The importance of culture in translation

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Translations involve more cultural, social, economic and miscellaneous aspects than you can imagine

You may never have thought about it, but culture in translation is a fundamental necessity. After all, in addition to involving technical skills, translations demand a deep understanding of cultural and social aspects.

In addition to helping you understand the process of professional translation, this topic will help you understand that translations can be full of details and particularities, and this plays an important role in the end result.

We will tell you how culture is related to the languages of the world, to translation itself and, consequently, why you should select translators carefully.

Language and culture: are these related in any way?

They certainly are and in many different ways.

When we think of a language, we usually only think of communication itself, when we have to talk to a foreigner. But languages are full of culture.

The very existence of a language is a valuable cultural factor for a number of peoples, as it may be one of the last remaining details of that particular society.

According to the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO), a language becomes endangered when parents stop teaching it to their children and when it is no longer used in everyday life.

UNESCO has five risk levels for languages, which are as follows (some of them with an approximate number):

  • Safe: widely spoken
  • Vulnerable: not spoken by children outside the home (600)
  • Definitely endangered: children no longer speak the language (646)
  • Severely endangered: spoken only by older generations (527)
  • Critically endangered: spoken by only a few members of the older generation, usually semi-speakers (577)

Therefore, of the roughly 7,000 languages in the world, 2,350 (33.57%) are likely to cease to exist, a surprising number.

Consider Australia for example, a country where there are approximately 230 Aboriginal languages, almost all at risk. Some of them are known to be spoken by only three people, such as Magati Ke and Yawuru.

We have other examples, like in the Andes and the Amazon Basin. The roughly 113 languages that exist in both regions are little known and are rapidly giving way to Spanish and Portuguese or, in a few cases, to a more dominant indigenous language.

Imagine how intrinsic is the relationship between the languages and the culture of these peoples. Keeping these languages alive is important to the essence of these societies, and it goes far beyond than mastering the vocabulary of a language.

Regarding translations, a relationship also exists and, although it manifests itself in a different way, culture must be considered so that translators are able to deliver high-quality work.

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How does culture manifest in translation?

By describing messages and information that may be implied, but that have great relevance to a particular audience.

Those who want to know how much a translation service is worth must understand that it is not just about changing words from one language to another. Otherwise, the use of machine translation and occasional human-made editing would be sufficient.

The thing is machine translation cannot be compared to human skills because translations are much more human than mechanical in nature. Every sentence, every expression, every term holds its value and this value can be lost when the necessary precautions are not taken.

We can think of an example in Portuguese, specifically in Brazilian Portuguese: ‘política do café com leite’, which began in the late nineteenth century and ended with the 1930 Revolution.

If the expression had to be translated into English, we could get something like “coffee with milk politics”, which is theoretically correct, but refrains from telling a very important part of Brazilian history for those who do not know it.

‘Política do café com leite’ aimed to support national power through São Paulo and Minas Gerais oligarchies. São Paulo was “coffee” because this state was a strong coffee producer, while Minas Gerais was “milk”, given its intense milk farming activity.

So, a relatively simple expression can hold rich and interesting history, and this is a practical example of how culture in translation is a determining aspect that should be considered.

In this case, an alternative would be including a translation note, in which the translator writes a brief explanation of the expression, providing readers with further information about it.

Something similar happens with the expression “holy Joe” – which literally means “José sagrado”, but the expression was originally used by sailors in the nineteenth century to refer to those who ventured into the seas to preach to souls seeking salvation.

Today, the term is used to denote parish priests, chaplains, and ecclesiastics, but nothing like a cultural explanation to understand what that really meant.

Culture in translation: an intense and much needed relationship

The relationship is strong and quite straightforward. It is virtually impossible to imagine a language without at least a touch of culture, just as culture itself has one of its main elements in translation.

Thus, it is also clear that it is not enough for a translator to know two or more languages: he/she must seek to understand the cultural, social, political, economic and even entertainment context of a country, which directly interferes with the performance of his/her job.

As a result, the importance of quality control in translation becomes even greater, as the work goes beyond linguistic itself and also covers other areas of society.

Finally, once you understand how fundamental culture in translation really is, it becomes clear that counting on a specialized and experienced translation agency is key to those who want high-quality services with positive results, whatever the proposed objective.

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