Creating a cross-cultural glossary
Thread poster: Henrik Pipoyan

Henrik Pipoyan  Identity Verified
Local time: 00:59
Member (2004)
English to Armenian
Nov 7, 2006

I think you’ll agree with me that we not only translate from one language to the other, but also from one culture to the other, and in doing this many of us encounter cultural issues that are hard to "convert” to the other culture. In most cases dictionaries are not helpful, so we refer to encyclopedias and the Internet, sometimes without any luck. Some of these differences have been discussed many times and have more or less acceptable solutions, like measuring units, decimal points, etc., however there are many others, such as military ranks, emergency levels, administrative divisions of countries, names of government offices, etc., that make most translators take decisions on the spot, which aren’t often the best solution.

I suggest creating a cross-cultural glossary on or on Wikiwords, where we could discuss, describe or define these differences and try finding parallels, and recommend how to translate them to other languages. Or maybe there exists one?

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Henry Hinds  Identity Verified
United States
Local time: 14:59
English to Spanish
+ ...
Quite a task Nov 7, 2006

What you propose certainly has merits, but it would be quite a task. Of course our job involves more than languages, it involves cultures as well, and there are far more cultures in the world than there are languages. From there, of course, the permutations in terms of combinations are much greater.

Perhaps to begin something like that it would be helpful to compile different references on various cultures, countries and laguages that could be helpful to those needing understanding.

In my pairs (English and Spanish) we often run into such problems because both are languages that are spoken in many different countries with different cultures and very diverse populations. So we are constantly having to learn new things.

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Henrik Pipoyan  Identity Verified
Local time: 00:59
Member (2004)
English to Armenian
Yes, it’s difficult Nov 7, 2006

Yes, I understand it’s difficult, especially organizing this information. I think a mechanism has to be set up for collecting, discussing, entering and sorting the information. Besides the topics need to be linked to each other, which is another challenge. But if this is something that we need every day, why not try doing it? And who else, but the community is able to undertake such a task, if it is at all feasible? I think we could start by defining the topics, e.g., emergency levels, military ranks, etc., after which each “culture” can provide a description of the topic in their culture, and then draw parallels with different cultures, and finally recommend if it is correct to “covert” or not. I think each language has its own rules on converting or not converting foreign phenomena, so this will be something like a reference guide.

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Almir Comor MITI  Identity Verified
Bosnia and Herzegovina
Local time: 22:59
Member (2004)
English to Croatian
+ ...
very difficult indeed Nov 7, 2006

I agree with Henry that a "cross-cultural glossary" would be a daunting task. Culture-specific references are a major obstacle in translation and are not easily classified. If they were, it would have been done somewhere by now for a culture or two... Still, as you said, if it is feasible at all, community would be in a position to tackle it.

Your post reminded me of something I've done on my Translation Studies course. "Translation of cultures" is a buzzword in Translation Studies and quite a few scholars have done research and written extensively on this.

You might find it interesting to read several papers by David Katan, who has done a lot in this area. These papers are available online from here:

The website of his department also contains a few chapters from his book "Translating Cultures", but I cannot find the links now.

[Edited at 2006-11-07 21:47]

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Shaojie Huang  Identity Verified
Local time: 04:59
Chinese to English
+ ...
It is difficult, but worth it! Nov 8, 2006

I am so glad to see this come up!

In my work I repeatedly encounter challenges the solutions to which involve an intimate understanding of the two cultures and of how a framework of comparasion, if not a one-to-one equivalence, can be established.

In fact, I am now working on what may be a sketchy, primitive first draft of this framework for the translation of feudal terms between Chinese and English. I have noticed there is a considerable parallel between the feudal system in Europe and a similar institution in 10-3 century BC China.

Very interesting similarities can be identified in the ranking of nobilities, the way lands are distributed, and how social relationships, rights and obligations are defined by land.

So my approach is do a lot of reading. First I do some research about European feudalism, find out what each of the key words means (not what the dictionary says, but what exactly they are each about). As I read I build up a glossary of these terms with their detailed definition, application, etc. Then I do the same about the Chinese system and come up with a second glossary, which I will be able to compare with the first one.

Because I will begin by working on the two institutions one at a time and only after that do I enter into a comparative study of both, I believe such problems as subjectivity, arbitrariness and conclusion through presupposition, will be reduced, if not eradicated.

It is a lot of work, which I have just started, but the process of finding out will be so much fun.

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