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The fundamentals of translation for a global brand

Whether or not you dislike marketing and advertising, they are a big part of what makes us like certain brands. Why? Because marketing and advertising communications are crafted in a way that reaches our minds and hearts.

I never asked myself who crafts these communications for global brands until a series of happenstances led me to work at a cross-cultural marketing consultancy over a decade ago. Part of my job there was to manage people who translated advertising and marketing messages for global brands.

Even when translation was part of the process, my colleagues and I actually never used the word “translation” to refer to what we were managing or delivering to our clients. We would call it “transcreation”.

Because everyone who provides this service would understand and explain it differently, people who need brand messages translated into different languages find it challenging to get what they expect. To help one of my clients “move from translation to transcreation” to solve the problem of translations not sounding natural, I outlined the principles I used to follow when guiding my teams.

But since unnaturally sounding translation has actually been a challenge for every brand I have worked with, I thought I would share those translation principles so more people involved in the translation process can develop a shared understanding of what that process should be and how it can reliably lead to expected outcomes.

1. Translating for a brand means communicating on the brand’s behalf

Even if it’s called “transcreation” which highlights the importance of creativity in the translation process, you are not given creative license if you translate for a brand. You are given the responsibility to speak on the brand’s behalf. Choose your words carefully and strategically. Everything you say must align with the brand’s strategy and objectives, and resonate with its audience.

The purpose of any brand’s content goes beyond the need to communicate information. Brands want their audiences not only to understand what they are saying, but also to feel certain emotions, make certain decisions, and take certain actions. Make sure you understand who the audience is and what the brand wants (and doesn’t want) them to know, feel, think, and do.

Your goal is to persuade the audience and earn their trust. Walk in the audience’s shoes to understand what will attract them to the brand and motivate them to do what the brand suggests and expects. Choose words accordingly and always consider indirect meanings. Hidden meanings influence our judgment. Great word choices are the greatest influencers.

Consider the relationship between the audience and the brand. Always ask yourself: “How much does the audience know about the brand and its offering? If they are not the customer yet, why aren’t they? Why would they want the brand’s products? Why wouldn’t they? Would they trust the brand? Why not?” The answers will tell you how closely you should follow the original text and whether cultural differences can be a challenge. If the brand is new to the market, or if all brands from its home country are seen by the local audience in a certain way, you might need to communicate differently.

It is implied that all brand messages must be culturally appropriate and get localised when they are not. If there is no need to localise, stay true to the original. But it doesn’t mean translating word by word. The shape can change, but the meaning must always be recognisable in the target language, unless it is culturally inappropriate. Being faithful to the original is particularly important in campaigns where consistency of the messaging is key. If something doesn’t translate, you should say it in other words, not in your own words. Remember that you risk misleading the audience if you misinterpret the message or omit important information.

Think communication strategy, not meaning equivalence. Use relevant linguistic structures and techniques to produce the intended impact on the audience, and to capture and lead their attention. When a linguistic technique is used in the original message, you should use the same or a different one for the same purpose. If you are not a linguist by training, think about what is peculiar about the flow and word choices in the brand’s message and what effect they produce on you as you read it. That’s what shapes the brand voice and what you need to recreate in your copy.

2. Considering meaning in context is a given

We don’t think much about word choices when we speak, but we must consider them carefully when speaking on a brand’s behalf. Use the richness of your language and vocabulary to choose words that are appropriate for the context and effective for achieving the brand’s communication goals.

Literal meaning: Clarity in any brand message is paramount, even in an inspirational advertising campaign. Choose words first and foremost based on their meaning (including the double meaning), not based on how they make the message sound and how much space they take. Avoid words and expressions that have many different meanings and can be interpreted in more than one way, even if they are approved as brand terminology.

Unintended meaning: Always read what you have written without looking at the source text at least once, to make sure your message conveys what it should and doesn’t convey what it shouldn’t. Ask yourself: “If this is the message, what will the audience understand? What else can they understand? How likely is this message to lead them to do what the brand expects? Which elements might hinder that reaction?”

Connotations, emotions, tone: As consumers, we want brands to delight us, not to upset us. Negative words and concepts as well as unpleasant activities mentioned in the copy translate into a negative impact on the audience. Respect the audience’s feelings and point of view, and make sure the message never sounds patronising or dictatorial – no one likes brands who talk down to them or tell them what to do. Never use terms or expressions that might evoke associations with politics or sex (unless you are explicitly asked to do so).

Collocations, use, context: The words you choose must mean the same thing to both the brand and the audience. They only do if you choose those that are appropriate for the context, because the audience would expect them to appear in such context (i.e. strong collocations). If you choose a combination of words that is uncommon or unusual for your language (i.e. a weak or loose collocation), the meaning they are supposed to produce might not be understood fully or correctly.

Avoid terms or expressions that are more commonly used in a context other than the situation referred to in the original message – this is what usually leads to misunderstanding. Always think about how familiar the audience would be with the brand and its offering to get an idea of how likely they would be to understand or misinterpret the message.

Idioms: Marketing and advertising messages tend to use many idioms. If you want to use an idiomatic expression that you don’t hear often, make sure you know where it comes from, what exactly it means, and when other people use it. Clear any doubts by searching in dictionaries and online to see in what kind of context that expression appears. And think twice before you actually use that idiom. Will the audience understand it the right way? Is there a risk it can offend some people?

3. Using appropriate terminology is a must

Industry terminology is a set of special words and expressions used in connection with a particular industry or domain (e.g. real estate, workplace management, marketing). It is part of a common language that the brand and the audience share. Use established industry terminology so that the audience can understand the message – they won’t if you don’t.

Terminology consists of fixed collocations only, and there is only one way to translate them – by using established terms. If something sounds like an industry term or business jargon, never try to translate it literally or replace it with synonyms, more generic or more specific words. If you don’t know a term, make sure you understand its meaning and the context in which it is used in the source language before looking for the term’s equivalent in your language.

If you can’t explain without hesitation what a term means and how it is used, check its meaning and collocations in a dictionary and research further. If you can’t name a single reliable source where the term is used extensively, research until you can name at least three.

As a rule of thumb, you can assume that established industry terminology can always be found in industry publications that can be a book (not self-published), an industry journal or magazine, a reputable newspaper, or communications of a well-known organisation originally produced in the local language (not translated). A reliable source is never Wikipedia (sorry...) or someone’s blog.

Brand terminology is a set of special words and expressions used by a brand in connection to its products and services. Using established brand terminology consistently across all brand communications is crucial for ensuring that the audience understands the brand and its offering. Always think about whether the audience is already familiar with the brand terminology or needs more guidance – it’s your job to help them.

It can happen that brand terminology coincides with industry terminology that doesn’t have established equivalents in other languages. When that is the case, use your best judgment to prioritise communication clarity. By default, brand terminology must be on brand. If a brand term coincides with what is an established industry term but sounds off brand in your language, find a better sounding alternative. Always notify the project manager in such cases.

There is no need to use brand terminology in the target copy every time it appears in the source. You can use alternative wording at your discretion if that would still allow the brand to keep its brand terminology consistent. Similarly, it’s fine to use brand terminology in the target language where it doesn’t appear in the source, but don’t overdo it.

4. Taking perspective to shape the message is essential

Synthesise and simplify. No one wants to spend time reading marketing communications (unless it’s their job or passion). As consumers who interact with brands, we expect them to help us quickly find solutions to our challenges and give us clear answers to our questions. Because shorter messages are easier to read, understand, and remember, they are more powerful.

Avoid using descriptive wording to convey concepts that don’t have an established equivalent in your language or can’t be expressed in a concise, fluent, and unambiguous way. If a structure used in the source copy doesn’t exist in your language or is impossible to replicate, paraphrase the message (as if you were talking to a stranger and needed to explain what it says) and then refine it. When the challenge is with a title or header, keep the core element only and make sure the meaning can be understood from the context that follows, which can be a visual.

Make it relatable, vivid, and real. When choosing between synonyms, opt for simple words of local origin instead of those borrowed from other languages, unless they sound off brand or are inappropriate for the context. What feels local is more relatable and has a greater influencing power.

When choosing between verbs and nouns, passive and active forms, or personal and impersonal forms, consider whether the copy needs to be more dynamic, convey a sense of direction, or highlight someone’s role within the context. Help the audience picture what you are saying. When making stylistic choices, avoid making the message sound similar to what the audience might typically find in a similar context or type of communication. Every brand’s communications should sound like their own.

Read it from the audience’s perspective. For any communication to be fluent, appealing, and effective, it is essential that each element is logically linked to the one that precedes it and the one that follows it. When translating word by word (which you should never do) and sentence by sentence (not recommended either), it is easy to lose track of the text’s internal logic.

When translation is ready, give it a good read without looking at the source. Forget about it, pretend the translation isn’t yours, and ask yourself: “What does it say? What does it imply? What does the author want me to know, think, and do? How does it make me feel?” Get back to the source and the brief, and check the translation and your impression of it against them. If you are the reviewer, read the entire copy in the target language before reading the original version and comparing the two side by side.

Remember that the audience will be reading the message in their language and start with the assumption that it is not a translation. That assumption will change as soon as they spot unusual collocations or constructions that are not typical of their language. That’s when they start thinking that they are reading a (bad) translation, and that feeling of suspicion will never leave them. And that’s when they start trusting the brand less.


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