Words That Get Around

It’s a small world and with the help of satellites and the Internet, it’s getting smaller every day. Companies in the United States market to customers in nations all over the world, and companies from all over the world market to us.

While having a stellar product or service is an important part of success, so is using the right words to describe what your product or services is. Here’s the problem: Some words don’t translate into the same meaning when shipped abroad.

Examples abound: “KFC’s famous ‘finger lickin’ good’ tagline had a whole other meaning in the Chinese market, where it was translated to something akin to “eat your fingers off.”

KFC in Shenzhen, China
(Credit: Flickr User dcmaster)

Looking to Western Europe, Traficante, for instance, is an Italian brand of mineral water. In Spanish, it means dealer or trafficker, which are connotations the mineral water company likely didn’t intend.

These mistakes can be more than just embarrassing. They have the potential to cause severe backlash. Take the example of BP Chairman, Carl-Henric Svanberg, who tried to apologize for his company’s devastating oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico. A Swede, he used English when speaking. However, in his attempt to say he was sorry for the damaged caused to ordinary Americans, he used the words, “small people.”

“And we care about the small people,” he said. “I hear comments sometimes that large oil companies are greedy companies or don’t care. But that is not the case indeed. We care about the small people.”

That, of course, did not go over very well.

Because of the rise of globalization, people are blending languages as well. For instance, there is Spanglish for the blend of Spanish and English and Konglish for English words spoken with a Korean pronunciation.

Because we are so close to Mexico, many translation mistakes have come by U.S. firms marketing to our neighbor to the south.  Take the “Got Milk” campaign from The Dairy Association. In Mexico, it translated to “Are You Lactating?”

The revamped Spanish “Got Milk” campaign, “Toma Leche.” Now translate to “Drink Milk.”
(Credit: California Milk Processor Board)

Hiram Soto is an online multicultural marketing expert and works with English and Spanish campaigns. Previously a border reporter for the San Diego Union-Tribune and its Spanish-language publication Enlace, he’s now a content strategist at Captura Group, which helps companies succeed in the online Hispanics market. He’s also a columnist, blogger and writer-at-large at LiveFromTheBorder.com. He does such work for government organizations such as General Services Administration, Federal Bureau of Investigation and the Federal Trade Commission. His firm also provides Hispanic online marketing services to companies such as Unilever and AllState.

We invited him to talk about how important it is to make certain your message is not lost in translation.

– – –

You’re bilingual in English and Spanish. And you write in both languages. How difficult is it to do so?
I often describe being bilingual as a mental on and off switch. This is particularly the case when you’re speaking and you move quickly from one language to the other. Different variables come into play when you write in both languages, though. Spelling and grammar are two obvious ones since each language has its own rules, structures and nuances. One of the biggest challenges for bilingual and bicultural marketers is capturing the meaning of words rather than literally translating them. It requires a deep understanding of both cultures and languages. It is a challenging yet rewarding experience.

How do you go about selecting the right words for your stories and marketing efforts? Do you think of them in Spanish and translate to English or vice versa?
Successful bilingual marketers do lots of work before writing a link, tweet, CTA, headline, article, blog etc. They ask themselves questions such as: what are the goals of the campaign, who is the audience, what is the voice and tone; will the content be shared, reused, repurposed, curated, and so, where and how? What about keywords and SEO (search engine optimization)? The answers are critical for choosing the right words.

In terms of which language comes to mind first when writing, it depends. Sometimes clients request content in Spanish and other times in English, and sometimes in both. When producing content in either language, the best strategy is to “think” in the target language. So if you’re writing for English speakers, it’s best to think in English.

What’s the best way to retain the meaning of words when they are translated?
The best and more accurate translations are those that convey ideas rather than just translate words. A common term used to describe this exercise is “transcreation,” which it involves translating but also re-creating the message in the target language. A successfully “transcreated” message evokes the same emotions as the original message but in a way that’s culturally and linguistically relevant to the target audience. Sometimes this means using different words or the same words mixed around. The NBA has a great example of “transcreation.” Hoping to attract more Hispanics, a few years ago it changed its name in Spanish to Ene-Be-A, which is the Spanish pronunciation of the NBA. The name change, along with a comprehensive Hispanic marketing strategy, is credited for helping increase ticket sales at NBA games.

For people who speak Spanish and English, there’s Spanglish. Are there unique combinations of words that people have creating in blending the languages?
People have been blending English and Spanish since both languages came into contact. But this mixture is not always welcomed. While English dictionaries are quick to add new words as people use them more often, Spanish is not as flexible. The Royal Spanish Academy, an organization that regulates the use of Spanish, is notoriously slow in incorporating new words, including those from Spanglish.

That being said, people do speak Spanglish in everyday life. They use words like carpeta to refer to carpet in English, although carpeta really means “folder” in Spanish. Or they say parquear (to park) instead of estacionarse, which is the right word in Spanish. The use of Spanglish in marketing represents both a challenge and an opportunity for marketers. On the one hand it might help them connect with certain audiences, like young Hispanics. On the other it might alienate recent immigrants and older Hispanics. The decision to use Spanglish in a marketing campaign depends on many things, including type of audience, communication platform and subject matter.

Do certain English words simply not translate well into Spanish? Can you give us any examples?
English has more words than Spanish. Up to two to three times more, depending on whom you ask. In addition, English is a more “precise” language. Because it has more words, it is easier to find one that exactly describes what you’re trying to express. That’s not always the case in Spanish. Because of the word deficit between the two languages and how Spanish is structured, sometimes you need two or three words or more to describe what is being said with just one word in English. This is particularly the case when translating technical terminology, but also applies to everyday use of words such as awkward, trade-off, serendipity, etc.

How can a business or an organization prevent themselves from making a translation gaffe?
Organizations can prevent most embarrassing mistakes and translation gaffes by hiring in-house bicultural and bilingual communication professionals. When that’s not possible, businesses can use the services of an agency that specializes in multicultural communications or a professional translator. Don’t assume that a message in English will translate directly into any language.  In addition, even seasoned multicultural marketers are careful when marketing because nations or groupings of people are not comprised of one group. For example, Hispanics aren’t a monolithic group. There’s a diversity of interests and groups within that title. One word might have one meaning to Hispanics from Mexican descent while the same word might mean something different to Hispanics from South America or the Caribbean. Most times the safest route is to write in international Spanish. That is, Spanish that can be understood by the whole Spanish-speaking world.

What’s the risk to an incorrect translation of a word?
Bad translations are bad for business. It’s as simple as that. They can damage your brand, undermine your goals, and damage your credibility with the very audience you are trying to reach. Low-quality work, whether done by a person or machine, tells the segment of users you’re trying to reach that they are not as important as the general audience. Ask yourself this: from the perspective of a consumer, would you trust a website full of mistakes when you’re looking for critical information or even when you just want to make a purchase?

Given the growth of the global economy, there obviously will be more opportunities to make these errors. How would you advise businesses and organizations to move forward confidently in marketing or messaging efforts?
Businesses that want to market to international audiences should hire multicultural marketers and/or agencies to help develop a comprehensive, culturally specific strategy. They should also commit the necessary resources to execute these campaigns. Fortunately, the internet can help them track campaigns as never before and make changes accordingly.

– – –

Thanks Hiram for the fascinating insight to this most important issue. Or, should we say, “muchas gracias,” given the topic?

We hope everyone has a great Memorial Day weekend. We’ll be back next week with a different cultural perspective on words – words that solve crimes.

Mike Stetz, Senior Writer
Collaborative Services, Inc.

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