The Importance of Cultural Sensitivity in Translation

The Importance of Cultural Sensitivity in Translation

Suppose you’re working on a campaign and preparing communication material. You hire a copywriter who’s carefully picking the words to turn a block of letters into a powerful tool. Whatever the purpose of your materials – to inform, advertise, entertain, convince or trigger the reader – the right wording makes them feel and act.

A standard marketing practice, when you deal with a familiar audience. But things get more complicated when you have to achieve the same result with audiences that don’t speak the same language and have different worldviews and ways of thinking.

In other words, when communicating cross-culturally, you have to make sure that your text doesn’t only speak their language, but it also speaks to their cultures.

What actually is text?

The simplest answer that comes to mind is thoughts put into words. But let’s dig deeper. Any piece of content comprises 3 core elements – form, meaning and purpose.

  • The form is the tangible, verbal part of the text – the words and sentences.

Which language do you use?

What’s your word choice?

What’s the style of your writing?

Is it a slogan? Commercial script? Information in a booklet?

  • The meaning is the essence and the message enclosed in these words.

What ideas do you share?

What emotions and response do you seek to evoke with your text?

How do the readers interpret your message?

What do the readers learn from your text?

  • The purpose is the goal with which the text was initially created.

For example:

Commercials – increase sales.

Information campaign – raise awareness.

Social ads – encourage action.

Social media post – educate or entertain.

Only when all three elements work together and cohesively, can you expect the best result from your campaign.

When you translate your materials into another language, you naturally want to achieve the same effect on the new audience. You will not accomplish this through formal equivalence of language alone. Focus needs to be placed on the meaning and the purpose.

Word-for-word translation achieves formal equivalence but fails to fulfil its primary task – to convey the original message to the speakers of another language. To achieve the best result, you must avoid literal translation and choose a comprehensive cultural adaptation instead.

Cultural adaptation

The main character of your translation story is not the text but the person who will read it. Cultural adaptation entails a set of changes throughout the translation process. It makes the text not only linguistically correct but, most importantly, appropriate, familiar and relevant for the readers.

It is a shift in the cultural environment of your materials, which is inevitable when a certain element of the source text doesn’t exist, can’t be translated, or will have a different effect in the target language culture.

What undergoes cultural adaptation?

  • Idioms or figures of speech that aren’t universally understood.
  • Jargon, colloquialisms and slang.
  • Humour.
  • Socially sensitive and taboo topics (e.g. politics, sexuality, religion and sacred objects).
  • References to concepts and realities that are familiar only to the speakers of the source language.
  • Content that can be considered offensive in the target culture.
  • Text layout

Summing up

A culturally adapted content ticks all these boxes:

  • It conveys the intended message.
  • It is consistent with the original style of the source text and the author’s voice.
  • It is essentially a new text, based on the source, and not a word-for-word translation.
  • It has the same emotional effect on the target audience as the source text.
  • It is appropriate within the local socio-cultural context.
  • It resonates with the worldviews and communication norms of the target audience.


Translation services are equally a linguistic and a socio-cultural process. To have the desired effect on the readers, the text should resonate with their historical, social and cultural reality. The ability to translate beyond words and speak to the unique ethnic characteristics of the target audience is what distinguishes a high-quality translation. It’s crucial to understand that cultural insensitivity and negligence to seemingly small details can significantly impact your multilingual communication campaign. The use of inappropriate concepts and expressions or awkward and unnatural wording will lead to significant miscommunication, confusion and will put off the reader. When developing a multilingual campaign, one should always bear in mind that distortion of the meaning and miscommunication can mean far greater costs to the business than investment in expert translators.

Speak to one of our consultants today or call us on 1300 752 108 to discuss your translation project.

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