Language and culture

Language and culture are fundamental parts of a country’s identity. The language is the vehicle used for communication. Therefore, it is through language that culture is passed through generations. And thanks to language, we have records of ancient cultures and people and it is also through language that those ancient cultures not only influenced our culture today, but they are also present, allowing us to learn about them and revisit them centuries later.

Some languages are in the origin of others. Latin is the mother of Portuguese, Spanish, Italian and others. The cultural value brought from Latin flowed through the languages it gave origin to. And if we analyse it on a historic level, we will find that Latin was spoken in the Roman Empire, which spread through Europe, through the countries where those new languages are spoken today. Not only these countries inherited the lexical roots from Latin, but they also inherited the cultural traces of the Empire they all were a part of once.

But then, these countries that were provinces of Rome once, became empires themselves and their languages were taken to other countries they colonised.  A good example of this is the Portuguese language, originated in Portugal and spread through Brazil, Africa and East-Timor. The Portuguese influenced the culture of all the countries they colonized, one of those influences was the implementation of their language, Portuguese. However, another incredible thing was happening. The cultures of those colonised countries were also influencing the Portuguese and their language.  Terms were introduced, new concepts learnt.

Along the years, and long after colonization, the language remained in all those countries, but it certainly wasn’t the same language introduced by the Portuguese centuries before. Each country adapted it to its own cultural values and costumes. Some suffered influences from other countries and ended up adapting words from them, I’m thinking of the example of “trem” which is the Portuguese word for “train” in Brazil, that derives from “train” in the English language. In Portugal, train is referred to as “comboio”. The differences between them became bigger and they created variants. It’s still the same language, it still has the same core structure but it evolved differently, according to a different culture and therefore it is no longer the same as the one they originated from. Even the original language changed because Portugal was also influenced by lots of factors and its culture has also changed. So, each of these variants is an interincisal part of each of these countries’ identity, because they represent each one of them and the unique features they may have.

For us translators, it is very important to understand these differences in order to do our job well. Knowing our target readership and their culture is a fundamental part of our work, because if we convey the message in a different variant, we may create a lot of issues. The code used may be incorrect and even create some cultural and interpretation issues. A word may be quite innocuous in a variant and quite offensive in another, so if it’s used in the country where it’s considered offensive, not only may take away the meaning of the source text, which per se is very serious, but it can also offend the reader.  Respecting these cultural differences that are part of each country’s identity is a very important part of being a good translator.