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How to avoid the most common marketing translation pitfalls

When people think about cross-cultural marketing blunders, those funny translation gaffes usually come to mind. There are dozens of examples of awkwardly translated print ads on the internet and unintentionally funny advertising copy talked about on late-night television.

Examples of marketing translation pitfalls

  • Clairol introduced the “Mist Stick,” a curling iron, into Germany only to find out that “mist” is slang for manure. Not too many people had a positive response to the “manure stick.”
  • Electrolux, the Scandinavian vacuum manufacturer, tried to sell its goods in America with a slogan that was originally written in Swedish, “Nothing sucks like an Electrolux.”
  • Pepsi translated its slogan, “The choice of a new generation” for advertising in Taiwan. Its unfortunate translation came out as “Pepsi will bring your ancestors back from the dead.”
  • Perdue Chicken’s slogan, “It takes a tough man to make a tender chicken,” got terribly mangled when that campaign was launched in Mexico. A photo of Frank Perdue with one of his birds appeared on billboards with the Spanish caption “It takes a hard man to make a chicken aroused.”

These types of mistakes are easy to spot with a quick back translation or a check with someone from the local market. The silent killer of many cross-cultural campaigns is translation that looks fine in a back translation, but sounds lifeless and utterly forgettable to a native. A brand’s personality expressed through emotion, nuance, and colloquialism is often the first thing to get lost in translation.

Fortunately, there is a better way to get a message across in other languages. It’s not translation, but adaptation.

lost in translation

Translators are highly skilled linguistic experts, who will ensure that the information in the copy is accurate with perfect spelling and grammar. But, translation can’t ensure that the copy will make a connection and motivate a target on a deeper level. That’s why using professional adaptors instead should be seriously considered for mass communication in a new market.

How to avoid marketing translation mistakes?

There are several ways to get marketing communication from one language to another. There’s Google translate, professional translation firms, local ad agencies, global freelancers, and the exchange student who’s interning in the accounting department (don’t go there). In the middle of this spectrum of possibilities is the professional adaptation agency (also called a transcreation agency). A Duffy Agency client, Textappeal is one such firm. This Transcreation Spectrum site was developed by Duffy Agency for them to help show the full range of possibilities.

Use of translation houses for advertising copy frequently showed that they are too faithful to the words on the page, and often at the expense of a brand’s concept, nuance, and personality. On the other hand, hiring bilingual copywriters who were not specialized in adaptation or transcreation generally showed that they understood how to use nuance and personality, but often went off-course in trying to reinvent the creative rather than adapt it. That makes sense, as, after all, they are trained to come up with their own original concepts, not rewrite someone else’s ideas.

Ideally, what an ambitious global brand needs is a blend of both. A good translator, who is proficient in the source language and a native in the target language, who is also a skilled copywriter who understands the use of nuance and emotion to achieve the objectives of the brand. However, this individual (or team) also must be someone who derives their work satisfaction, not from creating original concepts, but, from adapting concepts from one language to another. This is a professional adapter.

Some people call this process adaptation. Others refer to it as transcreation. While the word adaptation is more commonly used, transcreation is as apt a moniker and probably more descriptive of the actual process.

Good adaptation - remedy for translation pitfalls

Adaptation is more expensive than translation, but, in the long run, it is well worth the investment. SAAB once commissioned a team at Lowe to do a study comparing the cost effectiveness of translating vs adapting vs using local bilingual copywriters for their global campaign. Several ads were sent through the three channels and tracked for quality, cost, and time. Although the cost of adaptation was relatively high compared to translation, the overall value delivered was greater when the end quality, time to get it right, and time to brief and manage them were factored in.

Transcreation Spectrum

An excellent example of good adaptation is an ad from that same SAAB global campaign. The headline was for a new convertible SAAB model. The headline for the US market was “SAAB vs Oxygen Bars.” At the time this ad was published, oxygen bars were a big deal in the U.S. They were bars, mostly in New York and LA. where, instead of getting a cocktail, you would get a canister of oxygen to consume. Perfect idea for launching a convertible, but completely untranslatable and meaningless for use outside the U.S. That was okay because these ads were not being translated, they were being adapted. The adapter used in Sweden took the idea Saab was trying to convey and forgot about the words. In Sweden, the headline read “SAAB vs klaustrofobi.” There is no way to translate oxygen bar into claustrophobia no matter what dictionary is utilized. However, adaptation allowed Saab to convey the same sentiment with completely different words. Adaptation lets copy be as persuasive as it can be in every market entered.

Brand messaging adaptation

Brand messaging adaptation

Strategy to avoid marketing pitfalls

Inexperienced international marketers will often ask their ad agency to write things in a way that is easy to translate so that the translator can’t screw them up. “Simple translatable English” or “Mid-Atlantic English” is what they request. On the surface, this probably seems like the safest option. In reality, it is a high-risk tactic because it will most likely result in communication that is neither relatable nor motivational. There’s no guarantee it will even be informative.

One way to avoid this is to first make sure there are brand values and a campaign concept that transcends cultures, along with a well-written brief. Then, use the local nuance and language to bring the message to life in the manner that best suits the culture being addressing.

Use a professional adaptor (not a translator or copywriter). Make sure s/he lives in the culture or maintains very close ties to the target culture. Adapters who work in teams are often found to provide the best results. The first team member will take the language from the source to the target language. The second will be a native writer who is not shown the source copy, but simply critiques the target copy on face value as a local.

Whatever method, copy should never be written with the aim of making it easy to translate. The focus must be on conveying ideas from one culture to the next and not on getting words from one language to another.

A launch into global waters without the proper preparation, skilled personnel, and adaptation tools to navigate the target language can prove both costly and risky to a brand. Taking a home-grown brand into foreign territory can also result in positive global recognition and resultant incredible profits. The stakes are high. Return on investment in adaptation and transcreation services for a smoother and safer launch can multiply a brand’s global success exponentially and ensure it does not get lost in the translation.

Good luck! Lycka till! حظا سعيدا! Bahati nzuri! Удачи! Boa sorte! 祝你好运!and Ádh mór oraibh!

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