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Happy International Translation Day!

Bridging Cultures

(Originally published September 2011)


It’s that time of year again!  Let’s celebrate! September 30th is International Translation Day, the feast day of St. Jerome, the patron saint of language translators. The theme for 2011, proposed by the International Federation of Translators (FIT), invites us all to honor the importance of language services, including both written translation and spoken interpretation, as a means of “Bridging Cultures.” So, what should you keep in mind when facilitating effective communication between cultures?


Promote linguistic competence and provide critical language access. Promoting linguistic competence, defined by the National Center of Cultural Competence as the capacity to “communicate effectively to diverse groups including persons of limited English proficiency,” can be key to facilitating effective communication between cultures. In addition, the need to provide vital language access as part of Title IV of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 can be important from a legal perspective as well as a means of meeting the diverse communication needs of your organization. The guiding principles for language access include providing written translation of documents required by law or that are critical to obtaining or receiving information about an organization’s services or products. Language access often also involves utilizing interpretation services to facilitate spoken communication of vital healthcare, legal, business, training or educational and other information.


Integrate linguistic and cultural competence into all aspects of the organization. For linguistic and cultural competence to be achieved, systems and organizations need to sanction, and in some instances require, the promotion of linguistic competence and “the incorporation of cultural knowledge into policy making, infrastructure and practice.”


Take a broad view of culture. When defining culture, it is important to take a broad view and not only look at national culture, but also gender, ethnicity, generational groups, profession, or any other “historically transmitted system of symbols, meanings and norms” to more clearly understand how a person’s different cultural identities impact perception and communication in various contexts.


The iceberg metaphor as an illustration of aspects of culture. The iceberg metaphor is often used to illustrate both the visible aspects of a culture, such as manner of dress, music, food, etc., as well as the more critical invisible aspects of a culture that are hidden below the surface, such as values, norms, modes of thinking, rules of relationships, communications styles, etc. These hidden aspects of culture can have a significant impact on both written and spoken communication. For example, as highlighted in Syntes’ eTip on Japan, the underlying value of maintaining harmonious relationships by not shaming others means that Japanese people would not use a type of advertising in which one company or product is compared as worse than another. In addition, in spoken communication, for example, the negative or positive perceptions of various types of nonverbal communication should be considered.


Avoid stereotypes. Be sure not to fall into the trap of viewing the promotion of cultural awareness as a means of stereotyping people. Understanding the values, perceptions, and behaviors associated with specific cultural groups should be used as a means of facilitating effective intercultural communication, not a source of cultural absolutes. It is also important not to make blanket assumptions based on interaction with one individual from that culture, such as meeting a quiet person from China and assuming that all Chinese people are quiet.


Explore the concept of cultural dimensions and their impact on communication. One means of viewing national cultures in particular and their impact on communication is to look at Geert Hofstede’s Cultural Dimensions. A good example of one of the cultural dimensions is: Individualism, which can impact how spoken or written information is conveyed. Countries with higher individualism scores, such as the United States, Australia, and the United Kingdom, emphasize the importance of the individual in how one communicates and behaves.


On the other hand, countries that are much lower on this scale, such as China, Japan, and Korea place a higher emphasis on maintaining the harmony of the group or collective and would be more reluctant to express individual opinions or put one’s own needs above those of the group. It would still be important, of course, to view these cultural dimensions in context and take into consideration other factors such as one’s personality, generation, etc. For example, while Japanese culture typically places more emphasis on the group versus the individual, the younger generation may tend to embrace more individualistic values and behaviors in certain instances.


Know your demographics and always keep learning. It is important to understand the demographics of your target audiences and the cultures you are serving. It is key always  to keep learning, both about effective intercultural communication and the specific cultural groups that make up your target audience. Sharing experiences and information with individuals or even committees within your organization about effective communication between cultures can also be invaluable. For more information on the intercultural communication issues that may impact both spoken interpretation and written translation or for consulting in these areas, be sure to check with your language services provider. To read more about effective intercultural communication or to find books on specific cultures, visit the Intercultural Press website as well as look for books on these topics at local or online bookstores.


This year’s theme for International Translation Day offers an important reminder of the link between language, culture awareness, and effective intercultural communication as a pivotal means of “Bridging Cultures.” Happy International Translation Day!

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