In previous episodes in our culture series, we have broadly discussed language, technology and communication topics. For this episode, we wanted to explore language in more depth by venturing beyond lexical meaning and digging deeper into cultural paradigms. A paradigm is a set of concepts that determine a (contextually) legitimate behaviour or conversation. A cultural paradigm can be a formal set of ideas that help to understand or explain something. Such paradigms are used constantly in education and regularly in social interaction of all kinds. Often, social interactions create a set of assumptions as a result of a single conversational exchange.

 Even without all the connected factors of body language, tone and contextual setting, a single word can have a thousand different meanings in just one language. How would you explain what the word ‘share’ means? Does your explanation match the way your friend would define it? How would your friend’s mother describe it? This kind of exercise can demonstrate how individuals interpret the same word in completely different ways. Now imagine taking that word and translating it into two more languages. That’s three whole spheres of culture, environment, individual interpretation and historical reinforcement going into just one little word. It’s easy to see the complexity of finding the right approach when translating copy to fit into another cultural paradigm. Exploring the webs of meaning that accompany translation is an excellent way of demonstrating how important transcreation is in global communications.

I interviewed the Scottish Canoe Association’s Head of Performance and Pathways, Rémi Gaspard, to gain a little more insight into how approaches to life and professions differ between certain areas of France and Britain. Rémi was previously a canoe slalom athlete on the French national team, and has managed Team Scotland in both sprint and slalom for over six years. His deep understanding of how culture and communication affect the dynamics of high-performance sport made Rémi an interesting interviewee for discussing culture and communication in Britain.

At the start of the interview, I asked Rémi for some more details of the environment in which he grew up. We also talked about the parts of performance sport that he feels have had an influence on his outlook on language and culture. I asked Rémi if he has had to change the way he speaks English based on cultural considerations, aside from obvious lexical differences.

‘I would say yes, to some extent, compared to mainstream French. Maybe less than other French people would have to change the way they speak, because I am not proper French in a direct manner. I had to adapt, but not that much.’

Rémi went on to talk about what he meant by ‘not proper French’: ‘I speak a less direct French. I think this comes from my family values growing up and the principle of “not making waves”. In French, it is “ne faites pas de vagues”, so more or less directly equivalent to the English saying. If you rush into a situation and react immediately, there will be consequential waves that come from your actions and words. In French, this means don’t move too much away from the harmony of a certain dynamic. As I grew up, I realised I was more mild in my way of speaking compared to other French. You mustn’t shout about success, and when things are bad you must just do what you need to do to fix it without blaming everyone else.’

After considering personal influences and environmental factors, certain cultural paradigms can often affect the way a person needs to conduct themselves in a conversation. Rémi spoke a little more about the advantages of being French in a British culture: 

‘Depending on the outcome I want from a discussion, I am often not adapting at all. Combining French etiquette with my personal attitude can impact on people in a way that is French while being clear in English communication. It is interesting to play with the idea that etiquette in English conversation is something similar to a cup of tea, while French mannerisms are sometimes more similar to a cup of quality espresso… what people prefer depends on the individual, the situation, and what the conversation is about. But sometimes more people than you might think prefer the coffee!’

I asked Rémi if there were any specific aspects of the English language that are especially representative of British culture for a non-native English speaker. He thought about it for a while as he sought the right words to express his experiences: ‘I have noticed two things, but they are abstract because I don’t have quite the right selection of words to describe it. In English, people tend to distance themselves from being responsible for something in a conversation. If you talk to someone and they suddenly realise they’re going to be responsible for something that might fail, something around the conversation switches and they pass on the responsibility.’

Reflecting on Rémi’s comment, I think that in English, the power balance in a conversation is often associated with ‘turn taking’, that can shift the weight of authority in a conversation. Traditionally, the responsibility for ‘finishing’ the conversation lies with the participant who holds the turn-taking authority; for example, the participant who began the conversation. In business situations, this can often feel like a ‘delegation assigning’ interaction, where the authority-holder in the conversation is asking for or directing something. As a result, the ‘asker’ often assumes responsibility for the outcome of the interaction, which, depending on the individual, may be unwanted. Rémi continued: ‘The second thing is something in the way of speaking etiquette. In the UK, it is really important that people take turns in speaking. It’s incredibly rude to interrupt and you don’t bounce up with ideas and contradictions in the middle of a sentence. The French way of debating is when something comes into your mind, you say it. We discuss it, and it’s not arguing but creating a conversation. The UK expectation is that you say what you say, then wait for whoever takes the next turn.

‘Another thing that was shocking to me when I first came to Britain was that people rarely say hello or goodbye if they are strangers. It was shocking to me not to have the introductory and closing remarks and behaviours either side of a meeting – it’s like having a sandwich without the bread!’

Following Rémi’s comments on English turn-taking etiquette, I asked him if he ever feels that the custom and ritual behind English conversation overtakes the actual substance of a meeting. More than once in my career I have felt that following social protocol has become more important than the topics actually discussed, and I thought it would be interesting to hear more from a French perspective. Rémi’s reply:

‘I have seen sometimes that if you do not respect the customs in a language, you can completely kill the conversation. If you are negotiating or interviewing someone and you don’t respect the code, you are out. No matter what the quality of what you want to say, your turn is rejected.’ 

I wondered at this point whether there are any things that British speakers address in a more direct way than French:

‘Two things. I feel that British people are quicker in making links with strangers. I’ve been amazed with how people approach homeless people or people who are in difficulties. The fear factor is more present in French culture. I was living in Paris where the fear factor is everywhere, tube and trams are places where you look at your shoes and that’s it. 

I’ve never been anywhere with so many policies as in the UK. Everything is codified and you have to do things in a certain way with safety procedures. This is reflected in the differences between French and English education. In France, there is an emphasis on knowing things and having a deep knowledge and understanding of subjects. In the UK, there is a much broader learning in business and communication. You learn how to do projects and research very early, and you must have an understanding of how to report back to the class. It feels to me like communication skills in the UK are much better in business than in France. However, the British education system has its difficulties; when someone says “expertise” it often means basic level in French. When a French person says he is an expert, then he is definitely an expert. But – problematically – he may not be able to present his skills and knowledge in a way that is as effective as in Britain.’

I think that social and linguistic norms account for a large proportion of our perspective on life. However, from my discussion with Rémi, it is clear that family influences are often stronger than the environment in which we live, as is our personal ambition and the way we look at the world. Individual language is a strong form of communication, but some traits group us together into segments – segments that often adopt a single idiom (specific form of language). At the same time, we cannot forget the importance of individual interpretation of everything we say.

Rémi also talked about the ‘flavour’ of a language. All types of language, whether native or learned, have a flavour that is coloured by the culture and language of the individual, but also the manner and personality of that individual. When we talk about transcreation, we are effectively discussing the project of positioning a given communication in a new language in a manner that delivers an effect similar or identical to that in the original language. This is often much harder than it sounds, because the target culture simply may not have any ‘cultural memory’ in which to position that communication. Thinking back to Rémi’s point above, about tea versus coffee, I am also reminded of IKEA’s explicit instruction to their translation teams: don’t lose the Swedish flavour of our communication! As anyone who has watched/listened to IKEA ads knows, this flavour is a profound part of the impact – a fundamental part of IKEA’s highly individual brand positioning.

The enormous privilege of being involved in the global conversation about culture and language is something that enriches the translation process. Facilitating and improving methods of communication globally is the essence of transcreation. In this way, humans are able to share experiences and ideas across the world without limitations between languages.

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