By Adriana Adarve – Owner of Adarve Translations
Cultural expressions can be considered as forms of expressing traditional culture. They are part of the heritage and identity of the communities or cultures that use them, and they are generally passed down from one generation to the next.
One of the challenges of translating culturally accurate expressions is that their refined and intrinsic meaning in their source language cannot be conveyed exactly in the intended target languages. Idioms and sayings—which are great indicators of what is important to a given culture—are examples of expressions difficult to translate into a foreign language because their culturally specific meaning is not necessarily contained in the words themselves. Thus, translating the words alone does not translate without fail the intended meaning behind them.
The same is usually true within the same language. A lot of people tend to believe that because a diverse group of people speak the same language, they have the exact same culture; and, by the same logic, that idioms, sayings and culture-based expressions would have to mean exactly the same thing from one country or region to the next. This could not be farther from the truth. Speaking the same language does not necessarily imply having the same cultural base, as can be seen when comparing the USA and the UK, for example, or any two states in this country.
Time and time again in my life have I come into contact with Spanish-speakers whose idiomatic expressions I do not understand, or who cannot make sense of my own idioms and sayings, even if we speak the same language and use the same grammar. Trying to explain the meaning behind the words in the expression can sometimes render it more confusing, sometimes meaningless and some other times even unamusing. This is, for example, how a situation that is supposed to be funnier by the use of culturally intrinsic phrases, expressions or sayings lose their funny sense and can sometimes even turn into an awkward one. It is similar to becoming “lost in translation,” but in our own language!
The challenge becomes greater with culturally-based foreign expressions that intend to convey a specific message. Explaining the expression in its original language not only makes it lose its intended effect, translating it into a different language compounds the challenge. What to do in such a case then?
When confronted with a situation in which an exact or closely similar expression—one that uses the same words from the original expression—does not exist in the target language, the best option will be to look for a culturally accurate expression in the target language whose meaning is as close to the intent of the source expression as possible.
The translation of concepts and intrinsic meanings—the essence of what is being communicated—as opposed to the translation of mere words, not only shows passion and respect for our work, it also shows recognition and respect for the heritage of the communities in which the culturally-based expression originated and is used, as well as for the diverse target cultures that will read and accurately understand the equivalent expression.
All the best,
Adriana Adarve, Asheville, NC
About the Author: Adriana Adarve is the owner of Adarve Translations and is fluent in three languages (English, Spanish & French), as well as pluri-cultural, multi-cultural, plurilingual and multilingual.