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Culture Trumps [ Machine ] Translation

While having a vast vocabulary is important for any translator or interpreter, simply knowing the dictionary meanings of words in a foreign language is not enough. In fact, in any language, there are many cultural layers behind certain words and phrases that linguists need to know.

I learned this the hard way when living in German-speaking Austria. As English speakers, we often say “how are you?” as a continuation of our “hello” greeting. We then expect the person to answer with an automatic “Good, how are you?”

German speakers, however, don’t do this. Not knowing this cultural norm, I simply translated our common English greeting of “Hello, how are you?” to the German “Hallo, wie geht’s?”when talking to people abroad.

“These subtle differences in meaning can make all the difference in translating and interpreting.”

After receiving slightly strange looks from German speakers, I would then be provided with twenty-minute long answers involving that person’s stomach issues, skin rashes, fights with estranged siblings, you name it. I quickly learned that the German version of “how are you” is a little different from the English.

Another example is the phrase “Bis spӓter,” which translates to the English phrase “See you later.” But not exactly.

In Austria, after meeting up with a German-speaking friend and getting ready to leave, I cheerfully told him “Bis spӓter!” He gave me a very strange look and said in German, “No, I won’t see you later.”

After being a little confused about why he didn’t want to see me ever again, I realized that the German “See you later” can only apply to later that day, and not to the general, anytime-in-the-future way we mean it in English.

These subtle differences in meaning can make all the difference in translating and interpreting. While the above examples are very basic and low-level, they represent the fact that cultural norms play a role in how one should translate or interpret certain words and phrases. It is therefore very important to be aware of the culture of the language.

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