06/18/2014 05:26 pm ET Updated Aug 18, 2014

A Lesson About the Eastern Mindset

Our mindset and thought processes are fundamentally related to our cultural background, and vice versa.

In the world of translation services we usually pride ourselves in being trained not only in the literal translation work, the languages themselves, but also in understanding and appreciating the cultures behind the languages. Effective language translation requires that you have an appreciation for the culture that produced a text, both for understanding the underlying themes and subtleties of a text and for recognizing local sayings, oddball idiom, and concepts that are difficult to translate simply.

But, I often ask my peers: Do we really have an understanding of these other cultures? Too many of us take a superficial approach to the question: Because we know the sayings, the politics, and the beliefs, we say, yes, yes, of course we know the culture. But this is a superior, missionary-amongst-the-savages attitude that says because we learn the folk songs we know what it's like to be from a particular country, region, or ethnic group. The fact is, it's much more difficult.

In fact, many of the disagreements and conflicts we get into with other ethnicities, especially in Asian cultures, stems from differences that are more fundamental. Until we understand these fundamentals, our attempts at understanding from a personal perspective and localisation from a business perspective will be flawed, and possibly doomed to failure.

Culture and Thought

It's widely accepted today that culture and the mechanics of thought are closely related -- in other words, people from vastly different cultures do, in fact, think differently -- not just believe different things, or speak different words, but literally have a thought process that is alien to other cultures. I think we've all had the experience of an uncanny sense of a barrier between us and someone from another culture -- particularly, in my experience, Asian cultures -- that prevents us from truly understanding each other. We may understand the words and even the concepts we're exchanging, but we're not really understanding how we came to those conclusions, or why we're having those emotional reactions.

Impact on Localization

This is interesting as a personal project, but ought to be interesting to our clients as well, because this difference in thought process is making localization not only more difficult, but also more expensive. When you're trying to communicate to another culture it's tempting to think that all you need is a translator to make your words into another language -- but if you're not able to understand how the other culture thinks, you're still shooting in the dark, because you really don't know if you composed your message in an effective way in the first place.

How can we overcome these divisions? It starts, I think, with introspection: Understand how your own thinking works and how those processes might be related to your own cultural background and upbringing. If you can see your own 'source code' you will have a much better chance of perceiving and understanding someone else's.