The perils of market research: managing translations across cultural boundaries

The perils of market research: managing translations across cultural boundaries

By Maggie Little

The business of managing translations and communications across international and cultural boundaries continues to grow in complexity. Indeed, the proliferation of new channels such as social media and mobile means that international communications are becoming more of a headache – not less – for researchers to manage.

This post starts by taking a look at some brands that haven’t travelled (and how some have managed to avoid the issue) and then suggesting some best practices when managing translations for market research.

Avoiding the pitfalls of language

Barf washing powder from Iran probably wouldn’t sell well in the USA for example. Japanese car manufacturer Nissan’s Moco model wouldn’t work well in Spain where Moco translates as ‘mucus’. Clairol had to change the name of its curling tongs, the Mist Stick in Germany where it found out (after launching) that Mist means ‘manure’ in German. And Coors’ beer slogan ‘Turn it loose’ became ‘Suffer from diarrhoea’ in Spanish, not exactly an ideal tagline for a drink!

Barf means ‘snow’ in Iran’s native language, Farsi

Although a single word itself may appear fine, there may be a hidden meaning that only a native speaker will spot. When American Airlines launched business class flights to Mexico and wanted to promote its smart new leather seats, it used the phrase ‘Fly in leather’ translated as ‘Vuela en Cuero’. Unfortunately ‘cuero’ is a slang word for ‘naked’ in Spanish. Colloquialisms are another big area for potential problems. One research agency translated the term ‘out of sight out of mind’ which said ‘blind idiot’ in Chinese.

Spotting these nuances ahead of launch saves time, money and embarrassment. European hardware store chain Götzen spotted that in Turkish, ‘göt’ is a (rather more vulgar) word for ‘buttocks’. The company rebranded as Tekzen (Tek means single in Turkish) for this market).

Some tips for researchers approaching international translation

  1. If you are running a multinational research or marketing campaign, think about your house style and branding rules. Don’t assume that basic translation rules are automatically understood by everyone. If your client is the petrochemical company Shell, then translating the brand name into the ‘shell’ found on the beach is probably not a good idea.
  2. Check the bilingual skill level of your fieldwork partners. Your contact might have good written English but poor spoken skills, so a telephone debrief to a client could be a potential disaster.
  3. A clearly defined translation approval process is a key factor for success. Many research agencies waste masses of time, money and annoy their clients because they have failed to think through how they will agree the final translation.
  4. Ensure that the Tone of Voice varies appropriately across different channels and segments. A large retail shift using mobile channel is currently underway, research tools will follow shortly but don’t assume that the same language rules will apply as before.
  5. Business jargon falls in and out of fashion, pay attention to new language and terminology. Should you translate the words “server” and “hosting” into Polish or keep the terms in English? In Social Media, as in other segments, a new web-based language is #takingover.
  6. Take advantage of the new cloud-based language processing technology. Outsource translation memory software for consistency and cost savings but make sure you retain the IP rights for the language memory file.


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Written by Matt Train
Matt Train
Matt Train is Operations Director at TranslateMedia - responsible for working with clients and system integration partners to advise, plan, and deliver multilingual digital content for international brands and content publishers.

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