Marketing when you don’t speak the language: How to make translation work for you

Written by on 28th March 2019

The digital age is increasingly connecting the wider global community, making it easier than ever before for organizations to expand their operations and conduct business across international borders. An increase in purchasing power in regions where English isn’t the primary language has created a vast new audience to market goods and services to. But what if you don’t speak the language of your target market? Where should a business begin when it comes to marketing in a foreign language?

Setting up shop overseas isn’t as simple as creating a marketing campaign that is merely a translated version of one that has worked in the original language. To develop a strong presence in other countries, your approach must be localized for each target audience, based on their culture, values, beliefs, and more. This means that you will need local expertise from marketing translation services and someone familiar with the region you plan to do business in. In some cases, your campaign may require major changes, where logos, taglines, and even brand names are given an overhaul in order to adapt to a new culture. In this article, we will discuss how this can be accomplished by utilizing the services of a professional translator or language services agency.

Choosing A Translator

While it may be tempting to use in-house bilingual employees to work on your project, unless they have a marketing background and strong localization skills, it is best to leave it to a professional translator. And no matter who you choose, they should have in-depth knowledge of the native tongue, as well as be living (or have lived) within the region you are targeting. This way they will understand specific nuances that will make your translation relevant to your audience.

Your choice will depend on a few factors. If your content is being translated for just one market, you might be able to choose a freelance translator for the project. But if your project involves a marketing campaign in multiple languages simultaneously, the services of a professional translation agency will help everything run smoothly.

Because consumers are more likely to make a purchase when the product is marketed in their native language, a variety of translation strategies will need to be employed to customize your message. Successful marketing often relies upon evoking emotion in your potential customer. For this to happen, the individual providing the translation services should have an intimate understanding of the culture and habits of the target audience in order to create relevant content.

Understand Localization

Many times, a direct translation cannot be rendered word-for-word without losing its impact. To achieve a precise translation, the meaning must be accurately conveyed in the target language, something that requires an intimate knowledge of what will appeal to your potential clients’ cultural expectations. This will require localization services that can help with both cultural content and functional content.

Cultural content includes elements that might otherwise be overlooked in a direct translation, such as the beliefs, etiquette, symbolism, traditions and even the way in which humor is conveyed in each culture. Additionally, the use of images and graphics may need to be adjusted to ensure that the content is appropriate to the culture.

Functional content refers to practical aspects like the translation of time and date formats, addresses, phone numbers, measurements, and weights. Currency and payment methods should also be considered.

When Transcreation Is Necessary

At times, a professional translator needs to go a step beyond translation and localization so that the marketing content not only caters to cultural differences but is adapted in an entirely new way. This process is called “transcreation” and may be necessary to avoid disastrous public relations situations.

For example, in the 1970s, Pampers (a famous diaper company), ran a successful campaign depicting an image of a stork. People in Western cultures are familiar with the old myth of storks delivering babies. However, when the company launched the same campaign in Japan, it fell flat. If they had relied on the services of a professional transcreation expert, as well as undertaking the translation of their campaign, Pampers would have known that the Japanese public would not relate to the image at all. In Japan, babies are delivered on giant floating peaches, rather than by stork.

Pepsi provides us with a happier example. The company renamed its entire brand in Argentina, after discovering that Spanish speakers there had difficulty pronouncing the “p” in the middle of the word. After they began marketing it with the new name, “Pecsi,” they saw a marked increase in sales and brand recognition. Understanding that people were less apt to purchase a product they could not pronounce well in their native tongue is a perfect example of how transcreation professionals can help make or break the introduction of your brand into a foreign market, by going well beyond standard translation services. Such changes can help you avoid a potentially embarrassing situation, or worse, a loss of revenue and reputation.  

It is important to note that not every translation company employs transcreation specialists, so if you need transcreation services, make sure that the company you hire offers them. A multilingual marketing campaign isn’t just about translating your materials and website from one language to another. It involves looking at your products in an entirely new way, though the eyes of a different culture, and using fresh and innovative approaches to capture the attention of your potential audience.


Louise Taylor is head of content at Tomedes, a language services company providing translation services – including extensive marketing translation services – to clients all over the world. Louise is multilingual and has been fascinated by languages from a young age.