Cultural Translations


What Is Cultural Translating?

Having knowledge of a culture other than one’s own with enough fluency to understand actions, values, beliefs, symbols, and meanings and translate them between cultures.


Cultural Translating Done Well

This is an example of effective and successful cultural translating: when the popular PBS children's program Sesame Street created a version for Spanish-speaking audiences it did not simply translate the program's title into Spanish. Instead of using the literal translation "Calle Ajonjolí," they named it "Plaza Sésamo."

On the one hand, “sésamo” while not widely used among Latin Americans is synonymous to the cacophonous word “ajonjolí” and also aligns with the brand name Sesame Street.

On the other hand, the translation was also culturally effective, a recognition of the fact that in the Hispanic tradition, the central plaza has great significance as a place of encounter and community building, while in the United States, the main street is usually the center of a town's social and commercial life.

The cultural translators also made sure that the “E” on SÉSAMO had an accent mark, which in Spanish is optional in capital letters.


Cultural Translating Gone Bad

Unfortunately, not all multicultural experts have the expertise, intellectual depth, and intimate understanding of both American and Latin American cultures necessary to be cultural translators.

Some offer superficial and inaccurate advice and repeat amusing but bogus examples of failed communication across languages and cultures.

Perhaps you have heard the false anecdote about Chevrolet Novas having sold poorly in Puerto Rico and other Spanish-language markets because "Nova" sounded like the Spanish phrase "no va" which literally translates to "does not go."

This may be humorous but the reality is that Novas were among the most popular cars in markets such as Puerto Rico. Latinos / Hispanics do not make major purchase decisions based on such superficial considerations.


Real Life Cases

Case 1: "Asked them to spell out their last names"

A Chicago-based sales trainer visits one of his company's offices in Latin America to train a new team of sales persons. He instructs the sales staff to demonstrate personal interest in their clients by asking them to spell out their names.

The sales manager left a bad impression, the sales persons mocked him and refused to follow his instructions.


Case 2: "Yes, I will attend the event"

A pastor arrives to a town in Texas with a predominately Latino population. He calls a large number of people to invite them to a church event. Most replied yes to the invitation.

On Sunday just a handful of guests showed up.


Case 3: "May I see your receipt señor?"

A large US bulk retailer opens new stores in a Latin American country. It applies the same security practices it uses in the US stores, including checking out purchase receipts to see if they match the merchandise. 

The stores' launching ends up as a costly public relations crisis.  


Case 4: "They scored lower on the honesty test"

Researchers at a major mid-western university develop a survey for a study on honesty and dishonesty among students. When they broke down the results, they concluded that Latinos scored lower than other groups.

Because they failed to recognize that different cultures define honesty in different ways, their results were flawed and potentially supported a negative stereotype.


Case 5: "Books can be judged by their cover"

A publishing house commissions artistic covers for a new Encyclopedia of Cuba. The covers were beautiful. The press dismissed the editors' suggestions to replace some images. 

The encyclopedia sold very well in the broader market but sales among Cubans and Cuban-Americans in South Florida were disappointingly low. Some potential buyers were so turned off by the covers that they refused to even peek inside. 


Case 6: "You say Latino; I say Hispanic"

A speaker travels the country addressing audiences that include Latinos / Hispanics. 

At a Boston university, the speaker is scolded for using the term "Hispanic," and is told to use "Latino" or "Latinx" instead. Later that month, she delivers a PowerPoint presentation at a Philadelphia library, this time using the term "Latino." Someone recommends using "people of color" because it is a more unifying term. The next stop is Miami, where the speaker uses the terms "Latino" and "people of color" interchangeably. At the end of the presentation, an audience member chastizes the speaker for using the term "people of color" which he deemed offensive. 


Case 7: "We hire Ivy Leaguers"

A major not for profit organization fails to hire, promote, and retain Hispanic / Latino employees. 

The few Hispanics / Latinos that work there are frustrated by their low numbers and lower salaries; many become demoralized and seek employment elsewhere. The organization, for its part, does not benefit from the knowledge, skills, and insights of Latino / Hispanic employees.