The fundamentals of translation for a global brand
Some people hate advertising and marketing but every person has at least one favourite brand—and it is likely to be a global brand. Whether you like it or not, a big part of what makes these brands our favourites are their advertising and marketing communications. Why? Because they are crafted in a way that reaches our minds and hearts.
But if it is a foreign brand, who crafts these communications for them? I never asked myself this question until a series of happenstances led me to a cross-cultural marketing consultancy almost a decade ago, and my job became managing people who translate advertising and marketing messages for global brands.
Since then, I have led over 2,000 brand translation specialists and an even greater number of projects, including some of an incredible complexity, to help the messages of over 60 global brands conquer the minds and hearts of people in more than 60 countries and languages. Below are just some of my previous clients.
My colleagues and I actually never used the word "translation" to refer to what we were delivering to our clients, and for a reason. Even if translation is part of the process, it is much more complex than anyone who is not involved in it can imagine.
The service we were providing is most commonly known as "transcreation", although nobody in the language or marketing industry seems to be able to describe it in a way that gives any idea of what it may entail. You can find my definition of transcreation here, but what would give a better insight into what it actually is when provided by a specialised agency are the principles that my team and I used to follow when transcreating content for global brands.
My role in particular was to ensure that everyone who worked on any transcreation project, in any language, for any market, embraced them as their guiding principles. They were never documented or made explicit, so I let you imagine what a continuous drip-feeding it was for me and a guessing game for everyone else. I thought I could finally put something together so that those on the client's side have a better idea of what it takes to translate for a brand and those who are providing the service understand why clients and transcreation managers are such a pain sometimes.
It's a long read but I hope you'll agree that it's worth it. If these two minutes of intro already feel like too much or you just can't wait to see some bullet points, you are invited to jump straight to the last section. Enjoy!
# 1. Translating for a brand means communicating on the brand’s behalf
Even when it’s called transcreation, 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 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 source and if 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 assumed that all brand messages must be culturally appropriate and get localised when their are not. If there is no need to localise, stay true to the source. 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 source 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 source copy, you should use the same or a different one for the same purpose. You needn’t know the names of all linguistic techniques and structures but you must be able to spot them in the source and understand why they were used. 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 of 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 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, and 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, and 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 source—this is what usually results into ambiguous messages and 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 people say it. Clear any doubts by searching in dictionaries and online to see in what kind of context that expression appears. Images search results can be helpful. It’s good to check any expression you are unsure about.
# 3. Using appropriate terminology is a must
Industry terminology is the set of special words and expressions used in connection with a particular industry or domain (e.g. real estate, workplace management, marketing, localisation). 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—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 the term, understand its meaning and the context in which it is used in English before looking for the equivalent of that term 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 (not popular), 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 the 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 English 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 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.
# 5. Following basic rules helps
Write for the audience, on the brand’s behalf. Make choices informed by the brand’s strategy and objectives. Know who the brand wants to attract and what attracts them to the brand.
Choose words, word forms, expressions, and constructions strategically. Choose words that give the best image and understanding of the brand. Choose what sounds on brand and what people say in the same context.
Make the meaning clear. Be mindful of unintended meanings and unwanted associations. When given the choice, use positive words.
Use established industry terminology—found in reliable sources. Flag brand terminology that can be misleading in your language.
Write concisely. Always keep readability in mind. Choose simple and native words and structures.
Write it as if you were saying it. Write as if you were speaking.
Speak the audience’s language in a way that appeals to them. Use inclusive and gender-neutral language.
Make sure what you say makes sense and has a solid logic.
Don’t translate for the sake of producing a translation. Don’t make the brand say what it doesn’t mean or wouldn’t want to. Don’t make assumptions about the brand or its audience.
Don’t forget that our thoughts and choices are influenced by emotions. Don’t choose or add words just to make the message sound better. Don’t write in a style that feels natural (= standard) for the context.
Don’t use ambiguous words and expressions. Don’t use words or expressions with political or sexual connotations. Don’t overuse negatively charged words and concepts.
Don’t try to translate literally anything that looks like an industry term. Don’t use as brand terminology anything that sounds off brand.
Don’t use many words when few will do. Don’t use long words when shorter ones work. Don’t shorten the sentence just to make it fit into a limited space.
Don’t look for equivalents of literal meaning outside the context. Don’t sound like a text, script, robot, or institution.
Don’t patronise or tell the audience what to do. Don’t use formatting to indicate all genders—it’s not inclusive, it’s ugly.
Don’t translate if you don’t understand the context—ask for clarification.
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