A few Deliberations on Cross-Cultural Communication and Translation | October 2015 | Translation Journal

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A few Deliberations on Cross-Cultural Communication and Translation

The history of communication dates back to prehistory, with significant changes in communication technologies (media and appropriate inscription tools) evolving in tandem with shifts in political and economic systems, and by extension, systems of power. Communication can range from very subtle processes of exchange, to full conversations and mass communication. Human communication was revolutionized through speech approximately 500,000 years ago. Symbols were developed about 30,000 years ago, and writing about 5,000.

Over time the forms of and ideas about communication have evolved through the continuing progression of technology. Historical developments include communications psychology and media psychology, an emerging field of study. The progression of written communication can be divided into three 'information communication revolutions':

1-Written communication first emerged through the use of pictographs. The pictographs were made in stone, hence written communication was not yet mobile.

2-The next step occurred when writing began to appear on paper, papyrus, clay, wax, etc. with common alphabets. Communication became mobile.

3-The final stage is characterized by transfer of information through controlled waves of electromagnetic radiation (radio, microwave, infrared) and other electronic signals.

Communication has always been a significant need of all societies. Since the time of our cave-dweller ancestors, people have been communicating in different ways.

Drawing pictures on cave walls, using drumbeat and smoke, using doves to communicate top secrets, were the first steps in communication.

Letters and the telephone were the next step in communication. Finally, in the present century, most of our communication process is done through the internet.

Communication is the exchange of ideas, information, etc. between two or more people. In an act of communication there is usually at least one speaker or sender, a message which is transmitted, and a person or persons for whom this message is intended, the receiver.

The communication process is complete once the receiver understands the sender's message.

Discursive communication has three primary steps:

Thought: First, information exists in the mind of the sender. This can be a concept, idea, information, or feeling.

Encoding: Next, a message is sent to a receiver in words or symbols.

Decoding: Finally, the receiver translates the words or symbols into a concept or information that a person can understand.

There are a range of verbal and non-verbal forms of communication. These include body language, eye contact, sign language, haptic communication, and chromatics. Other examples are media content such as picture, graphics, sound, and writing. The Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities also defines communication to include "display of text, Braille, tactile communication, large print, accessible multimedia as well as written, audio, plain-language, human-reader and augmentative and alternative modes, means, and formats of communication, including accessible information and communication technology". Feedback is a critical component of effective communication. Communication, exclusive of its kind, may happen between people of the same culture and language or of different cultures. There are often more problems in cross-cultural communication which happens between people of different cultural backgrounds than in communication between people of the same cultural background. Each partner may interpret the other's speech according to his/her own cultural conventions and expectations. If the cultural conventions of the speaker are widely different, misinterpretations and misunderstandings can easily arise, even resulting in total breakdown of communication (Richards, 1985). Cross-cultural communication, also frequently referred to as intercultural communication, is a field of study that looks at how people from different cultural contexts communicate, in similar and different ways among themselves, and how they endeavour to communicate across cultures (http:// en.wikipedia.org).

There are three major types of communication: verbal or dialog, non-verbal, and visual. Dialog or verbal communication is a conversation between two or more persons in which they use their speech organs to convey a message. It has two subcategories: interpersonal and public speaking. Nonverbal communication is the process of communicating through sending and receiving wordless messages. Visual communication, as the name suggests, is communication through visual aids. It is the transmission of ideas and information in forms that can be read or looked at. (http://en.wikipedia.org).

Culture is a central concept in anthropology, encompassing the range of phenomena that are transmitted through social learning in human societies. The word is used in a general sense as the evolved ability to categorize and represent experiences with symbols and to act imaginatively and creatively. This ability is often thought to be unique to humans. Some aspects of human behaviour, such as language, social practices such as kinship, gender and marriage, expressive forms such as music, dance, ritual, religion, and technologies such as cooking, shelter, and clothing are said to be cultural universals found in all human societies.

People living in same country have some similarities in their culture but, upon closer examination, one can also see differences. Expressions like "working class culture", "high culture" and "low culture" refer to such differences. Culture of a country changes over time. As an example, consider the way women dressed in the Pahlavi period in Iran, which certainly is different from how they dress today. A person travelling from one cultural area to another does not change his or her culture. Therefore cross-cultural communication requires forethought. People of different language need a common language for understanding each other. Translation is a reasonable way of communicating in these cases. A translator who knows not only both languages, but also both cultures, i.e. is not only bi-lingual, but also bi-cultural, can provide this perspective. Our focus here will be on the verbal or dialog communication area.

Dialogue (Verbal Communication)

Communication is the transfer of messages from one person to another,. We communicate our knowledge, thoughts, and ideas to others. However, most of our communication is in a verbal or written form.

Forms of oral communication

Oral communication has been described as:

The process of people using verbal and non-verbal messages to generate meanings within and across various contexts, cultures, channels and media. It consists of various sets of skills, including the ability to speak coherently and convincingly, understanding of communication theory and processes, knowledge of verbal and non-verbal signs audience analysis, listening skills as well as communication ethics. In this section, we will describe seven forms that oral communication often takes:

  1. Intrapersonal communication, (b) Interpersonal communication[AvR1] , (c) Small group communication, (d) Public communication, (e) Mass communication,                    (f) Corporate communication, (g) Intercultural communication

Intrapersonal Communication

Intrapersonal communication is self-talk or a conversation you hold with yourself under certain circumstances – for example, when you need to make an important decision or learn something about yourself. You may wonder whether intrapersonal communication is just another way of describing the thinking process. In a way, that would be correct. It is a form of thinking that goes on inside us which relies on language to express itself. It is similar to the Shakespearean 'soliloquy', where the character in question engages in self-talk to reflect on events that have transpired. Intrapersonal communication often increases self-awareness and mindfulness, and hones critical thinking skills.

Small Group Communication

Small group communication takes place in a group, usually comprising five to ten people. This form of communication serves relationship needs (like companionship, family bonding and affection or support) as well as task-based needs, for example, deciding on disciplinary action or resolving conflict in the workplace. In academic institutions, students often form small groups which meet regularly for study discussions or to work collaboratively on projects. At the workplace, small groups may meet to discuss issues related to work, or for problem-solving or team-building purposes. Learning to communicate effectively in teams contributes to success and advancement in many careers. Small group communication allows you to interact with others, be it at home, in school, at the workplace or in public. You learn to exchange ideas, solve problems and share experiences.

Public Communication

Public communication, also known as public speaking, involves communication between a speaker and an audience. This audience may range from just a few people to thousands or even millions of people. The aim of the speaker is usually to inform or to persuade the audience to act, buy, or think in a certain way. A teacher may address an assembly of students on codes of behaviour or school rules. A politician may make speeches on how he will be dealing with certain issues in order to win their vote. An executive may give a business presentation to get more sales. It is important to understand some of the basic principles of effective public speaking so that you are able to influence, persuade as well as entertain your audience when you communicate with them.

Mass Communication

Mass communication is communication that is sent out from a source to many receivers all over the world. It takes place through media like film, radio, video and television. Modern avenues of mass communication like the internet and blogs can be very powerful indeed, as information is disseminated instantly.

Corporate Communication

Corporate communication is communication that takes place among members of an organisation, within that organisation. Interacting in teams, conferencing with co-workers, talking with a supervisor or manager, giving employees explanations and directions, interviewing and making presentations are some examples of corporate communication. Effective corporate communication skills enhance corporate image and impact positively on morale, commitment, and productivity in corporations.

Intercultural Communication

Intercultural Communication is communication between people of diverse cultures and ethnicity. The world is increasingly becoming a global village and every country has people of various ethnicities. Thus, it is important to note differences in the communication practices of different cultures if intercultural harmony and understanding is to be maintained. For example, in many Asian countries, students will seldom contradict or disagree with a teacher in the classroom, as this shows disrespect. In western academic institutions, however, it is the norm for students to think for themselves and engage their teachers in debate and discussion. It is important to make efforts to recognise and respect the communication practices of people from different cultures and nationalities.

Face-to-Face Dialogue

Because face-to-face dialogue is our first and most common form of communication, we can use it as a prototype to evaluate other forms of communication. As noted before, three features are fully present only in face-to-face dialogue: unrestricted verbal expression, meaningful non-verbal acts, and immediate collaboration between speaker and listener.

The verbal dimension

There are differences in the degree of verbal capacity (whether spoken, written, or signed) of the words. We cannot use our full extent of verbal expressiveness; it depends on our communication setting. When people could speak freely, it meant full capacity on the verbal dimension. In formal communication formats, this is often not the case. For example, we can speak informally to others about our ideas much more freely than we can write about them. Written academic text uses a limited vocabulary and forbids slang and informal grammatical forms. In a formal setting, such as an assembly of administration, the attorney can only ask certain questions and the witness can only respond in certain terms. Thus, their verbal exchanges are much more limited than the dialogue they might have had about the same events in casual conversation.

The non-verbal dimension

Non-verbal communication is a feature of face-to-face dialogue. It includes any act other than words that is directly connected to the words, such as facial expressions, gestures, eye contact, and paralinguistic features of the spoken voice. These are the non-verbal components usually used in conjunction with words to create a message in face-to-face dialogue. The importance of non-verbal information is completely obvious in a conversation with a friend, or in a lecture when the speaker just reads from a text. In face-to-face dialogue, we use all of the non-verbal elements available in human communication. These provide not only useful redundancy but also supplementation, and they transfer the image of meanings that are difficult or impossible to convey in words. In a formal setting, such as a graduation or a wedding ceremony, it would be inappropriate to stick out your tongue, or cross your eyes. With technological communication, for example, on the telephone, we do not have access to any visible non-verbal sign such as facial or hand gestures. There are audible non-verbal features, such as vocal inflection, tone of voice, and pauses, all of which can convey significant information. Electronic mail has become a common mode of communication for many people; it has neither audible nor visible nonverbal information. We cannot see a smile, a concerned face or a gesture and we cannot hear a hesitant, humorous, or sarcastic tone of voice. There are, however, emoticons, which are typewritten symbols that imitate facial expressions. For example J is a smile, L is a sad face,. By these symbols, we consider e-mail a bit higher in the non-verbal dimension than other forms of written text. A fiction is an example of the lowest type of the non-verbal dimensions. Some kinds of punctuation convey non-verbal information: a phrase punctuated with an exclamation mark is still missing the tone of voice; for example, "Yes!" could have been uttered in anger, or happiness.

The collaborative dimension

Face-to-face dialogue is social interaction, in a two-way situation. A mute and inexpressive listener waits for the speaker to finish his or her monologue. Speakers build sentences together, and speak and gesture simultaneously. Listeners frequently insert brief responses such as ''Yeah,'' ''Mhm,'' and nodding (which Yngve (1970) called ''back-channel'' responses). Listeners provide constant facial feedback by their attentive, confused, or bored expressions. Mutual understanding occurs rapidly and freely in face-to-face dialogue. The speakers can actively seek evidence of understanding from the listener in a variety of ways. Some are verbal (''Do you understand?'' ''Am I going too slow?''). Some combine verbal and non-verbal elements (e.g. ''Y'know?''; cf. Bernstein, 1962). Some are entirely non-verbal, such as a pause with an inquiring look, or the speaker's highly specialized gestures for eliciting feedback from the listener (Bavelas, Chovil, Coates, &Roe, 1995). The listener can indicate understanding by continuing to attend to the speaker. The listener also regularly responds by back- channel, such as a nod of the head or ''mmhm''; again, their absence would quickly bring a response from the speaker. In an educational setting where a teacher is lecturing to a large class, less collaboration can occur. Some students may collaborate with their instructor by asking questions throughout the lecture. In addition, the students can provide evidence of understanding to an alert teacher by their facial expressions. For example, on a more positive note, students can show their eagerness or interest by looking attentive. Watching television or listening to the radio are examples of communicative systems where there is effectively no collaboration because there is noting the recipient can do to indicate that he or she has not understood.

Translation (a Cross-Cultural Communication Agent)

Translation is not only a linguistic act, it's also a cultural one, an act of communication across cultures. Translation always involves both language and culture simply because the two cannot be separated. Language is culturally embedded: it both expresses and shapes cultural reality, and the meaning of linguistic items can only be understood when considered together with the cultural context in which the linguistic items are used. Translators should pay great attention to differences in kind and degree of conventionalization in the source and target cultures when transferring a text from one culture to another. One of the main characteristics of translation is its 'double-bind situation', where the translator has to link the source text in its cultural context to the target communicative-cultural condition (House, 2009). But what is a practical solution/procedure to acquire a translation that is successful in cross-cultural communication?

Culture and Verbal Communication

As defined before, culture is a set of beliefs, ideas, attitudes, customs, and behaviours, festivals, cuisine and clothing style. We learn patterns of thinking, feeling and potential acting from our environment, i.e. from close relatives, neighbourhood, friends, school etc. We acquire such patterns during our childhood, and they will be established firmly for the future. Culture actually refers to a group's shared values and conversations which act as mental guidelines for orienting people's thoughts and behaviour (House, 2009). Greeting is one of the most important kinds of dialogue all over the world. People greet one another, regardless of race or culture. The purpose of a greeting can vary and the reasons behind it generally include showing attention, and suggesting the closeness and type of relationship between people or group. However, customs underlying greeting are highly specific to culture and situation and may change depending on social status and relationship.

Compliments bring a positive feeling that comes because someone noticed something about you they deemed worthy of praise. Compliments are important components of sociability and are also useful devices for beginning a conversation. These are samples of culture, which affects verbal communication. They are closely related to the life of each society. Therefore when the person moves into a new environment with different cultural standards, his cultural background resists change. In this case, translation as the cross-cultural communication agent should reduce misunderstandings to a minimum.

Translation procedures in cross-cultural communication

Newmark believes that using transference or componential analysis depends, firstly, on the particular text-type; secondly, on the requirements of the audience or the client, who may also disregard the usual characteristic of the text type; and thirdly, on the importance of culture-specific words in the text. He believes a translation is normally written and intended for a target-language reader even if the SL text was written for no reader at all, for nothing but its author's pleasure. House believes that the local situational context has to do with the question of who wrote the text, when and why, who is to read it now and for what purpose. And these different questions are reflected in how the text is written, interpreted, translated, and read. The context of the situation is then itself embedded in the larger cultural world. The translator who finds the correct answer to these questions is successful in cross-cultural communication.


The more similar the systems and cultures of the two languages, the more efficient the translation in cross-cultural communication. We ought to keep in mind that, due to differences, there is no exact translation between any two languages. What a translator can expect is an access. One translator, a professional, familiar with the terminology of the area covered by the instrument and with interview skills, should be given this task. For example, using the name of God and verses of the Holy Quran in formal and governmental settings is special for Shiite Muslims in Iran. According to Iranian culture, the Iranian people used to speak in exaggeration and over statement, in comparison with people who live in western countries.


The translator should be knowledgeable of the SL and TL cultures, know the purpose of the communication and the audience for correct and on time decision making to do his/her translation as effective cross-cultural communication. Translators should always aim at the conceptual equivalent of a word or phrase, not a word-for-word translation, they should consider the definition of the original term and attempt to translate it in the most relevant way, and they should consider issues of gender and age applicability and avoid any terms that might be considered offensive to the target population. A communicative text will carry its cultural features while moving from one language to another. Translation is a process of replacing a text in one language by a text in another language. A text is never just the sum of its parts, and when words and sentences are used in communication, they combine to make meaning in different ways. Therefore, it is the whole text to be translated, rather than separate sentences or words.


Bavelas, J.B., Chovil, N., Coates, L. (1995). Gestures Specialized for Dialogue.

Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 21(4), 394-405.

Bernstein, B. (1962). Social class, linguistic codes, and grammatical elements. Language and speech, 5,221-240.

House, J. (2009). Translation. New York: Oxford UP.

Kianush, K. Persian Miniature. Retrieved to July 30, 2009, from http:// en.wikipedia.org.

Newmark, p. (1988). A Textbook of Translation. UK: Prentice Hall.

Newmark, P. (1988). Approaches to Translation. UK: Prentice Hall.

Richards, J.C. & et al. (1992). Dictionary of Language Teaching &Applied Linguistics. UK: Longman.

Yngve, V.H. (1970). On getting a word in edgewise. In Papers from the Sixth Regional Meeting of the Chicago Linguistic Society.

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