In my various years in communications I have lost count of the times I was told by Senior Managers (mainly I hasten to say Sales Directors) that they wanted product ‘x’ to be sold in country ‘y’ and therefore could I possibly organise for the immediate translation of all the relevant technical and support material.
While there is no doubt that highly technical documents like safety data sheets, instructions and the like can easily be translated from one language to another, when it comes to marketing and PR collateral nothing could be further from the truth. This kind of material should never just be translated; instead, it must be ‘interpreted’ for consumption by a specific target audience.
The art of interpreting differs from the slightly more mechanical process of translation. Interpreting material for use in another country and language requires an in-depth knowledge of the audience in question, its customs, related nuances and even the socio-political context of that area. So translating, apologies, interpreting, even something as seemingly simple as a short press release requires a good deal of additional effort if one wants it to be truly effective.
Inevitably, even if a PR company has native people in its midst, relying on the support of an office sited in the target country makes eminent sense as local employees are necessarily much more familiar with latest trends and stylistic subtleties related to the usage of language, as well as concepts. When it comes to cultural issues this is even more important as people located in an office several thousand miles away may quickly lose grip of the situation even in their native countries.
In some instance companies have tried to make use of their own regional sales offices to interpret the messages in question, but the effectiveness of this exercise is on the whole about as successful as trying to get any sales office to write adverts or PR material.
The world of advertising is littered with feeble and at times truly hilarious attempts to apply translation instead of interpretation. Not even large companies are exempts to such faux pas. Take for example the well known case of Pepsi where their translation of “Pepsi brings you back to life” in China was read as “Pepsi brings your ancestors back to life”. I recommend a quick Google search on the topic to spend a few minutes of your break with a smile on your face, but if you are short of time you can simply click on this link to access one of the many pages available.
In today’s digital world there is a tendency to do away with translations on two accounts. The first is the (mistaken) assumption that ‘everyone speaks English’; the second is based on the premise that readers of online material can rely on translation engines to have content served in their own language. While there is no doubt that enormous strides have been made by engines such as Google Translate, these can at best offer a vague understanding of basic concepts. With something stylistically more challenging, however, this technology falls apart.
But I don’t wish to berate just English speaking companies trying to sell into other markets. The reverse is also true as documented by very poorly translated instruction manuals that we have all seen when assembling electronic items or flat packed furniture, though maybe in these instances these documents aren’t even that well written in their native language… For a lighthearted approach to mistranslations to English you could take a quick peep at engrish.com but beware, it’s quite an addictive little site!
So interpreting the message in the right language is crucial if you want it to really reach its target audience. There are no shortcuts, you have to find a partner in that country. Finding them is another matter, but this would be the topic for another blog.