Cross-Cultural Blunders Have Consequences for Authors (Part 1)

by Beth Fowler ©

by Beth Fowler ©

Communications can go haywire when writing for an audience whose homeland is far from the author’s. Ask former U.S. president Clinton.When the president promised to send a mutual rival to “kingdom come,” an Asian dignitary got upset, not elated. Later Clinton’s and the dignitary’s staffs conferred and discovered the dignitary thought Clinton intended to give the rival a kingdom.

Unfortunately, most writers don’t have staff to clean up cross-cultural gaffes. Fortunately, international freelancers can sidestep blunders by following these practical tips. Later I’ll share a link of cross-cultural gaffes.

Manage Metaphors – Metaphorical language adds color if meanings are the same to readers as to writers. Metaphors are gobbledygook when symbols have unintended connotations. A North American author attempted to compliment readers by referring to them as “mother hens,” implying that they were exemplary parents. Some women readers wrote letters of protest to the editor. Why? In certain circles, mother hen is a Southeast Asian euphemism for head of a brothel. In another incident, United Nations members produced a document depicting an owl to symbolize wisdom. (Who hasn’t heard the saying, “Wise as an owl”? Numerous people apparently.) The message failed. Owls in Asian nations connote stupidity.

Writers selling to international publications and on the internet can take precautions to avoid insulting or confusing readers. First, minimize use of idioms, clichés, slang and jargon. Simply state the facts. Second, find guides listing do’s and don’ts for foreigners. These “culture shock” guides often list language taboos. Third, read material published in the country you hope to sell to. Note if and how figurative language is incorporated. Fourth, when quoting a speaker’s figurative language, include a translation to ensure the literal meaning is apparent. Finally, ask a national to review a draft of the article for clarity and appropriateness of language.

            Covert to Communicate – Numbers are language, too. For instance, because Indonesians are more familiar with badminton courts than with rugby fields and basketball courts, a journalist writing for an Indonesian newspaper described a building as ” . . . five times the length of a badminton court.”

The same consideration should be taken when writing about money. Global writers specify which country’s dollars are quoted by inserting the country’s name as in “…$5 million Hong Kong,” or “HKD$5 million,” or including a statement: “All prices in Hong Kong dollars.” Use official, up-to-date exchange rates to switch from Euros to yen or whatever. Check the financial section in newspapers, the Internet, banks or financial reports on CNN and the like for accurate exchange rates.

Internet searches turn up automatic measurement and currency converters allowing writers to use standards the targeted audience knows. Also consult reliable references to find out if temps are Fahrenheit or Celsius, distances are miles or kilometers, petrol stations charge by the gallon or liter. Triple check numbers before hitting “send” or posting manuscripts to editors. Miscalculations can damage authors’ credibility and future sales.

            Fit in Foreign Phrases – Readers are delighted when international freelancers insert foreign (foreign to the author, not readers) phrases into their writings. Used correctly, well-placed foreign phrases build bridges between authors and readers. Consult someone articulate in your intended audience’s language to verify suitability of foreign phrases.

Cross cultural gaffes

“Follow” to get Part 2 and other articles for writers who like getting published.

Ken’s War, a YA novel by B.K. Fowler, is slated for publication in 2014 by Melange Books LLC



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