Updated: Oct 4, 2020
When trying to understand why translated content underperforms, not every company would look beyond translation issues such as grammar mistakes and language flow. The reality is that the reasons for suboptimal translation sometimes have nothing to do with translation itself.
Identifying and addressing the root cause would require you not only to conduct an audit of your translated content, but also to look into the cultural differences that exist between your domestic and international markets, your business, marketing and brand strategy, management practices, technology, organisational structure and even company culture. They all might impact the translation process and its outcomes as a result.
Poor translation quality may be the consequence of poor information flow and lack of relevant knowledge within the company, in addition to management and process issues.
It also happens that companies try to achieve with translation what only a localisation strategy can (and "localisation" here should not be understood as a type of translation that takes the nuances of local culture into account, but as a business and growth strategy).
If a business model is incompatible with the local culture or the local industry landscape does not allow to achieve a product-market fit, there is not much translation can do but translators will most certainly be blamed for not providing appropriate translations.
The three examples that follow are real cases from my experience as a strategy consultant, functional manager of multilingual content production and localisation programme manager. They show how the reasons for international marketing underperformance are not always the result of a lack of skills within translation teams, but they can be an outcome of poor strategic decisions and a whole range of organisational issues.
# 1. Lack of market knowledge, locally relevant marketing strategy and product-market fit
An American multinational was not generating revenue in the German market. Because the company's localisation strategy and processes were limited to translation (which was also an afterthought) and were not supported by local market intelligence, only a year after entering Germany did the company find out that its business model was not compatible with the local culture and hindered the effectiveness of local marketing efforts.
Because the company received a comment from a customer about the importance of content quality for the German speakers, it assumed poor translation quality was the reason why the product did not sell. By the time the leadership team discovered that the key concept behind the pricing model (and the basis for competitive advantage) was not transparent enough for the German customers, the business had spent millions of dollars in marketing and advertising without seeing any signs of revenue growth.
# 2. Lack of understanding of translation management processes
A company in the middle of international expansion had to invest in revision of all of its translated content to improve translation quality when it realised that translation performed significantly worse than content in English. Even though the language services provider did a good job enhancing the quality of translated content, it turned out the revision was a waste of money and time because the suggested changes could not be implemented due to the technical limitations of content management systems which were only discovered when the revision work was delivered.
A rushed decision to translate the content in the first place without having a strategy and supporting processes led the company to make three investments instead of one. The third time it invested in getting its multilingual content management processes redesigned.
# 3. Insufficient translation management resources and uncooperative behaviours
In a growing start-up, reporting lines and processes established to support international expansion did not work well when the company's marketing activity switched to the growth mode. To meet the translation needs of the growth marketing team, the lean localisation team recruited in the middle of expansion could not promptly adapt the processes developed by the product and engineering teams prior to expansion (with their own needs in mind).
The localisation team lost the momentum to establish itself as a partner to the marketing teams who started to rely for translation on colleagues from other functions, friends and Google Translate. The team, unaware of those practices, was blamed for the poor grammar and spelling mistakes in marketing translations and local ads, which undermined its reputation and, as a consequence, further reduced the perceived value of translation within the company.
It is important to remember that translation is not a strategy and to understand what translation can and cannot do. Translation makes the meaning of text understandable in another language, but it cannot make irrelevant content, concepts, products, services and value propositions appealing (you would need a localisation strategy for that and it is not what translation specialists do).
It is particularly challenging to produce translation that can deliver the results that are expected of it when translation processes are designed by those who have never managed it. Changing those processes can be equally challenging.
If translation is poorly integrated into the company's operations, not only will it fail to produce the intended outcomes but it can also create dysfunctional dynamics within the organisation. Those dynamics are unlikely to be discovered before more damage is done.
Translation does not have to be a mystery and a challenge for everyone involved in the process. If your teams are struggling with driving performance in international markets or producing translation of desired quality, a simple workshop and an audit of translation / localisation management processes could help you identify and address the root causes and fill the knowledge gaps.