Lost in Translation

Katie Riddle

So your website is up and running, and your content is in good shape—in English. But when your company decides to enter the Indian or Nigerian markets, what gets lost in translation? Your website can become a cultural minefield, but here are some ways to avoid those “mines.”

Say the right thing, the right way, in the right language

Most people think that globalizing content means hiring a translation firm. But one thing we often miss is localization. It’s the magic spice that ensures your content is culturally acceptable, your brand remains consistent, and what you said in English stays relevant in Hindi or Cantonese.

We’ve all laughed at global companies’ faux pas. For example, KFC’s slogan “Finger Lickin’ Good” was translated literally as “Eat Your Fingers Off” in China. And the American Dairy Association was very successful with its “Got Milk?” campaign, but the literal translation, “Are You Lactating?” didn’t go over well in Mexico. They’re funny, sure. But you can bet those “mines” did some brand damage and cost a lot of time and money to correct.

Who’s doing it right? The most recent McDonald’s campaign featured the slang phrase “I’m lovin’ it.” In French Canada, it’s translated as “C’est ça que j’m,” meaning literally “It's that which I love.” “J’m” is slang for “J’aime” or “I love,” so it’s not a literal translation. The catchphrase is made meaningful and relevant to the culture, thanks to localization.

A final warning about publishing your site in English in a non-English-speaking country. As a general rule of thumb: don’t do it! Sites that are not at least partially translated into the local language risk being dismissed as irrelevant and ethnocentric. Even in countries where English is a widely spoken second language, users may find it tedious to read a non-native language.

Show and tell (the RIGHT story)

Pictures and graphics can complement your copy and reinforce your message. But, on global websites, they can also be “mines” that can blow up in your face. In Indonesia, Iran, or Malaysia, that shot of a woman in a sundress won’t work. In many Muslim countries, it’s unacceptable for a woman to show skin besides the face and hands. In many areas of the world, it’s not appropriate to use only Caucasian models. It’s better to use models that reflect the ethnicity or diversity of the target culture. To take it one step further, photography using American models may not work for Europe, even if there’s appropriate diversity—certain types of clothing, style, and environments scream “American!” to a Dutch or Danish audience.

Symbols in photography and graphics can also cause problems. A thumbs up gesture might mean “Great!” or “OK!” in Western countries. But in the Middle East? It’s obscene. Animals can be risky, too. Cows are sacred in India and dogs are considered unclean in some parts of Asia. And using an animal that doesn’t live in the target geography, like a walrus in Ethiopia, may result in confusion and frustration.

Your brand’s perception can suffer from cultural missteps or gain from cultural sensitivity. So invest time and thought when selecting pictures for your global audiences.

It’s a Small World After All

Bottom line? Thanks in part to global brands, our world is shrinking. So why not protect your brand by ensuring that foreign language content is done right the first time? Even if your company is a startup entering only one foreign country, translation and localization are a worthy investment. By ensuring your content resonates with your audiences and conveys your brand’s tone accurately, you’re protecting your brand experience. Which if you’re Coca-Cola or Toyota, is worth billions of dollars. And even if yours isn’t, localization shows your customers that you take them seriously. So, say what you mean, and mean what you say … in Farsi, Taiwanese, and Swedish.