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risks of bad translation


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Risks of Bad Translation—How to Ensure Your Brand Voice Is Clear Across Borders

Companies spend a great deal of time and money nurturing relationships and building trust with their clients. Doing so entails prospecting, developing sales and marketing strategies, crafting the right message, providing great customer service, and staying on brand. The last thing you need are translation errors jeopardizing all of this work.

What really are the risks of mistakes in translation, and how can you avoid them?

Translation Errors in Marketing: What Can Go Wrong?

The importance of good translation is made evident when things go wrong. And when things go wrong, they can go very wrong.

An internet search will bring up many examples of translation mistakes in global advertising. While they are easy to laugh at, these errors cause huge headaches for the companies involved. Something as seemingly minor as a word or phrase can result in millions of dollars in direct costs or damage to a brand.

A few now-infamous examples:

  • Braniff airlines aimed to promote its leather seats by translating its “fly in leather” slogan as fly “en cuero,” which sounds like Spanish slang for “fly naked.”
  • When KFC entered the Chinese market, their “Finger-lickin’ good” slogan was translated into “Eat your fingers off.”
  • The “Got Milk” tag line used in the California Milk Processor Board’s ad campaign was translated into Spanish as “Are you lactating?”
  • When translated into Arabic, the Jolly Green Giant became the “Intimidating Green Ogre.”
  • HSBC’s now legendary 1999 “Assume nothing” slogan was mistranslated—in some languages–as “Do nothing.”

HSBC changed their “Do nothing” slogan to “The world’s private bank,” and the subsequent rebranding efforts cost $10 million. Companies like KFC and HSBC can rebound from such bloopers, but not all businesses have the resources to do so.

The Consequences of Translation Mistakes

If you’re lucky, a colleague will notice a mistranslation before it goes public. Then, maybe a brochure needs to be reprinted, or your website launch date gets pushed back. While this will cost time and money, it will save the brand embarrassment.

The worst-case scenario is catching an error after it reaches the public. A product with a mistranslated label could result in misuse or requests for refunds. Prospects may leave your website if it is difficult to read because the text does not flow properly. A mistake in a user manual for automotive equipment may result in damage or injury and have legal ramifications. A single wrong word in a contract can have serious repercussions.

Fallout could include:

  • Delay in the launch of a campaign, website, or product
  • Time and money spent correcting problems
  • Fines
  • Loss of credibility with partners
  • Misinformed business decisions

Your brand is a critical asset and its reputational value is irreplaceable. Ultimately, the people you’ve spent so long cultivating may simply never buy from you again.

Cultural Appropriateness

Your text must not only be relevant to the audiences you’re targeting, but the graphics must also be culturally appropriate. In some cases, a cultural review entails flagging content that may be construed as offensive and adapting imagery or design elements.

A few missteps in this area:

  • Nike recently came under fire for their Nike Air Max 270 shoe, which has a script logo on the sole resembling the Arabic word for Allah. In 1997, Nike also received criticism for a flame-shaped logo that resembled the word “Allah” in Arabic script. In that case, Nike apologized and stopped selling shoes with the design.
  • When Procter and Gamble started selling Pampers diapers in Japan, they used an image of a stork delivering a baby. The imagery was confusing to consumers because in Japanese folklore, newborns arrive courtesy of giant peaches floating down the river-not storks.

How to Avoid Bad Translation?

As with anything, it’s less expensive to get something right the first time than to correct errors later.

Individual words do not always map word-for-word into another language. Some words do not have an equivalent in another language, while others have multiple meanings. A word that may be harmless in one language might be offensive in another. Translators need to fully understand the context in order to craft language that is faithful to the original text while culturally appropriate for the target audience.

This potential for myriad readings makes it imperative that the translator is a specialist in the subject matter they are translating.

When budgets are tight, companies are sometimes tempted to leave translation to a bilingual employee. However, speaking a second language does not guarantee a high level of linguistic expertise in both source and target languages. At Eriksen, we enlist linguists who are native speakers of their target language and experts in the subject matter.

To ensure the translation preserves the meaning while conveying the tone and intent of the original text, we assign a qualified translator to work hand-in-hand with an editor. Our teams also consider any cultural factors that could impact the way the message is received in the target market.

Translation Quality Assurance: What Can You Do?

In addition to having the right linguists on the job, there are some steps you can take to help improve translation quality and prevent mistakes:

  • Develop translation-ready source content. To optimize your text for translation, write with international readers in mind from the start. This entails crafting text in a manner that is unambiguous and clear to people in different locales.
  • Allow enough time for quality translations. Bring your language services provider into the process as early as possible so they can help you establish appropriate timelines.
  • At the start, develop a glossary with your language service provider to establish consistency in terminology. A glossary compiles your project’s key terminology in the source language and the approved translations in the target language(s). This helps translators ensure that key terms are used correctly each time they appear.
  • Provide your language service team with any applicable reference material. The more context you can share, the better.
  • Conduct a translation review for those languages where you have in-house resources. This important step provides an additional level of quality control and ensures your brand is communicated effectively. Typically, this review occurs after your text has passed through Eriksen’s translation, editing, and quality control process. This in-house step provides a final check to make sure the translated material conveys your unique brand voice.

Protect Your Business

A poll by Harris Interactive, a New York research firm, found that 35% of consumers will not buy from a company that releases an offensive ad.1

Cross-cultural communication isn’t easy. And adding language barriers to the mix makes everything even trickier. In our global world, business happens quickly, and even multicultural teams may not have a nuanced understanding of cultural mishaps.

By adhering to best practices for translation and working with a language provider that adheres to proper quality control procedures, you can lessen the risk of offending your audience, damaging your reputation, and losing time and money.

If you’re ready to share your brand voice with a more diverse audience, before you “fly naked,” “eat your fingers off,” or “do nothing,” please get in touch—we’d love to talk.

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1. “How distasteful ads and spokespersons can damage your brand.” I-Scoop. , Accessed August 15, 2019.
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