The power of authenticity

Translation isn’t about words; it’s about ideas

Nothing can crush the life out of a good turn of phrase more predictably than translating it word for word into another language. Google Translate correctly renders the Spanish “levanter la liebre,” as “to lift the hare”; but that mechanical translation offers the native English speaker no hint of sense. A more skilled translator will recognize the phrase and the meaning behind it, and find the appropriate corollary in English: to let the cat out of the bag.

Addressing stakeholders in multiple languages is a fact of business life today. Yet translating key materials – around the launch of a website, a new product or a shift in strategy – is often treated as an afterthought. Sometimes that can result in severe consequences for a company’s reputation and revenue.

Beyond just getting the words right, any message needs to resonate with its target audience. That only comes through fluency and an understanding of the local culture. The last thing a company wants to demonstrate is a lack of commitment to stakeholders in a given region – a sloppy translation practically guarantees that negative message.

In China, this problem is as difficult as it is pressing. The activity of the nation’s businesses in overseas markets and their exposure to stakeholders in other languages grows each year. Meanwhile, more countries are doing business in China and finding the challenges of Chinese daunting.

A quick internet search on “bad translations” reveals some impressive fails: Chinese audiences read the slogan “Come alive with Pepsi!” as “Pepsi bring your ancestors back from the dead!” KFC’s hugely successful motto, “Finger-lickin’ good” became the unfortunate, “We’ll eat your fingers off” – not the best way to get native Chinese customers in the door.

Traditionally, English sentences tend to be longer and more descriptive, while Chinese sentences are more focused on the overall meaning of the sentence and tend to be shorter. But the complications go deeper than grammatical mechanics or the difficulty of interpreting Chinese characters as English words. Companies must also ensure the right Chinese is being used to avoid embarrassment and reputational damage locally.

Chinese companies often take a formal approach, using Communist Party-inspired language. While that makes sense for a domestic audience, it can alienate stakeholders abroad.

On the other hand, foreign companies operating in China must adopt a tone and choice of words (or characters) that connect with local audiences naturally and authentically. In both cases, it’s all about understanding and meeting stakeholder expectations.

Many organizations prepare materials in their headquarter’s home language and then translate those materials for a local market. This process may help with internal alignment and approval, but it typically results in language that lacks authenticity in the native language and reduces resonance and impact. In its worst case it can alienate.

Testing content with your local stakeholders is key. It’s also important to remember that languages evolve, and trends can give the most innocent expression a sinister twist. This makes the need for local, on-the-ground feedback and expertise even more important.

Outsourcing translation can help. However, people familiar with the company’s tone and style, as well as industry related jargon, can add far more value, and help capture the right message in authentic language.

Asking employees for their input and ideas on language invites them to be part of the process. This type of engagement builds internal awareness and pride, and ensures tag lines and product names work for the local audience.

A more robust approach to translation can help businesses avoid embarrassing situations and misunderstandings. But even more, it can allow companies to transform words into the appropriate tools that they can use to connect with their local audiences.

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