The Pitfalls of Language Without Cultural Context

The Dutch are a no-nonsense, straightforward people, and I always thought the language expressed this national characteristic pretty well.

Not for us those expressions of affection that roll off the tongue so easily in English. Ik hou van je is much harder to say than “I love you” for some reason, which logically speaking is bizarre of course, since the Dutch love their nearest and dearest as much as anyone else. The only reason I can think of is that effusiveness is simply not in line with the Dutch character. We are a nation of farmers and seafarers after all. Fighting sea and soil does not leave much energy for poetry.


Without fail, when first-time Dutch visitors go out to eat here in California they will chafe at the friendly banter of the waiters, which they interpret as fake and superficial. “How are you folks this evening?”, a standard opener at restaurants, is guaranteed to annoy Dutch customers, who will stew through their dinner dissecting the sincerity of the inquiry and harumphing that people shouldn’t ask questions if they’re not actually interested in the answer.

The Dutch are great admirers of the British gift for devastating understatement, but the sad fact is that we are to the British what Americans are to the Dutch. One of my dad’s favorite stories involves a Dutch businessman in London who cheerfully greets the British gentleman across the breakfast table at his hotel every morning for several days, until finally the Brit emphatically lowers his London Times and announces in clipped tones, “Good morning. Good morning. Good morning. And that will do for the rest of the week.” This perfectly distilled civility is what we Dutch aspire to, but we are just too direct and lack the required subtlety.

Or so I thought, until this week.

I was working on a project which involved transcribing and then translating a conversation recorded during an undercover investigation, and after a while I noticed something I had never really thought about before. The subject of the investigation used the word ja a lot as a response to the undercover agent. Now technically, ja simply means yes, yet I ended up translating this word a lot of different ways, depending on the intonation.

It reminded me of the famous Chinese “Shi Shi” poem. This poem is about a man who kills ten lions and takes them to a stone den to eat them, but when you read the 92 characters out loud, they are all different tonal versions of the “shi” sound.

To give you an idea, this is what that would look like as the Dutch “Ja Ja” poem, titled: “The Conversation”.

Ja? Ja… Ja. Ja ja.
Ja ja. Ja… Ja…
Ja? Ja. Ja ja! Ja.
Ja ja ja. Ja ja ja.
Ja Ja… Ja? Ja.


What can I do for you? Okay… Go on… Hmmm….
Uh huh, sure you are. Well… I’m not sure.
You think? Uh huh. I see. Yes.
Right, I see what you’re saying. Yes of course.
Let’s see… So that’s all then? Sure, no problem.

If you are Dutch, see if you can figure out the intonation of the ja’s based on the English translation. You’ll find that there are some similarities, but most of them are quite distinctive.

In other words, when you’re interpreting live or listening to audio files you’ll have no problem figuring out which option to choose based on the intonation. When all you have is a transcript, though, you must rely on context and cultural awareness to create an accurate, natural translation.

Immediate context
This is what happens in the text right before and right after the ja.

Example 1
A makes a statement
B says ja
A finishes the statement

In this case, the ja means “I am listening, go on.” An American listener would most likely say “uh huh” to convey this.

Example 2
A makes a statement
B says ja
A rephrases the same statement

Here the ja means “I’m not sure what you mean” or “I’m not convinced.” An American listener might say something like “well…” in this situation.

Cultural context
If the immediate context doesn’t provide any clues, the answer probably lies in the larger cultural context.

Example 3
A abruptly says ja? after a pause, seemingly out of the blue.
B Thanks A and says goodbye.

If you’re looking at a transcript and you’ve never been in the Netherlands, you might think that A thought B was saying something and asked him to repeat it, as in “what?” or “excuse me?” However, someone who knows the cultural context would understand that ja? is used at this point by the dominant partner to bring the conversation to a close. It means “unless there is anything else, we’re done”. The listener is supposed to take the cue, and it would be a faux pas to launch into a new topic at this point.

Now these are just miniscule examples of course, and lives are not likely to be lost over the exact shade of meaning of ja. But these principles also apply to situations where much depends on the accuracy of every word. In a perfect world this would speak for itself, and only professionals with the requisite level of linguistic and cultural proficiency would hang out their translation shingle, but as long as I still have to proofread documents where “mama OK” (breast surgery) is translated as “the mother is okay with it”, I believe it bears repeating.

Come to think of it, it would make my life so much easier if more people kept in mind that in language, a cigar is not always a cigar, to churchillmisquote Sigmund Freud. Words can mean a lot of different things, depending on immediate and cultural context. So here’s a freebie for all my Dutch compatriots, whom I otherwise love and adore: “How are you?” just means “good evening” here. The waiter is not asking about your day, your family or your medical history, and he is not trying to be your BFF. And in turn, be patient with those Americans in Holland who complain about slow restaurant service because they haven’t caught on that eating out is an occasion for leisurely conversation in Holland and that it is bad form to rush guests through their meal.

Being a tourist is fun, and cultural hurdles are part of the adventure. But translation tourism (“Sure, I took some French in high school, I can translate this financial report for you”) is a dangerous thing. No professional can translate all things for all people, but each of us can (and should) be very, very good within our own language/specialty niche. So let’s speak out for professionalism. The easier we are to hear, and the easier we are to find, the less reason anyone will have to hire a random translation tourist who can’t tell a ja from a ja.

2 thoughts on “The Pitfalls of Language Without Cultural Context

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