What Works Here May Not Work There
To celebrate our 25th year in business, we are pleased to share with you our Top 25 Language Tips, hard won through experience. Here is Tip #7, plus another example of a successful project for one of our clients.
- Other cultures: What works here may not work there.
When preparing promotional materials for use in other countries, many US firms merely translate the words that worked at home, and assume that they will work equally well in the country they are targeting. Usually, this is a large and costly mistake.
Firstly, word-for-word translations into any language generally convey the wrong meaning in about 10 to 20% of the translated sentences. This is especially the case when using translation software, but also applies when using distributors, agents or bilingual friends who are not trained in business- or professional-level linguistics.
Differences in grammar, usage, and idiomatic expressions can be large. To ensure that your concepts are duplicated and understood by your foreign prospects, marketing materials should always be adapted by professional linguists who can accurately convey your intent, not just translate your words.
Secondly, even when your ideas are correctly translated and understood, they may not have the same effect in your target country as they do at home. We don’t notice our own culture because we’ve grown up in it. But to natives of other countries, American values and customs can seem strange or even offensive. If you don’t modify your message to conform to your foreign prospects’ values, customs and business procedures, you will be rejected immediately, no matter how effective your marketing materials have been in your own country.
Here are some examples from our own experience:
A design firm had wanted to use their US tag line “Create interest. Create a market. Create value. Create profit.” in the Arab world. They didn’t realize that this would have been totally offensive to devout Muslims who believe that only God – not people – can create anything. So we toned down the language to something acceptable while still being motivating: “Generate interest. Make a market. Design with value. Generate a profit.”
Sun Microsystems came to us to translate an English brochure into German. The brochure headline was, “No Limits to Your Success.” That’s a great headline for the US, the land of individual opportunity. But to Germans, such a line would sound arrogant and not at all credible. We converted it to, “Gateway to New Horizons,” which worked fine.
A Japanese firm had success promoting its beverages in non-English-speaking countries, using the product name “Calpis.” When they became aware that this name sounds like “bovine urine,” they wisely changed the US product name to “Calpico.”
And, speaking of Japan, don’t ever use a discount offer there. The Japanese people are devoted to quality, service and long-term relationships, and regard special-sale offers as evidence that your products and company are second rate.
To sum up, don’t be “penny wise and pound foolish” when translating your marketing materials. Avoid amateurs and don’t underestimate how different a foreign culture may be from your own – and even when promoting to the UK, Australia, New Zealand, etc. English usage, vocabulary and images differ even among countries with a common language. In the US, for example, “hydro” refers to water but in Canada, it refers to electricity.
Use a professional language agency that knows the culture you wish to penetrate, knows how to get your message understood, and can predict how it will play there. After all, the fees you pay to your translators are an investment in your future profitability. Getting your translation job done right the first time will save you money in the long run.
An American firm in the psychological assessment business publishes a test to measure the compatibility of job applicants with client companies’ existing employees and business philosophy. With the high cost of replacing new hires who “just didn’t work out” and the effectiveness of the test in filtering out poor fits, this test is very beneficial.
The test’s emphasis on applicants’ fitting in with the group does not always jive with the US culture of equal opportunity, individual success, and personal aptitude and productivity. Since the US market was limited, the publisher decided expand into Europe where such tests are culturally acceptable and commonplace.
That was a good move. But when we were asked to translate the test into 12 European languages, we rapidly spotted a major problem. The test presented a series of common business scenarios and then asked several questions related to each, along the lines of, “If X happened, would you conclude A, B, C or D?” But many questions were very US-centric, involving concepts that simply did not relate in Europe.
For example, one scenario involved jury duty, as is common in the US. But outside the United Kingdom, juries are not part of the European legal system. Other scenarios involved personal charitable giving and the hobby of beer-can collecting, both of which are much less common in Europe. The test also asked for applicants’ personal demographic information such as whether they were Native American, Pacific Islander, African American or Asian American – totally irrelevant in Europe.
Obviously, many questions just wouldn’t work with Russians, Danes, Turks, Belgians, Poles, Portuguese and other European applicants. So before embarking on the translations, we advised the publisher to rewrite parts of the test so it would resonate with European job applicants, and thereby be of value to European employers.
The client took our advice. The revised and translated tests sold well. And the publisher made a very nice profit.
Here at Auerbach International, we have over 500 professional linguists assisting companies with both translation and acculturation into 80+ world languages. For a free consultation regarding how we might be able to help you with your global marketing, just send us an email reply to this newsletter, and we’ll call at a time convenient for you.
Thank you for helping us to become one of the most enduring and experienced language agencies in the world.
If You Missed Tips #1-6: See our Newsletter Archives