5 tips for a cultural adaptation of translations

Marketing departments work hard to produce high quality content, high quality translations, catalogues, websites and content in general to project a quality brand image – an image that engages target markets and boosts loyalty to the brand and, of course, sales. This is in fact related to what we know as Inbound Marketing.  However, it is no secret to any marketeer that website content, and content in general does not fit equally in some markets and some content becomes very popular in some some cultures and regions whereas other content that may seem very relevant to us does not seem to stir any feelings.
The first marketing draft is usually born out of a home market and companies use it to other target markets. The thinking is very simple: “Let’s translate into Chinese and this content can reach 1,5bn Chinese speakers. It is a simple enough methodology
Create Content - Translate - Sell
Excellent!

Here’s the consequences of this traditional translation methodology:

  • can be managed by anyone in the office;
  • little planning required;
  • uncomplicated workflow, some of it can even be translated by colleagues or local agents;
  • lack of communication, and engagement from your audience (damage to brand image);
  • loss your competitive advantage if compared to brands that adapt their content after a cultural audit of a website content.

(By the way, 400 million Chinese do not speak Mandarin, the national language – so the first question from a translation project manager would be “translating into Traditional Chinese or Simplified Chinese?”. Banknotes in China carry 8 languages.)

Therefore, if this has been the way you have produced website content (or content in general) for other markets, think twice. Maybe it was the translators, maybe it wasn’t the way the original was written. Perhaps it was that the content represented your culture and did not attempt to engage and be close to your audience.

A cultural adaptation of translations

A sound cultural audit should always take place prior to translation to avoid different translators applying different solutions. Once the text has been sent to translators, it is too late. A cultural audit will recommend replacing idioms and expressions, local metaphors, humor, imagery, etc. A cultural audit will also identify any general areas of content that should need to be adapted for ANY new market.  However, if you are dealing with content that has been translated already, you should focus in assessing how much of it has been adapted appropriately for the target market. Maybe little needs to be done. Maybe you have to delete several paragraphs and spend several hours or days in adaptation. At the end of the day, this does not mean the translation was wrong, it means that you opted for the traditional translation methodology. In fact, many translation buyers instinctively want an adaptation and expect a cultural audit of their translations…. they just do not say so!

Many experienced translators will contact your Translation Project Manager and say “this does not sound very good in my language”. That is useful feedback. But there is more work to do. In order to carry our a cultural adaption of translations you need bilingual linguists (whether they are , in-country or not is irrelevant, but they must keep up-to-date with current affairs in their language). They must have some experience in buyer behavior and be able to be in the shoes of the target user.
Ideally, these linguists need to have expertise in the industry in question (marketing and advertisement, tourism and travel, retail, film if dealing with subtitling…). They must also have developed a keen attention to detail and notice things like graphics and layout (turning a publication into an Arabic translation means going right-to-left and a whole redesign needs to take place, pictures, bullets, etc). Colors carry different meanings in different cultures: whereas red means life in China and Japan, it is the color of passion, love, energy and excitement in Western cultures.  There is a lot of psychology behind the use of color in marketing content.
Good translators will probably have adapted any local expressions already. Content writers should be aware from the start that very local expressions (cultural references to events happening only in Japan, to soccer if you are a European writer or baseball or American football if you are from the US will not mean anything in other countries).

5 tips for cultural audits

A cultural audit of website content and general content should produce a professional report, with recommendations and actions. These will help you avoid pitfalls in translation, publishing, design, use of pictures on your website and printed materials. It does not matter how much you have spent on translation if you have translated material that does not engage or that it is not relevant.

  1. Some materials are just plainly inappropriate for the target market. They should be recreated from scratch and completely re-written. A brand and style guides should be created for the translator’s reference.
  2. Some marketing materials do not contain a lot highly creative content and many experienced translators and a good translation company can offer localization services without much adaptation.
  3. You will find out the quality of your existing translations and what people are reading on your website. Have you noticed that after translation, some publications do not produce any results in certain countries? A cultural audit of your translations will be able to diagnose if that content is not aligned with your brand and professional linguists will report and recommend on how to improve it.
  4. Spend time preparing the source content for each target market. Maybe you end up with 4 or more adapted sources. That is fine. It is likely that you may not need to translate all your material, so preparation will save you money! Consider a cultural audit as an insurance policy. It is prevention work. Changing translation at a later stage is always more expensive.
  5. Focus on strengths. Write content that will address questions readers find informative. “What is our company’s competitive advantage?” “What keeps clients coming back to us (retention)?” “What would the industry be missing if our brand didn’t exist?”

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