Cultural sensitivities – do your translations pass the test?

If beauty is in the eye of the beholder, it’s also in the mind of the reader. A translation is only ever as good as the context it’s used in, and ‘context’ could mean any number of things, from the expertise of the readership, their physical location, or crucially the cultural space they inhabit.
Any type of localisation, or indeed any service provided to those of a different culture, needs to navigate the treacherous waters of cultural sensitivities carefully to avoid giving offence. This was brought home to me recently through my work with the Fire Service College, a company who provide training to a large number of Saudi students each year. Capita TI provides the interpreters to facilitate this training, and it’s been fascinating to see how the College accommodate the students’ cultural needs, from providing a place to pray and halal food through to moving the mealtimes to before and after dark during Ramadan. Obviously when the people you are providing localisation for are on-site, right in front of you, this cultural factor is impossible to escape. It takes more subtlety and intelligence to identify potential cultural traps when providing a written translation for use in a foreign country.

Localisation pitfalls

Any translation which mentions disputed regions or countries, for example, runs the risk of causing offence simply by using one nuanced word instead of another, especially where entrenched ideological issues have meant the build-up of delicate terminological balance. Should it be ‘Northern Ireland’ or ‘The North of Ireland’? The ‘Occupied Territories’ or the ‘Disputed Territories’? ‘Myanmar’ or ‘Burma’? A good translator knows which one to use and adapts their work to the circumstances if necessary.

Even how you write a language isn’t exempt from the cultural minefield.

Serbian (or Serbo-Croat, or Croatian, they’re all dialects of the same language – another potential cultural issue) for example, can be written in Cyrillic or Latin script, depending on where it’s going to be used – produce a Latin script translation for use in Serbia itself, rather than, say, Croatia, and it may well be understood, but it could be borderline offensive to the reader – again, a good translator or translation company will help you decide which one is appropriate.

Some cultural issues can prompt a rewrite of your entire content. I was recently with a customer who produces question scripts for medical staff to deal with patients over the phone. It was pointed out that in some countries it would be taboo for a female patient to discuss certain issues with a male nurse and vice versa. This would prompt a rewrite of the whole question sequence, with an initial question to establish gender followed by a switch to a male or female operator so the call could continue.

If this issue was only spotted after the translation had been completed it would mean an extensive (and expensive) rework and retranslation job.

How to avoid problematic areas

The pitfalls of the DIY online translation option and using bargain basement suppliers are well documented, and I’d need a whole book to do them all justice rather than just a blog. What I hope this has made clear though, is that one of the major potential issues with bad translations isn’t just the grammatical errors, the punctuation, the spelling and the style -although they are all vital – it’s the fact that a thoughtless, off-the-shelf translation can actively alienate your potential audience before you’ve had a chance to grab them. Choose a good localisation partner and they will steer you through the process, proactively identifying and avoiding these issues.


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