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How to Write for a Multilingual Marketplace (Part 2)

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In the first part of this article, we looked at how to get over the problems of language length—and, when you're writing for multiple translations, how you need to keep your original very simple and basic.

We've all heard the jokes about embarrassing translations in the marcom arena—e.g., the following edited from a list of supposedly true stories:

  • The Dairy Association's huge success with the campaign "Got Milk?" prompted it to expand advertising to Mexico. Unfortunately, the Spanish translation read, "Are you lactating?"

  • Scandinavian vacuum manufacturer Electrolux used the following in an American campaign: "Nothing sucks like Electrolux."

  • Clairol introduced the "Mist Stick," a curling iron, into Germany only to find out that "mist" is slang for manure. Not too many people had a use for the manure stick.

  • Colgate introduced a toothpaste in France called Cue, the name of a notorious porno magazine.

  • Coors put its slogan "Turn it loose" into Spanish, and it was interpreted as "Suffer from diarrhea."

And so on. Whether these are true is debatable. But the awful thing is, they could happen for real. And if I were responsible for a hefty international marketing or ad budget, examples such as these would wipe the smile right off my face.

Ad Copy and Brand Names: Only By the Experts, Please

There are some lessons to learn here about writing for branding and ad copy in multiple languages:

  1. Get the homework and background research done by marcom experts in every language market you're going to. One Spanish-speaking country will have words and interpretations that are different from another. Brazilian Portuguese is different from the Portuguese in Portugal. Parisian French is slightly different from Belgian French and Swiss French and Québécois French. And that's before we even get started on languages in the Middle East, Africa, Asia and beyond.

  2. Make sure that your translations are done not just by translation experts in each language but by translation experts who understand how to write ad copy. Insist on this when you hire the translation agency. They may think it's OK to use a native-speaker journalist or other professional writer who isn't a trained copywriter. That's not good enough if you want to get bang for your buck in the foreign ad spend.

  3. It's impossible to judge the quality of translations into languages you don't speak, so get them double-checked by an appropriate native speaker. Don't leave it to the translation agency; play it safe. Preferably, get a native-speaker copywriter (perhaps from the local ad agency?) to run through it and tighten it up if necessary.


Humor: Some Works, Some Doesn'tt

Humor can be a hot potato because what is hysterical in one country could be deeply offensive in another. However, here a couple of tips for humor that should work internationally.

Use humor about situations, not people. Obviously, most humor is going to involve people in one way or another. But as long as the butt of the joke is a situation or set of circumstances, not people, you're far more likely to get a laugh whatever the language. For example:

Some people are driving along at night and are stopped by a police car. The officer warns the driver that one of the rear lights isn't working. The driver jumps out and looks terribly upset. The officer reassures him that it's just a warning, so there's no problem. "Oh yes there is a problem," says the man as he rushes toward the back of the car, "if you could see my rear lights it means I've lost my trailer."

The butt of the joke is the broken rear light and the loss of the trailer, not the policeman or the driver, so no one can be offended. And most people can identify with how that would feel.

Play on the concept, not the words. Wordplays just don't work from one language to another. However, if the play or double entendre is in the concept rather than the words, it probably will work.

For example, a couple of wordplays in English that wouldn't translate easily, if at all:

  • Deja-moo: The feeling that you've heard this bull before.

  • The two most common elements in the universe are hydrogen and stupidity.

These, however, probably would translate because the humor is in the concept, not in the words themselves:

  • You don't stop laughing because you grow old. You grow old because you stop laughing.

  • The trouble with doing something right the first time is that nobody appreciates how difficult it was.

Hope that helps next time you need to write something for translation. Bonne chance!


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Suzan St Maur (www.suzanstmaur.com) writes extensively on marketing and business communications and is the author of the widely acclaimed Powerwriting.

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