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Did you know that colours can take on a different meaning in translation?

We often use colours in written and spoken language, both to describe things and to evoke a particular feeling. Most of the things around us have colours that create associations or are purely practical. Something that we might not often think about is that colours can have different ‘meanings’ in different languages.

Published 5/18/2015

In other words, in certain situations it may be worth thinking about which colours to choose in an advertising campaign, for products and in the metaphors used in order to get a gut feeling for your message. Even if the translation manages to get the message across in purely linguistic terms, the associations can change.

Let’s take an example that feels fairly neutral in the Western World: the colour blue. Many Westerners would probably agree that blue often brings associations with the sea and the sky, or perhaps with conservative politics, or a sense of calm when choosing paint for the walls. But some cultures and languages don’t make a distinction between blue and green, which might sound strange to a Westerner. After all, surely green is associated with trees and blue with the sea?

But if as a European you have an intended target group in Asia and are aware that the same word can mean green and blue in Japanese, Thai or Korean, you may want to adapt your text, presentation or advertising. You need to think about how colours in adverts and materials are perceived by the target group, and how colours are described in the text. If you sell traffic lights and are aware that there is no consensus between English and Japanese about what is seen as the green colour on traffic lights, you will probably need to adapt the translation to avoid misunderstandings – a kind of cultural adaptation.

Here are some more examples of how the colour blue is seen differently around the world:

  • In the Western World, blue is now seen as a boy’s colour, but in the early 1900s blue was a girl’s colour since it was used to depict the Virgin Mary in art.
  • In Chinese opera, a character with a blue-powdered face is probably a villain and blue is associated with ghosts and death.
  • Blue is the colour of mourning in Turkey and Central Asia.
  • North African Tuaregs often wear indigo turbans which, as a result of the dyeing process, stain their skin blue. This is seen as a sign of prosperity and nobility.
  • For Hopi Native Americans, blue symbolises west, which is the direction of death. Dreaming about someone wearing a blue feather was a bad omen.
  • In Thailand, blue signifies Friday.

In other words, it’s worth paying particular attention to colours when working with other countries and cultures. Colours are intimately linked with specific associations and emotions in different cultures, and that’s one of the things that make language so fascinating.

Do you want to find out more about cultural similarities and differences? Book a seminar on intercultural communication.

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