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Transcending Culture: Culture Translation in Expanding International Media Markets

Our Story

At this very moment, as your eyes glaze over the endless black letters upon the page, a story is being written. A story that transcends time, language, and culture which until now you were likely unaware to be a part of. The character you play, which you’re likely to believe is an autonomous player of free society, is actually a scripted personification of every single media exposure you’ve had since you were a child. From the first children’s fairy-tale read at bed time to you by your mother, to your daily thumbing of the daily news and gossip, to the superhero you idolized in the lasted blockbuster film, we create our own realities from the stories, both fictionalized and real, that we’re told everyday of our lives. How do media outlets expand their story within the global marketplace? How do we sell our brands and our media across geographic borders to expand reach and improve profitability?

Today the story of global media is one in an ever-expanding international market. Newspapers, television, and motion pictures compete outside of their saturated domestic markets to improve profits and sales. Commonly the ability to succeed in foreign markets is the difference between profitability or loss for ventures which require considerable investments to produce. Commonly, even in parallel language markets like the United Kingdom and the U.S., we find successful products fail for reasons less clear than simply geography. Why? Without discounting the Sapir-Whorf theory entirely (that culture is fundamentally tied to language and thought), the U.S. and United Kingdom markets present significant challenge to this line of thought (Sapir, 1929).

            This proposal puts forth that it’s intrinsically tied to culture as to why or why not certain media may be accepted or rejected by consumers in foreign markets. It attempts to identify and explain this gap in logic in the Sapir-Whorf theory, and it also proposes cultural “risks” can be minimized during production to produce greater international appeal, and asks if it’s possible to create a model for profitability for production houses, public relations staff, or organizations choosing to move forward globally.

Culture begins the moment one human interact with another. The exchange of ideas, beliefs and emotions changes each one of us. This dissertation attempts to explore this phenomenon both on a micro and macro level because of the author’s infatuation with how the world is both paradoxically similar on a human level, and at the same time, individually professed (by most) as uniquely different. Our constant need as humans to be loved by one another while sharing a common experience, but at the same time, claiming “I’m special”, is a fascinating bit of universal human truth that is ripe for exploring within the boundaries of communications.

Most importantly, as previously mentioned, the benefit for organizations to be able to appeal to individuals in various markets and profit by understanding these cultural differences is the future of global commerce. In the same way, a person may be able to translate an advertisement from English to French, the skill of future communications experts will be to translate media for different cultures, ideally even before production. To be a cultural translator means that an individual or entity can move from being outside the story of others, to authoring a new conversation between consumers, where their product or brand is at the centre of the story.

To truly see culture, an individual must move from external observation to internal participation. This is where the cultural translation takes place. When an individual moves into an identity of bi-cultural, they’re able to transverse barriers for entities wishing to breach the cultural divide. This takes Grunig’s model’s two-way communications and suggests that the concept of an organization can partially be also its own public within the same context, because its method of communication is achieved through its own assimilation into the target culture through their relations and communications team (Tench and Yeomans, 2009). Interestingly, it’s important to note that culture today is seen in various ways. For example, Horni Bhaba in The Location of Culture (1994), suggests that culture, because of colonization has become a homogenized phenomenon which has shifted due to immigration and ‘multinational division of labour’ (Bhabha, 1994). However, it should be no surprise to anyone in communications that most cultures are interdependent (Tench and Yeomans, 2009) and that a global culture exists, but commonly, those bridges are fragmented in a non-linear fashion requiring, just as with language, a translator or guide to navigate the “river” of ambiguity for others. Indeed, this paper recognizes previous factors outlined by Sriramesh and Vecic (2003) with regard to public relations, and should expand upon the concept of political, economic, and media systems, but chooses to define factors outside of systems theory based on empirical evidence that exists in that have emerged beyond traditional models, mostly in part to technology in the last twenty years.

Today, media can be instantly downloaded almost anywhere on the planet. Interestingly, many CEOs employ cultural consultants when they travel to explain and prepare them for the shock of societal norms or to simply prevent themselves from making a costly faux pas in business negotiations, yet domestic media may be sold to alternative markets as an after-thought, commonly repackaged with a new title, sold as a cultural export rather than a dual market product. More importantly, large markets like the U.S. and Asia represent huge opportunities for media outlets like those in the United Kingdom and Europe. While the U.S. does remain the second largest export market for the United Kingdom, commonly those exports lack the same popularity that they do in domestic markets. As of writing this there has been 46 remakes of U.S. television shows to the United Kingdom market, while there have been 129 from the United Kingdom to the U.S. (Saval, 2014) However, the U.S. has been quite successful at exporting their domestic film products, commonly surpassing failures within their own borders (e.g. Waterworld, 1995). This of course presents a deeper question, why would two seemingly same language markets need to remake their media content? Is something more complicated going on? Similarly to J. Turner’s Social Identity Matrix, can we exploit a Maximum Joint Profit between multiple markets by creating a fix set of points to be awarded when creating and then marketing media in multiple cultures (Turner, 1975)? If so, then this theory can be applied to not only media, but also the public relations of organizations themselves and public figureheads.

For this reason, this paper approaches the matter from an in-depth qualitative approach which will analyse social trends, historical precedent, and other factors such as law, which may have implications in the success of cultural translation. In addition, there will be some quantitative aspects to uncover patterns and behaviours and to later evaluate the effectiveness of the proposed outcomes. Ideally, individuals experiences and interviews will also be applied to the dissertation, though I recognize the complication in obtaining high-level media executives or artists for their first-hand experience, and therefore, will examine as I move forward, how much of this type of information will come via first hand, and how much of it will be secondary through literature research. At this preliminary state in the project, this paper’s expectation is to triangulate methods to form a clear and robust conclusion (Jonker and Pennick, 2014).
Expectations for the potential of this paper are that changes in distribution could maximize profitability, however may negatively impact the artistic nature of media including silencing a cultural voice. One possible outcome of this paper suggests that minimization of regional dialects and culture specific cues could maximize distribution sales. Clearly, certain individuals may take offense to the modification of broadcast content simply for profitability, and may see this as cultural genocide. One risk of this research is an outcome that since certain markets dominate economic and business sectors, such as the U.S., the ideal format for all world content should (much like English language is the accepted language of business) be transmitted in an American standard, then back-plumbed into the originating culture. Ideally, I would like to see an outcome that preserves the diversity of culture yet provides some guidance for how to make media translatable to other markets.

In conclusion, the purpose of this paper is to identify key markers for identifying the success or failure of media in foreign markets and to (hopefully) gain insight and strategy for being able to translate culture for this ever expanding international market. In essence, to make our story, the shared store of a global family.

Bhabha, H. (1994). The location of culture. London: Routledge.
Jonker, J. and Pennink, B. (2014). The Essence of Research Methodology. Berlin: Springer Heidelberg, p.160.
Sapir, E. (1929). The Status of Linguistics as a Science. Language, 5(4), p.207.
Saval, M. (2014). U.S. TV Producers in Bigger Hunt for Overseas Series to Remake. [online] Variety. Available at: [Accessed 9 Nov. 2014].
Sriramesh, K. and Verčič, D. (2003). The global public relations handbook. Mahwah, N.J.: Lawrence Erlbaum.
Tench, R. and Yeomans, L. (2009). Exploring public relations. Harlow, England: FT Prentice Hall, p.128.

Turner, J. (1975). Social Categorization and Social Comparison in Intergroup Relations. PHd. University of Bristol.

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