OPINION25 February 2022

Keeping culture in mind

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Religion, finances, politics and sex – most of us are familiar with the topics that are supposedly barred from the dinner table. But where are the boundaries at the table of business insights?  Dr Jill Kushner Bishop explains how brands can best avoid the potential pitfalls associated with mixing unfamiliar language and taboo topics.

Globe and foreign dictionaries representing translation services for international companies

In market research translation, the right data can transform the way an organisation operates and provide essential information for future success. International research enables companies to reach beyond their borders and tap into fresh perspectives and insights from a global economy. While businesses may want to jump at the opportunity, building trust with research participants is critical.

A language solutions partner can uncover opportunities for a bigger footprint, more customers, and increased market share. It is essential to work with a diverse team to consider cultural challenges connected to language barriers. Without a nuanced understanding of the cultural realities beyond language translation, researchers may not be able to earn the trust of respondents – which can inhibit the gathering of robust, accurate answers from their efforts.

The need for nuance

Given the importance of the cultural context in which a language is spoken, a literal translation can sometimes skew the true meaning and intent of a phrase or research question. Wording may sound blunt or unnatural to participants. Translation gaffes can cut into the legitimacy of collection efforts, causing confusion, misinterpretation – and at times offend respondents to a point of concealing their honest responses.

For market research translations, the phrase, “It’s not what you say, it’s how you say it” holds true. When the stakes are high, especially when trying to uncover truths about personal or sensitive subjects, even small word choices can trigger unintended prejudices or barriers that can affect results. Translations should be crafted to encourage objective and authentic responses. Survey questions or qualitative research moderator guides should be written with nuance in mind, in order to prevent possible misunderstandings.

Assuming that the data collected will be in a language unfamiliar to the research team, any qualitative or open-ended responses will need translation as well. A multilingual translation services team that understands both native language nuances and data collection standards is critical for compiling analysis information that is accurate and concise.

Data is essential to the development of business strategies, so accurate data is critical. To save time and avoid multi-language research pitfalls, we offer these three important cultural considerations for best planning and project execution.

Sensitive topics

If you think talking about taboo subjects over a dinner table with friends and family can be difficult, that sensitivity is only amplified when you add layers of culture. Even the subject matter of what is considered sensitive in each culture is different. Some cultures consider sex to be one of the most highly charged topics, while it may be an acceptable topic of conversation in another.

Likewise, the way different cultures perceive taboos around finances, health concerns and many other topics can be challenging when connecting with an international audience. Comprehensive translation services can flag concepts or terms that may be controversial or sensitive in particular cultures to make non-native researchers aware, help problem solve and prevent any proverbial cases of foot-in-mouth disease.

For example, one of our clients creating marketing campaigns and creative content in the MENA region needed to take into account the region’s sensitivity to sexual scenes, nudity, offensive political and religious content and more.

Beyond language, the proper inclusion of empathy can go a long way when discussing sensitive topics. If translation fails to express the delicate emotions attached to a topic, a respondent’s trust may decline dramatically. Or worse, they can be quickly offended and actively reject opportunities to share data. Expert native language work can avoid negative interpretations and offer sensitivity to maximise comfort and openness even regarding difficult subjects.

Regional differences

Regional dialects also play a critical role in communicating clearly with international audiences. Many languages have a multitude of dialects. In Arabic, for example, there are upwards of 20 dialect variations based on geographic borders and cultural enclaves.

The most common quality of a native language speaker is their ability to recognize when a word in one language can be translated in more than one way into another language. When these types of items are translated, it can become the forefront in their minds knowing the results can have dual meanings.

Regional dialect fails can have respondents unintentionally laughing at your process rather than focused on a serious response to your work efforts. Whereas sometimes humor can be a great icebreaker to build camaraderie, accidental mishaps in language can deteriorate communication efforts, distract focus, and cause loss of integrity to the topic at hand.

For instance, in the Lebanese dialect, Naseh means fat, however in Egypt it means smart. Similarly, the word Marah means woman in several Arabic dialects; however, in Egypt it carries a negative connotation and is not used in polite speech.

Gender guidelines

Another element to consider when market research moves beyond borders is the significance of gendered language guidelines. In gendered languages, such as Hindi, French, and Spanish, pronouns or nouns often require adjustment to masculine or feminine forms. As gender articles are altered, verbs, adjectives, and adverbs need to align in agreement. Conversely, some languages are by default gender-neutral.

When it comes to gender, qualified linguists know not to make assumptions. Instead, they consider the cultural context of the language, subject matter and tailor the translation accordingly. In this way, a linguist provides far more than translation. 

In the case of gender guidelines, when it comes to inclusive language for a translation into Spanish, we have a variety of options. We take into account the target audience, the client philosophy, the content and so; plus, of course, the culture and spirit of the language is a central matter.

Among the options we provide, some are more traditional and follow all the rules of the language, while others challenge them. For example, we had a client that needed a translation of a survey focused on gender and diversity. In this case, it was very important to include binary and non-binary genders, which for Spanish is certainly challenging given that the language does not have a neutral pronoun like some others do.

We decided to use an option that doesn’t follow the rules of the language, which has started to be used by the Spanish speaking LGTBQ+ community. We used the suffix “e” to mark the non-binary gender (something that does not exist in the traditional rules of the language), “a” for feminine, and “o” for masculine. This was the right choice given the nature of the content and the openness of the client.

Another alternative for these types of cases is the use of “x” to mark the non-binary gender, however, an important aspect to consider when using this suffix is that it makes the words hard to pronounce, and if the material is used by a person who is blind, a reading software may have a hard time trying to read this and consequently, the person will not get the full message and the text will not be inclusive in all the sense of the word.

There is a big difference between a fluent speaker and a native-speaking professional translator who understands historical, cultural and regional nuances. This more in-depth understanding can significantly decrease the likelihood of error in market research outcomes. The right language solution partner can ensure study participants are well informed and understand their part in the research process, without the risk of miscommunication.

They can translate research goals within the appropriate cultural framework and help collect valuable feedback and responses. A true partner – not just a vendor – works beyond translation services to effectively consider proper handling of taboo topics. Culturally nuanced research builds authentic trust with participants. With international strategy hinging on the results, the appropriate multilingual translation service yields high-quality actionable insights your business can depend on.

Dr Jill Kushner Bishop is the founder & CEO of Multilingual Connections, a global language solutions company that supports international research for market research & design firms, corporate in-house teams, universities and non-profit organisations.