Graduate thesis (2020),
MFA Communications Design,
Pratt Institute

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How can shifts in context and form enlarge the scope of communication?


Globalization had made us live in a more connected, timeless, and aware world through communicative tools, and technology allows the speed of views being aligned and united to be accelerated. Many values are easier to access and translatable than fifty years ago. In such an era, direct translations are often enough to get by or to be published; news outlets, novels, subtitles or voice-overs of films, and so on. However, with nuance, abstract concepts, or customs without full expression, can a literal translation be accepted as a valid outcome? Even in this globalized world, any society reflects its unique customs and thoughts. And in return, these customs, ideas, and language reflect on how we perceive the world, affecting our daily social interactions.  People interpret their thoughts by using the language that is most familiar to them. Then, how do they translate their abstract ideas through forms and channels that are not familiar? Or translate abstract content into their own language? Contents such as humor or political context rely hugely on abstract concepts; A shared cultural background or knowledge, even common sense. In the translating process, elements of the message often get lost. How can design bridge the gap between different languages? Or between different thoughts and cultures? To consider what the authenticity of a communication is, a design need to be aware of what is we are losing in the translation process.


There is always something — a “context,” “atmosphere,” “understanding,” or anything you name it surrounding the concept or a message, which is not only formed in verbal or linguistic language. Those come from cultural, linguistic structure, and Environment of the concept and the transmitter.

“Translation” is an action or a process to convert something into another form, used as a methodology to understand not only the concept itself but that “something” in another form, such as another language, including all these actions.


[*1]Social structure correspond with language structure (Language Glass)

Guy Deutscher argues that we all wear a pair of “language glasses.” He writes in his book that “cultural differences are reflected in the language in profound ways, and that a growing body of reliable scientific research provides solid evidence that our mother tongue can affect how we think and how we perceive the world.” A language glass could be said to be the perception of every person, formed by the first language that determines the viewpoint towards the world.

The structure of these glasses are not that simple. There is, for one, language as power. Historically speaking, during many colonizations, specific languages functioned not only in conquering the land, people, or a culture, but in dominating academics, politics, forming the ways of thinking, and creating “structural violence.” In Malagasy, French can be referred to as the language of command, which is called  “ny tenai baiko.” 

According to a Japanese linguist Yukio Tsuda, ‘W.J. Coughlin, an American journalist, reported on the “Mokusatsu” mistake that caused the atomic bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki (Coughlin,1953). He reports that the Japanese prime minister’s response of “Mokusatsu” to the demand of complete surrender by the Allies, was misinterpreted as a rejection of the demand, driving the American President, Harry Truman, to decide on the atomic bombing. “Mokusatsu (黙殺)” actually means both “ignore” and “no comment.” ’

In my research, I argue that society is a reflection of the aggregate culture structured on specific customs and thinking. This argument says that a specific group of people who perceive the world similarly uses the same language. People in this same group exchange information and communicate using the same language and ideas that refer to the same basis of cultural customs and references. Humor or jokes and labels of color are useful case studies to support this argument further. In many situations, they rely on cultural, educational, historical, and environmental references. When European scholars read Homer’s description of the ocean, they were confused; Homer used “color of wine” to describe the color of the ocean.

[*2]The limitation of language leads to the low fidelity of the (abstract)idea or meaning (Dominance of language)

As I stated in the literature review, while I support Paolo Virno’s statement of  “I speak,” his thoughts seem to be structured on his religious background, although he writes that the limitation of his words is not the limits of his world. As Foucault states, our concepts and system of society are always structured within our own civilization, generated from our own ideas and customs, which makes it difficult for us to think beyond boundaries.    

Design errors in products and promotional messaging are useful case studies to see what happens when adapting an idea to foreign customs. Many companies have made mistranslated ads, sometimes funny, and sometimes offensive to the public. When the American company Coca-Cola translated their name phonetically in Mandarin for the first time in 1928, it was read as “bite the wax tadpole” or “female horse stuffed with wax.” When the Japanese car company Mazda introduced their car named “Laputa,” while was taken from the famous “Gulliver’s Travels,” the sales in Spanish speaking countries did not go well; Laputa refers to ‘the whore’ in Spanish, and in many cases, a sexual derogation is taboo in many countries. Both of these examples show unsuccessful adaptations between two different cultures with different languages. But there are examples like them among similar cultures with the same language as well. “So where the bloody hell are you?” promotion by Tourism Australia was banned immediately in the UK in the year 2006. While the word “bloody” is a casual hyperbolized expression considered a little bit naughty in Australia, the word is accepted as an offensive expression in the UK. This expression was even ranked as the 27th most offensive word on the banned word list of the UK’s Broadcast Advertising Clearance Centre (BACC) at that time.  
Alternation of ideas in trans-media franchises might be a significant case study as well. For instance, ‘The Chronicles of Narnia’ is obviously under the influence of Christianity, and the Godzilla movie series is a collection of Japanese history and memories, transformed over time into a pop-culture phenomenon across the world.  

The first Godzilla movie was released in November 1954 in Japan. Godzilla is an unknown gigantic 怪獣 or kaiju (the ‘official’ translation is “monster,” but there is a different nuance in the original Japanese) which is sturdy and radioactive. The movie explains that it was born accidentally from the American nuclear weaponry experiments in Bikini Atoll. Interestingly, the way in which Godzilla destroys the Japanese capital Tokyo matches how the city was air raided during World War Ⅱ. Considering the correlation between the historical events and statements made by the directors and producers, Godzilla is a reflection of the anger and sorrow of loss and death caused by the war and nuclear weaponry; it also pays homage to previous monster movies such as “King Kong (1933).” As time passed, though, the Godzilla series was expanded into merchandising, exported to Hollywood, and adapted as a disaster entertainment franchise. In 2014, a whole new Hollywood “Godzilla” was released as a part of “the MonsterVerse,” announcing that at the end of the series, Godzilla and King Kong would do battle. 

In contrast, in the year 2016, a wholly different and new Godzilla movie was made in Japan. Directed by Hideaki Anno, the film was titled “Shin Godzilla.” This film connotes the Great East Japan earthquake (2011) and satirizes modern Japanese society. While Hollywood describes Godzilla as the ‘King of Monsters’ or as a ‘Guardian of the Earth,’ the Japanese Godzilla is a metaphor of nature itself, an awesome force that humans cannot do anything to resist. Both forms of Godzilla are successes in entertainment, but they are different. They imply different stories, cultures, viewpoints, and contexts.

Another notable example comes from “Outliers: The Story of Success,” by Canadian writer Malcolm Gladwell (2008). He shows examples of the Power-Distance Index (PDI) in the aviation world. This PDI is the measure of the distribution of power between individuals in business across cultures and nations, and was developed by Dutch social psychologist Geert Hofstede. Brazil, South Korea, Morocco, Mexico, and the Philippines are the countries with the highest PDIs, that is, cultures in which hierarchies are strongest.  He writes, “If you compare this list to the ranking of plane crashes by country, they match up very closely.” In contrast, the five lowest PDIs by country are as follows: The United States, Ireland, South Africa, Australia, and New Zealand. Pilots from these countries communicate actively through verbal language, while at the same time use their social intelligence and interaction to work closer together.

With the evolution of technology, communication channels change as well, but the structure and the customs of communication itself do not. Western communication is mostly “transmitter oriented,” whereas those of Eastern Asian are “receiver oriented.” The intention of the message is determined differently in Western culture and Eastern culture. While the difference between these customs sometimes leads to misunderstandings, the adaptation of a new language can also create different structures distinct from the existing cultural and traditional legacies. In the aviation world, English is used as the primary language. Meaning, the language of power in the aviation industry is English, no matter what the familiar (native) communicating structure of each location is. In the year 2000, David Greenberg from Delta Air Lines came to Korean Air and imposed English as a language and a tool to provide pilots with a new identity, stepping outside of the cultural and traditional role. From this attempt, pilots in Korean Air adapted to a new culture, which optimized them for clear and direct communication in the cockpit, thus to safer execution of flights.

[*3]What is the universal structure of information? (Forms of Communication)

In his response to “Lessons from Amusing Ourselves to Death” by Neil Postman, writer Dan Silvestre states, “Although culture is a creation of speech, it is recreated anew by every medium of communication. Each medium creates a unique mode of communication by providing a new orientation for thought, for expression, for sensibility. Communication on television is largely done in images, not words. The medium is the message.” This statement is supported by Postman’s words, “This idea — that there is a content called “the news of the day” — was entirely created by the telegraph (and since amplified by newer media), which made it possible to move decontextualized information over vast spaces at incredible speed.”

As Roland Barthes writes in  “IMAGE-MUSIC-TEXT,” content does not rely upon or understood by the content itself, but realized at the different levels of production and how it is presented; Choice, technical treatment, framing, layout and so on. Considering this, the evolution of the communication models is a significant matter. David Berlo’s communication process model to person-to-person communication would include the following:
(1) The communication source
(2) The encoder
(3) The message
(4) The channel
(5) The decoder
(6) The communication receiver

The sociologist and cultural theorist Stuart Hall wrote, “[…] meaning is constructed by the individual users of language. Things do not mean; we construct meaning using representational signs. The translatability is not given by nature or fixed by the gods. It is the result of a set of social conventions. ” In the idea of social constructionism, linguistic communication plays a significant role in the interactive process when we
understand the world and ourselves. 

From the ideas above, we see that forms of communication play a significant role—the deliverable of the message, and how and where it is placed. The factors and materials of the form and the context are the keys to encode the message, understand, and make meaning of it. And these are done by double ends of the conversation, by the speaker and the receiver.