Translators tend to specialise in the field of translation they work in. While fields like medical and scientific translation are very technical, translators have to deal with less cultural context than in other fields. Business and marketing translators, on the other hand, must always take into account the cultural context of the text they are translating.
One of those contexts is a difference in the use of non-verbal clues in communication that is typical of a particular language. Language is embedded in the culture in which it evolves, so is a reflection of that culture. Some cultures use non-verbal clues much more in their communication than others and translators who translate from one language to another must be aware of that to avoid misunderstanding.


High Context Cultures

Those cultures who typically communicate best with a raft of non-verbal clues are called high-context. That simply means that the cultural context of the language used tends to be much higher than other language groups. Many Asian societies have languages that are typically high context. To a certain extent, it reflects the history of the society. Not so long ago, many high context cultures used much more face to face communication where non-verbal cues such as body language, facial expressions and the tone of the voice are as important as what words are said. Of course, that is changing quite rapidly with the penetration of the internet where there are many fewer non-verbal cues present.

Low Context Cultures

Low-context cultures have less need for non-verbal cues as the language is more direct in its meaning. “I mean what I say and I say what I mean” might be the motto of the typical low context communicator. Low context cultures are typical of Western Europe and North America.

The challenge for translators, then, is when they are engaged in translating text that has cultural significance and they are also translating from a low context language to a high context language or vice versa.  A translator who is simply translating a personal document like a birth certificate or driving license, of course, is spared the need for taking cultural context into consideration. Similarly, a translator who is translating a technical manual for a new appliance from the original Chinese into English (what could be described as from a high-context culture to a low- context one) can use a more direct translation method without thinking about the cultural context. This might not work when translating a business document from Chinese to English or vice versa.

The difference in high and low context cultures and the implication for translators of these differences underline the importance of professional translators having an in-depth familiarity with the two cultures, as well as fluency in the two languages. A business document written in English may seem almost rude and arrogant when read by a Japanese counterpart if it is translated by a translator who did not understand the differences in the two cultures. The Japanese document, on the other hand, may seem woolly and hard to understand what it meant or what the writer was getting at if translated more directly into English.

Cultural Context Exposes the Inadequacy of Machine Translation

While machine translation (MT) has come a long way, it generally fails to build in the cultural context in its automated system. It works best with simple documents that cannot be misunderstood when translated from one culture to another. MT cannot yet compete with human translators who are capable of understanding cultural nuances and using that understanding to adapt to what they are translating.

If you have a need for a translator, it is important to avoid the use of cheap or free automated translators as the risk of serious misunderstanding could compromise the purpose of having your material translated. All it takes is s single perceived snub or insult to become a lost contract. The potential financial loss is likely to be much greater than the money spent on a professional translator who has a confident grounding in the cultures of the people whose languages he or she is translating.