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
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.
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.