Say What You Mean and Mean What You Say

Languages are about more than just words. They are a fusion of culture, memories, expression, and words. Since all these elements are so closely intertwined, how and which language is spoken in any area cannot be easily marked with an arbitrary line drawn on a map.

Culture is a many layered term that encompasses customs, traditions, and language. Somebody’s culture can pertain to the particular geographical region in which they reside, or it can be a culture that they have elected to belong to (e.g. Goth or hip-hop culture). It is also not uncommon for deviant sub-cultures to be nestled under the assumed dominant culture of the region.

The variations of culture can continue to be subdivided, but suffice it to say that culture is complicated. With so many layers it is especially important to define the audience you wish to address before you craft the message that you want to share. If not, you could confuse your audience, or worse.

“Cultural relativism” is an idea that has been developed to explain how to interact with people across cultures. This theory encourages observing people’s perceptions and interactions from within that person’s context and not from the culture in which you yourself sit. Embracing this idea becomes a necessity for translation because it promotes consideration and mindfulness, which helps your message appear as a natural communication, rather than a simple translation.

Interpretation not Translation

There are two parts to translating. You have to say what you mean, but also mean what you say. Often times, literal translation just won’t cut it. If you read a literal translation from Spanish that “El vaso se rompió,” you would read, “The glass broke itself.”

broken glass

If you are a native English speaker, the idea that an inanimate object can damage itself likely didn’t compute well. That is because, as English speakers, we like to know causative agents. “Who broke the glass,” we might ask since a glass obviously cannot break itself. If you never received this clarification, however, you may come to the conclusion that the glass was broken on accident since there is no one attached to the action, but that would take you inferring what the intention of the author was.

When writing to an audience you do not want them guessing about meaning. You want you message to be understood quickly and clearly and without any uncertainty. This is why it is so important to understand how culture affects language.

Professional translators don’t translate; they interpret. Since every culture has a unique way of expressing an idea, being able to express ideas naturally in a language is a cornerstone of good translation. The idea that you wish to share may be the same idea in both languages, but the manner in which it is conveyed reflects a hidden background of history and ties that are invisible to those on the outside.

Take for example the English phrase “The grass is always greener on the other side.” This is relevant to you as an English speaker because historically livestock and land were a measure of wealth. This phrase also puts an emphasis on quality. The grass is greener. There is not necessarily more of it, but it is, apparently, better. Why do English speaker structure a comparison between quality and not quantity? It has to do, again, with our ancestral culture. English-speaking cultures were relatively wealthy and therefore had the luxury to be particular about the kind and quality of their purchase. This eventually led to a very particular outlook on the world where because we had enough already, we valued quality above all else.

Contrast this with the Korean equivalent of this phrase that translates to: “Someone else’s rice cake looks bigger.” First of all, the reference is to rice, which highlights the fact that rice was the available measure of wealth that everyone had access to. Secondly, the Korean idiom refers to the size of the rice cake rather than its quality. This is because historically Korea was a poverty-stricken nation and unlike the English-speaking world, simply having things in large quantity was the mark of success.

As you can see, culture really does influence how people speak. You cannot just translate. Instead, the message you want to send has to be carefully crafted to be culturally intelligible.

Changing the Message

Communicating cross culturally can also cause you to alter the manner in which you are presenting a message.

Much research has been done on the effects of general, cultural background on perception of advertisements. For instance, for brief messages to be effective, marketers must tailor them to address a particular culture and adhere to their values. On the other hand, if you are presenting a longer, more informational set of ideas, it turns out that personal knowledge will be more influential over a person’s decision.


Again and again it has been proven that culture influences a person’s perceptions and verbal interactions with others. New technologies are fueling awareness about how important a deep understanding of language and culture is when working in an international market. Even major brands like Nike, Google, and IBM are beginning to make cultural context a cornerstone of their customer communications strategies.

Crossing these linguistic and cultural boundaries is no small feat. First, you need intimate knowledge of how your product will be received in another market based on its historical context and culture. Then you need to consider how you wish to spread the news, which will involve an intricate ballet of wordsmithing. Performing this dance between keeping your business’ identity and not stepping on the toes of your culturally dissimilar customers can be most gracefully achieved through accurate language usage.

So if languages are this nuanced, imagine the time it takes to successfully translate any of your business’ writing. Translation should not be a haphazard stringing together of sentences from a translation app. Translation is an art that takes a deep comprehension of cultural contexts and meticulous manipulation of words in order to ensure that you message is successfully understood. Therefore, use an expert. They will make sure that your voice is heard correctly and your message is appropriately conveyed. When it comes to human communication, rely on people to make sure that your communications are interpersonal.