Beyond Literal: A new translation model for global brands by Trevor Howfield August 30, 2004
International marketing communication managers must constantly struggle with the difficulties of localizing their messages for multiple audiences that speak—and understand—different languages and have diverse cultures. But instead of a professional marketer, it was the former West German Chancellor, Willy Brandt, who best summarized the problem every multinational communicator must solve.
“If I’m selling to you,” Brandt said, “I speak your language. If I’m buying, dann müssen Sie Deutsch sprechen.”
Uttered long before the worldwide dominance of the Internet, Brandt’s words are more than prescient. He himself could never have known that only a few years after his death, it would be commonplace for anyone, virtually anywhere in the world to communicate, effortlessly and within seconds, with anyone else, regardless of the geographical distance between them.
Brandt also couldn’t have known the rise of the Internet would make his words even truer today than they were in the past—because contrary to early soothsayers who predicted the Internet would make English the de facto global language, the opposite is actually occurring.
In fact, the Internet has spawned hundreds of linguistic communities, some of which, without the cohesion of the web, might even have faced extinction in the not-too-distant future. In every language today, the Internet has changed the definition of “local,” to “more local.”
From Brandt to Brand
This revolution in worldwide communication has had a considerable impact on global marketing strategies. International marketers now can reach their target audiences with lightning speed. However the growing emphasis on linguistic diversity puts added pressure on companies to localize their messages more effectively.
As early as 1988, companies were reporting that buyers tend to spend twice as much time at a website if the content is written in their own language. Recent figures from Global Reach International Online Marketing are even more compelling:
-- 517 million non-English speaking people use the Internet today and two-thirds of all Internet users live in Asia and Europe.
-- Two-thirds of the world’s e-commerce spending originates outside the United States.
-- 70 percent of the world’s purchasing power and 92 percent of the world’s population live in countries where English is not the native language.
-- By 2005, 75 percent of the online population worldwide will access the Internet in a language other than English.
The Internet is just one vehicle that marketers rely on, and it doesn’t obviate the need for other marketing communication methods like traditional broadcast and print advertising, brochures, direct mail, conferences and other tools. Nevertheless, the web represents a microcosm of the most significant trends impacting global marketers today.
From a global marketing perspective, the future clearly belongs to companies that not only respect the diversity of the world’s markets, but are also willing to incorporate a clear understanding of these differences into their own brand-related communications. Very few companies do this, however and the costs of omission are enormous.
According to Donald A. DePalma’s Business Without Borders: A strategic guide to global marketing, two-thirds of marketing and communication managers feel their own companies lack the expertise to accurately translate their marketing messages into other languages. The problem is further compounded because too many translation companies lack an understanding of marketing and are only set up to translate original copy, word-for-word, into foreign text.
The resulting translations are often too literal and lack the desired sales impact in the targeted foreign markets. The marketing communications teams must then use in-country personnel to revise the translations themselves, resulting in go-to-market delays, damaged reputations and higher costs, not to mention the added risks and negative consequences that can occur when non-professional translators or writers act as unplanned project managers.
The best way to alleviate these problems and to provide marketers with more intelligent and reliable translations is to restructure the traditional working relationship between the marketer and the translator. By redefining the translator’s role and increasing the breadth of services the translating company provides, marketing managers can receive translations that are not only better and consistently reliable, but are also assured of conveying their desired selling impact.
A New Voice for Global Marketers
The traditional approach to translation is too limiting to ensure an accurate duplication of the intended marketing impact. Typically, translators are brought into the process too late in the game and in too limited a capacity to understand the strategies and the goals behind the company’s marketing messages.
To complicate matters even more, the materials for most marketing campaigns are produced by outside marketing agencies, which means the translator is now another layer away from the client’s in-house marketing team, the true source of the marketing messages. In this scenario, the translator is usually nothing more than bilingual wordsmith whose only role is to deliver quick translations of the assigned marketing materials.
With this approach, not until the materials are actually launched in the foreign target markets does the communications team have any idea that these literal translations fail to convey the messages so carefully crafted in the source collateral. The team then pays dearly for its mistakes.
According to Anne Aston, director of Athena Intercultural, a UK-based intercultural training and consulting firm, translation mistakes continually occur because most business people don’t have a real understanding of communication itself. “Although business people recognize differences in language,” she says, “there is an assumption that people in other markets think and do things the same way we do. Of course, this isn’t the case and cultural differences extend to all areas of communication.
“Humor differs, as does the use of analogy,” Aston continues. “For example, in western cultures, sports analogies are frequently used, and terms like ‘a ball park figure’ or ‘give it your best shot’ can cause tremendous problems if they are translated literally.”
Kate Spencer, account director at Langland, the UK’s largest independent healthcare consultancy, agrees that a misunderstanding of the translator’s role is the primary reason marketing translations often fail. “Clients and creative agencies may think they’re getting locally adapted versions, rather than literal translations,” Spencer says, “but quite often they haven’t given the translation partner the time, budget or consultative role necessary to achieve the communications goal.”
A solution might lie in what a model demonstrated in Figure I. With the Conversis Marketing Voice method, the translation/localization firm works in tandem with the design and marketing agency from the very beginning (or with the company, if no agency is involved). By providing localization expertise during the project’s initial concept and design phase, potential cultural missteps are eliminated before the creative concept itself is developed.
During this phase, it’s not only the localizer’s responsibility to help the creative group determine what to say and how to say it, but also to give the management team a better understanding of their foreign target audiences. Only after this collaborative process has occurred should the writing and design phase actually begin.
After the source copy is approved and the translation and review process is underway, the translation partner should work directly with its in-country translators as well as the client’s in-country field office to gain comments and feedback. This should happen during—not after—the initial translation phase. After the in-country team has provided comments and feedback and given its pre-translation approval, the translated copy should then be delivered to the client for review. Not before.
As every experienced translator knows, in-country reviewers often reject translations due to “poor quality,” when, in fact, the reviewers are actually rejecting the translations because they weren’t locally produced or because the reviewers were excluded from the formation of the source content.
By involving these potential critics early and deeply in the localization process and agreeing on the localized content and phrasing, the translators are virtually assured of a positive review. More importantly, the project is in a stronger position to remain within budget. The client’s marketing messages will be translated in a style that uses preferred terms and is known to be effective in each local market.
By the time the client gives the final approval on the translation, the project has already been a highly collaborative process, one that benefits from the core strengths of each involved party: the local market knowledge of the in-country team; the creative skills of the marketing firm; the strategic vision of the in-house marketing manager and the linguistic expertise of the translator.
With globalization fast-becoming the norm, rather than the exception, marketers cannot afford to ignore the importance of localizing their messages effectively. To ensure consistency, marketers cannot rely on traditional word-for-word approaches to translation.
Marketers must first find a translation partner that offers both in-country resources and proven experience in marketing-related translations. The translation partner should then be empowered to provide more than the translation itself, incorporating cultural design and marketing management considerations into the project.
Finally, the company must bring the translation partner in at the concept and design stage, before budgets, processes or timeframes are set. By doing so, the outcome is more likely to mean success in any language.
Trevor Howfield is a partner and client services manager for Oxford Conversis. Based in Bicester, England, Oxford Conversis provides a broad range of language services for international marketers.