s names to be masculine names because they end in a consonant and not the “a” which usually determines a feminine name in Bulgarian. Can you begin to imagine the issues we had when the translator had branded my mother and sister as “he/him” throughout various documents, some of which were very long, important and therefore timely and inconvenient to amend?! It is experiences like this one that makes me so passionate about making translators and clients aware of the importance of cultural and linguistic knowledge and experience in order to produce an accurate and professionally completed translation.

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