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When translation goes wrong, it really goes wrong

The pen is scarier than the sword

It’s important that you invest in good translation – especially if you want to avoid telling overseas customers to bite the wax tadpole.

A meaningful element of speech within your ear.
Translation has a price that is expensive to you.

Terrible headline, isn’t it? But it’s only how a bad translator may have rewritten the original headline below.

A word in your ear.
 Translation can cost you dear.

The translation has lost the original’s colloquial, friendly touch. It’s lost its rhyme. It’s positive instead of being a potential. It’s not great English and doesn’t read well. Yet it’s pretty close to the original, isn’t it?

Translations are a great opportunity
Talking to people in their language can open up new markets for you. It can make a huge difference to people’s perceptions of your business to talk to someone in their tongue. Over 70% of the world’s web documents are in English, 7% Japanese, 5% German, 2% French, and 1.5% Chinese. This shows that language versions of sites have less competition on the Internet, and indicates that non-English speaking people have a limited resource of information in their own language. That’s an opportunity for businesses.

But with an opportunity, there can be a downside to some types of translation. A translation can be:
• naive: using language that’s too basic for the subject matter. This is very relevant if you operate in a specific marketplace where technical terms are an issue.
• wrong: using incorrect grammar, spelling and comprehension. This will either make your business sound sloppy and illiterate, or potentially could confuse customers about your services.
• off brief: your money spent on snappy headlines and compelling mission statements could be wasted on a poor translation that doesn’t consider the marketing aspects of what you’re tying to say.

The problem is, if you’re not a linguist yourself, you may not know how poor your translation has been. That could mean losing business rather than gaining it.

When translations go bad
Even the biggest brands have suffered at the hands of translation. For example, in China Coca-Cola was translated as “bite the wax tadpole” or “female horse stuffed with wax” depending on the dialect. They eventually found the right Chinese characters that are phonetically close to the brand – “ko-kou-ko-le” – which means ‘happiness in the mouth”. Meanwhile, the Chinese KFC slogan “finger licking good” came out as “eat your fingers off”.

In Taiwan, the Pepsi slogan “Come alive with the Pepsi Generation” came out as “Pepsi will bring your ancestors back from dead”. A Brazilian translation of Pinto, a Ford car, was slang for “tiny male genitals”. And in Italy a campaign for Schweppes Tonic Water translated the name into Schweppes Toilet Water.

Ensure copywriters tackle your translations – not just translators
It’s vital that, when you’ve spent money with your copywriting agency or advertising agency creating strong messages, that they’re translated by linguistic copywriters.

For example, suppose you were Nike and wish to translate the phrase ‘Just do it’ into French. There are numerous ways of saying it – many of which will be impactless literal translations. Even with a basic knowledge of French you could probably make a suggestion yourself. However, a good French copywriter will be able to suggest translations that have the impact and meaning of the original.Be warned. Seize the opportunity, but don’t ‘take hold forcibly of a favourable occasion’.

Steve Lodge: Steve trained as a NCTJ journalist and is an experienced copywriter. He has over 15 years in agency, and started Oxygen in 2002.