Friday, March 25, 2016

Translating Culture and Cultural Phenomena

Religious imagery plays a huge part in
Semana Santa.
This week, in Spain at least, is Semana Santa (Holy Week). If you've never seen the spectacle before, it's incredibly impressive. I'm currently in MΓ‘laga in southern Spain, where the festivities are quite vibrant and inexplicable. That's why today I thought it'd be useful to look at translating culture and cultural phenomena.

When it comes to translating cultural phenomena, things can get quite tricky for a translator. As such things are usually unique to a region, country, or even language, a direct translation probably won't exist because the thing itself neither exists in the target culture nor the target language. That's when creative translation practices can come in handy.

Is your audience familiar with the practice?

Before you start translating, you should think about who is going to read your text. For example, if I was writing an English-language article for British expats who live in Spain, I could just leave cultural terms in the original Spanish. This is because the readers would likely be familiar with the Spanish terminology, despite preferring to read articles in English.

What if your audience isn't familiar with the practice?

Say your target audience is unfamiliar with Spanish culture. In this case, I would have a bit more work to do. I can't really invent words for the terminology, as the practices don't exist in English-speaking culture. In this case, I would have to be more creative. For example, rather than trying to find a vague term to describe a specific cultural idea, I might need to keep the word as it is, but add a brief description to the sentence.

Semana Santa celebrations in Sevilla, Spain.
Is it really OK to not translate a word?

Of course it is. Languages borrow words from other languages all the time. In fact, we've done plenty of posts on loanwords that have made their way into the English language. Sometimes, as a translator, the words just don't exist in the target language. In this case, you may have to just keep them in the source language and explain them in the target language. If your audience understands the culture as it was described in the source text, then you've done your job. Well done!

Is there a specific cultural phenomenon that you've found hard to translate? What was the most complicated cultural element you've translated? Tell us about your experiences in the comments below.

Monday, March 21, 2016

Translating Numbers and Money Around the World

Last Wednesday, we looked at the differences between different time and date formats around the world and how, as a translator, it's important to get them right depending on the language you're using. Today I thought we could continue with numbers, since it's not just words that are affected by translation.


When it comes to numbers, it's important to understand the "scale" commonly used in that particular language or region.

For example, in English, a "billion" can be two different numbers, depending on whether you are using the long scale or the short scale. As it's more common in the English-speaking world, I'll talk about the short scale first.

The Short Scale

In the short scale, you have thousand, million, billion, and trillion, and each of these is 1,000 times bigger than the last.

Using the short scale, a billion (1,000,000,000) is a thousand million. A trillion (1,000,000,000,000) is a thousand billion. Put simply, each new term has three more 0s after it.

The Long Scale

In the long scale, each term is a million times bigger than the last. Hence a million remains 1,000,000, but a billion is now 1,000,000,000,000.

The long scale is fairly common throughout Europe (with the exception of the UK). You can spot the long scale by its use of words similar to "milliard" (1,000,000,000) and "billiard" (known as a quadrillion in the short scale).

The long scale was previously commonplace in British English, whereas the short scale was used in American English. However, both varieties now generally use the short scale.

Writing or Representing Numbers

Of course, there's also the little matter of typing out those numbers. In my examples, I used the practice common in British English, separating each set of three digits with a comma, starting from the end of the number.

Then there's the matter of decimal places. In English, it's usual to separate decimals with a full stop (or period in American English). This means one half is written 0.5 when using decimals.

However, if you speak another language, you might be familiar with a system that works the other way round. So a million can be written either 1,000,000 or 1.000.000, depending on where you're from and the language you speak. This also means that one half can be written 0.5 or 0,5 depending on the system you're using. Make sure you take care!


Money talks, and if you make a mistake with it in your translation, there'll only be bad things to say about you. This is when knowing the practices related to writing numbers becomes very important. Aside from making sure you are using the right scale and the correct separators, there's also the issue of currency names, and how they should be written.

For example, here in the UK we have the pound sterling, also known as pounds or GBP. One pound can be divided into one hundred pence. One pound and fifty pence is therefore written as £1.50, placing the symbol at the front and separating the subunits of the currency with a point.

However, if you're using Euros, you tend to see the symbol written as the separator. Therefore if we had one euro and fifty cents, it could be written 1€50.

Make sure you're aware of best practices when it comes to numbers and money, because they make the world go round!

Wednesday, March 16, 2016

Translating Dates and Times Around the World

If you're familiar with the internet or live in the United States, you may have heard that Monday was Pi Day. If you're not familiar with Pi Day, it takes place each 14th March in celebration of the mathematical constant pi (Ο€). This date was chosen since it corresponds to the first three digits of pi as written using the US date format (3/14).

However, if you're from a country that doesn't write dates as they do in the US, Pi Day doesn't make much sense. When it comes to translation and learning languages, knowing how numbers are represented can be very important. Since we've just been talking about Pi Day, let's look at dates first.

Standardised times and dates are imperative in aviation.
Date Formats

When you write the date, the format may change depending on the language or region. The US uses a Month/Day/Year format, which means today's date would be written 3/16/2016 in full.

As a UK native, I am much more familiar with a Day/Month/Year format, which shows today as 16/3/2016.

In certain regions and languages, it is also acceptable to write the date starting with the year, then the month, then the day. That would make today's date look like 2016/3/16.

In addition to the order of the numbers, there are also the separators to consider. Thus far I have only used slashes (/), but depending on the region, dots (.), hyphens (-), and spaces can also be used.

Time Formats

When it comes to time, the two most common formats are the 12-hour clock and the 24-hour clock. As the name suggests, the 12-hour clock only includes the numbers from 1 to 12, with the numbers repeating after midday and midnight. The 24-hour clock goes from midnight to midnight without the numbers for the hours repeating.

There are very few languages that use the 24-hour clock when speaking. In English, you don't say "fifteen o'clock". When it is spoken, it's usually what is called "military time", whereby the entire time is said without separators like "fifteen hundred hours", meaning "1500", or "3 o'clock in the afternoon".

However, in French, for example, the 24-hour clock is referred to when speaking, alleviating the need to ever really refer to the time of the day.

In Translation

With all these different formats, it is very important when translating to be familiar with the conventions of the language and even the region you're translating for. Making a mistake with the dates and times in a text could make you look unprofessional and make the text ambiguous, confusing, or in a worst-case scenario, useless.

These practices can be hugely important when it comes to things such as contracts or medical records. In fact, a mistake on a medical record could result in patients being given treatment at the wrong time of day or even on the wrong date!

Friday, March 4, 2016

Emoticons and Emoji: How Pictures Are Worth A Thousand Words

Love them or loathe them, emoticons are becoming more and more commonplace in language, and not just for casual conversations between friends on Facebook or WhatsApp. Due to the immense popularity of mobile phones, texting, the internet, and messaging as forms of communication, emoticons, and now emojis, are now almost universally used.

While some of the purists among us may believe that most languages are diverse and varied enough not to need them, emoticons and emojis are everywhere. One use that particularly struck me was when I saw that the BBC had started using them more frequently in their posts on Facebook.

Today I'd like to talk about why emoticons and emoji are so useful in language, and the role they play in communication.

Texts and messages are short and instant forms of communication. Originally, all text messages were written using a traditional phone keypad instead of the keyboard featured on modern smartphones. Since you had to type letters by pressing a number key multiple times, texting could take quite a while.

When it comes to language, if there's a way to make something easier, we tend to do it. Not only were we trying to save time, but we were also trying to save money. The last thing you'd want to do is have your text (which had a limited number of characters) become two texts, costing you double.

SMS language was created as people tried to use fewer characters without any loss in meaning, which is how letters and numbers like "b", "c", "r", "u", "y", "2", and "4", began to be used to refer to the words "be", "see", "are", "you", "why", "to", and "for", respectively.

The Oxford Dictionary's "Word of the Year" in 2015.
The tone of texts can also be very ambiguous, so you can see how punctuation resembling a face could help set the mood of a message without having to write several long texts, which would take more time and money.

From characters looking like faces, we got emoji, a Japanese term that combines e, meaning "picture", and moji, meaning "character". Once emojis were included on Apple's iPhone, their popularity snowballed. Soon after, they were added to Android phones, and have now become a massive cultural phenomenon.

In fact, the Oxford Dictionary made an emoji their word of the year. The "Face with Tears of Joy" got the award in 2015, and is the most popular emoji.

What do you think of emoji and emoticons? Are they useful for communication? Or are they abominations on our once-beautiful languages? Tell us your thoughts in the comments below.