Language is what we use to communicate with one another. It is the way we perceive and interpret the world around us. Language carries our thoughts, ideas, and perspectives of the environment we live, and as social creatures, we never stop interacting with our environment.

Also, this interaction is subject to space and time. So, the meaning behind our interaction has a lot to do with where and when we interact. To put it simply, context matters. When we say “run” with regard to a race and “run” with regard to operating machinery, we mean two completely different things with completely different objectives.

The relation between translation and context

Translation can be roughly defined as the process of interpreting the meaning of words in one language into another. What basically occurs here is that you examine the source text and interpret it exactly as it is into another language.

However, there is a problem with this form of translation and that’s exactly the kind of error that many businesses make when executing their localization strategies.

Translation proves to be valuable only when it is done in the right context. The success of your localization efforts depends on this.

When we say context, what we mean is that a word or sentence cannot be interpreted without considering the environment in which it is said. As a result, effective translation depends on analyzing the background of the original text.

One needs to de-contextualize and then re-contextualize to properly translate written or verbal materials.

Types of context

There are two categories under which context falls – situational and linguistic.

Linguistic context looks at the linguistic factors that determine the meaning. No word is written or uttered in isolation. Words interact with each other to form a larger piece of text. This interaction is what results in the overall meaning of a word or sentence.

For instance, we can go back to the example of the word “run” to illustrate this. Saying “I run marathons” and “I run a business” changes the meaning of the word “run” in both sentences.

Linguistic context can either be remote or immediate. Immediate context simply means that the context is apparent right away. Remote context refers to the context existing in another time or place for specific reasons.

Then we have the situational context where circumstances and situations determine the meaning. These are harder to notice when compared to linguistic context. For example, the tone of voice or facial expressions can change the meaning of a word.

On a larger level, the political, social and economic factors influencing the environment can also play a role in altering meanings. Similarly, ideologies, value systems, and other conventions can have an impact too.

To put it simply, language is not independent of the culture in which it is spoken. A translator’s job is to look at all these contextual aspects to provide a proper translation. This, in turn, makes for more effective localization.

When translation fails

When Swedish firm Electrolux entered the United States, it failed to understand the American slang and used the slogan “Nothing Sucks like an Electrolux” to market its vacuum signatures. The term “sucks” may have been appropriate as far as literal translations go.

However, the word also has negative connotations as some of us might already know. Naturally, the brand didn’t manage to make much of an impact in the US at the time.

Mistakes such as this can impact revenue and cost significant amounts of money to fix. In some cases, the impact can be worse as the business might completely fail to capture the market.

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