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How to translate culture? - Fran ANAYA (Linguist and Translator)

cultureme is any portion of cultural behavior apprehended in signs of symbolic value that can be broken down into smaller units or amalgamated into larger ones. A cultureme is a “cultural information-bearing unit”, the contents of which are recognizable by a group of people. Culturemes are the bridge between linguistic units and culture.

Their usage can be seen in cultural expressions, phraseologisms, jokes, slogans, literature, religion, folklore, sociology, anthropology, etc. All of which are subcultures in a culture system. Culturemes of this nature have historical relevance that when translated or explained result in a miscommunication and misunderstanding.

The notion of cultureme is being increasingly used in translation studies and other disciplines. It is a recently used concept that is yet to be defined and distinguished from others, such as phraseme, idiom, symbol, cultural word, etc.


Translating a cultureme can be challenging, as connotations are sometimes very strong. For instance: the Spanish word alcázar means “castle”, “palace” or “fortress”, but, as it is of Arabic origin, it recalls eight centuries of history (Al-Andalus), which cannot be easily translated into English, so the translator must adopt a crucial decision: either choose the English word “fortress” and lose all the historical and cultural connotations, or use the loan word alcázar.

A language may have various cultures and various languages may share the same culture. Cultures may differ in conceptualization that may in turn affect how thoughts are conveyed in their languages. The asymmetry of language complicates the matter of providing a linguistically and culturally sound equivalent of a cultureme in another language. The complex relationship of language and culture is significant in giving culturemes their intended value. Dictionaries further complicate cross-cultural gaps of meaning because without the collaborative effort of all cultures, it is impossible to define the significance of words that may be culturemes in the dictionary. Though, slowly, interactive and multimedia dictionaries have become extensive in information that lessen the bridge across languages and cultures.

Culture: Norms, Ideas, and Materials

In translating, the inability to convey cultural meaning strips a cultureme of its “cultureme” title and it simply becomes an ambiguous word. Culture is classified into three categories: Norms, Ideas, and Materials.

  • Norms refer to the habits and traditions of a societal group. A culture with a foundation of politeness that uses honorific terms of address, such as in the Korean language, has very intricate forms of pronouns that have nonequivalence in other languages, e.g. English. Different cultures and languages have different interpretations of politeness that affects how successful a cultureme is translated. Traditional holidays are norms in a culture. The Vietnamese New Year Tết is a cultureme of the Vietnamese language and culture. Tết signifies the start of the new year on the Lunar calendar. It is a day of being home with family and cheerful celebration. A literal translation of Tết to English would be “New Year.” But, anyone who had no knowledge of the cultureme would think the traditions and practices of “New Year’s” all the same.
  • Ideas refer to “scientific truths, religious beliefs, myths, legends, works of literature, superstitions, aphorisms, proverbs, and folklore.” These culturemes are deep rooted in shared, personal history that outsiders of a culture are unfamiliar with knowing. Culturemes pertaining to cultural ideas do not need explained in the present, their meanings and significance are cemented in the people’s knowledge.
  • Materials refer to physical culture. Food, for instance, is an important example of tangible culture; it can illustrate dietary culture/lifestyle. Certain dishes are staples of the culture and can be a product of the local surroundings. The existence of a food or dish may have historical relevance to a culture. Translation in recipes that involve food cultureme can result in the wrong ingredients being introduced.
Source text: Wikipedia
Spanish translations by: ©Fran ANAYA (Translator & Linguist)

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