For advertising campaigns which expand beyond national borders, the importance of effectively reaching consumers in other countries is critical. Without intimate knowledge of the languages of each market, translation is often outsourced. However, in an industry where each word, typeface and even punctuation mark is heavily scrutinised before going to print, can translation be enough?

Examples of translation in advertising going wrong are extensive (and often ridiculous). Want to go to Germany to buy Clairol’s curling iron – the Mist Stick? Just ask for a ‘Crap Stick’. Depending on where you’re from, it might be ‘Finger Lickin’ Good’ or you might have to ‘Eat Your Fingers Off’. Ford could have avoided some trouble by just checking what ‘Pinto’ means in Brazilian Portugese before launching there. These are simple translation mistakes which could be avoided with a little research - anyone who has used Google Translate knows that word-for-word translation has its limitations - but this is just the tip of the iceberg and doesn’t even take into consideration linguistic relativity.

To invest in a language is to invest in an identity 

Bonny Norton 

Even if the translation matches perfectly to the original language, it doesn’t guarantee that the meaning is anywhere near to it. For example, research has suggested that speakers of languages without a future tense are less likely to take risks (smoking, investing etc.) than speakers of languages with more future tenses. The latter have a disassociation of the present and future in the way they communicate and therefore in their worldview. A single marketing campaign in two countries with differing tenses cannot be expected to have the same effect in each, no matter the quality of the translation.

This extends beyond expanding into new territories. In 2014, Adweek published that bilingual campaigns in the USA outperform those in soley English or Spanish, demonstrating that millenials are more multicultural than generations before, creating a greater need for agencies to understand language and culture than purely when approaching a new market. This research shows definitively that ignoring the role language plays in our culture can be done only at our peril - targeting ads to locations is not enough.

But it’s not all bad news for monolingual agencies. JWTIntelligence recently reported on MyIdol, a Chinese app that has managed to transcend language and culture despite only being available in Chinese. Although not all marketing can reach people independently of language, the success of  campaigns which do not rely on full linguistic comprehension identify that there are alternative and creative ways to reach beyond linguistic borders.

Our industry is based on the understanding that the words we use communicate much more than the object they describe. Yet taking work that has been painstakingly created, developed and adapted, then translating it without the same care and attention to detail nullifies that effort and ultimately, the message. If we want to produce great work that communicates more than the words we use, we have to acknowledge the link between language and culture and strive to understand both. That way, we won’t get lost in translation.

Illustration by DDFH&B Art Director Aisling Dowling.


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