July 15, 2013

False friends

Posted by Fifth Ring

I recently saw a Dutch advert. It was a big poster of a very cute little girl with a caption saying ‘Mummy, that one, that one, that one!’ At least that was the English translation. In Dutch it was spelt ‘Mama, die, die, die!’ This somewhat disturbing image was a classic example of something that threatens to sink a copywriter as they tentatively paddle out into international waters.

‘False friends’, or ‘faux amis’, are words or phrases with very different meanings, although they look and sound the same. This can be tricky for anyone learning another language, but in the world of international marketing, it has bigger implications. You may have seen foreign products posted on the internet, or sent into a magazine with names that are rude when translated into English. It’s a cheap laugh. Want your business to be one of those?

Unfortunately, double entendres are just the start of an international copywriter’s worries. Part of our job is to fit as much impact and meaning as we can into tiny statements. If we are positioning an international brand, it can take days of research and deliberation to come up with three glorious, sparkling words that encapsulate a business perfectly. Then we could find out that it doesn’t hold the same meaning, or worse, doesn’t even make sense in the other languages our client has to work in.

Moving into an international landscape presents many challenges for a writer. All of a sudden precious linguistic quirks and twists that make the English language so charming to the natives are your enemy. The wonderful word play and subtle witticisms you spent a lifetime weaving into your written word are rendered useless. You’re adrift in international waters and someone has stolen your oars.

However, we mustn’t panic. With the right methods and forethought, we can send our messages across the ocean to arrive anywhere with the same strength and vigour they departed with. We just need to think internationally from the offset. At Fifth Ring BBN, we always consider the following things when writing for international clients.

Meaningful translation

Translation cannot be done word for word. This is common knowledge, and most translation companies will adapt text and change words to get the message across. But therein lies a problem. Once we start doing this, things are open to interpretation. In the past, Fifth Ring BBN has seen different translation companies come back with quite different versions of the same copy. 

Although issues will always arise during translation, you can certainly improve matters. Translation firms may be very good at what they do, but they’re not marketing professionals. What we do isn’t easy. Messages are formed using strategic knowledge of our market and stakeholders. We need people that will consider these same issues locally when translating our work. Only then can we be confident of our message retaining the same meaning and power after adaptation. 

Internationalise your English

Global companies are always translating vast amounts of copy. Huge drop-down lists of language options are now commonplace on websites. Not many businesses will employ a local marketing expert to culturally adapt every bit of text. But if the copy is already written with an international audience in mind, they shouldn’t need to.

Cultural difference is something to be celebrated, but not when writing international copy. You must stringently remove any colloquialisms. Phrases like ‘at the top of our game’, or ‘on the same page’ for instance. Apologies to any of our international readers that don’t understand these expressions, but English is full of these everyday phrases that make little sense to a global audience. Imagine how things like this sound when they come out the other side of a software translation solution. You don’t need to be a language expert to spot things like this, just consider the international implication of phrases or idioms very carefully. 

Research your market

If you’re writing something you know is going to be translated into another language, do a little bit of desk research. A Google search will quickly tell you about major false friends to look out for or common words that don’t translate. For instance, in 11 major languages around the world there is no specific translation for the verb ‘have’. These nations all translate it in different ways, often using several words for this single one. This could be important when trying to keep a piece of copy short and impactful. But the English language is flexible, and it’s easy to avoid even common words like this. To demonstrate, I haven’t used the word have once until this paragraph. You haven’t even missed it, have you? 

Culture your copy

Ever heard people talk about the international language of business? Well the thing about the international language of business is . . . there isn’t one. Different nations have very diverse business cultures, and the tone of their copy reflects that. Some nations expect a firm, even abrupt style and others are much more gentle and polite. You can research local business customs and styles on your own, but talking to a marketer with local experience is better.

Luckily, Fifth Ring BBN is part of an international 22-agency network. This makes it easy for us to get the support we need to carry brands across the water – without them diluting along the way. But what I’ve said is relevant to any marketer or business hoping to export a brand. No-one can assume what they are doing in one country will work in another. International brands need international thinking and local expertise. If someone is marketing your business without this, watch out, they’re a false friend. 

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