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2 Sep 2011

Understanding the "foreigner"? Is what he said what he meant?

We have more and more iPhone or Android Apps that, when we are in a foreign country we do not understand the language, translate for us what we see, read or want to ask. Are these Apps of great help? I guess yes, when we look at the usage statistics.

Do these Apps translate well? What about the intention? Can we accurately translate intention?

A friend of mine send me this nice link about cultural differences between Germans and Britons.

I like the text because it intends to explain differences between cultures and thus works on our understanding of each other, brings us nearer, shows us that the different nations in Europe are not that different, actually. I like the text, it is good but not complete: To my opinion it does not go to the end. Or it does, perhaps, but then in a typical British understated way! :-) And I'd like to explain why with some examples of the real life, illustrating how one action (or phrase) translates from one nation to another one.

In every culture there is a gap between what is said and what is meant. Not only in the English culture as the article would like to state it. As much as for Germans as for Britons, this gap is often used to generate humoristic situations. Actually, I think it is more: this gap defines the culture of a nation. This applies to all aspects of life.

Politeness, just to take one of the many dimensions of every social life, is not expressed by the words you are using but by your intention. The words you use to express politeness are the ones typically used in your language and expected by your culture. The words reflect your intention within your culture ...and only within your culture. Translate literally these words into another language, they may reflect something different, because used in the other culture.

To illustrate this, let's take the German question “Bitte gib mir das Brot” what literally  translates into “Please give me the bread”. This translation sounds rude to a British ear. But this translation does not take into account the cultural differences. The real good translation for “Bitte gib mir das Brot” should emphasise the "bitte" what indicates the person is very polite and further it should smooth the typical German directness. At the end we should obtain something like "May I have some bread please?” what translates the "real" polite intention of the German questioner. And this is general. A German sentence containing "bitte + verb" should not be translated directly into "please + verb" but at least into "please may + verb", so adding the "may" or something similar.

And now, let's go back to German, just to have some fun: The literal translation of "May I have some bread please", this time back into German would give us “K├Ânnte ich bitte etwas Brot haben?”. How would this sentence be perceived by Germans? They would answer with a comment, something like “sure you can!” and he/she would not move a finger. Knowing the person asking is not German, the German may add with a smile “Do you want me to give you some?”

Yes, this is German culture. One of my German bosses who was reviewing for the first time one of  my papers for an international scientific conference erased all the "may", "shall" from my text  with a comment, " you did or did not, you will or will not ...".

We can go a little bit further and look at other cultural differences with for example the next situation in a German city, where pedestrians are waiting for the green "walk" signal to cross the road on a zebra. The pedestrian signal is still on red and a french guy arrives and begins to cross the road. Remembe, we are in Germany. A German waiting for the green signal will try to stop the guy crossing saying "Ampel ist rot!" ("Light is red!" a very factual statement, typical of the German culture). The French guy will react to that statement in an impolite and aggressive manner that the German will not understand. World War III is behind the corner ... What happened? the French understood the simple and direct statement "Light is red" as a command to stop. The German was saying, "hey you, be careful, it is dangerous to cross the road while the light is red". The intention of the German was to warn, the french translated literally and understood a command.

Why did the French understand a command? By the way, I am french myself what allows me to be harsh against my friends. The french culture is very hierarchical: you have those who had good marks at school and those who had bad marks, those who are intelligent and the stupid, those who know and those who know less, those who have the power, those who do have to rebel against the power if they want to be taken seriously (because those who know, know and there is no discussion!). It is clear that within this culture, a direct informative statement like the one on the red light made by the German can be understood as a teacher looking at his stupid pupil. The German informative sentence is understood as a command of the one who knows towards the one who does not know, what in France automatically leads to a rejection. By the way, would you be surprised the red light is a french invention? Not at all, it fits the culture: some guys who had good marks at school were looking at a solution to regulate the typical uncontrolled circulation of those who had bad marks at school. And the red light system was born, in Paris!

Why will the German warn? The German society builds on respect to each other. Generally, decisions are not made top down but after consensus taken across all involved parties. This implies a strong feeling of living *together*. Thus the warning to the "family" member when crossing on red.

Going back to our conflictual situation with the red light, the french guy translated what the German guy said literally into his own culture . In France such a sentence would have been the one of a policeman, of a teacher, of somebody who knows better: it would have been an order to stop walking. But the French guy is in Germany and crosses the street in Germany, he should have taken into account the German culture (the real one, not his interpretation of it), and the french guy should have translated the statement into "hey, watch out, a car (might be) is coming".

Oooh now it's beginning to be complex: the French guy should should have taken into account the real German culture, not his interpretation of it. Does he has an interpretation of the German culture? Sure, based on his experience, on his own culture! You cannot escape your own culture, you live in it, with it, it is your reference. When you see something different you will compare it to what you know. "It's smaller than the garden of my uncle, but it's bigger than the helm of my nephew" says Jolitorax about his boat in "Asterix in Britain".

What is the real German culture? How does it come that French have another understanding of the German culture as Germans have of their own? Because it has been translated partially. As I said, the French culture is very hierarchical. The one who knows give commands to the lower class, to the one who knows less. As a consequence, French companies are typically organised top down. Now, even if the french culture tends to ignore it, we all know that "stupidity" is evenly distributed throughout each level of the society. To be less elegant but direct: you have the same proportion of stupids within the class of people who knows as within the class of people who do not know. Knowing does not protect from stupidity. It happens more than often that a group receives a command from the boss, that according to the experience of that group will lead to a disaster. What will this group do in France? The society is hierarchically organised, so the group cannot go to the boss and tell him, what he has decided is stupid. The French solution then is to satisfy the boss by giving him the impression everything is done according to his view of the things and, within the group, to work on the real solution, the one that will be successful. So French see themselves as very flexible. And they are! And this is what I like in France, even in catastrophic situations, the fact that they are used to find alternative paths makes them very creative and come out with excellent refreshing ideas. "impossible is not French!" is what you will then hear. And I like it.

Now the Germans are not as hierarchical as the French are. The decision process is not top-down but based on consensus. Everybody discusses, every opinion will be taken into account. Well not every opinion, sure, but an infinity more when compared to the French process. It takes ages before a decision can be made. But when a decision is made, everybody is on board, and they all go like one man in the same direction ... because they all understand what the goal is and the big majority agreed on how to achieve this goal. The French interpret this behaviour of everybody pulling in the same direction with "the German obey commands and refuse to criticise", "the German is unflexible" and even ... "the German society is very hierarchical". But the French forget the very long decision process of Germans before being operative: if they all pull in the same direction like one man, it is because they have been involved in the decision process.

What happened in the French interpretation of the German working culture? The French do not look at the decision process, because it is nearly nonexistent for them (Sarkosy ,... euh ... the boss has decided!) and they look only at the operative process of the Germans, saying "look at this people, no flexibility". Indeed no flexibility in the operative processes, but a lot in the decision process.

And the Germans will hate the French operative flexibility, saying "you cannot rely on them". Sure, in the German way, a consensus has been found, then why debate again? Actually, the flexibility in operations of the French is their way to find a consensus, to find the good solution out of a problem.

Slowly, we begin to see, when comparing people, comparing societies ... we cannot note any difference in the intention, everywhere you will observe the same distribution of values, my so deared values ... everybody has these values ... but there is a difference in the how to express these values.

Another example? Away from language and processes? In certain West African cultures, the right hand is used for honourable tasks like eating, greeting, giving or receiving a gift; The left hand is used for subaltern tasks like washing. Salutations even from a distance by waiving a hand cannot be done with the left hand: if so, it is considered like an offense. The intention of the West European greeting with his left hand (because he/she carries something heavy with the right hand) is positive, but the west African may feel offended. The European might be surprised by the reaction of the West African.

The same with the white that is associated to death in India and his hence interpreted as a sad colour, completely at the opposite of the European perception of white: the European black is the Indian white.

And they are thousands of similar examples where the distance between the objective signal (what is said or done) and the intention behind the signal (what is meant) can lead to misunderstanding. This difference (between what is said and what is meant) is often used within a culture to laugh. It then defines the humour of this culture. Further this set of differences defines also a culture, as each set (the difference between what is said and what is meant) is typical of a region.

Like most of you, I also like to joke on foreigners, on people from other regions. But what do we do there? We literarly translate what they said into our own culture, what creates (for us) a new distance betwen what is said and what is meant. This new distance makes us laugh. Does it help us understand the people from the other region? No! At the opposite! Because we literarly translate, we forget what is meant: this creates a ground of stereotypes that is hard to get rid of. And I still like jokes on foreigners. But it makes the understanding of foreigners much more complex!

It is not only stupidity that is evenly distributed throughout all levels of the society, it is also our core values, like politeness, kindness, value for good work, respect and whatever "value" one want to define human beings with. We all share the same values, we only express them differently. We should never translate a sentence literally: a good translation takes the initial intention behind the sentence, evaluates the distance between what is said and what is meant, and translates it into the target culture, building a new distance between what is meant and what is said, the one that in the target culture expresses the initial intention.

What can we do? A travel guide for tourists should certainly illustrate in profusion the distance between what is said and what is meant, not only knowing the target culture but also the culture of the reader. Is such an illustration enough? Probably not. It should explain and make the point on why expressions are different.

So why not collect, gather in a blog all translations that lead to mis-understanding, funny situations, desolate or disastrous ones. This will certainly help us understand each other!

Go to the page "translate your culture" on this blog ... and write your short story