Overcoming the Obstacles of Translating Your Marketing Content for International Customers

by Adam Helweh |
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The premise is quite simple. Make more money by selling more products to more customers. One of the best ways for brands to reach more customers is to reach beyond borders and across seas to introduce themselves to international audiences. The internet has made the world a more flat place. Anything that can be viewed or distributed online is available to anybody with an internet connection, anywhere in the world.

If your marketing content is doing it’s job, it is probably attempting to create an emotional connection with your customers. You pull together catchy phrases and thoughtful sentences designed to invoke good feelings in the hearts of all who read it. Problem is, much of that “feeling” gets muddled when translated for international markets. The words mean little if the intent behind them is “lost in translation.”

Val Swisher is the founder and CEO of Content Rules, Inc., a company that specializes in creating a variety of content and optimizing content for translation. Her experience working with companies such as Apple, Google and PayPal over the last 16 years has taught her a thing or two about preparing written marketing content for non-English speaking audiences.

“Companies who really want to make it are going to have to go outside of U.S. borders with their products,” she said. “Because of the sophistication of technology it is no longer acceptable to ship all your content in English. You have to have your content in the language of the country. If companies want to reach more markets they need to spend less money on each individual market.”

She is referring to the fact that over the last year, $30 billion was spent in the U.S. alone on translation services. Much of this money is being spent fixing issues that could have been avoided by companies better preparing their content for global audiences. The real cost translating content is not quantified by only counting the number of words in your document. The total cost also includes how many iterations it takes the translator to preserve the intended meaning of content. Too many review cycles back and forth is not just a pain in the neck for the author of the content and the in-country reviewers, but it also gets costly. Rather than waste money translating content that is not global ready, why not think ahead, optimize your content for the global marketplace, and invest the money you save into other markets?

Val shared some of the most common issues that companies run into and how to be better prepared when it is time to go global with your marketing content with me. And now, I share them with you!

Common translation problems and how to avoid them:

Idiomatic Expressions Don’t Translate

There are tons of English phrases that invoke images in our minds and stir up emotion. You might not “bat an eyelid” when including phrases like “Ready, set, go!” and “Hit it out of the ballpark” in your marketing material, but when translated word-for-word they simply do not carry the same meaning. You will find your self “grasping at straws” trying to find a suitable replacement when a translator gets ahold of it. Before passing it on to be translated review your content for these idiomatic expressions and try to replace them with something more universally understood. Doing this will keep your potential international customers from “turning a deaf ear” to your brand.

There are thousands of idioms in the English language. Take a gander at this list.

Avoid Long Sentences

Marketing communications in its many forms can be long winded. Keeping things short and sweet is not only great for your English speaking customers, but it also makes it much easier for translators to do their job.

Val says that long sentences are one of the most common problems in marketing content authored by companies. She frequently finds companies writing sentences 35, 50, even 70 words in length. The length of these sentences makes it impossible to translate. It places a great deal of responsibility on the translator to break down what your trying to say without losing the author’s intended meaning. “Rule of thumb, shorter is better”. says Val. She recommends trying to keep your sentences to about 20 words. Take a look at this quick example:

Rather than spending millions of dollars and months of work purchasing and deploying a separate tool, the customer leveraged the power of the Acme platform for rapid, cost-effective results.

This is a 30-word sentence. It is difficult to read and difficult to translate. To simplify, we can split the thought into two sentences:

The customer leveraged the power of the Acme platform for rapid, cost-effective results. They saved the millions of dollars and months of work needed to purchase and deploy a separate tool.

Keep your sentence structure simple

Popular quotes like Star Trek’s famous “To boldly go where no man has gone before.” may seem simple enough to English speaking geeks, but to translate the meaning of this it would likely sound confusing and make little sense in other languages. This kind of issue is a bit harder to spot. Val states that this sentence would be much easier to translate if it started off with “To go boldly…”. Hard to spot, no?

This noun will save you money

We often see sentences like, “This will save you $500!” and, “That resulted in a better night’s sleep.” The sentences sound fine, but without using a noun, you paint yourself into a corner. Many languages use masculine and feminine forms of nouns; without it, you leave the translator with nothing to work with if translating into Spanish, for instance.

To avoid this problem try to always include a noun. The previous sentence “This will save you $500,” would be “This solution will save you $500,” or “This product will save you $500.”

When translation is not enough … transcreate!

It is often the case that translating your written marketing content may not be enough to connect with your audience. When that extra touch is needed companies are often leaning towards something the translation industry is calling “transcreation”. Transcreation is the act of not only translating the words in your marketing, but also changing imagery, layout, colors, etc to fit the cultural expectations and norms.

Val referred me to the online presence of Lush Cosmetics. Rather than send you directly to their website, Lush presents you with about 40 different flags representing not only a language, but also a completely different site. Compare the US site to the Saudi Arabian site to see the difference in not only language, but also visual style. The visual style is tailored to match the cultural expectation of the user. Depending on your product or service, consider that translating the words alone may not be enough.

Doing it better, faster, cheaper

Val believes that the internet and accessibility of digital marketing provides a much lower barrier to entry to brands that want to cross borders to find new customers. She believes this so strongly that after 16 years in the business, she is refocusing much of her energy to help make global readiness services more cost effective and accessible to smaller companies. Recently, Val renamed and re-branded her company (formerly Oak Hill Corporation) to “Content Rules, Inc.” At Content Rules, Val’s team will extend beyond their previous documentation, marketing, and training creation services to also leverage sophisticated software that will greatly reduce translation costs for businesses. Customized for your specific company, this software tackles much of the grunt work (much of which I mentioned above) and allows a translator to add the human touch and emotional impact that makes your marketing shine.

She also reminds businesses that even if you were going to keep your content in English, when you consider these tips and/or work with a company to, it can still greatly improve the effectiveness of your content.  Val adds, “If English is your second language try reading a sentence that’s 65 words long! When you simplify it, you make it easier to ready for those that also speak English around the world.”

Have you had any experience launching a product in a country outside of your own? Share your lessons learned in the comments.

She also reminds businesses that even if you were going to keep your content in English, when you consider these tips and/or work with a partner to focus on these issues, it can still greatly improve the effectiveness of your content. Val adds, “If English is your second language try reading a sentence that’s 65 words long! When you simplify the sentence, you make it easier to ready for those who also speak English around the world.”

Have you had any experience launching a product in a country outside of your own? Share your lessons learned in the comments. You can also contact Val Swisher on Twitter (@Valswisher or @ContentRulesInc) check out her re-branded website at contentrules.com. She also frequently writes about localization, translation, and globalizing your content on her blog.

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About the Author

Adam Helweh

Adam is CEO of Secret Sushi Creative Inc, a strategic design, digital and social media marketing agency. He specializes in the convergence of design and technology to provide businesses with more intelligent and interactive ways to connect with customers and grow. His clients have included Edelman, Broadcom, Stanford Federal Credit Union, the Thomas Keller Restaurant Group, Bunchball and others. He's also the co-host of the "SoLoMo Show", a weekly digital marketing podcast, and he has shared the stage with professionals from companies including Facebook, Virgin Airlines, Paypal, Dell and 24 Hour Fitness.