Friday, September 10, 2010

Understanding culture to avoid marketing translation embarrassments

You’ve heard the stories: a prominent automobile manufacturer names a car for the Latin American market as “no go” and a popular fast-food chain translates their slogan as “eat your fingers off.” While the former is just a myth, it has happened that major marketing teams have provided embarrassing and incorrect translations that have cost thousands, even millions, of dollars to fix.

How can you avoid these mistakes? First, as with any marketing project, it is crucial that you get to know your intended demographic as best as possible. In cross-cultural marketing, this may mean acquainting yourself with the beliefs, social norms and taboos, and history and current events concerning the target audience. Second, educate your translation team about that audience if there is something particularly unique that could benefit the end translation. When translating, one of the most important considerations is context—more context will always result in better translations.

With this information, it should be easier to determine how best to reach the intended audience. It is very possible that a literal translation from the original English will not make sense in the target language. According to Shaina Bauman, a project coordinator at PLG, “it is important to remember that this kind of project involves not only the translation of words but also ideas. A literal word-for-word translation is not necessarily going to be effective when viewed from a different cultural viewpoint.”

Figures of speech are often used in marketing slogans and catchy phrases in advertisements and commercials. Metaphors, however; don’t usually translate very well as they are very specific to one culture. The Colombian pop-singer Shakira often translates her music from Spanish to English to appeal to an English-speaking fan base. Yet, these translations don’t always quite convey the original meaning. For example, the chorus of Shakira’s song “My Hips Don’t Lie” is a literal translation of “Mis caderas no mienten.” She is implying that because her hips are moving, she is enjoying the music. In Spanish, this would be commonly understood figuratively.  English-speakers, however, may be less familiar with the metaphor without further explanation.

While we will give Shakira a pass for poetic license, it is of paramount importance that those who are trying to sell products and services in other cultures have some basic understanding of those cultures. Those who spend extra time in research and providing translators as much context as possible about the product and the ideas associated with the product will go a long way in assuring that their cross-cultural marketing efforts will not be in vain.

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