Colours in Translation

As we’ve talked about on other posts, having a native linguist translate your texts is crucial to an accurate and fluent end product. However, this need for a native speaker may extend further than you expected. Have you ever considered the complexity of colours in translation?


This is probably the rainbow as you know it: Red Orange Yellow Green Blue Indigo and Violet. But not everyone across the globe divides the colour spectrum up in the same way!
For example, in Russian these two are considered to be distinct colours:

You might be thinking: of course they are! One’s light blue and one’s dark blue! But in the Russian language, they have entirely different names! “голубой” (goluboy) to describe light blue and “синий” (siniy) for dark blue. This might seem simple enough, but if you were given a colour spectrum like the one below, would you know where to draw the line?

In situations like this you need a native speaker who does know how to tackle such challenges! Colour naming language is something that will happen more naturally for someone that is raised in the corresponding language.

Surely everyone sees the rainbow the same?

Some languages and cultures don’t have specific terms for what we would deem the ‘basic’ colours. Instead the language of the Himba people in Namibia focuses on the light and dark of colours, categorising them into four groups:

Zuzu: dark shades of blue, red, green and purples

Vapa: white, yellows

Buru: shades of green and blue

Dambu: other shades of red, green and brown.

This isn’t a one off either – the Hanunoo people of the Philippines also group their colours into entirely different categories. Their colour spectrum focuses on light vs. dark, dry vs. wet/fresh and strong vs. weak!

Colour and Symbolism

Beyond colour naming, colours often carry cultural significance. For example, in many Western cultures, the colour white is associated with purity, and by extension, weddings. Whereas in some Eastern cultures, such as in China, white symbolises mourning and death. The cultural significance of these colours is something that may be missed in a text translation by someone who doesn’t know that they can carry different meanings across the globe.

This is one example why a translator who knows the ins and outs of both the source and target language cultures is vital. A translator needs to know their audience to convey the message fully and accurately for them.

We’ve discussed the need for a native translator many times on our blog. Why not read this blog about the need for native linguists in translation?