How do I say?
“Jolly Green Giant” sounds like a good guy to know, doesn’t he?
For years he’s been encouraging kids to eat their greens. He smiles from shop shelves, sporting leafy togas on tins of sweetcorn.
But when his title was translated to Arabic, our gentle giant’s persona changed.
His alter-ego “Intimidating Green Monster” was born. Broccoli’s version of the bogey man.
It’s not one for nutritional negotiations with toddlers, let’s be honest.
But this change in image wasn’t intentional scaremongering by Green Giant. It was bad translation. Which is why we need to prioritise sensitive localisation over direct translation.
Localisation isn’t just about picking up words and putting them down in another language. It’s about making messages, products and services translate sensitively to specific markets. Considerations might be geographic, linguistic, cultural, historical, or even political. It’s a job for experts who can do more than simply translate.
To set us on the right track, we’ve gathered ten lessons in localisation from cautionary tales.
Clunky translation spreads fast.
When President Carter travelled to Poland his interpreter went a bit rogue. As Carter said “when I left the US”, his interpreter voiced “when I abandoned the United States”. Not exactly reassuring sentiments from a President. The media, meanwhile, had a party.
Carter’s interpreter was perhaps just a bit rusty on his Polish. It’s worth investing in the right experts.
Manufacturer Ford once tried to market their Pinto car in Brazil. The American pinto bean reference was totally lost. That’s because Brazilian Portuguese defines pinto as ‘tiny male genitals’. It doesn’t scream “get in the car” does it?
When localising content, it’s wise to use a writer who still lives in the place. They’ll know the latest lingo, as well as how the language has developed over time.
3) Cultural Narrative
When Procter & Gamble started selling nappies in Japan, their packaging featured an image of a stork delivering a baby. Unfortunately, this didn’t land. In Japanese folklore, it’s giant floating peaches which deliver babies. As a result, the image of a bird carrying small children away was probably more alarming than nostalgic.
If our brand message uses a famous reference, we should check it’s actually famous.
Tying religion into content is tricky. It should be a tiny bit relevant and appropriate.
Ignoring this entirely, one company promoted meat consumption using an image of a vegetarian Hindu god.
The lesson? Religion shouldn’t be ignored or avoided in localisation, but good god don’t use it in vain.
Flags crop up everywhere, and they carry a lot of political weight.
When the US military distributed footballs with flags on them all over the Middle East, they missed a trick with Saudi Arabia’s ball. The Saudi flag features the Quran holy text. The idea of footballers kicking this image around caused huge uproar.
Meanwhile, some countries don’t consider it ‘right’ to brandish their flag. Before using a national symbol to appeal to a population or market, we’ve got to understand the psychology behind them.
6) Pop Culture
Even if a word doesn’t officially exist in another language, it could still mean something.
Colgate innocently launched a toothpaste in France called “Cue”. This also happened to be the name of a French pornographic magazine.
All ears to the ground people. Effective localisation requires us to know a culture’s somethings.
Frank Perdue created the tag line “it takes a tough man to make a tender chicken”
In Spanish this translated to “it takes a sexually stimulated man to make a chicken affectionate”
That’s a code red curveball right there. But looking at the wording, we can see how it happened.
Localisation isn’t about black and white translation but knowing when grey areas get weird.
Without giving Ford too much of a battering, we can learn from another of their translation hiccoughs.
In trying to boast that ‘every car has a high-quality body’ in Belgium, they said;
‘Every car has a high-quality corpse’.
A corpse is probably THE worst by-product a motor vehicle can offer. It’s wise to be hyper-alert to sensitive connotations in specific industries. The automotive industry probably shouldn’t direct consumers’ brains to a car crash.
9) Consumer trends
Localisation is also about knowing how a market receives your message. Sometimes that means forgetting words altogether.
Gerber marketed baby food in Africa with a cute baby on the label. In Ethiopia pictures on labels usually indicate what’s inside the packaging, as lots of consumers can’t read. There’s no point getting the wording right if people think you’re selling powdered baby.
10) Gender tropes
For many countries it’s still taboo for women to discuss certain topics. Take the sanitary product industry. In the west there’s a push to celebrate femininity and speak frankly about menstruation. But in other cultures, ‘on the nose’ language could alienate the female audience. Localising means knowing when to dress things up or down with words.
Overall…what’s the craic?
The line between smooth localisation and a translation disaster is thin, but it can easily be overcome. If you’re working with a partner who is charging translation by the word, it might be time to change up. Cultural localisation isn’t about mirroring word for word. It’s about reflecting messages in nuanced and sensitive ways. Whoever went wrong by consulting a local?
Our local writers are bursting to share their know-how with you. All you need to do is ask.