Lost in translation…how even the big boys get copywriting wrong

We’ve all heard anecdotes about translation errors made when English-speaking marketers try to take their campaigns global – hilarious, that is, unless you’re the person responsible – and the beauty of these cautionary tales is that they’re often made by multinationals: household names that can afford solid product research and expert professional copywriting services and therefore really have no excuses for making this kind of mistake.

Some of the more famous examples:

  • Coca Cola’s first translation into Chinese was ‘ko-ko-ken-la’… or, in a particular Chinese dialect, ‘bite the wax tadpole’. Researchers found a better alternative amongst the 40,000 Chinese characters available to them in the closer phonetic rendering ‘ko-kou-ko-le’; fortuitously, this translates roughly to ‘happiness in the mouth’.
  • Nor is their competition immune. Pepsi’s ‘Come alive with the Pepsi Generation’ campaign promised Taiwanese-speaking consumers that Pepsi would ‘bring your ancestors back from the dead’.
  • Swedish furniture giant IKEA named a desk FARTFULL. Enough said.
  • American Motors tried to project a strong, masculine, heroic image by naming its new car the ‘Matador’. For Puerto Rican consumers, this translated to ‘killer’, which was particularly unfortunate in view of the country’s badly maintained roads and high road toll.

English isn’t easy, even for native speakers

Yes, it’s all fun and games when it’s someone else’s neck on the chopping block. But let’s put aside the comic blunders of the world’s multinationals for a moment because using English to communicate with a largely English-speaking market presents its own challenges. All too often, there is a big difference between ‘communicating’ and ‘making your meaning understood’.

The study of communication and meaning is called semiotics, which looks at how signs and symbols (including words) combine to convey messages. To cut a long story short, the way words work – or rather, how effectively they communicate your intended meaning – is largely dependent on context, including physical barriers like language, and cultural and psychological factors, such as the upbringing and values of the target.

How to avoid bloopers of your own when content writing

The beauty of the English language is that it is so delightfully nuanced but this brings with it an ugly truth: there’s no guarantee that everyone in your target group will take from your copywriting the meaning you intended. Ask anyone who has ever issued a party invitation – a value-laden word like ‘casual’ used to describe your dress code means very different things in Maroochydore than in Melbourne.

So the rules for clear business copywriting are:

  • Refine your message: work out exactly what it is you want to say before saying it
  • Think about your target market: age, culture, level of education, language barriers etc
  • Look at the word options (synonyms) available to you: we’ve talked about this before but, to paraphrase CS Lewis’s famous piece of writing advice, don’t use ‘infinitely’ when ‘very’ will do or you’ll have nothing left to use when you want to talk about something really infinite. And avoid value-laden words where possible because, simply put, not everybody shares your values
  • Don’t forget context: the format of your message (press release, shareholder report, tender, invitation, email) and the environment you’re using them (social, political, cultural, etc).

So to conclude: don’t think you’re immune to translation problems just because you work only in English, or even just in one English-speaking market (‘fanny pack’, anyone?) because understanding relies on so much more than merely a shared dialect.

And here’s a piece of free advice, courtesy of Proof Communications: if you’re ever toasting colleagues in Japan over a friendly glass of sake, don’t say ‘cin cin’, the Italian for ‘cheers’. It means ‘small penis’ in Japanese. Offence might well be taken…

Contact us today for your copywriting, copy editing and proofreading needs

Whether you’re writing an award entry, case study or government tender for the first time, or your hundredth time, partnering with the professional copywriters, copy editors and proofreaders at Proof Communications will help you increase your opportunity for success. Get in touch or ring us on 02 8036 5532 to learn what we can do for your business.

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