Colour coding cultural translation

Tokyo stock exchange

Pic: Stéfan via Wikimedia Commons



At first glance, do you think this picture shows a predominantly good or a bad day for investors on the Tokyo stock market? When working on your multilingual publications or websites it is worth considering the cultural significance of colours used in design and imagery.

The symbolic messages that we automatically read when we see certain colours may not exist in other contexts or for other groups of people. Remember that ideas about colours having automatic meanings are often arbitrary. They are not connected to a given and universal meaning. In some contexts a colour may not seem to have an inherent meaning, but people will often associate it with certain feelings. For example orange may create a feeling of energy. But in Ireland it will be more clearly associated with a symbolic association with Protestantism. However, beware of making sweeping generalisations about any given colour. It is possible in any culture to have multiple and yet automatically recognised associations of a colour; red is a particularly interesting example.

In the West, red is associated with warnings, anger and possible danger. It is also regarded as the colour of love and passion and is seen all over greetings cards stores when Valentines Days comes round. It is associated with Christmas (though this may be due to Coca-Cola putting Santa in a red outfit!) Red also signifies left wing parties and ideologies in Europe, while blue is associated with conservative politics. On the other side of the Atlantic however red has become associated with the more conservative Republicans and blue with the more liberal Democrats.

In China red is associated with good luck and new beginnings as we saw in the recent Chinese New Year celebrations here in London. In Japan red has connotations of “complete” or “clear” and combinations of red and white are associated with auspiciousness and happiness and are often combined at weddings. Red is positively associated with the sun and is represented as such on the Japanese national flag.

The Evening Standard recently reported that “Buyers from the West flock back to Japan”. They use an image of Japanese stock exchange screens awash with green numbers and the caption “Bounce back: the Tokyo stock exchange rose today as bargain hunters swoop in”. Sometimes using stock imagery can work but does it here?

An unsuspecting reader in the UK may assume the proliferation of green numbers indicates a rise in share prices, while red lights would indicate a fall or an alarm. The reality in the photo is the exact opposite: this image must have been taken on a bad day on the Japanese market. The figures lit in green indicate losses, not gains. The image at the top of this article shows gains in value, indicated by red lettering In the Japanese market. This may have better illustrated the Standard’s article.

One global colour coding that has gained a wide understanding is that pink is for girls and blue is for boys. This drives many, myself included, up the wall, and is actually a recent phenomenon. Have a look at these great photographs by South Korean artist JeongMee Yoon, “The Pink and Blue Projects” for more on that!

These considerations can be particularly important in a field we at WorldAccent find is becoming increasingly common: website translation. Designers of sites that aim to target several languages or communities may well want to consider consulting before deciding on a particular colour palette. As different colours suggest different moods and connections in different cultures, it may not be possible to suggest the right prompt to everyone globally. But considering your range of target audiences may rule some colours in or out at an early stage.

One Reply to “Colour coding cultural translation”

  1. Since Chinese market is expanding so rapidly we are most likely to witness an increase in Chinese translation as well.

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