Translating the Holidys

Translating the Holidays

Fa La La La...Ho! Ho! Ho!...”silver bells are ringing”...Tis the season for tone(s) of all kinds. We wanted to share one of our favorite stories about translating the holidays.

The Ugly Christmas Sweater, and parties with this theme, have become ‘all the rage’ (an idiom referring to something becoming very popular) in the last several years. This is a popular U.S. idea that as a child older relatives would knit you a piece of clothing each year for Christmas. This knitted piece of clothing would not be fashionable enough and would be deemed too “ugly” to wear to school. In the last decade Adults have taken this memory from their childhood and made it a fun holiday idea hosting parties where everyone who attends wears an “ugly sweater”.

We were recently asked by a company’s Human Resource department to translate a flyer telling employees about an “Ugly Christmas Sweater Contest” the organization would be having. This was a great gesture from the company to be inclusive of all employees...but cultural complications abound.

  • First - tone wondered if the meaning of “Ugly Christmas Sweater” could be translated, given how cultural the concept is.
  • Second - the original flyer for the contest had photos of two “ugly sweaters” that included pop culture icons from the 1990’s TV Shows ‘Fresh Prince of Bel-Air’ and ‘Saved by the Bell’.
  • Third - it’s okay to say Merry Christmas; individuals are not necessarily offended, but to be inclusive of all and to cover the whole range of events happening at this time of year, “holiday” is more appropriate and can more easily convey the meaning of the entire season.

Following through as a partner in success, tone worked with the employer to address these points:

  • The Human Resource department made the decision to change the wording to “Ugly Holiday Sweater Contest” and “Holiday Party”. Again - as a way to easily convey the meaning of the event and the season across many cultures and languages.
  • We sent out a message to translators asking for their opinion on translating the concept of “ugly holiday sweater”. The said they could make it work! In some situations ugly was translated as “bad”, and “sweater”, which may not have a direct translation in all languages, was actually just the pronunciation of the word written in the other language. So, yes, you can have a bad sweater shirt seasonal holiday party.
  • The Human Resource department also decided to remove the sweater photos with the 1990’s Pop Culture icons and replace it with a nice winter scene that included a snowman.

Joy can be brought to the world during this holiday season when we work together to create understanding and opportunity in a multicultural world on the move. Here is some more fun information about “ugly Christmas/holiday sweaters”:  

  • According to Urban Dictionary (an online dictionary providing definitions about pop culture and other sayings heard on the street) an “Ugly Christmas Sweater” can be defined as “A hideous article of clothing, received from relatives who don't like you”.
  • For further proof this idea translates across cultures, there seems to be a wide selection of Ugly Christmas Sweaters available on Alibaba, the Chinese online retail giant akin to Amazon.
  • How to Ugly Christmas Sweater 
  • Why the Ugly Christmas Sweater is making waves in Deutschland


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