13 May 2014

Managing a Translation Mix-Up

If you fall foul of a translation gaffe, how do you best manage the fall-out? Here are some effective tips…

Today’s global business landscape means more and more companies – large, medium and small – are trading across borders. But while the benefits of multinational trade are obvious, cross-country business is not without its risks and pitfalls.

One of the most important facets of global trade is communication – with customers, suppliers, stakeholders and employees. And increasingly, companies are moving away from English-centric communications strategies – they’re starting to realise how important it is to market their products abroad and offer information in the language of their target country.

When you start to think about it, translation comes into play more or less everywhere.

You could be:

  • a marketing department looking to promote your new foreign language ecommerce platform
  • responsible for promoting a global sporting event
  • a drug-maker launching a product in an overseas market
  • a Government department filing a report to the EU
  • a law firm acting for an international client.

But problems arise. Translation blunders – you’ll see some examples below – can prove costly. Whether it’s unwittingly insulting customers, offering plain nonsense or mistranslating crucial information, a bad translation can affect your reputation, customer relationships and bottom line.

What’s important, though, is how you respond. Depending on the severity of the problem, it might be something as simple as amending a blog post and issuing a correction. But get it really wrong and you could find yourself recalling millions of mistranslated brochures or shelving a multi-million-dollar ad campaign.

Translation blunders can:

  • cost you money
  • lead to fines for non-compliance
  • damage your brand reputation
  • make you look culturally ignorant.

Examples of translation mix-ups

  • this year the Sri Lankan Government apologised after making translation errors in official notices and documents in the language of the Tamil community. One mistake saw a sign that read: “Reserved for pregnant mothers” translated into “Reserved for pregnant dogs” in Tamil
  • back in 2009, HSBC mistranslated its catchphrase ‘Assume Nothing’ as ‘Do Nothing’ in a number of countries. A $10 million (£6.8 million) rebranding campaign followed
  • last year Coca-Cola cancelled a Canadian ad campaign after (unwittingly) calling a customer a ‘retard’ because of a translation tiswas

You can read about other translation blunders on our 5 Marketing Translation Mistakes page.

Real-world effects

Recent research found:

  • 80% of international firms surveyed had lost revenue because of poor document and website translation
  • 40% had delayed product launches because of translation mistakes
  • 7% had been fined for non-compliance because of poorly translated material.

Studies on translation and multilingualism, a 2012 white paper produced by the European Commission, concludes:

“The cost of a badly drafted or badly translated text (e.g. a piece of EU legislation, a web page, press release, brochure, impact assessment, etc.) in terms of image cannot be

quantified but must be taken very seriously: unclear, ambiguous texts take more time to understand and risk being misinterpreted.

“This implies a cost, in the best case in terms of extra time needed to understand a text; in the worst case because an unclear legal text leads to a dispute between two parties, ending in a court case.

This possible ‘chain reaction’ of events gives an indication of the importance of clear texts and therefore of high quality translations.”

Managing a translation nightmare – effective strategies

Of course, in an ideal world, companies wouldn’t make mistakes. But in the real world, they do happen.

As some of the above examples show, it’s not just small firms or those with limited resources which can be affected. We’re talking conglomerates, companies with enormous budgets and vast resources. If they can fall foul of a translation error, anyone can.

So if it does happen, how should you react? Here are some top tips:

1. Respond quickly – but not rashly

After a translation mix-up, it’s important to respond quickly but not, crucially, rashly. Hold an emergency meeting with senior management and work out what your response will be.

What’s your core message? What will you do? Agree on your action points – and stick to them. Importantly, ensure the same message is consistent across your communication channels. You should be saying the same thing on your homepage that you say on Twitter.

Remember, too, that you might need to translate your response. It goes without saying that you need to get this spot-on.

2. Get product recall information out promptly 

A translation error might mean you need to recall a product. In 2001, for example, US firm Mead Johnson Nutritional recalled more than 4 million cans of baby formula because instructions on how to prepare the product was incorrectly translated from English to Spanish. A costly exercise – but a necessary one.

Be open and transparent and, if necessary, take responsibility and be contrite. If you need to recall products, get information out rapidly. What products are affected? Is there a customer service line people can ring? This is the information people will be looking for.

3. ‘No comment’? – don’t bother

You might think that issuing a standard ‘no comment’ response is the best way to ‘minimise damage’. Probably not. It’s more likely to inflame the situation because it makes you look arrogant and evasive. Tackle the problem. Openness and transparency are key watchwords here.

And don’t ‘bury’ your response. If it’s a big blunder, people will be looking for information. You might think hiding a press release away in the deepest depths of your website is the best way to ‘handle’ it. It isn’t – put it out there and make sure it’s easy for people to find.

4. Be prepared to spend money

Translation mess-ups can prove costly. Depending on the severity of the problem, you might have to rip up brochures, recall millions of products or pay a hefty fine. Accept that you’ll probably have to spend some money managing the fall-out. Consider it something of an investment though – because you’ll want to make sure it doesn’t happen again.

5. Learn from the experience

OK, so you’ve made an error. It could have cost you money and dented your reputation. But if you handled it well, there’s no reason things won’t return to normal. It could even improve your position, if you’ve managed to show you’ve tackled the problem with aplomb.

Hold a review where you go over the steps you took to mop up the mess – what worked and what didn’t? Feed your learnings into your strategies.


Sign up to our newsletter

Get our blog articles straight to your inbox.