Interpreting Culture

We’ve talked a lot about interpretation in this blog and on our website. We have an ebook devoted to top ten tips for interpreters and translators and a resource guide for working with interpreters and interpretation equipment. What we haven’t’ addressed as much, and what perhaps needs to be considered, are the ways in which culture impacts interpretation assignments. Interpreting culture is not a simple matter, of course, but how cultural differences influence social interactions deserve some attention.

Cultural differences exist in every interaction between two people who speak different languages and come from diverse backgrounds. From patients and doctors in a hospital setting to clients and their attorneys in a law office, cultural views vary widely from person-to-person. Following is a list of some areas in which culture may impact an interaction between two or more people, regardless of the setting.

  • Differences in greeting styles
  • Religious differences
  • Different approaches to law or medicine
  • Different thoughts regarding roles of men in women at home and in the workplace
  • Different views on respect, honor, and saving face

Strategies for overcoming cultural differences:

  • Explain any obvious cultural differences to the English speaking medical staff, attorney, police officer, etc. before the interpretation assignment begins.
  • Inform the English speaker(s) about any less obvious cultural differences, such as the possibility that Muslims may not want to be visited by a priest in the hospital.
  • Communicate patients’ desires to medical staff in a way that includes cultural information, such as a wish to directly and honestly be told about options and outcomes
  • Communicate clients’ cultural views on the legal system to attorneys involved in their case to help clarify any potential misunderstandings that may occur related to a trial, sentencing, appeals, etc.
  • Advise police officers regarding possible significance of certain types of religious traditions, clothing, or restrictions, according to an individual’s culture and personal convictions.

Cultural differences are numerous and involve a seemingly endless list of influences and possible factors. The direct speech and casual dress of people from the United States may be unfamiliar or unsettling to a person from another part of the world. Cultural explanations help to put cultural differences into their proper context so everyone is able to communicate equally and respectfully.

What kinds of cultural differences have you encountered and how have you dealt with those differences? Have you found those differences enriching your interactions with other people rather than making them more challenging? We would love to read your thoughts in the comments!



Nisar, the dynamic force behind Translation Excellence, stands tall as its founder and CEO. This isn’t just any company—it’s a global heavyweight in boutique language services. Hailing from the vibrant city of Kabul, Afghanistan, Nisar brought his passion and expertise to the U.S. shores in 2001. In the realm of languages, he’s a titan. With 19 years under his belt, he’s worn hats from a linguist and instructor to a cultural bridge-builder and curriculum craftsman.

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