Why Do Dialects Matter for Translation and Localization?

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Y’all, youse, yinz, you all…thanks to dialects, you can travel around the United States and hear an astonishing array of options for the simple act of addressing more than one person. But why do dialects matter so much when it comes to translation?

In this post, we talk about what dialects are, the challenges they may pose when translating, and the importance of differentiating them for translation and localization.

What is a dialect?

As discussed in a recent post on dialects, ethnolects, and sociolects, the definition of a dialect isn’t always cut-and-dried. However, the easiest way to think of a dialect is as a language variant. Dialects tend to form when geography, class, and other factors naturally produce a language variant with distinctive linguistic characteristics.

Do you live in an apartment or in a flat? Do you refer to a fried potato side dish as fries or chips? It depends on whether you speak American English or British English, two major dialects that themselves break down into a multitude of language sub-variants. In the United States, for example, some widely spoken dialects include African American Vernacular English (AAVE), Southern American English, and Appalachian English.

Why are dialects so challenging?

Have you ever seen a movie where the actors’ attempts to speak the local language are, well, cringeworthy? Five decades after starring in Mary Poppins (1964), actor Dick van Dyke was still apologizing for his much-criticized attempt at Cockney, a dialect of English typically associated with the working class of London’s East End.

Dialects are inherently difficult to imitate, understand, and convey accurately when translating. There are many factors to keep track of when working with a single dialect, including pronunciation (accent), grammar, and vocabulary or slang. Then, complicating things further, many languages contain a vast multitude of dialects—Chinese alone has approximately eight main dialects or language groups, of which Standard Mandarin and Cantonese are just two of the more widely known.

Why dialects matter for translation and localization

For companies that want to bring their business to specific local markets, a standard “one size fits all” translation simply doesn’t work. Instead, localization is a must—adapting your products and services to the linguistic and cultural nuances of a target audience. Therefore, knowledge of local dialects is essential for maintaining the authenticity and effectiveness of any translation and localization projects.

Take Spanish, for example. A translation using “standard” or Castilian Spanish, primarily spoken in Spain, is likely to sound overly formal and stilted in other parts of the Spanish-speaking world. Likewise, the many dialects of Latin American Spanish have unique grammatical features whose absence in a translation will stick out like a sore thumb, such as Rioplatense Spanish and its marked use of voseo (vos instead of ).

Vocabulary and slang can also present a dangerous minefield, and ignoring dialect differences can lead to a humorous misunderstanding at best or a major offense at worst. Let’s just say you don’t want to mix up words like pants (American English for, well, pants, but British English for underwear) in your advertising. Plus, dialects themselves often carry political and cultural connotations that require sensitive handling. For instance, using a Metropolitan (“Standard European”) French translation in Montreal may not win any favors with a population that speaks—and is proud to speak—Québécois French.

In the end, there’s only one thing that’s the same across all language variations: for translation and localization, you should seek out professional translators who are not only fluent in your target language, but who can also advise you on localizing for your market’s key dialects.

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