Think BR: Lost in translation

By Jane Ditcham, brandrepublic.com, Monday, 12 November 2012 08:30AM

When a brand goes abroad it needs to make sure its message doesn't get lost in translation, writes Jane Ditcham, group account director, Publicis Blueprint.

Jane Ditcham, group account director, Publicis Blueprint

Jane Ditcham, group account director, Publicis Blueprint

Parlez-vous Francais?  Sprechen sie Deutsch?  No?  Well, you’re not alone. Many British people get by abroad with a few stand-by phrases and apologetic pointing and gesturing plus the good grace of patient travelling companions to do the real translating.

However, the ability to communicate in other languages is increasingly prized, and with foreign travel in the grasp of most consumers it is something that is increasingly necessary for pleasure and business.

Most content marketers, advertising and media agencies now have a global dimension to their offering, but often when our brands go abroad they suffer the same embarrassing lack of linguistic skill as some holidaymakers. Although we have all become increasingly familiar with global brands and markets,  we still have much to learn in translating for foreign consumers. 

Global awards platforms, festivals and the dominance of the internet all mean that we are now more aware that global brands need different executions and emphasis in different markets and yet, as an industry, we are still very UK-centric in our use of language.

Brand names are minutely examined so as not to cause offence in other countries. The portrayal of animals, children, women, clothing and myriad other subjects is rightly scrutinised for cultural relevance and to reflect social mores. But when it comes to language, I’m afraid we’re still tongue tied.

It’s isn’t so much translation that is a challenge - there are brilliant people working in the field, plus, technology has made instant translation of text easy - but the real challenge is interpretation; tone, humour, slang and unpicking and interpreting those weird little phrases that are particular to countries and regions.

Content marketers’ project teams must work hand in hand with translation teams from the beginning.

Translation is routinely seen as an add on near the end of a project and this, of course, is folly.  Language and interpretation affect everything, including design and layout, so has to be an important factor from the off. 

Spanish content for instance is usually 25 to 30% longer than its English counterpart. Therefore a straightforward translation might make a magazine, or piece of creative up to a third longer. What does this mean for paper costs, commission and use of pictures etc?

Not only are there huge challenges in terms of cost for businesses, what about the consumer’s experience? Are you using language the way they do? Are you using out of date slang, does your edgy piece of marketing miss the spot and sound like an old-fashioned text book?

These questions are important - if you are not speaking to your foreign audiences in the right way, then you’ll lose the business, it’s that simple.

So, it is absolutely vital to use in-market mother tongue speakers alongside your translation team. Native speakers, naturally, have the best grasp of nuance, how quickly their language and colloquialisms change, and also understand how the language of advertising develops and is subject to national and local fashions, fads and trends.

Using machine translations is cheap and quick, but consumers can spot a one size fits all approach a mile off. 

There is nothing wrong with direct translation in itself - basic information like price, sizing stockists and availability are straightforward. However, as content marketers, we must provide a bespoke, relevant interpretation for our clients’ customers. What about the copy that is witty, tongue in cheek, familiar, charming or cheeky? There is no direct translation for tone of voice or attitude.

At its heart, it’s about respect. We study and refine our mother tongue communications with fanatical zeal and we talk confidently about global markets and trends. But do we, as an industry, take the same care of our international products and consumers? Or is really just lip service?

Jane Ditcham, group account director, Publicis Blueprint


This article was first published on brandrepublic.com

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