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CultureShocks Blog

food across cultures, translating regional food

Translating Regional Food Ideals Into Reality

  |   CultureShocks Blog

Is it possible to invent a meaningful food culture for a place that doesn’t have one? Radio presenter and food consultant Simon Preston has based his BBC Radio 4 series “The Town is the Menu” on this very question. In the five-episode run, Preston travels to small markets across the UK, where generations have abandoned eel, renounced mutton, given up kippers in favour of egg and chips, beef burgers, even sushi.

In Barnard Castle, a town in Teesdale, in England’s north, Preston interviewed local historians, antiquiers and chefs about the area’s natural assets – the biggest juniper forest in England, for instance. Then they collaborated on a meal that the most famous native, Richard III, might have dined on: venison and pheasant with juniper berries; potato mash with wild garlic; and wild boar sausage with local honey (though the boar was impossible to source, so they substituted pork).

Will it stick, this idea of eating not just locally but patriotically? Or are we all doomed to be taken over by Big Food?


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make me beautiful creative translation

“Make Me Beautiful” – Creative Translation of Female Beauty Hits Social Media

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The News:

One woman’s personal exploration into global perceptions of beauty was doing the rounds on social media last week.  Ester Honig, a freelance American journalist, sent an image of herself to graphic designers in 25 different countries, with a simple brief: “make me beautiful”. The outcome of the creative translation experiment is an intriguing series of before and after photographs, documenting the designers’ digital permutations. Localisations of beauty differed vastly, with some even altering eye colour and skin tone.


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Impossible to Translate Words into Images? How an Obsessive Blockbuster French Director Proved Hollywood Wrong…

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The News

The film adaptation of Reif Larson’s 2009 novel, The Selected Works of TS Spivet, was released in cinemas on Friday, 13 June. This is somewhat remarkable, considering that the book was initially deemed “unfilmable”. In a recent interview in the Guardian, Larson explains that, despite a flurry of initial interest from Hollywood agents, the book was too challenging to adapt for cinema. So when he unexpectedly received an e-mail from the filmmaker Jean-Pierre Jeunet (of Amélie fame), he was astonished. Jeunet wrote that he was “smitten” with the novel and wanted to make the film. Thus began the intricate process of translating the novel; by rearranging sequences, adapting characters and re-ordering scenes, Jeunet deconstructed the book piece-by-piece to re-create the story.


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Most Global Campaign Ever? Soccer Fever Transcreated…

  |   CultureShocks Blog



For the next month, football fans around the world will be united in World Cup fervour, a collective frenzy ranging from pure elation to inconsolable rage and quiet disappointment. International events such as the World Cup present the perfect opportunity for global brands to appeal to customers in their local market based around one global concept. Which is exactly what Coca-Cola has done with its anthem “the World is Ours”.


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North Korea Fashion, Lost in Marketing Translation

  |   CultureShocks Blog

In mid-2012, a North Korean army minister named Kim Chol was reportedly ‘obliterated’ with a mortar round, on the orders of leader Kim Jong-un, for ‘disrespectful behaviour’.

The news was only one rivulet in a stream of concerned rumour winding out of the isolationist Communist state, where reports of disappearances, poverty, summary executions and starvation form a complimentary backdrop to the Kim dynasty’s cult of personality.

For the outside world, most of these atrocities are symbolised by an overwhelming wave of moss-green nylon, gold medals and red stars, the uniform of the North Korea People’s Army and the epitome of the iron fastness that the country’s rulers lock around their own subjects.

However, Elle Magazine has seen something of worth in the iconic attire, featuring it in a recent online piece as ‘North Korea Chic’. The magazine informed its readers that “some iteration of the military trend stomps the runways every few seasons. This time, it’s edgier, even dangerous, with sharp buckles and clasps and take-no-prisoners tailoring.”  The piece included the image of a single gold stiletto poised next to a North Korean soldier at attention.


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Why Translate Words when You can Steal Them?

  |   CultureShocks Blog

Achtung! Of the 5,000 new words that feature in the latest edition of the German equivalent of the OED – the Duden – one has raised a few more eyebrows than the rest. It’s an Anglicism, or a loan word from the English language, that has gained intriguing popularity in the German-speaking world, even appearing on the lips of Chancellor Angela Merkel. The word is Shitstorm, and means in German roughly what it means in English.

This last point is one worth making, because the German language has a longstanding tradition of borrowing words from English and distorting their meaning ever so slightly, giving them a new life of their own in English. Pseudo-anglicisms have become engrained, the unwitting German speakers largely unaware that the words have not travelled well: that in English a Streetworker is not an outreach worker, and that asking for a Handy is likely to get you a slap rather than a mobile phone.

France is traditionally much more protective over its language, with the much-vaunted Académie française dictating what should and should not be said. Or at least attempting to dictate… In this technological age it has made some admirable attempts to resist the (new) lingua franca by introducing such terms as courriel – a clever way of combining “courrier” (mail) and “électronique” – and mèl as substitutes for the English “email”. But few of their attempts to safeguard their linguistic shores against English invasion have been successful, and some of them have invited ridicule, as with this recent #hashtagdebacle. And reading virtually any French popular culture or fashion publication is enough to show that the prescriptivists are increasingly fighting a losing battle.

Japanese is a language from further afield that is a big borrower, not just from English but from other tongues too: sarariman – a salaried office/white collar worker – from “salary” + “man”; sekuhara, from “sex(ual) hara(ssment)”; abekku – or “romantic couple” – deriving from avec (“with”) in French; or igirisu, meaning England, from “ingles” in Portuguese, one of the many Japanese words that evidence the countries’ shared history.

It’s no secret that the English language is prone to pinching words at will, now more than ever deserving of its reputation as the “bastard tongue”. There is not enough space even to make a start in this blog, but suffice to say that our vocabulary reflects our rich and varied history in terms of trade, colonisation, cuisine, immigration and much more besides.

Any bastard favourites that you can think of from home or abroad? Let us know in the comments section or via Twitter or Facebook!

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marketing to china,ad campaign translation

Marketing to China’s New Elite: When Ad Campaign Translation Falls Short

  |   CultureShocks Blog

We have previously discussed the importance of avoiding typecasting when launching campaigns in Saudi Arabia, but now we are turning our focus to another “emerging” (or should we say “re-emerging”?) consumer market – China. Recent reports suggest that the world’s most populous country is now the world’s largest luxury market, having leapfrogged the U.S. to account for 27 per cent of global spending on high-end products and services.

The two main segments driving this consumer boom can be divided into the aspirational, urban-based middle class, and a more traditional, established class that could be termed the “new nobility”. We are going to focus on this second group. Who makes up China’s “new nobility”? What are they like? What makes them tick? And what makes them different?

Traditionally members of the business and industrial elite, the “new nobility” represents ultra-high-net-worth individuals descended from the “founding fathers” of Communist China. They are therefore typically more accustomed to wealth and status than their nouveau-riche counterparts, and could be said to be concerned with conventional Chinese values and codes. One would therefore expect members of this elite to be more discreet and less ostentatious than other luxury consumers across the country. Basically, you won’t catch them putting Coca Cola in their Château Lafite…

Part of this is emphasis on discretion is to some extent politically motivated. China’s ruling classes have historically been accused of corruption, with high-end officials living the high life while much of the country remains poverty-stricken. But in an age of increasing media scrutiny and transparency, the most far-reaching anti-corruption campaign of recent times is under way. The inevitable consequence of this is that garish, excessive flaunting of wealth among this “new nobility” is neither fashionable nor advisable, “conspicuously embracing a more conspicuous lifestyle” as this blog puts it.

Another important feature is that there is an ever greater focus on “buying local”. While Western luxury brands are undoubtedly extremely popular in China as Eurozone gloom persists, the “new nobility” are more intent on supporting home-grown talent. The recent appearance of China’s elegant, understated first lady, Peng Liyuan, wearing an outfit by local designer Exception, and the subsequent press coverage, was a case in point.

Finally, another salient characteristic of this elite demographic is an increasing focus on brand loyalty. Evidence suggests that these luxury consumers, with their appreciation of heritage, durability and tastefulness, are more concerned with service and quality rather than with status. The use of good materials and subtle craftsmanship register higher in their priorities than other high-end shoppers and service users in the region.

Understanding the make-up of China’s vast population of big spenders is a complex task, and one that is open to inaccurate profiling and prejudice. One thing that is for sure is that a “one-size-fits-all” approach to the market is not satisfactory. 

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image that indicates someone is saying sorry across cultures

Global Brand Translation Misfires, Corrected by Culturally Smart Apologies

  |   CultureShocks Blog


We have already talked about how lightly brands need to tread in a world where everyone is watching, where companies have unprecedented access not only to an enormous raft of potential consumers, but also to the ever-vigilant eyes of potential critics. “Trial by Twitter” is a process that has found many brands guilty, and unfortunate gaffes are never far from mind. Take Waitrose’s social media misfire last autumn, where its “Reasons” campaign was hijacked and turned on its head by teasing tweeters. Rather than issuing an apology as such, they did feel they had to acknowledge the jocular nature of people’s reactions. Other brands to have faced similar cyber-ribbing have reacted in various ways, either by adopting a similarly ribald tone, or by going on an unrepentant offensive, as this blog post discusses. And we can’t forget the reaction to Nick Clegg’s apology video, which went viral last year and totally undermined his attempt to clear the air with the British electorate.

People around the world apologise in different ways. In Japan, the act of apologising is considered a virtue (more on this later). It is no surprise, therefore, that their language and culture have such a diffuse number of ways to express the sentiment of sorriness. The same cannot always be said of the West, where people can often be found saving face by issuing ‘apologies’ that are entirely devoid of any sincerity or meaning. Or the classic British reflex-action apology, where “sorry” is used so unsparingly that it is roughly akin to “hmmm”.

Whatever the ‘right’ approach, there can be little doubt that the apology is an important art when errors in communication are so easy and public. And things only get more complicated when that apology has to be made across cultures, where different conventions, traditions and politics, not to mention different languages, are at play. Last week, Apple found themselves issuing a public apology to their Chinese customers following criticism from state media outlets about the company’s warranty terms. The apology received extensive news coverage across the country, to the bewilderment of many Chinese people, who found the authorities’ glee at events somewhat baffling compared to the veritable silence over more significant matters of public interest. What was perhaps most interesting about Apple’s apology was the way it was worded – “At the same time,” they said, “we also realize that we have much to learn about operating in China, and how we communicate here.” In this knowledge, a comprehensive global communication audit might have saved any embarrassment, taking advantage of local expertise and insight to achieve a “finger on the pulse” – essential for survival in the modern technology jungle.

As we’ve already mentioned, the cross-cultural apology is a complicated process due to the linguistic, political and cultural considerations that need to be taken on board. Indeed, an episode at the end of 2012 shows the extent of the complications in China, with the reporting of an “apology” made by the new Leader of the Communist Party, Xi Jinping. When arriving late for a speech, he made a comment which literally translates as “made everyone wait a long time”. Does this mean “sorry”? According to the presiding English interpreter, it did. Later on, however, opinion was divided among observers, with some objecting to translations from various international media outlets that played up the “sorry” aspect, while others felt the literal translation – with its more unrepentant connotations – was appropriate.

An extreme example of how cultural conventions can differ came with the public apology offered by Japanese popstar Minami Minegishi following revelations that she had spent the night with her boyfriend. She appeared with a shaved head, begging the public for forgiveness in a traditional act of contrition.

There is no escaping the fact that, were the divas of Europe or the US to so flail themselves for such minor misdemeanours, the blogosphere would be utterly saturated. Yes, it might have been over the top and unnecessary, but it was also on some level based on cultural tradition.

These examples show the challenges faced by brands operating internationally, and the need for expert, sensitive cross-cultural communications strategies. Saying sorry is never easy. Saying sorry across a cultural divide is even harder…

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