To Translate Or Not to Translate, That is the Nagging Problem!

12 Aug 2004|Felipe Korzenny

It is instinctive and natural but at the same time naïve for many marketers to assume that translating marketing communications is the course of action when approaching the US Hispanic market. Several faulty premises contribute to this line of reasoning:

1. Language is the main issue when communicating with Hispanics
2. Language can be separated from culture because language is a self contained system
3. Translation is just a process of turning terms and sentences from one language into another

As is the case with all marketing problems a large part of the strategy has to do with understanding the target. The Spanish language may be the right language to communicate with specific and important segments of the Hispanic population. That decision has to be made based on accurate information about the language preferences of decision makers, influencers, etc. Assuming that a marketer has determined that s/he needs to address his/her Hispanic audience in Spanish, then s/he needs to clarify the issues above.

1. As with many marketing communications, language may be important but usually the context and symbolism are likely to have much more importance than whether the communication is in one language or the other. What matters most is that the message touches the emotional cords of the consumer. A message in very “good” Spanish that does not reach the heart of the consumer is likely to fail. The first consideration must always be: “is the message relevant to the consumer?” Clearly, the language will play an important role, but never as important as the core of the idea. Why emphasize this? Because many times marketers spend more time thinking about translating a message than on the nature of the message itself.

2. Language, unfortunately, cannot be separated from culture. Language is part of the heritage of each culture. Language is part of the living core of cultures. The tools humans use for survival and prosperity characterize their cultures. Language is one of these most important tools. Languages enable communication and communication is the lubricant of society. But languages are inextricably linked to the heritage and experience of the culture. A language without its culture is literally meaningless, as meaningless as someone learning a language by means of repetition alone. Asking for text to be translated in marketing communications is equivalent to asking if one could make Mexican goulash or Peruvian chow-mien. As if the food had nothing to do with its culture of origin.

3. Good translation is very difficult to achieve. Cultural adaptation or trans-creation are processes more likely to succeed in conveying meaning. As language and culture are inseparable, ideas need to be thought out from scratch in the target language (Spanish). Better yet is to start from consumer insights with Hispanics because these will provide meaningfulness to the communications.

Given these consideration it should be clear, then, that not all materials need to be “translated” or even culturally adapted. A technical manual is more likely to be understandable in English because most technical personnel have been trained in English. The decision, again, should be based on the nature of the audience.

If one’s target is that of Spanish dominant women who do the cooking for the home, then many materials should be available in Spanish, including: POP materials, packaging, advertising, promotions, etc. But the financial annual corporate report does not need to be in Spanish because these consumers are not the audience for it.

In many cases the marketer will benefit from having bilingual communications. That is particularly true when the decision making unit is the family. The family is usually composed of people with different degrees of proficiency in Spanish and in English. When the family gets together to discuss what electronic equipment to buy for the living room, or what car to buy for the family, the communications ought to be consistent but in two languages. The key message, however, needs to be consumer based and consequently culturally relevant for most, if not all,the targeted individuals. The moral of the story is: “Let your consumers do the driving.”

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