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Why Modern Advertising Should Consider Translations within a Cultural Context

Why Modern Advertising Should Consider Translations within a Cultural Context
on June, 05 2013

Advertisements that are effective are those that achieve their purpose by catching people’s attention. These are the slogans and catchphrases that trigger something in the mind of the person reading or listening to it. A catchy phrase or a vivid picture would make a customer remember something associated to the product. And that is how advertising keeps the memory of the product alive in the mind of potential customers. That’s how advertising works and why it is a multi-billion dollar industry.

Marketing a certain product in another country often entails translation of an existing advertisement text to that country’s native tongue. If there are many languages spoken by the current population, the translation would usually be in the official language. In China for example, there are more than 50 dialects spoken. But the official language is Mandarin and this is what is used when people from different regions communicate with each other. That is what advertisement translators choose as the target language.

Unfortunately, not all slogans and one-liners are translated properly, or with a cultural context. When this happens, it is not only the impact of the message that is lost. More often than not, the advertisement becomes an object of mockery and in the worst cases, cause to offend certain cultural sensibilities. The good reputation of the company could be lost forever as well.

Translation of text in a cultural context

Translation does not stop at identifying the target language. When translating any text, it is important to consider that language and culture are intimately intertwined. There are those who say that keeping the cultural concepts and names with the purpose of initiating the readers may cause problems and limit comprehension. For these people, the most accurate among the existing translation methods highlights the message and not the cultural aspect. A number of linguistics experts agree that cultural differences could prove to be a more complicated challenge for translators than innate differences in language structure. But that does not mean that the better way is the easier way.

Avoid being lost in (the quagmire of) translation

Culture is powerful and important and this is the reason why international communication should take into consideration existing cultural incompatibilities. This is why translators must keep cultural practices in mind when they translate even a slogan of a few words. Translation mistakes can cause a great deal of damage to a company or a person’s credibility. Though there are those who do not entirely agree, language is and should be considered an integral part of culture. Therefore, translations must be understood in a cultural context.

A world of difference

The world where we live in has a finite set of physical dimensions (the ones we perceive at least) but the diversity of cultures that thrives on this planet is amazing to behold. The many different ways that different cultures look at one particular thing is a testament of how far apart people are when it comes to language and culture despite many common genetic and physical traits.

Take for example the Zuni Native Americans who speak a language that has managed to remain intact for 7,000 years and has no known relationship to any other. They have assigned only one word to refer to both the colors orange and yellow. It does not mean they are limited, for their culture is rich and they have been farming at their current location for at least 3,000 years. It does not also mean that they do not see the obvious difference between the two. It’s just that for them, the difference is irrelevant to their lives.

Cross-cultural business communications

Attention to detail is important in business transactions, especially when this occurs in another country and involves a culture that is foreign to one’s own. Translation mistakes are common and they may be funny, but when it comes to business transactions, it only means that the effort given to communicate was half-hearted. Google turns up an interesting volume of funny anecdotes related to the search phrase, “lost in translation.” But they are only funny because they happened to other people. If your career and reputation is on the line, then it ceases to be funny.

When doing business in Japan, for example, foreigners are often confused when they see a nod and hear a “hai” even when it is known that there is disagreement on the table. A lot of confusion could have been avoided if only the people on the other side of the table realize that “hai” is equivalent to “I am listening,” or “I understand,” and not necessarily “I agree” as many foreigners surmise.

Mistakes in translation create bad associations with a product. There are times when one wrong word is used, which often happens when specialized terms are involved and the only translation help that was sought was a general dictionary. It becomes more complicated when the language concerned has a number of regional variations and dialects. In this world we live in, regional variation happens to be the norm.


A Swiss restaurant menu states, “Our wines leave you nothing to hope for.” A cocktail lounge in Norway says, “Ladies are requested to not have children in the bar.” Mist Stick curling iron by Clairol was promoted in Germany with the promoters unaware that “mist” is German slang for “manure.” It’s fortunate that a weight loss pill named “Tegro” was not marketed in France because it sounds a lot like how the French say “You’re fat.”

These and many others are just a few reasons why literal translation is almost always not enough, and in certain cases inappropriate. Literal translations also fail in conveying the emotions and feelings that the original message manages to do so effectively. Big multi-national companies that have years of experience with cross-cultural transactions and advertising have learned through the years how to translate to the target language such that the message is conveyed with the same impact and effectiveness as the original language.

Bernadine Racoma

Bernadine is a writer, researcher, professional and multi-awarded blogger and new media consultant. She brings with her a rich set of experience in the corporate world, as well as in the field of research and writing. Having taken early retirement after working as an international civil servant and traveling the world for 22 years, she has aggressively pursued her main interest in writing and research. You can also find Bernadine Racoma at .

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