Speaking Your Audience’s Language Through Cultural Adaptation

One of the most challenging and, not to mention, interesting aspects of translation is encountering phrases or words that don’t have an exact counterpart in the target language (the language that you want to translate to). This can happen in text containing cultural references, idiomatic phrases, or words that don’t have an identical meaning in another language. Simply put, some things just don’t translate. Luckily, there is a way to get your message across while communicating effectively with your target audience: it’s called cultural adaptation.


Translation vs. Cultural Adaptation

While translation is sometimes a relatively straightforward task, there are times when it requires a more flexible approach in order to effectively communicate the intended messages. The source (the starting content) will determine whether a straight translation or a cultural adaptation is required. Cultural adaptation is often applicable to marketing materials; press releases or documents with creative content, such as advertising copy, are certain to benefit from it. If the source is clear, however, and would benefit from a literal translation, then the best choice is just that: a literal translation. Documents that contain general content or content that is highly technical, such as medical journal articles or financial records, are prime candidates and, in these cases, the question is simply one of creating a good translation.


Creating a “Good” Translation as the Main Objective

What is Cultural Adaptation or Transcreation?

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The goal of a “good” translation is to convey a message from one language to another language. This means that the translation will be accurate and faithful to the source, capture its full meaning, and neither add nor omit information. After all, the source was most likely carefully crafted, so a good translation should respect that and strive to emulate it. Furthermore, it will sound native in the target language and, of course, be grammatically correct.
Following these guidelines ensures that different target audiences receive the same message in the same tone, regardless of the language. The ideal translation will not feel like a translation; it will express the same idea and convey the same message as the original text while sounding completely natural in the target language and remaining faithful to its “foreign” roots.


When and Why to Use Cultural Adaptation

With this in mind, the question becomes a matter of whether the source material is best suited to standard translation (direct translation), or more along the lines of cultural adaptation. As previously mentioned, if the content and messages are very clear and there are equivalences in the target language that easily convey the same meaning, then a standard translation will do. Examples include financial documents, informative brochures, and the like. But in cases where the content will not relay clearly in the target language, some modifications might be needed in order to get the message across as intended. This is especially true of creative content where the use of slang, colloquialisms, or specific styles rely heavily on cultural context. In this case, translation, in its classic sense, becomes challenging and cultural adaptation is the best option.

Cultural adaptation (sometimes called transcreation) creatively renders a message so that the meaning of the original source is preserved. At first glance, the words, phrases, and cultural references used in the translation might seem completely different, but the key benefit is evident, as the target audience is being addressed as if the content were originally written for them in their language. Messages that have a natural flow and are embedded in familiar, cultural linguistic concepts have a much better chance of truly reaching and impacting the audience.

Take the English expression, “break a leg,” for example. If you want to correctly express the same sentiment in German, you would have this phrase culturally adapted to: “Hals- und Beinbruch,” which literally means “neck and leg fracture” in English. There have been various examples of inaccurate marketing translations in the past where brands failed to take important cultural contexts into account. One of the most infamous examples is the “Got Milk?” campaign, which was extended to Spanish speaking countries, only to translate to something completely inappropriate.

Marketing materials intended for multiple target audiences commonly benefit from cultural adaptation versus the more traditional translation process. A marketing translation that sounds stilted or too literal is noticeable to native speakers at first glance. It reveals that the brand has not paid attention to its intended message and leaves the audience feeling underserved. For certain types of creative projects, such as taglines, it’s possible to even go one step further and move into copywriting where a team of linguists starts with a creative brief explaining the concept and desired effect in order to create the copy for another language. Consequently, taking that extra step to assess the source content’s suitability for cultural adaptation and how extensive the adaptation should be can really pay off. Experienced translation professionals can advise you at each step.


The Complexity of Cultural Adaptation and Measures of Quality Control

It goes without saying that cultural adaptation is quite challenging. Achieving the desired result takes a skillful, creative linguistic team that has great knowledge of and familiarity with both the source language and the target language. The trick is to grasp and understand the language-based cultural concepts in the source – most often not their native language – and modify them adequately to be communicated in the same manner in their own language.

In translation there are many factors: word choice, order, and style – all being unique to each translator. Different translations of the same original text can be equally correct. This makes translation a subjective matter that, especially in a professional context, needs a human touch to achieve a refined result.

In short, there are various possible approaches to creating a “good” translation to reach your target audience. When cultural references, plays on words, etc. require something beyond the limits of a classic translation, cultural adaptation is a great way to modify a message without losing its intended meaning. It ensures that you get your message across for those things that “just don’t translate.” Translation professionals can let you know whether a cultural adaptation is the best approach and can put together an experienced team for this delicate and important task.

We’d love to hear if you have had any experiences with especially tricky translations that benefited from, or could have used, a cultural adaptation. If you have a question or would like to share your experience, please e-mail us or comment below.


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8 Response Comments

  • Guy CirinelliJune 28, 2016 at 4:24 PM

    Very interesting. Almost all of the videos that we have translated need some sort of cultural adaptation. There’s always that little phrase that doesn’t quite translate into other languages very well. Thanks for the article!

    • Ubiqus USAJune 29, 2016 at 12:13 PM

      Hi, Guy – Multilingual video is a good example! More often than not, there definitely are phrases requiring a more tactful and culturally-sensitive touch in order to convey the right message. We’re glad you found the article interesting. Thanks for your feedback, and our pleasure!

  • GertJuly 4, 2016 at 5:44 AM

    Nice. Very informative!

    • Ubiqus USAJuly 5, 2016 at 11:37 AM

      We’re glad you think so, Gert!

  • CarterSeptember 6, 2016 at 11:22 PM

    This was so helpful. Thank you.

    • Ubiqus USASeptember 7, 2016 at 11:30 AM

      Hi, Carter! We’re glad you found the information in this article useful. Thanks for commenting.

  • Jorge Cruz ReyesDecember 21, 2018 at 6:37 AM

    Very interesting. Thank you.

    • Ubiqus USADecember 21, 2018 at 1:12 PM

      Hi, Jorge – We’re glad to know that you found this article interesting! Thank you for your feedback!


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