The #1 Mistake Made By Most Translation Teams (And Four Examples Of Why It Matters)

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Marketing oriented translation work is beset with potential hazards. Whether you are concerned with packaging, signage, ad copy, or an international website’s user interface, you know that the path is challenging. (Those compliance and training people don’t know how good they’ve got it.)

There is a single mistake that marketing oriented translation teams make in porting their message to a new market. And if you avoid that mistake, your likelihood of developing a successful campaign goes up dramatically.

The #1 mistake made by most translation teams is concentrating on translation over transcreation.

What is transcreation? Most simply put, it is the process of taking a current brand or message and a.) assessing its meaning and significance in its home market, b.) analyzing the target market with an eye towards discovering if that meaning resonates and is culturally significant there, and c.) developing a lexicon, set of guidelines, and body of concepts that will govern how that brand is used in the target market.

A competent transcreation team:

  • Works first to understand your brand,
  • Then researches the target market using native speakers and residents,
  • And finally proposes a modified or new brand identity and guidelines together with launch alternatives.

This makes transcreation a deeper consultative process than localization. Localization assumes that a base level of appropriateness is already in play for a brand and strives to make sure that any translation efforts are executed in a way that respects local market behavior. Localization also strives to offer up translation that is both technically correct and rich in nuance – using idioms and slang (where appropriate) to convey an already determined message.

Strict translation (whether human or machine based) is then reserved for the types of content that either don’t rely heavily on context like ingredients, technical product descriptions or assembly instructions.

Clients come to us with a variety of different translation needs and we often need to tease out whether or not the most appropriate approach begins with transcreation or whether we can move straight to localization and translation work.

Emerging translation programs (those that are just getting off the ground in porting content to a new market and language group) need a firm foundation of transcreation. Much of our work in the online games space falls into this category – young companies with new products are preparing to enter international markets for the first time.

When we encounter more mature programs, there is less need for the deep dive implied by transcreation (unless we are asked to come rescue a mature program that is in deep trouble). Instead we work within existing, well-conceived international branding guidelines to provide localized, audience-appropriate content. This is the type of work we do for brands like Nike in providing on-the-fly translation for World Cup videos.

What’s at stake in ignoring the transcreation process?

1) Failure to communicate brand attitude/promise

KFC (formerly Kentucky Fried Chicken) is now the largest restaurant chain in China with over 4500 outlets. It also had the distinction of being the first Western fast food company in China, opening in 1987. Unfortunately, KFC’s slogan at the time was “Finger Lickin’ Good” – intending to convey the idea that their food was so tasty that you would ignore good table manners and lick your fingers clean rather than lose even a smidgen of the Colonel’s secret blend of herbs and spices. The slogan (and the brand) meant to convey both a “down home” sensibility and a sort of guilty pleasure richness.

When “Finger Lickin’ Good” was originally translated into Chinese, the nearest approximation involved the Chinese characters that make the phrase “Eat Your Fingers Off”. While this is amusing in its own right, the more important message is that beginning with the brand promise and then working towards a tagline is the more powerful and appropriate way to communicate rather than translating “backwards” from a slogan and hoping that it hits home in a new market.

2) Failure to understand what kind of product you are selling

In the United States, dishwashers are a common appliance in the majority of home kitchens. In fact, more than 90% of homes built since 2003 are equipped with them. Thus, in the US, dishwashers are marketed as a suburban commodity with appropriate imagery. Marketing dishwashers in Asia using a similar strategy is doomed to failure. In Pacific Asia, dishwashers are a luxury good that cost an average of $730 per unit – more than the monthly cost of a full time maid in countries like Thailand, Indonesia, and the Philippines. And these are countries with a known preference for employing domestic workers for household chores. Pitching dishwashers as a commodity rather than a luxury for these markets is the kiss of death – and one reason why global adoption of dishwashers has been so sluggish. Manufacturers like Bosch and Whirlpool continue to market on the basis of features. But purchasers in this case are most likely not the end-users and are more concerned with fewer features and simpler instructions – and opt for hand-washing instead.

3) Failure of imagery to communicate the brand message

When Pampers wanted to launch its disposable diaper line in Japan in the early 70’s, the company’s advertising team wanted to use a campaign that had been very successful in the US market. Baby boomers will remember the television add of a stork delivering diapers to a happy home.The image worked great in the US market because the legend of the stork bringing babies cemented the idea in consumers’ minds that disposable diapers (and the convenience that comes with them) were an integral part of modern baby care. Unfortunately, in Japan, the image made no sense and new parents had no idea what the ad was supposed to convey.

A bit of transcreation work would have done the trick – a legend going back to the 14th Century in Japan has it that babies arrive in giant peaches, ferried to deserving parents down peaceful streams and rivers.

4) Failure to respect local buying norms and conventions

Africa is a big place, with two thousand living languages and exceptionally dispersed buying power. So, despite the geographic size of the African market, it is often most economical for companies to package their goods using the most minimal printed language and, at most, brand names and limited imagery.

In addition, it’s convention in many African countries to include pictures of what is inside a package on the label. So, a box of diapers has pictures of diapers. A crate of oranges has images of oranges printed on it. And Gerber Baby Food introduced its products to the African market using the same labeling it uses in North America and Europe – with the iconic picture of the “Gerber Baby” on the jar.

You can figure out the rest.

At worst, you risk losing millions (or more) in cost and potential revenue with a botched and memorably bad product launch in a new market. You only have one chance to make a first impression and if that is done badly, no amount of brand clout in your home market can save you.

At best, ignoring transcreation will simply hurt sales and blind you to future opportunity. Unlike the swift and humiliating demise caused by an international translation flop, the subtle consequences of not having a well thought out transcreation strategy are like death by a thousand cuts. You know things aren’t right and that your market projections are off, but you have no idea why. And you keep pouring money down the same poorly dug hole.

Got any stories to share? Thoughts about how best to incorporate transcreation in your brand’s international launch? Get in touch and continue the discussion!

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