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Acculturations and Mistranslations

A Paris boutique sign announced, “Dresses for Street Walking.”

This small example of a translation into English illustrates three points:

  1. The importance of professional human editing (QA review) by qualified and trained linguists to ensure accuracy.
  2. Reliance on amateurs, non-professionals, or machine translation (software) can render unprofessional and comical results that can damage your reputation and brand.
  3. What may appear acceptable in one country can be offensive in another.



Preparing texts in other languages is more than just rendering concepts. It can also involve acculturation, i.e., preparing your text to ensure that it is appropriate for the target market or audience. Particularly important for websites, this process involves ensuring accuracy for:

  • Colors and images:  Matching the audience — Does your label show a blond woman when you are promoting your shampoo in Asia?
  • Numbers: Having four of something, such as examples or labels, is inappropriate in China, Japan and Korea where the pronunciation of “four” sounds just like the word for “death.”
  • Dates and times: Writing these according to country standards (ex, 8 September 2011 at 16:00 vs. September 8,  2011 at 4 pm).
  • Measurements: Converting English measurements to metrics is essential for most overseas markets. And when writing both, put the metrics first and the English after.
  • Phone numbers: Promoting your US local number abroad since US toll-free numbers mostly do not work from other countries.
  • Currencies: Ensuring that your desired payment methods work in your target country: some countries pay through credit cards, others through mobile phones, while others mainly use cash.
  • Terminology: Avoiding slang and expressions that do not communicate abroad (such as Batting 1000) as well as unclear or regional usage.

Other examples:

  1. Instructions. A client’s requirement to “keep the abbreviations in German” would have resulted in the translation into English, “Time sheets should be submitted to your FUKR.”  It is not our job to determine whether the time sheet receiver really was one. Instead, your language provider should disregard instructions, in this case, to save you from embarrassment by changing the abbreviation to its meaning of “manager.”
  2. Slang usage. Slang can work in both directions. The Spanish word “tambo” can mean a type of basket in Mexico but it is a whorehouse in Argentina.
  3. Headlines. The headline, “No one anywhere does what we do as well as we do it” seems perfectly natural to Americans who are conditioned to promote themselves. But it appears totally arrogant in most other cultures. Your language agency should forewarn you of this pending gaffe and advise on how to rewrite the sentence so that you shine, not decline, in the eyes of your overseas markets.
  4. Regionalisms. The sentence, “The oakie was so babbelassed that he drove his bakkie through a robot and had to organise a panel beater” is acceptable English. In South Africa. In the US, the sentence should read, “The guy was so drunk that he drove his pickup truck through a traffic light and had to take it to a body shop.” How standard or regional are your communications?


What works for one country/audience does not necessarily work for others. Your language provider should be grounded in global marketing to help you avoid problems. While technical texts rarely need changing, promotional documentation and websites may need customized rewrites to ensure relevance to target markets … before translation.

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Funny Mistranslations!