Cultural Translation

Cultural Translation: an approach

Translation can be defined as an activity, historically defined as an art, involving the transfer of a source language (L1) into a target language (L2), which is also framed within a different culture that conditions it. Translation goes further than crossing between languages, it also crosses cultures. Therefore, cultural reference points are essential when it comes to transmitting our message effectively and faithfully.

A translator’s work is not the result of magic nor is it the creation of a perfect machine that that can replace human work. Rather, it is a meditative reflection on the original text that takes into account linguistic and cultural aspects such as phrasing, colloquial language, sayings, onomatopoeia, customs, habits, traditions and gastronomy. Translation is thus conceived as a complex and compromised activity as the translator sometimes comes up against non-translatable aspects, such as the sonority or phonetic effects of a poem or song, false friends or cultural bumps where ideology and hegemony play an important role.

Therefore, a translator must be aware of the importance of cultural implications and of certain cultural aspects when translations, and make a rational assessment of what is the most appropriate strategy for efficiently conveying the message of the original language. However, what is culture? We should specify the concept by using Newmark’s definition (1988:94) which views culture as, “The way of life and its manifestations that are peculiar to a community that uses a particular language as its means of expression”. Vermeer considers language to be part of a culture (1989: 222) and regardless of whether we more or less agree with these authors, we can state that culture and language are inseparable.

Furthermore, the translator should be aware of the knowledge that their readers or audience (in the case of simultaneous translation) may possess. Some of the cultural references we refer to are additional classifications such as those used by Newmark: ecology; (plants, animals, winds, mountains); cultural material or artefacts (food, clothing, housing and communities); social culture, work and leisure; customs and concepts (political, religious, and administrative), gestures and habits.

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We will now provide some practical examples, taking into account various examples of texts with languages and cultures different to our own. We are interested in highlighting the difficulty of translation, not in terms of grammar or syntax, but rather on a lexical level. Therefore, we would like to focus on examples of something that we can all understand: food. Newmark (1988: 97) views food as “The most important expression of natural culture; food terms are subject to the widest variety of translation procedures”.

Let us think about the expression pâtisseries tunisiennes. The translation would not be complicated if we as readers or receivers, have cultural reference knowledge. However, the case may be that this expression may seem foreign or alien to the speaker of a foreign language without this prior knowledge. The translator’s work consists of looking for an equivalent expression in the target language and culture. This task will involve assessing different possibilities: Can we translate it as “cake” or “pastries” in English or in Spanish as “pastas tunecinas”?

Another example is the difficulty translators sometimes have when working with an eponym, that is to say, the name of a person that denominates a geographical place where wine is produced, such as bouteilles de Sidi Brahim. How can we translate this in order to obtain an equivalent expression if the reader has no cultural knowledge? The translator can use a neutral means of translating it such as “inexpensive Algerian wine”. botella vi

Another example would be the expression Chez l’Arabe. Not only is it necessary to take into account the origin, “Arab” but also the notion that “Chez l’Arabe” is a place that is always open and where you can find almost anything you are looking for. How can we maintain the cultural and geographic reference if our receivers do not have the prior cultural baggage or experience? We could translate this expression as “Turkish Delight” or even we could even paraphrase with the expression “Arab Turkish Delight” as bought in Turkish shops or stores that differ substantially from the shops with fixed opening hours, for example in France, England and Spain. Therefore, the reality of what an “Arab shop” is should be explained in the translation so that a cultural equivalent could be considered.

Another example, how do we translate Les Loukoums? We can translate it by keeping the original word or by using a well-known term. In the first instance, the information can be interpreted by a community of people familiar with oriental customs and, specifically, those of Turkey and Greece. In France, for example, loukoum is a word that has been integrated into the French language from North African countries. In the second case, the translator must search for an equivalent word in the target language and culture.

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  • James, Kate. “Cultural Implications for Translation”. Translation Journal. Volumen 6 October, 2002.
  • Newmark, P. A Textbook of Translation. New York: Prentice Hall, 1988.
  • Vermeer, H. “Skopos and Commission in Translational Activity.” In Venuti, L. The Translation Studies Reader. London: Routledge, 1989.