Cultural adaptation in translation: How do you create the same effect in people from different cultures?

One of the important aspects to keep in mind when translating is cultural adaptation. Depending on the objective of a translation, the content should be kept the same as in the source text, or it should be modified and adapted to the culture of the target audience.

By definition, linguistic-cultural adaptation is the process of adapting any type of content to the culture of the target language.

There are various areas where content changes resulting from cultural adaptation can be found. We’ve shared a few interesting examples below. Some of them illustrate cultural adaptation that is purely linguistic, while other examples also include the adaptation of other aspects, such as images or references to known public figures.

Marketing and cultural adaptation

Large companies usually keep cultural adaptation in mind in their marketing strategies so that they can create the right connection with their international customers.

Remember Coca-Cola’s “Share a Coke” campaign when it printed first names on cans and bottles? Coca-Cola realised that the idea wasn’t going to work in China, where people don’t usually address acquaintances using first names. The solution? They used structures such as “schoolmate” or “good friend”, which are also intimate and personalised in the Chinese culture.

Another company that usually does a great job with the cultural adaptation of its advertising messages is Netflix. An example is the ad it created to promote the fourth season of the series Black Mirror. The ad for English-speaking countries mixed images of the next season with real images of public figures such as Donald Trump, Theresa May, Anonymous, Vladimir Putin and Mark Zuckerberg. But the ad that came out in Spain mixed images of the series with other images of well-known figures in this country, such as Mariano Rajoy and Nicolás Maduro, or images of the police action after the referendum in Catalonia.

You can see both trailers at the following links:

The audiovisual world and cultural adaptation

Pixar Animation Studios is one of the companies that tend to pay the greatest attention to language and the cultural adaptation of the films they produce. A couple of funny examples can be seen in the film Inside Out. In the version for Japan, the scene when the film’s protagonist, Riley, doesn’t want to eat broccoli was modified. In this case, broccoli was replaced by green peppers, because in Japan it’s one of the foods that children like the least.

For other countries, the scene in which the protagonist’s father imagines a hockey game was also modified, replacing hockey with football:

Another example of the cultural adaptation of films can be found in China. When Titanic was re-released in 3D, the scene in which actress Kate Winslet’s character poses nude on the sofa for a portrait by Leonardo DiCaprio’s character was censored in that country, among other scenes.

Another case of cultural adaptation can be seen in the English translation of the Spanish series Vis a vis. In one of the episodes, a prison guard addresses one of the prisoners and says: “Shall I bring you some sunflower seeds?”, referring ironically to the fact that the prisoner was standing around doing nothing. In English, the subtitles were translated as “Shall I bring some crisps?”. In Spain, sunflower seeds are a cultural reference. It is very common for people to eat them in their spare time or when taking a break. But eating sunflower seeds at such times in an Anglo-Saxon country isn’t quite as common, so that reference wouldn’t have worked. Consequently, sunflower seeds were replaced with “crisps”, an equivalent cultural reference in the target culture.

Literature and cultural adaptation

Finally, we can also find examples of cultural adaptation in literature.

One of the most surprising examples appears in nothing less than the Bible. For the Inuit, their sacred animal is not the usual lamb of the Bible, rather the seal. As a result, a seal was used so that the value of the animal for sacrifices could be understood culturally, in addition to being an animal that was familiar to the Inuit and that reflected purity.

Another example is a phenomenon that originated in France between the 17th and 18th centuries, relating to translations coined as “the beautiful but unfaithful” (belles infidèles) by French lexicographer Ménage. Such translations were characterised by adaptation of the content of classic texts into “good French taste” of the period. For example, words that might shock French readers were omitted, such as “orgy” or “sodomy”.