More Than Words – The Case for Cultural Sensitivity in Translation

This blog was written by Sandra Alboum, founder and CEO of Alboum Translation Services as part of Global Health Council’s Member Spotlight Series. Alboum Translation Services is a translation agency that serves nonprofits worldwide. Their clients include the World Health Organization, Elizabeth Glaser Pediatric AIDS Foundation, American Cancer Society, Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health, Pathfinder International, and Planned Parenthood, as well as other organizations working in public health, education, the environment, human services, and arts and culture. For more information, visit www.alboum.com or contact Sandra at sandra@alboum.com. Alboum Translation Services is a Global Health Council 2018 member.

Tibetan nomadic women attend a maternal and child health education session © 2005 Aleksandr Dye, Courtesy of Photoshare

“Your auntie’s aunt.” Roughly translated from Mandarin to English, that’s how Chinese women refer to getting their period each month. Your auntie’s aunt arrives and then when she longer comes because of menopause, she goes on holiday. More than slang, this is how physicians also refer to women’s monthly cycles in conversations with patients.

Understanding this cultural nuance was critical to the success of one nonprofit’s recent global patient education campaign. The organization had embarked on an effort to educate women worldwide about early signs of ovarian cancer. US-based program managers felt strongly that all materials should use accurate medical terminology rather than colloquialisms, as the program sought to provide women with appropriate language to use when speaking with their doctors. Brochures and fact sheets were translated from English into six languages. When, as part of the quality control process, translations were back-translated into English, the less formal language of “your auntie’s aunt” and “holiday” were found. Program managers insisted these be changed – calling into question the overall quality of the translation. Translators and editors pushed back, however, citing the program’s goals as the reason for the non-medical terminology.

In the end, the translation team’s recommendations prevailed and the educational materials were published utilizing language that was truly understood by the intended audience. While not the terminology we’d use in the United States in English, it was the terminology that made the campaign the most effective and impactful in China.

Had translators used medical terminology in the ovarian cancer prevention campaign described, the materials would have been rendered useless before they were placed in a single patient’s hand. Terms like menstruation, menstrual cycle, and menopause would have not been understood as relevant to them – they would have been glossed over as something they’d never heard of and therefore never experienced. With this story in mind, and as you consider your own organization’s global campaigns, here are a few ways to ensure effective communications and materials.

1) Skip Google Translate (and other automated tools). You get what you pay for with a free tool. Professional translators bring the human element of communication – the understanding of context and cultural nuance that is essential to a quality translation. While fluency in both the original and target language is essential, translators who are familiar with the subject matter of the material being translated bring additional value to delivering an accurate, effective translation.

2) Know Your Audience. Spanish isn’t Spanish worldwide and even in the United States. Start by defining your audience – where will the material be used or where is your audience from? If you’re targeting European Spanish speakers, their dialect will be notably different from those hailing from Mexico or Ecuador. Also consider the reading level of your audience. If you’re talking to a population with lower (or no) education, their ability to understand complex material may be limited.

3) Consider Cultural Nuances. How one culture refers to a health condition is often notably different from another. Be flexible with both words and graphics to most effectively convey your message in another language or geography. In addition, review images to ensure they reflect the audience as well. There’s little value in a photograph of a white woman in shorts and a short-sleeved t-shirt on a tree-lined street in a communication being used in the Middle East where women traditionally cover their bodies and communities look markedly different that those in suburban America.

As with any marketing, advocacy, fundraising, or communications program, global campaigns and domestic programs targeting non-English speaking populations must consider the program goals, audience, materials, and budget for them to have maximum effectiveness.