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Lost In Translation: When Should You Translate Marketing Content?

September 16, 2013|Monica Behncke

Marketers often struggle with weighing the costs of translation against the costs of potentially being ignored or misunderstood due to not translating. Here are some key factors in determining whether your organization should translate marketing content or not.

Marketers often struggle with weighing the costs of translation (in time and money) against the costs of potentially being ignored or misunderstood due to not translating.

iStock_000016313570XSmallIn 2010, Hiroshi Mikitani, cofounder and CEO of Internet service company Rakuten, launched a plan that he called Englishnization. He gradually made English the corporate language of his global enterprise, even though the company is based in Japan and has mainly Japanese staff. At the time, some called Mikitani’s plan crazy, but since then, many multinational companies – including Nokia, SAP, Airbus and Renault – adopted a similar policy of using of English as their global language of business.

Given these trends, the question in marketing then becomes, is it OK to market globally in English? English is now the fastest-growing language of all recorded time. One in four people speaks English, and 57 percent of Web content is in English – even though only 27 percent of Web users are considered English speakers. Globally, 67 percent of companies with international presence communicate internally in English.

Translation choices can become emotion-based decisions, involving budget-holders’ beliefs or content champions’ strong will. Looking at other factors can shed additional light when determining whether you should translate content or market in English, and helps to create a repeatable framework of questions for translation decisions. Consider the following:

  1. How international is your target audience? If you are selling to large corporations that use English internally, there is a greater chance that they will accept English in marketing. Municipal governments are much more likely to deal in their local language.
  2. How long is the content shelf life? If you can use content in multiple delivery forms (e.g. post it on your Web site, syndicate it and create a partner enablement tool) over a long period of time, the costs of translation may be reasonable.
  3. Are words and phrases repeated often? Translation memories can reduce the cost of translation when there is a high degree of repetition. Take note, however, that some time and effort needs to go into establishing the translation memory.
  4. Does the copy need to make an emotional connection? Subtle meanings, puns, colloquialisms and humor easily get lost in translation. Local agencies should be involved when a creative hand is needed. Straight facts and data are easier to absorb in a non-native language.
  5. Is there a strong local competitor? If a local competitor is dominant, translation may be necessary just to market on a level playing field
  6. Is the content part of a larger user experience? If an invitation for an offer is sent in a local language, it is advisable to put the offer in the same language. Language consistency improves the user experience.
  7. What is the risk of being somewhat misunderstood? It may be wise to translate a complex concept that is at the heart of a value proposition, when any confusion would risk losing a prospect’s interest. A product spec sheet, in contrast, may be acceptable in your organization’s native language.
  8. Do you have the staff to validate the translation? Paying for a translation is only part of the investment. Using local staff with the expertise to ensure the translation is done correctly is also required.

Monica Behncke

Monica Behncke is Vice President and Group Director of Demand Creation Strategies at SiriusDecisions. She has more than 20 years’ experience in global positions across marketing disciplines ranging from product marketing to field marketing. Follow Monica on Twitter @mbbaustin

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