Cultural differences in translation and how to deal with them

Cultural differences in translation

Language is closely tied to culture, which makes it important to not only consider the target language but also the target culture of the country of publication. In English, we are aware of the differences between for example American and British English, which ranges from different expressions for the same concept (e.g. elevator vs lift) to colloquial expressions and idioms that may not exist in in other countries besides the one where the term originated.

Similarly, the Spanish spoken in Spain or in Latin America varies. This is particularly becoming a hardship in translation if the differences in terminology derive from a cultural difference, where no direct equivalent exists. One example for this is the word ‘bus’, which in Spain is directly translated to ‘autobús’ and has a high level of synonymity. In the different regions of Latin America, there are many different terms that describe what we understand as ‘bus’ but the vehicles in question have slight differences, which result in them being assigned individual names, such as ‘rapidito’, ‘trucho’, and ‘guagua’. A quick google image search will show you that these three terms (there are many more) all describe different types of buses. Due to this, we have more information about the type of bus in Latin American Spanish than we do in the English translation, which leads to a loss regarding the content.

Since there is no direct synonym in English, the translator has to make a few choices, which are dependent on context and also desired message of the text. The first thing that is important to consider is whether readers must know what type of bus exactly is mentioned in the source text. This is more important if the text is intended to represent the source culture or whether it is supposed to be entirely adapted to the target culture.

The highest degree of maintenance of the source culture is also called Exoticism. In this scenario, the translator who aims to exoticize would not translate culturally special words such as ‘guagua’ and instead include them as foreign terms. One example sentence for this would be: “He paid 20 pesos for the guagua.” This sentence does not aim to domesticate the content into the target culture and instead maintains the source culture. This is frequently done in translation of creative works, such as books and films, where the culture of the country it was written in is important to the message or plot of the work. One advantage of this is that this method educates the target audience and allows them to ‘travel’ to another country. Moreover, many members of the target audience may find the cultural elements engaging as they can work out contexts, word meanings or can investigate. One potential pitfall could be that exoticism may cause confusion in other members of the target audience that would prefer to easily understand the content. Thus, the translator needs to narrow down who the desired audience is and to what extent the cultural elements are an intricate part of the source text.

On the other end of the scale, translators can opt for Cultural Transplantation. What this means is that the text is entirely adapted to the target culture, which makes the translation invisible. The above example, “He paid 20 pesos for the guagua,” could sound like “He paid 1 dollar for the bus” if the translator decided to domesticate the text for the US market. When reading this sentence, it is not noticeable to the reader that the original text was written in a different location, and they will instead imagine the scene in environments that are familiar to them. This has the obvious disadvantage that the culture of the source text will be lost; this is more important for works that aim to represent the culture than for other texts. For some other source texts, it can be an advantage to culturally adapt the translation (or to localize) to the target audience. For instance, in marketing it is important to resonate with the target audience to get them to identify with the product; in this case it would be beneficial to domesticize in order to avoid confusion.

In reality, there exist many solutions that combine the approaches of exoticism and cultural transplantation. To exemplify, translators can choose to avoid using terms such as ‘rapidito’, ‘trucho’, and ‘guagua’ and instead add extra information that describes the bus and its special features that could distinguish it from a bus known to the target audience. Alternatively, translators could include the foreign terms but add an extra explanation as well, which could even exist in form of a footnote. Furthermore, translators may opt for an interplay of exoticizing and domesticizing after evaluating the advantages and disadvantages in every situation.

Obviously, this requires deep and careful consideration on side of the translator as well as a thorough knowledge and understanding of both cultures. Cultural differences are one of the main difficulties in translation as they exist in every language pair. Decisions made by the translator will be unique, which reinforces the individuality of their work as there is potential for different translators to produce tremendously different outcomes, depending on how much of the content they chose to culturally adapt to the target audience and how much they chose to maintain. This makes it even more important to credit translators for their translations that were well received by the target audience while also maintaining the key messages of the original.

Andreas Jacobi

Andreas Jacobi


In this article

Most Recent

3 things to bear in mind when translating between English and German (part 2)
Continue reading...

More posts

Reasons why customers don’t like the translation agency experience

I come across a version of this statement so many times: “I have worked with so many translation agencies and my experience has been bad – I have...


GPT-3 is extremely interesting for the future of the language and content community. We take a look at the technology behind GPT-3, its use cases...

3 things to bear in mind when translating between English and German (part 2)

Translating between English and German seems easy enough. However there are many pitfalls, false friends and things to keep in mind when creating a...