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Translating culture: an English to Persian example

By Yavar Dehghani

As a translator, I know that it can be difficult to find equivalent words for a specific word or phrase in the target language. This difficulty can become overwhelming when a word or phrase in the source language has no cultural equivalent in the target language.

In my professional experience, the best solution for dealing with this type of problem is to explain the context where the word or phrase is used rather than translating them. My preferred method to do this is to use document footnotes.

Below are some brief examples that illustrate this difference and some strategies to overcome the problem. These examples use English and Persian as either the source language or target language.

Title and names:

In Persian, when addressing people, you also include their occupation along with their title and name in this order: title/occupation/name. For example, Mr Dr Ahmadi or Mrs Engineer Bakhshi.

When you translate this to English, you would delete the title and explain why in the footnote.

Courtesy phrases:

The Persian language contains a number of idioms to express appreciation and gratitude - dattetun dard nakone (your hand may not be sore) and qorbanet beram (I sacrifice for you).

When translating these into English, you should try and choose the closest the most appropriate English version depending on the context – eg. thank you or sorry for the trouble.  

Alcoholic drinks:

As alcoholic drinks are forbidden in Iran, there are very few words to describe where you would purchase one and what the drinks are called.

The following words and phrases have no equivalent in Persian and should be explained as you see below:

  • Beer garden: an area outside a pub where people can sit at tables and drink.
  • On the rocks: a drink where your alcohol of choice is poured over ice and served.
  • Cocktail: a mixed drink that contains both alcohol and non-alcoholic mixers.
  • A sour: usually this is a whiskey drink, but can be made with other types of liquor also. In addition to the alcohol of choice, a sour also contains sugar and lime juice or lemon juice to give it bitterness.

Life and death:

In Persian culture, what happens to a person after death is extremely important. This is why there are number of formal words for death including - marg, ertehal, rehlat, dargozasht, fot etc.

Each of these words are used to express a particular degree of respect and formality. When translating these words into English, you would have to explain the degree of respect intended.

To conclude, careful word selection and some extra contextual explanations can go a long way in making sure your translations can be easily understood by your audience or clients.

Happy translating!

Dr Yavar Dehghani is a self-published author, linguist and lecturer in Iranian languages including Persian (Farsi & Dari), Pashto, and Turkic languages including Azari and Turkish.

He obtained his first NAATI accreditation in 2002. Click here to learn about his other works.


Published: 22/08/2016