Cultural Context: Why You Need an Interpreter

Updated on April 16, 2024

Connecting with a multilingual individual goes beyond a simple switch between English and another language.

Communication requires context: cultural context. And, that’s why, as we will explore today through sweet, sad and sassy language examples, “you need an interpreter for that.”

If you’re fluent in more than one language, you likely know there are certain words or phrases that just don’t quite translate accurately into another language while retaining their full meaning. This is because language isn’t just about conveying ideas. It’s also a reflection of cultural nuances and perspectives.
These cultural nuances form a cultural context that shapes the meaning and subtleties of certain words or phrases, making them challenging to express to someone from a different cultural background.

Words Without Borders

Across the globe, there are countless fascinating expressions that defy direct translation into other languages.Some are so specific that they’re unique to certain dialects or regions such as Caribbean Spanish, and might not resonate elsewhere in the Spanish-speaking world. With over 20 countries claiming Spanish as their official language, each has left its own imprint on the language. That’s why, even if you or your team members are fluent in Spanish, you might still require an interpreter to accurately navigate these cultural intricacies when communicating with Spanish-speaking employees, customers or LEP patients.

Tip: Check out our Top 5 Best Practices for Optimizing Your Remote Interpreting session!

Cultural Context

Here are some of our favorite “untranslatable” words and phrases:

  • Chuleta (Panamanian Spanish) – This is the word for pork chop in Spanish, however in Panamanian slang, it means “pity” or “disappointment” or even “damn”. To make it more confusing, “chuleta” can also mean the exact opposite. When you’re excited about something, it also can mean “Wow!” It just depends on how and when you use it.
  • Cotisuelto (Caribbean Spanish) – This word is used to describe a man (typically a young man) who usually wears his shirt tails un-tucked. It’s often used in a negative context to convey a poor fashion trend.
  • Fernweh (German) – This German word means a longing for distant places. And, while the English word wanderlust comes close, fernweh can also refer to a longing for a place that you’ve never even been.
  • Frühjahrsmüdigkeit (German) – The German language loves to join words together to make progressively more specific words! Frühjahr means springtime, while müdigkeit means tiredness. Together, these words combined into one refer to a sort of reverse seasonal affective disorder, such as when people become depressed or lethargic at the onset of spring.
  • Lagom (Swedish) – This word most closely translates to “just the right amount.” It carries the connotation of appropriateness, although not necessarily perfection. The value of “just enough” for Swedes can be compared to the idiom “less is more,” and carries a favorable connotation.
  • Layogenic (Tagalog) – This is a slang word from the Philippines for a person who is attractive from a distance, but not from close up. “Layo” is the Filipino word for “far” while “-genic” is a term borrowed from English, particularly from the word “photogenic.”
  • Saudade (Portuguese) – Portuguese speakers use this term to convey a beautiful, bittersweet longing for something absent. It could be something you’ve loved and lost or something that may not even have happened at all. Native speakers across the globe from Portugal to Cape Verde to Brazil to Angola claim that this feeling is unable to be translated.
  • Schlemiel and Schlimazel (Yiddish) – Both of these terms refer to someone prone to bad luck. Yiddish distinguishes between the schlemiel and schlimazel, who would most closely be grouped under a single term such as “klutz” in other languages. The schlemiel is the traditional bumbler, who spills his coffee; however, the schlimazel is the one on whom the coffee is spilled.
  • Shoganai (Japanese) – This term is a frequently used Japanese response that means “it can’t be helped.” It is a catchall response to any situation, large or small, over which people believe they have no influence. Another translation might be “It is what it is: accept it!” You might recognize similar phrases in other languages such as the Italian phrase “Que sera, sera!,” or the French “C’est la vie!”
  • Sobremesa (Spain Spanish) – The literal translation of sobremesa is “upon the table;” however, this term is used in Spain for the time one spends still seated at a table after eating. In Spain, this includes the time that people remain at the table exchanging gossip, ideas, or even playing cards. For Spaniards, it’s a time to be self-indulgent and to recognize that there is more to life than working long hours. To them, there are few pleasures greater than sharing a meal and then chatting nonsense for a large portion of what remains of the day.
  • Ya’aburnee (Levantine Arabic) – A literal translation would be “You bury me!”, but this morbid-sounding phrase has a surprisingly sweet meaning. Used mostly in Lebanon and Syria, this is a romantic expression telling the other person that they would not want to live without them. A better translation into English might be closer to: “Live longer than me or bury me, as I would not be able to live without you.”
  • Zhaghzhagh (Persian) – This ultra-specific Persian word describes the chattering of teeth from being cold or from rage: the feeling experienced mostly in winters or after a fight.

Interpreters Do More Than You May Realize

Interpreters use the full spectrum of a language and a speaker’s cultural context to actively adapt a message. In cases where a word or expression can’t be translated literally without distorting or altering the meaning, a trained interpreter must quickly adapt the message using other words or phrases in the target language to convey the meaning and connotation of the original speaker.

Cultural Context

For example, imagine expressions in English such as “having a chip on your shoulder,” “a leopard can’t change his spots,” or “this is a piece of cake.” How would these sound to someone of another culture if translated literally word-for-word? Not quite right.

Regional words and expressions can also be misunderstood because they sound similar to a specific word in English, but have a different meaning. We featured an alarming example of this in a past blog that describes how a Spanish-speaking patient was misdiagnosed because of a language mistake.

These examples demonstrate the importance of accuracy and cultural knowledge in interpretation.

Expert Interpreters Know Cultural Context

Remote Interpreting can provide an easy solution for a company needing to facilitate communication with a limited-English customer or employee, between members of multilingual teams, with international clients and partners, or with LEP patients. Having a skilled linguistic and cultural interpreter can make the difference in accurate AND compassionate communication.

Because remote interpreting services do not require the interpreter to be there in person, companies can cut costs by facilitating culturally correct interpretation services virtually for meetings and other conversations. By using interpreters with cultural fluency specific to your audience’s native language culture, the likelihood of positive, meaningful communication increases substantially.
SpokenHere provides on-demand remote interpreting services that are charged by the minute, with no minimum call times or monthly fees. SpokenHere’s ConnectNow remote interpretation platform allows you to connect with culturally-informed interpreters instantly from your desktop, tablet, or even mobile device.

When you find yourself in a situation that calls for a knowledgeable cultural liaison, our team of language professionals is here to help your organization communicate in over 300 languages and dialects. We would love to chat! Contact us today.

Or you can sign up for a free remote interpreting account.