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Tales from Localization

In celebration of the World Day for Cultural Diversity, SHL’s Localization team share some surprising cultural stumbling blocks.

We have all been there, you are out to dinner on holiday and ask for the menu in your language, then spend the next few minutes scratching your head trying to choose between the “Fried rolled up trousers” or the “Chicken rude and unreasonable”.

Translation mistakes like this are amusing, but they also highlight just how underestimated a translator’s profession is. You have probably never sat back while you are sipping your cocktail and deciding what to order and thought “wow, what a good translation” because chances are, if you are reading a good translation you will not realize it has been translated in the first place!

When you translate, you have to understand the true meaning of the original material and then interpret and recreate it in a different language, ensuring the end product is linguistically accurate and culturally meaningful. While a questionable translation in a restaurant is at best a funny anecdote, when it comes to assessment content the translation needs to be faultless, so at SHL we take the time to ensure our translators really understand our assessment content. It is an integral part of the localization process, and it is also incredibly eye opening.

May 21st is the United Nations’ World Day for Cultural Diversity for Dialogue and Development and what better way to celebrate than by lifting the lid on some of the most surprising conversations I have had with translators over the years.

The perfect example of a cultural mismatch is an ability test item about de-icing cars. Our Arabic translator pointed out that the Arabic word for “de-ice” is only used in very technical contexts, which means this item would be far more complex for candidates in the Middle East than for those in countries where de-icing your car is part of your morning routine!

Another example comes from an item in which candidates are asked to convert a 24-hour clock to 12-hour format. Our Thai translator explained to me that there’s not a 12-hour clock in Thai and rather than splitting the day into am and pm, they have four times of the day. It’s safe to say that item took some reworking!

If you are reading a good translation, you will not realize it has been translated in the first place!

It is not just the broader cultural differences that can cause difficulties for our linguists; some words simply do not exist in other languages. I often find myself honing my research skills to come to the rescue of our translators. For example, I have been asked for the exact dimensions of a wallet-size photo, the difference between undercoat and primer (because the same word is used for both in German), and what happens at a brown bag meeting (I had to get a colleague in the U.S. to explain that one because I was just as clueless as our translators).

As that last example demonstrates, it is not only working with other languages that highlights cultural differences. SHL is a global and diverse company and working in this kind of environment opens up opportunities for us to confuse and learn from one another in equal measure. A U.S. colleague visiting our headquarters in London once told me he’d stop by my cubicle. Like a true Brit, I agreed politely but had no idea what he meant until he turned up at my desk a bit later.

Finally, my fondest memory of cultural learning was when I spotted “Moon Cake Day” in the calendar of my Chinese colleague. She explained that in Asia the Mid-Autumn Festival is celebrated by eating Moon Cakes, which are a kind of pie that can be filled with sweet or savory fillings. From there, it became a tradition for her to bring in Moon Cakes every year.

I feel so fortunate to be in a role where I am able to interact with people from all over the word, and I hope I have shown you the fun that can be had by learning from other cultures. Our different backgrounds are what make us unique, and our cultural diversity should be celebrated. Why not take the time to find out more about a colleague’s cultural background this week? You never know, you could end up starting your own tradition!

Check out our other blogs on cultural diversity topics.

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Avril Murray

Avril is the Localization Manager at SHL and leads a team of consultants who are responsible for producing and maintaining high-quality localized versions of SHL’s products. Avril has a background in languages and a master’s in translation which informs her passion for understanding cultural differences and language factors that can impact how our products are perceived around the world.

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