Lost for Words: Translating Culture

  • Luke Sewell
  • 4 January 2012
Brazilian gesture meaning 'What are you talking about?'

In Brazil (and other places), if you bring all of your fingers and your thumb together with your hand pointing upward, and then move your hand up and down at the wrist, this means 'What are you talking about?'.

Living in a new culture can often open your eyes to just how many different ways there are to communicate. In fact, new languages and cultures, in addition to teaching you new means of communication, may even open your mind to ideas that you previously never knew existed. This deep connection between language and culture – how learning one requires a deep appreciation of the other – is what I would like to explore in this article.

Let’s begin by looking at a few words unique to Portuguese:

  • The concept of missing someone or feeling a lack is perfectly expressed through the word saudades. No other language I know has a single word that perfectly conveys a sense of nostalgic longing for something that may never return. To have saudades is to feel a lingering love for something absent.
  • The Portuguese score again with gostoso, a single word that generally means “to please all your senses.” How gostoso describes “how it pleases you.”
  • Another nearly impossible-to-translate Portuguese word is cafuné, which is “the act of tenderly running one’s fingers through someone’s hair.”

In Portuguese-speaking areas, these common words are used often and in countless contexts. This is not surprising; for any new word with a wide range meanings, the cycle of its evolution that allows for its use in new expressions and its increased popularity. Other words are just better at expressing certain specific things. Whatever the case, both types of words can be hard to translate.

A Brazilian gesture meaning 'I don't know'

In Brazil, sweeping four fingers under your chin and making a puzzled expression means 'I don't know'.

Grasping Native Gestures

New ways to communicate do not always stem from words; gestures and body languages vary remarkably from culture to culture as well, but are just as potent means of expression. In contrast to the movement-averse Japanese, for example, Latin American speakers use a diverse range of hand gestures. Once you’ve learned them, you may begin to wonder how you ever conveyed meaning without them!

Naive visitors to the south of Brazil might look at the hand gestures pictured above and right and screw up their noses in confusion. To Brazilians, the first hand gesture means ‘What are you taking about?’ or, ‘Have you lost the plot?’ In response, an experienced gesticulator may make a gesture that is generally taken to mean “I don’t know!”

Translating as an Art

A translator’s job is not just to look up words in a dictionary, but to communicate ideas or phrases in the most culturally and linguistically proximate way.

The alternative – trying to translate too literally – is a perilous path and a common mistake made by the average traveller armed only with a phrase book and an understanding of one’s own culture.

But the kind of insights a translator needs can only come from deeper immersion in the language and culture of a place, especially the way people express themselves in both spoken and written format. For instance, people from different cultures have very different approaches to writing (see image below).

Of course, writing and oral communication are inextricably interlinked. Directly asking for what you want may be acceptable in some cultures in the USA for example; however, in South America not taking the time to engage in the niceties of small talk may lead to you coming across as rude and too aggressive.

The ability to consider cultural factors such as these is perhaps the most important aspect of a translator’s job.

Lost for Words chart showing English, Romance and Asian approaches asking a question

One of the big challenges in translating is deciding what to add or take away from an existing style in order to better suit the new readership. That might mean meandering a little more when translating from English to a Romance language.

Communicating Across Cultures

The act of communicating involves myriad cultural and linguistic hurdles, but fortunately mastering each individual expression and gesture is less important than recognizing that people across cultures communicate differently.

If you are aware of variance, it will change the way you travel. That means taking in what people are doing around you, copying their movements, adjusting to their cultures and conforming to their way of communicating. With this simple mindset , you will be able to pick up the subtle differences that may previously have passed you by. You may also help to slow the cultural erosion all too often seen in tourist hotspots. This will help make travel a more sustainable, enlightening and enjoyable experience.

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Luke Sewell

Luke Sewell has been living and learning in South America for the last two years but now is heading up a South American specialist Spanish and Portuguese translation company called Latin Link (click on the Read More Here button below) back in jolly old London.
Luke Sewell
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language, opinion, personal experience, South America,

7 Responses to “Lost for Words: Translating Culture”

  1. Sunitha Cole says:

    Cross-cultural thinking is more and more needed in our everyday lives.
    To avoid misunderstandings, it comes in handy if you know about the diverging ways of expression of the respective cultures. Quite often humorous aspects or the hidden meaning between the lines get lost in translation. In the 1960s, for instance Swedish Electrolux vacuum cleaners were successfully marketed in the UK with the slogan: ‘Nothing sucks like an Electrolux’. When the company used this in the American market years later, hoping the audience would find the double-meaning of the line amusing, one can imagine that it didn’t come across in quite the same way as in the UK; humour is not just a language thing. Translation-companies work with linguists who are familiar with both the culture of the target and the source language.

  2. Thanks for this useful contribution. These considerations show exactly why professional translators are needed, as we understand these cultural and communicative differences. Getting an amateur to translate a B2C website or tourist brochure – or anything that aims to engage or persuade – is often counterproductive.

  3. Jonas says:

    Hi there!

    I am very glad to see someone showing interest in the language and writing a very good article.

    I work as a translator / linguist / cultural mediator / teacher of Portuguese and English here in the US, and one thing that I would like to point out is that the word “tęsknota”, if I recall correctly, in Polish is similar to the word “Saudades”. I remember in my semantics class, when I was doing my undergraduate in linguistics, comparing the levels of emotional state related to the word “saudades” as well as its grammatical structures that the levels were very similar between Portuguese and Polish. Thus, one could assume that Polish has an equivalent word to “saudades”. However, when it comes to English, you are very right that it is very hard to express the whole sentiment attached to the word “saudades”. Now, one disclaimer I would like to make is that I am not an expert nor do I speak Polish. Thus, one should not take my word for it. Nevertheless, one could do some further research on the word.

    Once again, good job on the article.

  4. Wow! Great article dear! Its really informative and interesting as well.


  5. Luke Sewell says:

    Thank you very much for your comments!

    Yes, the differences between our two languages has always facinated me.

    All the best


  6. Cristiano Siedschlag says:

    Hi there,
    I found this article through the linkedin.
    I work as a Portuguese teacher in Brazil and I can say that is the first time I read an article which describe pretty well the Brazilian’s gestures and body languages and the diferences between Portuguese and English languages.

  7. Maureen says:

    Great article Luke!

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