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How to Transform Cultural References from a Headache to a Masterpiece

how to transform cultural references form a headache to a masterpiece

There is a good reason why writers love them: Chosen carefully, cultural references can convey a lot with very little. Linking a situation or a characterization to a well-known TV series or incident or a person that has been widely discussed in the media, on social channels or elsewhere in the public eye, will grab people’s attention and — ideally — leave a lasting impression. But in the translation and localization business, they can cause a lot of headaches.

Let’s have a look at what the challenges are and how you might be able to master them.

Who Really Understands You?

Cultural references usually work only for very specific target groups. So if you choose the latest and greatest dealings of U.S. reality TV star Kim Kardashian as your reference point, you will obviously relate best to young people who are well versed in the social media universe. Making plays on U.S. Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump, on the other hand, will get the attention of his mostly white, mostly male followers and/or his liberal foes. And if you decide to go with a reference to the “soup nazi”, you target an older segment that developed a soft spot for wordy New York-specific jokes growing up with the U.S. TV hit “Seinfeld” that ran from 1989 to 1998.

But be careful, just because something works in one cultural context does not mean it works for the same target group in another. Venga was once assigned to translate and localize a French video game for the Japanese market. As it turned out, the jokes used in the game for minors in France were too racy and would have been perceived as highly offensive in Japan for such a young age group.   

Is It Indeed a Global Phenomenon?

Just because Kim Kardashian and Donald Trump are all over social media and the 24-hour news cycle in the U.S., does not mean that their stories are well known all over the globe. You will have to research your assumption carefully before you decide to leave such cultural references in your translated content. The aforementioned TV show, “Seinfeld”, is a good example of something that was a huge cultural phenomenon in the U.S. but never really gained the same level of popularity outside of North American borders. As discussed at length in this Verge piece by the woman whose job it was to handle the translation and localization for the German market, the “Seinfeld” jokes turned out to be just too wordy, too New York-specific and playing too much off of a Jewish cultural context.     

Take It and Run With It

Now the questions is what to do with your references in the light of what you’ve learned from your research. The safest choice would be to scratch them entirely, but that might make the content bland and not very engaging. If you are confident that they will be understood by your target group, a simple translation might do. But if you are confronted with a dilemma like the one Venga was facing in the case of the French video game, your best chance is to re-create the content and come up with new jokes that are age-appropriate and culturally accepted. Ideally, you can even try to take it a step further and add another dimension to your content. The translation of the Disney hit “Shrek” into Polish is a good example of this. While “Shrek” in the U.S. was a movie that mainly attracted kids, the Polish translator adapted it so well that his version appeals to adults there as well. In fact, his masterful work became so famous that it is taught in College classes for translators in Poland.

If you need a specialist who can help you figure out how to translate and localize cultural references and adapt them successfully to your target market, don’t hesitate to reach out to us — or sign up here for a free quote.   

Venga Translation Process