Technical translations

Essential Preparations for your Technical Translations

We complete an extremely diverse range of work here at Linguistica International. One minute we are busying ourselves with the localisation of a dating website to capture the European market, and the next we’re knee deep in some certified or notarised translations, where our every word must be pitch perfect.

With international regulations becoming increasingly rigorous, the completion of accurate and precise technical translations has become a vital component of our work. When the success of product exportation or global system integration relies on the meticulousness of the written word, our clients trust us to deliver.

However, while the engagement of a quality translation company is certainly a step in the right direction, there is also some essential preparation you can do to put your technical translations on the path to success.

Identify your end-reader

Before approaching a translation company about performing technical translations, it’s crucial you consider the needs of your target audience. For example, the audience for medical translations will differ between professional medical staff and patients, with each having different levels of experience and technical expertise. As such, the level of complexity and the use of technical language should be geared towards the end user.

When targeting patients, the language should be simple and straightforward. However, if your product or service is destined for medical professionals, scientific language, and technical expressions should be used.

Use industry-specific translators

Technical translations or localisations performed by translators without experience in your particular field will lack the expertise and sector-specific knowledge required to produce documents that meet your needs.

At Linguistica International, we only work with linguists who hold excellent language qualifications and have at least five years’ experience in professional translating and interpreting. However, they must also hold subject-specific qualifications and have professional experience in their chosen field. This ensures the level of technical understanding our clients need.

Avoid vague and culturally-biased language

The garbage in, garbage out adage is extremely appropriate to technical translations. You will only receive a technically accurate and precise translation if the original document is on the money. Avoid idioms, adages, cultural references and figurative language as it can lose its meaning on translation.

If these expressions are crucial to the text, try the transcreation process instead. This will take into account these phrases and adapt the document to suit the intended audience, without losing any of its meaning.

Produce style guides and glossaries

An effective way to keep the costs of your technical translation down is to produce style guides and approved glossaries which provide insight into the type of work you expect to see. This can provide long-term benefits such as quality, assurance, and contingency, as well as cost savings.

As an experienced medical, legal and technical translation team, we can advise you on the production of glossaries and style guides, and help you prepare for technical translations without overwhelming you with any unnecessary details.

To see how we can help with your technical translations, please contact Linguistica International today. Give us a call on 02393 987 765, email:, or get in touch on Facebook or Twitter.

Cultural diversity and the impact on your multilingual message

Cultural Diversity and the Impact on Your Multilingual Message

Anyone who works across international borders will have been exposed to the dramatic changes cultural diversity can bring. Simply crossing the border from England into Wales or Scotland can expose you to distinct societal differences, so it’s hardly surprising just how much of a culture shock we can experience when travelling to the other side of the world.

Culture can be defined as the ideas, customs, and social behaviour of a particular people or society. Acknowledging and understanding this diversity has a huge part to play in communicating between cultures, and effectively marketing your business. In this post, we’ll take a look at some of the major key cultural differences at play, and explain how we can help you navigate them safely.

Are rules important?

Well, it depends who you ask. The majority of English-speaking countries generally like rules and believe they should be followed. This includes the UK, USA, Australia and Canada, as well as parts of Northern Europe such as Germany and Switzerland.

Fly east, to India, China and Korea, and rules are seen as more of a guide. They prefer to assess the situation first to see whether the rules need to be applied. In these countries, Latin America and parts of Southern Europe, it is often the case that a relationship is more important than the rule.

Who likes change?

In the US, the Netherlands and Australia, there is a real emphasis on change and innovation. They like to look towards the future, rather than relying too heavily on the past.

In China, Iran, Poland, and even over here in Old Blighty (although to a more moderate degree), we feel more comfortable if everything stays the same. We believe tradition to be extremely important and prefer to be informed by the past.

Is there enough time?

Time is central to countries that appreciate structure and prefer to complete tasks one at a time. This is a trait typically found in Northern European and North American cultures, as well as Japan.

The ability to be fluid and flexible and not be ruled by time is embedded in the cultures of much of Southern Europe, Latin American and the Arab world.

Is privacy important?

Privacy is extremely important to many Western cultures, including here in the UK, where many of us prefer to have a clear distinction between our work and private lives.

If you travel east, openness becomes more important. Those in Arab and Asian cultures are happy for the lines between their private and working lives to blur.

What about status?

Status carries very little weight in Scandinavian countries, North America and Northern Europe. They prefer to treat people similarly and try not to stress differences in social and professional standing.

Cultures primarily in Asia, Latin America, and the Arab world, and to a lesser extent Southern and Eastern Europe, are more likely to respect and honour the status that comes with age, position and even traits like gender.

Why is this important?

If your business is going global, you will have to compete with local companies who are armed with an intrinsic knowledge of their customers’ cultural values. To compete with native companies effectively, it’s essential every piece of marketing you produce, from your brand name to the language, lifestyle and behavioural patterns you promote are culturally relevant to your target market.

At Linguistica International, we only use mother tongue linguists who are native to the country of your target market. The result is culturally relevant, localised marketing messages which speak volumes for your business.

Get in touch to find out more about our transcreation services. Alternatively, if you have some cultural differences of your own, please leave your two cents’ worth on Facebook or Twitter.


Foreign Language Skills in High Demand from UK Companies

The UK has long been criticised on the European and international stage for its reluctance to embrace foreign languages, and its inability to promote their teaching in our schools. Now this lack of enthusiasm for foreign language learning is threatening to stifle the UK’s economy, with businesses unable to hire employees with the linguistic skills they need.

For some time, English has been the international language of business, but in an increasingly globalised economy with more emerging markets than ever before, there has never been a better time to learn a foreign language.

Given the economic rise of non-English speaking countries like Russia, China, Indonesia and Colombia, effective communication across multiple languages is a greater challenge than ever before. Learning languages is an indispensible tool for relationship building and financial success, but research conducted by the Confederation of British Industry (CBI) shows that the UK’s apathetic approach to language learning is creating a skills gap we’re struggling to fill.

An ‘alarming shortage’ of Brits with foreign language skills

Of 300 UK companies survey by the CBI, two-thirds said they were more likely to hire people with foreign language skills than those who only speak English. Despite claims from the UK government that more school children are learning a foreign language, the British Council believes there is still an ‘alarming shortage’ of people with foreign language skills in a number of major languages.

The most sought after languages

Perhaps surprisingly, given the global economic shift in recent years, the three languages that are most sought after by UK firms are based a lot closer to home. In a recent poll, British companies said they believed French, German and Spanish to be the most useful second languages, with 50 percent, 49 percent and 44 percent of the vote respectively. However, the importance of emerging markets was also reinforced, with Mandarin (31 percent) and Arabic (23 percent) also on the rise.

Low foreign language take-up in UK schools

So do young people understand the importance of learning a language? With A-level entries for languages falling over the last few years, and acceptances for language degrees in 2013 dipping to the lowest level in a decade, on the surface of it, the answer would appear to be no. However, on closer inspection, the picture seems to be more nuanced.

Research conducted for the Guardian reveals that of 1,001 young people (aged 18-24) surveyed, almost 20 percent spoke another language at home with their family, whilst 70 percent would be interested in learning another language in the future.

There is also evidence that young people in the UK understand that learning a language can help to open up economic, social and cultural opportunities in the future. However, this is countered by the fact that 39 percent of students are put off by the belief that ‘most people speak English’, and 14 percent by the misconception that ‘most other languages are not useful’.

The importance of language translation agencies

Thankfully, what the UK lacks in foreign language speakers, it more than makes up for with high-quality language translation companies that are on hand to bridge the gap.

At Linguistica International, we get to know our clients’ brands and build close partnerships to help them achieve their international goals. For more information about how we can be your team on the ground, get in touch with our language experts today.

Idioms from around the world

Our Favourite Idioms From Around the World

Idioms are some of the most beautiful phrases in any language. Not only do they reveal a country’s attitude to language, but they also provide a window into the way they view life. No two countries use the same idioms; there may be similar themes, but the expressions they use to convey universal human emotions are always unique to their language.

In the UK, you might think that every cloud has a silver lining, or that variety is the spice of life, but utter these iconic idioms abroad to your foreign friends and they’ll think you’ve gone mad.

So, to celebrate the glorious diversity of idioms around the world, we thought we’d ask our team for the literal translations of some of their favourite idioms, and here’s what they said..

1. Not my circus, not my monkeys (Poland)

This Polish idiom is without doubt the best way of saying “I’m sorry pal, that’s not my problem”, which we’ve ever heard.

2. To feed the donkey sponge cake (Portugal)

Any guesses on this one? Anyone? No, thought not. By feeding the sponge cake to the donkey, you are giving someone far better treatment than they actually need. The closest English equivalent we can think of is “over egging the cake”. That’s a lot of cake to be flying around at 4pm on a Tuesday.

3. To give someone pumpkins (Spain)

This Spanish idiom is used to refer to somebody who has been rejected i.e. they were “given pumpkins.” We actually understand the sentiment with this one, because let’s face it, pumpkins are plenty big enough, but they’re really not that tasty.

4. To ride as a hare (Russia)

This beautiful little phrase adds something of the poetic to the process of riding on public transport without a ticket. In the UK, you’d be fair dodging, which sounds a lot less romantic.

5. To slide in on a shrimp sandwich (Sweden)

In the UK we might say “they were born with a silver spoon in their mouths” to refer to someone with a certain sense of entitlement who has not had to work particularly hard to get to where they are today. In Sweden, they substitute a silver spoon for some shrimp to great effect.

6. When a lobster whistles on top of a mountain (Russian)

More poetic brilliance from the Russians with their version of the English “when pigs might fly” to refer to something that’s never going to happen. In Thailand, they use “one afternoon in your next reincarnation”, while the Dutch equivalent is “when the cows are dancing on the ice”. All equally unlikely we’d say.

7. To look at each other like earthenware dogs (French)

Picture the scene if you will: two clay dogs, stock-still in the back garden, staring each other down. This French phrase means exactly that i.e. to look at each other coldly and with mistrust.

8. The thief has a burning hat (Russia)

This Russian phrase, which means to have an uneasy conscience that gives you away, is a perfect fit for Fyodor Dostoyevsky’s Crime and Punishment, to describe the mindset of chief protagonist Raskolnikov, who gets away with murder only for his conscience to betray him.

9. Pay the duck (Portugal)

In Portugal, if you’re paying the duck, you’re taking the blame for something you did not do. We’d like to try and dig the sense out of that one for you, but we simply can’t. In English, you might say “take the rap”, which comes from the phrase, ‘a rap on the knuckles’.

10. Did an elephant stomp on your ear? (Poland)

They don’t have any elephants in Poland, not in the wild anyway, but if they did, and one stomped on your ear, you probably wouldn’t have much of an appreciation of music, which is exactly what this phrase means.

Do you have any favourite foreign language idioms of your own? Please share you thoughts in the comments section below or by getting in touch on Facebook and Twitter. And please keep it clean!


Fantastic Words that are Genuinely ‘Lost in Translation’

Lost in Translation has become a bit of cliché in the translation world since Sofia Coppola’s 2003 comedy drama of the same name was released to critical acclaim. But there are some terms that are genuinely lost in translation due to the complete lack of a foreign language alternative.

For this week’s blog, we thought we’d have a bit of fun by canvassing our worldly translators for some of their favourite terms that lack an exact match in other languages.

There may well be some thoughts, feelings, actions or ideas you’ve always thought were worthy of their own word. For example, what about that conflicting sense of joy and sadness that comes when you’re eating a delicious meal – yes, it’s tasty and you want it all in your face, but it’s also tinged with sadness because the more you eat, the less you’ll have left. Okay, just me then!

SchadenfraudeThe sense of satisfaction that comes from the misfortunes of others

There’s nothing original about You’ve Been Framed, we’re probably on the 2,800 series of it by now, but yet, when the obligatory ‘old lady falls into water after failing to balance on boat’ video shows, we still can’t help a little titter. That ladies and gents, is schadenfraude.   

WarmdushcerAn individual who only likes warm showers

Warmduscher literally translates as ‘warm-showerer’, which probably accounts for most of the human race. However, the implications of this German insult are of a character who is a bit of wimp and afraid to step out of their comfort zone.


Nunchi refers to a concept in Korean culture that involves listening and gauging an individual’s mood, often without the help of clear signals. In Korea, nunchi is central to the dynamics of interpersonal relationships.

Pisan ZapraThe time it takes to eat a banana

In the UK, we have ‘two shakes of a lamb’s tail’ and ‘in a jiffy’, but in Malaysia, if something is going to take a couple of minutes, then you say pisan zapra, which is the time it takes to eat a banana.

FarpotshketCompletely ruining something due to bungled attempts to fix a minor imperfection

The perfectionists amongst you will recognise this situation all too well. This word describes an attempted tiny fix that ruins something completely. Imagine a painting with a small smudge that you try and remove, only to make a complete hash of your work. That is a farpotshket

TsundokuThe act of leaving a book unread after buying it

At one time or another must of us will have bought books only to put them in a pile with other unread books – certainly at university anyway. This act is referred to by the Japanese as tsundoku. Does it refer to unread books on a Kindle? That we simply do not know.

There are some beautifully evocative words out there that are simply impossible to translate. Of course, the expert translation team at Linguistica International will always find a concise and effective way around this linguistic stumbling block to ensure nothing is lost in translation.

Get in touch

Are there any words you’ve come across without an English equivalent? Please send us your favourite examples on Facebook or Twitter.


Translation myths demystified

5 Common Translation Myths Demystified

We like to think we’re a pretty enigmatic bunch here at Linguistica International, shrouded in a cool air of mystery; but in reality, it’s all a bit of farce. You see, there’s no room for mystery when you spend much of your time completing certified translations, sworn translations and notarised translations, where every detail has to be precise and exact. We bring this down to earth approach to every area of our work, and love to demystify the myths our clients have about our services.

Here are five of the most widely held translation myths…

1. Translation is a small, niche market

Au contraire! The business of translation, interpreting and localisation generates £25billion a year (source: Common Sense Advisory). What’s more, this market is growing and widening. Whilst translation in continental Europe was once dominated by the French, Italian, German and Spanish languages, now the EU has to communicate its messages to 24 different countries.

Then there’s the Asian market. Once upon a time it was only Japanese, Chinese and Korean translations we were asked to perform, but now once neglected languages like Vietnamese and Indonesian really matter as more Asian countries become commercial heavyweights.

Even colossal multinationals like Microsoft now deem it profitable to localise their software packages into tiny languages like Maya and Luxembourgish.

2. Machine translation is reducing demand for human translators

Did you read our last blog on Google Translate vs. Human Translators? If you missed it, basically automated translation software has a long way to go.

Far from replacing humans, machine translation is actually increasing demand for human translation. How? Well, automated translation is serving as an awareness campaign, showing decision makers that translating large volumes of information using machine translation is just not feasible, unless of course you’re happy with an end product littered with mistakes.

Technology certainly does have a part to play in the translation industry, but it’s more effective at coordinating our work with clients and allowing us to produce a more efficient, streamlined service.

3. Anyone who’s bilingual can work as a translator

Just as the ability to write in English does not make you a professional writer, the ability to speak two languages does not make you a professional translator. We have some of the strictest selection criteria in the industry. All of our mother-tongue translators hold excellent language qualifications with at least five years’ experience in professional translation and interpreting work.

Successful applicants must also be subject experts with professional experience of their chosen field of specialisation. More people who are perfectly fluent in two languages will fail professional translation and interpreting exams than pass, simply because the standards are so high.

4. Most translators translate books

It is a commonly thought that most translators spend their time translating books, whilst most interpreters work for the EU or the United Nations. It’s simply that these are the two most visible examples of translation services in action. In reality, the largest commercial translation sectors are software, manufacturing, healthcare, legal and financial services.

5. Translators and interpreters speak ‘dozens’ of languages

It is a misconception that translators and interpreters speak 4 or 5 languages. In reality, to keep the quality at a premium, most translators only work in two languages, and many only work in one direction, from one language into another but not in reverse.

As with any professional skill, it is always best to specialise. The average English person uses about 5,000 words on a regular basis, whilst those who are well educated will use up to 10,000. The professions with particularly wide vocabularies, such as lawyers and doctors, can use in excess of 20,000 words.

Translators and interpreters working in these specialised fields have to be able to use advanced technical terms and vocabulary in two languages, which is close to 40,000 words. For this reason, none of our translators work in more than two languages.

Get in touch

Do you have any translation myths you’d like us to debunk? We love to hear from our readers, so send us your translation misconceptions on Facebook or Twitter.

Google Translate vs human translator

Google Translate vs. Human Translator – Which is Best for your Business?

There seems to be no end to the lengths some of America’s richest firms will go in their pursuit of technological advancement. We’re still a long way from inventing a machine with the intelligence to rival that of a human being, but the likes of Google and Amazon are certainly giving it a good go. From Google we have the driverless car, which functions well in early tests but also raises a lot of ethical questions. And from Amazon we have the commercial delivery drone, which frankly just seems a bit ridiculous.

For now, we have the automated translation tool from Google, called Google Translate, which has recently been re-released with a number of enhancements, including the ability to translate both audio and textual content from one language into another. Google translate can be downloaded onto a smartphone, tablet or desktop, so it’s extremely accessible and cost effective, which is all wonderful. But is it actually any good?

The test

As a team of professional translators, we were intrigued to see just how good the new Google Translate really is. We didn’t have  long to wait as a fellow translation took up the challenge, and this is what they did.

To test how Google’s application measured up against a human, they matched the tool against one of their top Spanish translators. The key to the test was to determine whether Google Translate could detect the nuances that exist in language communication, which have such a dramatic impact on the interpretation and final translation.

The test focused on several key elements which are vital to producing an accurate translation, including comprehension, grammar and cultural idioms.

The results

Perhaps unsurprisingly, Google Translate easily beat its flesh and bone equivalent for speed. But this was never a test of speed. Below are the two English translations produced by Google Translate and the human translator:

Google translate

National Council Bee

Beekeeping has become an activity of great relevance. Lets get high demand in foreign market and provides services such as pollination in crops of commercial interest.

Human translator

National Beekeeping Council

Beekeeping has become an enterprise of great importance, as it allows for creating high demand products in foreign markets and provides services such as the pollination of crops that have commercial interest.

The good news is that we’re still in a job! Despite a number of overhauls since its initial release in 2001, Google Translate is still making many of the same mistakes. In this example the translation is overly literal, the syntax is fractured and the word choice and grammar usage is poor.

What does this mean for you and your business?

There’s no doubt that Google Translate certainly has its place. As a quick translation tool it can serve a multitude of purposes, such as:

• Translating menus and road signs when travelling abroad
• Helping you get the gist or understanding of a topic
• Conversations with overseas relatives and friends
• Skimming non-English websites

However, there are also plenty of occasions when only a professional translator will do:

• Business documents
• Financial medical or legal materials
• Advertising and any public facing-content
• Whenever you need a 100 percent accurate translation

At Linguistica International, our mother tongue translators understand the cultural idioms and nuances that are indicative of how a particular word is used. We understand that a literal translation rarely provides the most accurate translation, and are firm believers that there’s still no substitution for human intelligence – at least for now.

Get in touch

What do you think? Could you ever be usurped by a robot? Perhaps you’re a spam bot with something interesting to say? Either way, we always love to hear from our readers, so please share your thoughts on Facebook and Twitter.

Translation services and content marketing

How Can Translation Services Boost Your Content Marketing Campaign?

Content marketing is everywhere nowadays. If you want to be found online for terms that are pertinent to the products and services you offer, it’s likely that content marketing will form the lion’s share of your online marketing campaign.

According to the Content Marketing Institute

“Content marketing is a strategic marketing approach focused on creating and distributing valuable, relevant, and consistent content to attract and retain a clearly-defined audience – and, ultimately, to drive profitable customer action.”

It probably hasn’t gone unnoticed that this very piece of content you’re reading now is an example of content marketing in action.

The statistics show that content marketing is here to stay, at least for the short to mid-term any way. Research from the Content Marketing Institute shows that an amazing 93 percent of B2B organisations rely on content marketing for brand building and demand generation, while 78 percent of senior marketers believe custom-built content such as articles, blogs and whitepapers are the future of marketing.

The role of translation in content marketing

As a team of translators who are not only responsible for producing quality translations for our clients, but also for marketing ourselves, we’ve learnt a few things about how repackaging content through translation can be an effective method of increasing our return on investment.

When we’ve taken the time to produce an original article or piece of research that drives traffic to our website, we translate the same piece of work (as long as it’s culturally relevant) into another language to effectively double our content’s reach. Simple it may be, but it’s surprisingly effective.

The benefits of translating your content

This approach to content marketing is particularly suitable for businesses expanding overseas, but even if you don’t harbour international expansion plans, this strategy can still work for you.

So what are the potential benefits for your business?

1. SEO

Concentrating your content marketing efforts on the domestic market can help you climb the local search results, but it won’t have any sway further afield. If you want your website to perform well in international search, it’s important to build your international exposure by gaining links and increasing your traffic. Translating your content will help you do just that.

2. Link building

No matter how many digital marketers proclaim that link building is dead, we all know how important good quality links can be. If the quality of your content or translation is poor, then you can kiss the links goodbye, but if you go the extra mile to produce top quality work, you could give your website a powerful boost on the search engine result pages.

3. New audiences

One of the most exciting benefits of translating your content is the ability to communicate with new audiences and increase your business’ exposure. With prospective customers and interested readers consuming your content, it’s easy to make great strides in new markets.

4. Keywords

When the search engines pay a visit to your website they’ll expect to see plenty of references to men’s shoes (if you’re an online shoe shop), or mobile phones (if you’re phone reseller), but none of these terms in different languages. If the search engines start to see some occurrences of the French or German alternatives to these terms in your content, they’ll start to associate your website with these keywords too. Before you know it, your content will be showing in the search results for foreign language searches.

5. New digital relationships

If you produce high quality, relevant and original content on a regular basis, good things will come. Perhaps the biggest potential benefit for your business is the opportunity to build new digital relationships with fellow bloggers, social media curators or journalists who want to be associated with your content. Meaningful digital relationships are the foundation of modern SEO, and every new relationship you form gives you the potential to reach a new market.

Get in touch

Have you tried translating your business content? Was it successful? We’d love to hear from you, so please share your thoughts on Facebook or Twitter.

Alternatively, if you want some help transforming your quality English language content into attention grabbing translations, just get in touch and we’ll be happy to help.

Etiquette is important when conducting business abroad

The Importance of Etiquette when Conducting Business Abroad

Sending the right signals with the correct body language, gestures and etiquette is an important part of conducting business abroad. The ability to be deferential and adapt your way of working to meet the expectations of clients and suppliers is essential. Thankfully, most hosts will be sympathetic of your mistakes, providing you make the effort. It is this willingness to learn and to go the extra mile that will speak volumes about you and your business.

Country specific etiquette

In many cases, your overseas clients, partners and suppliers will be just as unprepared for the way you like to do business; but, when you’re the one setting foot in their country, the onus is on you to do your homework. Proper preparation to send and receive culturally appropriate signals can make the difference between the success and failure of a new venture, so it’s well worth a few minutes of your time.

If you’re looking to build bridges in the Asian market, the traditionally firm Western handshake that we see as a sign of respect can be highly offensive. Instead, a faster, lighter handshake will work more effectively.

In Japan, the business card is something to be revered. If you are given a business card you should treat it with respect. This includes not scribbling notes on it or stuffing it instantly into your pocket. If you are travelling to Japan to do business, it is well worth spending a few quid to translate your business card into Japanese. This is exactly the type of extra effort that’ll stand you in good stead.

In Korea, it takes time to build trust. Asking straight questions that require yes or no answers is frowned upon. Instead, appreciate that the negotiation process in Korea has a completely different rhythm. While you might want to get a deal sewn up in a day, it may take several visits to win their trust.

If you’re working in the Middle East, specifically in Arab countries, you should be mindful of the signals you are sending with your shoes. Showing the soles of your shoes to an Arabian partner or client is extremely offensive, so when you’re seated, make sure your feet are planted firmly on the ground.

That all important personal touch

One of the biggest hurdles we face in the UK is treating business as a purely professional event. In some cultures the personal touch is essential. In much of the western world, we are quite content to stick to the cold hard facts without it affecting our professional relationships.

However, in some countries, the lack of time to ask about personal matters, such as the health of an individual’s family, could cause great offensive. By neglecting to ask these questions you can badly damage your prospects overseas.

Where can you find help?

With thorough research and preparation it is possible to form excellent working relationships with clients, partners and suppliers overseas, you just need to be sensitive to the cultural differences.

The British Chambers of Commerce has a network of experts around the world with an intricate understanding of the culture at play in particular countries to help you to get grips with that market. There’s also plenty of government advice on exporting and importing to and from the UK, including regulations, intellectual property issues and establishing a presence in foreign markets.

And remember, if you need a helping hand to put your best foot forward overseas, Linguistica International should be your first port of call for translating and telephone interpreting services. Just give us a call on +44 2392 987 765 or email:

Alternatively, if you’ve had any calamitous experiences conducting business abroad, we’d love to hear from you on Facebook or Twitter

Facial expressions and culture

The Link between Facial Expressions and Culture

As any holidaymaker will know, when you’re struggling with a foreign language you revert to the basics to get by. At Linguistica International, by no means do we condone the act of pointing at pastries in some far flung corner of the world, but sometimes, when a language barrier exists, there are few other methods of getting your message across.

Along with the pointing and the brainless gesticulating comes your friendliest, most disarming smile. You know the smile we’re talking about, it’s the one that says: “Hello there, I don’t speak your language and I’m very sorry about that, but I would love three of your delicious looking apple strudels please.” The trouble is, your slightly gormless, toothy smile might be disarming here in the UK, but it won’t necessarily be perceived in the same way in that delicious foreign cake shop.

What does the research say?

Most of us would assume that facial expressions convey the same emotion or meaning wherever you are in the world. However, recent research has caused an about turn in conventional thinking, and could be the reason why you’ve been getting all those funny looks…

In the first study, two completely different cultural groups, visitors to the Boston Museum of Science and the Himba people from the Namibian mountains, were asked to listen to nine different audio clips. They were then asked to describe the emotion each sound evoked in a single word.

The American participants guessed the emotions tied to all the sounds correctly, but the Himba’s accuracy in seven out of the nine sounds was less than five percent.

In another study, the same two ethnic groups were asked to interpret a number of facial expressions. The participants were asked to sort pictures of the faces of 36 African Americans into five different emotional groups, before labelling these five piles with the emotion attributed to them.

The American respondents split their pictures into five different expressions, which included: smiling, scowling, neutral, wide-eyed and a combination nose-wrinkled and pouting. The Himba created two piles, one with happy and the other with fearful expressions. The three other piles they created were completely different to those assembled by the Americans. The Himba also found it hard to describe the piles by attributing a mental state to each, and instead had to resort to facial actions to describe their piles.

What this shows, the researchers believe, is that the meaning of some facial expressions changes in different parts of the world.

How do we interpret facial expressions?

Interpreting facial expressions in a study is not the same as it is in everyday life. When you’re out and about in a foreign country, or just in your home town, you are using a number of different signals to interpret what you think people’s expressions mean.

Context is hugely important. Humans do not actually recognise emotions in others, but perceive them. As an example, the facial expression of an athlete who is jumping for joy after winning an event, if viewed alone, could look pained. It is not until the full image is revealed, which shows us some context, that we can see they are celebrating a triumph.

We once believed emotions to be natural events that are specific signatures, but we are now starting to realise that emotions are “constructed events that arise in the moment from a set of more basic ingredients.” Our emotions can actually be filtered by elements such as a positive/negative mood, and these perceptions are not fixed but occur in a moment.

What can we learn?

This tells us that different people, in different cultures, can express their emotions in different ways. But more than that, the facial expressions the Himba used to describe the emotions evoked when sorting the picture piles suggests that the very notion of emotion can differ in each culture as well.

This simply enhances the importance of appreciating, acknowledging and understanding the cultural differences at play when working with foreign customers, suppliers or business partners. The incorrect interpretation of cultural signals is one of the greatest challenges that businesses expanding into new markets must overcome. While our mother tongue linguists can help you get the language right, interpreting emotions and facial expressions is something only experience can help with.

What do you think? Have you ever experienced a miscommunication resulting from your incorrect interpretation of a facial expression? What about body language? We’d love to hear your thoughts, so please get in touch via Facebook or Twitter.