Why your translator and your communications specialist need to know the culture of your target group

Imagine you’re selling a product via your online shop. Sales figures as well as customer reviews and media articles attest to the popularity of your product. With this success you decide to offer your product on the German market. After overcoming all hurdles such as local safety and customs requirements, you market your product online to your German target audience. Unfortunately, the success in the domestic market is not replicated abroad although your product meets the needs of your target group overseas. You find out after the fact that the term which your product was marketed under online and in press releases was an inadequate translation from English into German. You (or your PR agency) had enlisted a translation firm in the U.S. with the translation of your marketing texts and press releases. Although all German texts were correct in spelling, punctuation, and grammar, the translator did obviously not have in-depth knowledge of the German culture and market, including your target group and the products of your German competitors who know to use the correct and common terms in the marketing of their products.

There are numerous examples for the incorrect use of words or unfortunate product names in foreign markets. Be it the popular example of the Chevy Nova, which General Motors brought to the Latin American market with the same name, much to the amusement of many Spanish native speakers: “no va” means “doesn’t go” in Spanish. Or the American company Clairol, which brought its “Mist Stick” to the German market, only to find out—after the fact—that in German this translates as “manure stick.”

When it doesn’t quite sound right, it’s not professional

Even more prevalent—even though less grave than incorrect terms or names for products—are translations from one language into another that may be understandable but not authentic in the target language.

For example, a US-American oil and gas company is encouraging job candidates on its German website to “discover opportunities to take your career to a new level”: “Entdecken Sie Ihre Chancen, Ihre Karriere auf eine neue Ebene zu bringen.” And, you’ll find the company’s contact information under the question “How can we help you?” – “Wie können wir Ihnen helfen?” A comparison with the company’s American website confirms that the German wording is a close translation of the original English wording. While correct and understandable, in authentic German you don’t take your career to a new level. You advance it. The American marketing firm Epsilon got it right on its German website: “Bringen Sie Ihre Karriere voran”—“Advance your career.”

Wait, what—Levi’s says to live naked?

Advertising products with English slogans or taglines has been a popular practice by American and even by some German companies. However, a 2016 study of the German naming agency Endmark revealed that 64 percent of Germans don’t understand English slogans or taglines. For example, most Germans who were asked to explain the YouTube slogan “Broadcast Yourself” came up with translations such as “make your own bread box” or “feed yourself.” The Levi’s slogan “live unbuttoned” was interpreted by Germans as encouragement to “live without buttons,” “live on a button,” or “live naked.” And the tagline “Come in and find out” by the German beauty retailer Douglas was thought to tell customers to “come in, then find your way back out.”

Hence, in marketing for a foreign market, localization is key: the foreign language text offers at least the same essential information as the English text but is reworded to sound authentic in the local market, ensuring it is on par with the marketing of local competitors and it speaks to the local target audience. Slogans or taglines should be translated so that locals understand them, while reflecting the message of the original English wording.

Tailoring texts correctly and effectively for a target group abroad requires in-depth and current knowledge of the respective culture as well practice in content or copy writing.

Not localizing may have legal consequences

However, not only marketing requires localization. We were enlisted by one of our clients—a company with headquarters in Germany—to edit a job posting that had been translated from German into English by a translator in Germany. The client was looking to fill a position at its U.S. office, and the posting was going to be published in some media in the U.S. The text stated at the end (in correct English) that applicants with disabilities, if equally qualified, would be given preferential consideration. While this practice and statement is legal in Germany, it is against the law in the U.S. When we brought this to our client’s attention, he decided to leave out the respective sentence in the job posting. Publishing the ad with this statement could have had negative legal consequences or resulted in bad publicity for our client (or both). The German translator was very likely either not aware of the legal differences between Germany and the U.S. or translated the sentence because (s)he was tasked with a translation, not a localization.

By the same token, if a job posting is translated into German from another language for the German market, it is equally important to be familiar with German conventions and include such a sentence if doing so is beneficial or, let alone, the norm.

It comes to show that in areas other than marketing simply translating texts may not suffice, but a skilled localization may be necessary.

Why sometimes even (simple) emails shouldn’t be translated (but rather localized)

Corporate communications are designed to reach individuals or organizations relevant to a business—existing and prospective customers, suppliers, donors, employees, job candidates, industry organizations, and the community—and, consequently, need to be tailored for each purpose and recipient. In the example of a German company, an annual customer satisfaction survey was emailed via link in German to its German customers and in English to numerous international customers, including those in the U.S. The survey was introduced by an email letter, requesting recipients to participate in the survey. The original text had been composed in German, then translated into English by one of the company’s employees. The email explained that based on the responses in the survey, the client was going to improve its products and services for its customers. It went on to state in detail that the survey was conducted and evaluated by an external service provider, that the responses would be anonymous, not allowing the client to trace them back to the individual and explaining the method used to analyze and evaluate the responses.

Our client was faced with the challenge of low participation in the survey in previous years, especially by its international customers. We recommended that the email text be shortened at least for the client’s American customers. While the details included were certainly appropriate for German recipients, managers and executives in the U.S. typically like it “short and sweet.” With all the work to be completed in a day and deadlines to be met, tasks need to be prioritized with no room for detailed explanations about the methods of analysis of a customer survey. Instead, the focus should be on a concise and effective message explaining the benefit for customers of participating in the survey. The key question for the American recipient is, “Is this worth my time and effort?” With the client’s permission, we localized the email text for American customers, replacing details about the anonymity and analysis of the survey with a brief statement that the survey was anonymous and conducted by an external provider. The contact information for one of the client’s employees was provided for questions or more information about the survey.

Vice versa, similar communication created for and in the U.S. would need to be localized for foreign markets. In the example of our client’s annual customer satisfaction survey, providing information about how the responses are collected, analyzed, and kept anonymous, conveys professionalism, credibility, and trustworthiness to Germans and people from some other cultures. By comparison, Germans oftentimes include and exchange more information and details in communication (from the get-go)—including in presentations and meetings—than Americans.

Find translators who know how to localize—and give them permission to do so

In summary, communication needs to be tailored to the different conventions and cultures in other countries, be it for marketing, product descriptions or names, job postings, or corporate communication. With this awareness, translators, writers, or communication specialists should be enlisted who don’t only master the target language but who also possess in-depth and current knowledge of the respective culture.

The enlisted professional should then be given express permission to be as creative as necessary with the communication, generating text that is perfectly appropriate for the target audience and, if text has already been created, to not simply translate but to localize if and where necessary.