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Cultural Awareness: A Factor Human Translators Consider

9/25/2017 by Sara Leonhartsberger

As discussed in previous articles, machine translations have recently been considered as a viable replacement for human translators, being able to translate documents word-for-word. However, human translators bring to translation irreplaceable elements, such as careful editing or particular language choice. Informing language choice is the notion of cultural awareness, the ability to understand or research a culture’s associations with words to better convey a message to that culture. While machine translations often take a literal approach to translation, word-for-word, human translators often engage in the practice of “transcreation”, the act of generating the closest meaning while acknowledging the cultural mindset surrounding that particular word choice.

Most frequently, the human translator practices this cultural awareness when confronted with a word that, while equivalent in literal meaning, varies in its contextual meaning based on its intended audience’s culture. The history of the word within that culture shapes the perception of the word. For example, the Spanish word “revolución” can hold a positive connotation within the United States, for one immediately associates “revolution” with the American Revolution or the Industrial Revolution, thereby with freedom or progress, but this can hold an entirely different connotation in countries such as Nicaragua, where “revolución” brings more readily to mind the conflict between the Contras and Sandinistas, thereby associated with strife or casualty. A human translator, aware of these connotations, would search for a parallel word or phrase that represents the original message of the document yet holds a more favorable connotation for the cultural audience. Thus, a “transcreation” serves as the meeting ground of authorial intent and audience reception.

One cannot stress enough the importance of acknowledging and mediating cultural awareness through textual translations. While machine translations are valuable tools, a human translator’s cognitive faculties to discern not only the correct meaning but also the best meaning are indispensible. With translation often serving as a gateway for cultural interaction, shouldn’t the gatekeeper possess a well-rounded knowledge of both communities? 

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