Translation is just the tip of the iceberg in adapting materials for different cultures

All translation involves some adaptation of the original message, if only to address the fact that the structures of languages vary. Often there is no exact equivalent for a word or phrase. Different cultures can have different expectations about things like tone (formal vs. informal). Translation is almost never a matter of simply replacing one word with its equivalent. In the case of most technical, business, and general translation, adaptation is just part of the normal translation process. While we review the original document to see if there are any ambiguities, errors, idioms, or jargon that might need to be explanation, this is again nothing special.

There are some cases, however, where we advise client’s to invest the extra time and money in getting a pre-translation cultural assessment.

What is a pre-translation cultural assessment?

An assessment involves first specifying which foreign audiences the materials are meant to target and then identifying people in that culture who can critically assess the potential impact of messages within the context of their own cultural norms and preferences. The reviewers look at things like word choices, graphics, colors, tone, formatting, and overall themes; then they report back on their conclusions. The assessment report gives client guidance on which concepts and content require adaptation for that culture and provide rationales. The assessment may also make suggestions for changes to the source text to avoid communicating a confusing or inappropriate message to foreign audiences.

When do you need an assessment?

There are two broad types of materials that we are often called upon to translate and for which a cultural assessment is advisable: marketing campaigns and e-learning or training courses in “soft” subjects like leadership training or supervisory/management skills.

  • Marketing campaigns

Marketing messages are carefully crafted to appeal to an audience at an emotional level, deploying familiar words and symbols to excite, intrigue, or comfort the potential customer according to the personality of the brand. The problem is that words and symbols that work well in one culture may not have the desired effect—and may even have a negative effect—in another culture. Some messages simply don’t translate because they’re based on ingrained cultural assumptions that we may not even be aware of. At the very least, cultural assessment can save you from the expense of translating materials that will be ineffective; in other instances, it can prevent you from communicating messages that will actually harm your brand.

Based on the assessment, the designer in consultation with their client can decide whether changes are needed in the original content. If you are marketing a global brand, you don’t want to sacrifice the brand by allowing a degree of marketing localization that totally obliterates the basic branding elements and company message. You will want to start from a universal message about the company or product that crosses cultures and work from that into the various localized versions. An assessment will reveal if your overriding message is truly universal.

In all cases, you want to be sure that any problematic copy is transcreated for the individual target markets and that graphics and other design elements are replaced with local variations where necessary.

  • E-learning/Training

Courses involving what are referred to as “high-context” topics may require substantial adaptation for particular cultures. “High-context” topics are ones that are more likely to bring into play assumptions based on the learner’s culture and environment. A course on management, team building, or elder care, for example, would be more culturally sensitive than a course about how to use a particular piece of software. In fact, in many of these high-context courses, culturally relevant idioms and examples are important to connect the message with the audience.

Here the review should be by consultants who are knowledgeable not just about the target culture but also about learning processes. It’s worth repeating the advice we gave in an earlier post on cultural adaptation of e-learning here.

The consultants will research the target culture looking particularly at:

  • the learning methodologies that are successful there;
  • different customs, laws, geography that may impact course content;
  • any research on the attitudes in that culture towards the specific subject involved in the course; and
  • the tone expected (formal vs. informal) by the audience in that country.

Their review will examine the course content and design in relation to the target culture, identify material that raises issues, and make suggestions on changes. The review will look at things like the terminology used, the implications of the course title, cultural differences that might affect how some of the course materials are received and the course evaluation is conducted, questionable assumptions (e.g. that a cash gift in exchange for assistance is a “bribe”), and legal differences.

Just as with pre-translation reviews of marketing materials, a pre-translation review of an e-learning or training course may suggest modifications to the course that should be made before the translation process starts: portions might need to be rewritten, examples and graphics replaced, content reorganized, etc.

If you want your content to be effective in other cultures, don’t skimp on the preparation and get a pre-translation cultural review. It’s an investment in longer term success.