Translators are usually seen as mediators between two languages and their work as rewriting texts in another language. However, they are actually much more than that: translators are mediators between two groups of people, two mindsets, and two cultures. The cultures of groups of people speaking different languages, such as English and Serbian, can be quite distant, which can sometimes lead to certain complications in translation arising as a consequence of a lexical or even conceptual gap.

Lexical gap occurs when there is no word in the target language whose form, function and content corresponds to the word from the source language that is to be translated. An example of this is the English word sibling, which refers to a brother or a sister. In case of a lexical gap, the foreign word is translated using the linguistic material of the target language whose function and content correspond to the original word; in this case, brat or sestra (brother or sister).

A more complicated situation arises when the lexical gap stems from a conceptual gap, which occurs when the target culture does not recognize the meaning of the foreign word, and therefore has no word or a linguistic mechanism which can be used to translate the subject word. Such conceptual gaps are usually the consequence of the differences between the source and the target culture, and that constitutes the case of culture-specific words. This problem has three possible solutions.

The first solution is the transcription or the transliteration of foreign culture-specific words. In this way, new words enter the target language as loanwords. For example, the word sari was borrowed from Hindi and it refers to a special type of Indian dress which is not present in English and Serbian cultures, and therefore these languages have no word to describe it. Haggis and porridge are the names of a Scottish and an English dish which do not really exist in Serbian culture; these words were transcribed and they worked their way into the Serbian language as hegis and poridž. This process also occurs vice versa: slava is a custom specific for Serbian culture and does not exist in the Anglo-American culture, so the English language had to adopt this word in its original form.

The second solution would be to find a functional equivalent, i.e. a word or a phrase in the target language that has a similar meaning as the subject culture-specific word, if such a word or a phrase exists. For example, if someone from the English speaking world says that they are having casserole for dinner, it must not be translated with the word kaserola, even though this word exists in the Serbian language. While in both languages this word refers to a type of a deep pan used in cooking, in the English language it also refers to a dish made of meat, different vegetables and cheese which is prepared in such a pan. Therefore, it would be much more appropriate to use a similar dish in the translation, for example musaka (moussaka).

The third solution, usually the simplest one, is to use a hypernym, i.e. a more general term, to convey the meaning of a culture-specific word. For example, Americans might talk about going to Hawaii and drinking Mai Tais. Since this kind of drink is not that common in the Serbian culture, it can simply be said that they would like to drink cocktails. Furthermore, in the Anglo-American justice system, there are several terms for different kinds of lawyers (attorney, lawyer, barrister…). If someone is said to be a barrister, it would be best to translate this word as advokat (refers to any type of lawyer) and not go into specifics of their job.

When deciding on which technique is to be applied in the translation of culture-specific words, the medium and the context in which the subject word occurs must be taken into account. If the word is a part of a legal document or a book, this leaves us with enough room to explain its meaning in detail. The term itself can be more closely defined, a functional equivalent with additional explanation can be used, and there is even a possibility of using footnotes. However, if the word occurs in a movie or a TV show, the temporal and spatial limitations of this medium must be taken into account, so the use of hypernyms or transcription may be much more favorable.

In addition, the context in which the culture-specific word occurs, as well as its significance within that context must be considered. If this word is crucial to the entire text or if it is repeated many times, a hypernym is not an option. Moreover, if the word is mentioned in the movie, functional equivalents might not be an option if the visual part of the movie shows objects different from the ones mentioned in the translation.


Hajduk Veljkova 11/IV
21000 Novi Sad, Serbia

Contact Phones

Phone: +381 21 47 25 227

Fax: +381 21 47 25 226