Translation and
Cross Cultural Communication

Communication is a process that involves sending and receiving messages. In cross cultural communication through translation, a message should be sent in a culturally sensitive manner. Otherwise, if culture is not taken into account, translation is less likely to be understood in the target market.

cross cultural communication, Bible translator "This country reminds me of a giant in a deep sleep. Mongolian deserts in the north, the Himalayan Plateau in the west, and a sea in the east. A many-sided and majestic country, breathing of peace." That was the impression China made on Father Gury (Karpov), an Orthodox celibate priest who came to the country in 1840 to work for the Russian Orthodox Mission in Beijing.

He, a graduate of the St. Petersburg Ecclesiastical Academy, was sent to China not accidentally. He had unique linguistic abilities. There, on the opposite bank of the Amur River, he was expected to do complicated work of Bible translation.

To perform that task, Father Gury mastered the Chinese language, both spoken and written. Furthermore, he diligently studied the culture and traditions of China. He used to say that data he collected contained many unknown facts and would make up two huge volumes. (Unfortunately, the data was never published. After his death, that valuable data was lost.)

Based on his knowledge of the Chinese language and culture, Father Gury translated the New Testament, a service book and other liturgical books from Russian into Chinese. When translating those religious books, Father Gury faced the challenge: some important theological categories were absent in Eastern philosophy, in particular the notions of the Trinity, the Mystery of the Incarnation of God, etc.

In The Gospel of John, Father Gury had to write "In the beginning was the Tao", while the Russian original said "In the beginning was the Word". The phrase was translated in such a way that its wording had the same impact on its Chinese readers that the original wording had upon Russian readers. Father Gury opted for "Tao" because it was the only notion that meant the principle of life in the Chinese culture and was understandable to Chinese people. That enabled Chinese readers to understand the meaning without having the cultural knowledge implicit in the Russian biblical text.

The Chinese parish would not understand the Savior's words "I am that bread of life" either. There were no wheat in China in the 19th century and they did not bake bread. So Father Gury translated the phase as "I am that rice of life".

Why am I telling the story about the translation endeavor of the Orthodox priest in China in the 19th century? To stress the role of translators as mediators in cross cultural communication and to show that culture is an essential element which should not be overlooked throughout the translation process.

Translation is a process of conveying meaning of written texts from one language to the other. However, meaning is grounded in culture or, in other words, in a way of life of a nation. Therefore, accurate translation and effective cross cultural communication is impossible if culture is ignored.

As can be seen from the above example, the practice of taking culture into account in the translation process has a long tradition. The new term "transcreation" has recently emerged to denote this practice. "Transcreation" means not just direct translation of words, but development of culturally accurate materials adopted for cross cultural communication.

Today, culturally relevant translations are required in many fields: medical, financial, legal, etc. They are absolutely necessary in the fields of literary and marketing/advertising translation.

A collaborative approach of translation buyers who are interested in getting culturally appropriate translations should consist, in particular, in adhering to the following guidelines:

  • Avoid a cultural (and gender) bias in the source document. You don't know enough about the culture of your target market(s) to avoid this bias? Then explore world cultures with Culture Briefings;
  • Prepare a glossary of terms;
  • Choose culturally neutral graphics;
  • Avoid culturally-bound clich├ęs, concepts and slang (if they are not absolutely necessary);
  • Use limited number of fonts and styles;
  • Indicate text that should not be translated (e.g., acronyms, brand names, mailing addresses);
  • Modify the source document according to suggestions of your translation company, should the translation company suggest such modifications (e.g. some concepts may not exist or may be inappropriate in the target culture; therefore, it may be expedient to delete them to ensure adequate cross cultural communication);
  • Make sure your translated document is checked by a target audience reviewer to ensure that it is translated in a manner culturally appropriate for the target market. The translation company should approve any changes made by such reviewer.

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_____________________________________________________________________ Website owner: Irina Lychak, self-employed freelance linguist, Russian translator, Ukrainian translator, Kiev (Kyiv), Ukraine

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