Copywriting: A Minefield of Horrid Translations

It is difficult enough to write good copy in one’s own language.

The first struggle is combining the commercial mindset with the creative mindset. Stereotypes teach us that commercial employees are down-to-earth and practical, they know what is in vogue and they know what works, they want results and they want them yesterday! And this kind of  go-getter momentum comes crashing into the crushing bore that is the creatives’ stereotype: brooding, humorless hipsters, wishing they were writing the graffiti of the next leftist revolution instead. I say, “Viva Verdi!” as long as he’s selling out theaters.

Once you are through with that struggle, you probably end up with a catch phrase laden with cultural reference and regional jargon. What sounds good in Detroit, may sound silly in South Shields, and absolutely ridiculous in Dortmund.

Take for example the way American businesses always claim to be their products, as in “We are trucking,” or the slightly tweaked “Toys “R” Us.” That sounds O.K. in English, but using object complements to advertise in other languages can sound as ridiculous as John F. Kennedy claiming to the German people that he was in fact not a man, but rather a jelly doughnut: “Ich bin ein Berliner.” A bakery claiming to be jelly doughnuts sounds equally ridiculous to a German.

Unfortunately, I cannot think of an example of universally appealing copywriting. Shakespeare was translated into just about every language and so was The Little Prince. Both of those pieces of writing are considered hip and cool the world over. Is it possible to achieve the same in a bite-size format?

I think the best example of how good taste can be universal is found in the film Babette’s Feast, in which  a flamboyant French woman convinces a staunchly puritanical nordic community to try a top notch French banquet. Everyone is ecstatic following the meal although their sitting down to it took some convincing. But what she had to do to earn their trust was live among them and adopt some of their way of life.

If we apply the same concept to localization, we soon realize that it is not enough to take a catchphrase, no matter how effective it may be, from one language to the next, as is done with a simple translation. That phrase has to live within a specific language and culture in order to learn what makes its speakers tick. This process is called “transcreation,” and it is something we have mentioned before in this blog. You can read that post by clicking here.

Translation agencies not only hold the key to communicating abroad, but can also provide the local knowledge necessary to make copywriting work anywhere. Of course, costs are different from mere translation, as this is a process that involves more time and resources. Our agency explains the difference here.

At any rate, you will still find some global brands that choose to use their English copywriting the world over. This may in fact be the most effective way for them to advertise. Others may opt for a simple service, translating the meaning of their copywriting, paying little mind to their effectiveness in marketing. And others may opt for transcreation, creating a brand new image bespoke for a specific market.

Whatever their choice may be, what is most important is that companies have a clear idea of what they wish to do with their copywriting. Translation agencies are ready to share their expert advice.