Don’t get lost in translation

Photo: Mario Calvo, Creative Commons

Linguistic and cultural differences do not respect production schedules. If you do not take cultural context into consideration when translating your message, you can end up in trouble. Having lived in four different countries, I have often noticed this myself


This article was written while Anders Pettersson was at the agency River in Stockholm, Sweden, in March, 2017. It was originally published on River’s website. See the video presentation of this from IxDA Oslo, May 2017, here.

Companies and agencies can feel frustrated when an approved master version of a message cannot be translated into other languages that easily –imagine if Google Translate, or some app, could translate and culturally adapt our message accurately into other languages.

Let us stop and really think about what happens when we are adapting a message for an audience speaking another language. We release our messages into their cultural context, into societies that are complex and filled with contradictions, shaped by hundreds, even thousands, of years of history. Having lived in Finland, Sweden, Italy, and Belgium, and speaking five languages more or less fluently, I have often noticed cultural and linguistic differences that give these cultures their unique identities.

Scandinavian minimalism vs. Mediterranean excess

Like Catholic cathedrals, the Italian language is filled with colourful decorations and luxurious ornaments, while Swedish, like its Protestant churches, is direct, to-the-point and stripped down of unnecessary excess. A company trying to reach both markets with the same message, would need to take these extremes into consideration.

Outside a construction site in Stockholm a few years ago, I saw a sign reading “What? Construction work. Where? The address. When? From date x to date y”, and nothing else. Protestant minimalism coupled with social democratic culture of accessibility, has led to a streamlined, direct language with little variation, in order to not exclude anyone. Compare this to Italy, a culture that values the use of a rich vocabulary, grammar variations and synonyms. A sign I once saw in a hotel bathroom in Southern Italy, used 122 words to say “Don’t throw anything other than toilet paper in the toilet”. With archaic words, it went into great detail about the pipes, provided a list of objects that should not be thrown in the toilets, and the possible consequences of such an action. The sign was filled with extravagant phrases of courtesy and politeness, that was somewhat surprising, given it was a very basic and simple hotel. Although it was grammatically and linguistically more complex than most Swedish newspaper articles, it was frustrating to read when you expected quick and direct information.

The bizarre sign can to a certain extent be explained by the late unification of Italy that occurred as recently as 1861. At the time, regional dialects were spoken by the population, while the new national language Italian, was, until then, mostly a written language, mastered only by an educated elite. Written Italian, especially official information by public institutions, bears to this day traces of its former status as an elite language. With this in mind, it becomes logical for a simple hotel to write a simple bathroom sign, as if it were a novel from the 1860s, in order to make it sound “official”.

Translations can make or break a brand

If you miss taking these kinds of cultural and linguistic differences into consideration, you can end up in trouble. An example is the successful American “Got Milk?” campaign, by the California Milk Processor Board in the 1990s. It was literally translated for Latino consumers into “Tienes Leche?”. For a Hispanic audience, however, this can mean “Are you lactating?”. In addition to the slogan, the campaign did the mistake of not targeting mothers and grandmothers, the main milk buyers in Latino households. The message was subsequently adapted to its correct target audience, with the slogans “Familia, Amor y Leche” (“Family, Love and Milk”), and ”Y Usted, Les Dio Suficiente Leche Hoy?” (Have You Given Them Enough Milk Today?”).

An infamous example of when a company had not done their research well enough, was when Honda wanted to launch a new car model in Europe. The new name, intended to have a European flair to it, turned out to be a very vulgar word in Swedish. Luckily, they changed the name just in time before launch.

Transcreation, not translation

A grammatically correct translation alone does not work, but the message needs to be culturally adapted from the source language to the target language, a process also called transcreation. In China, foreign brands do not only translate their messages and slogans, but the brand name itself is translated and adapted, or transcreated, to fit a Chinese audience. This is such a crucial step, that there are consultancies specialised in inventing Chinese names for foreign brands, names that ideally work in both Cantonese and Mandarin. Heineken is therefore “Xi li” (“Happiness Power”), and Coca-Cola has become the similar sounding “Ke Kou Ke Le” (“Tasty Fun”).

Linguistic and cultural differences do not respect production schedules, approval processes or deadlines. Instead of seeing them as inconvenient hurdles, we should be more aware of them, and see the creative possibilities that these differences can offer us. Companies and agencies should therefore invest in having multilingual and multicultural people in their ranks, in order to correctly adapt a message, so that the target audience can be reached in the best way.


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