It sometimes takes more than translation for a project to be understood abroad. Understanding your reader’s culture is equally important. A translator may be able to make you aware of cultural issues in your text, but your marketing team needs to do its homework too.
Tim Burton’s The Nightmare Before Christmas is an excellent illustration of cultural misunderstanding. Skeleton Jack, from the Halloween world, accidentally discovers the Christmas world and decides to take Santa’s place to share his world with the Christmas one by delivering jolly monstrous presents to children who know nothing other than beautiful, happy, colourful toys. It all turns into a disaster, of course. Ironically, the film was a disaster in France too with part of the population: parents took their young children to see a fun spooky animated film for children (or so they thought) and soon came out of cinemas with terrified, screaming children, not unlike the children of the Christmas world in the film. Who would have thought that a film could live up to its title so well – indeed, so literally!
Translating the dialogues in the film was not enough. Halloween is not celebrated in France and is unknown to French children. The film should have been promoted as a film rated 12 and over rather than PG. Did the marketing team not realise that Halloween is not an international celebration? Did they just assume that the French audience was familiar enough with Tim Burton’s style to know what to expect?
Whatever you wish to export (product, service, idea…), your target audience must be your starting point. When writing for others, you should put yourself in their shoes and explain your ideas from their perspective, rather than expect them to jump and fit straight into your shoes. This is why translators regularly stress the importance of context in their work. We sometimes adjust your text slightly to suit your readership, and may discuss things with you to check that you are happy with any significant adaptation that we judge necessary. However, there is only so much a translator can do. If the whole concept developed in your text is unsuitable to the targeted culture, we may suggest you re-think your project and work with an agent from that culture who can advise you on the bigger picture.
In the case of the film, whether in the story or its reception in other countries, the issue was beyond language. Simply considering the audience’s culture would have spared children and their parents a true nightmare before Christmas.