The pitfalls of bad translation: Funny, rude or downright wrong

I find language absolutely fascinating. Everything from semantics and dialects to slang and idioms, there is always something new to learn – even if you are a native speaker.

Having studied Portuguese and French at university, I got to grips with many different aspects of these particular languages, but one part which I especially enjoyed was good old-fashioned translation. Why? Because it was almost impossible.

Even as a linguist, I’d always thought that translation was one of my strong points. However, when it came to studying translation in a professional context, it became increasingly apparent that translation was far from a walk in the Parc du Champ de Mars.

Put simply, when it comes to translation, the words themselves are only a small part of the challenge. Every word, every sentence that we utter or write fits into a niche – be that semantically, conceptually, socially or otherwise – within a far wider context … which will have its own context in itself. Nothing we say or write exists in complete isolation from the culture in which those words are fulfilling a purpose.

Therefore, attempt to identify that exact same purpose and precise meaning in another culture – especially one that is far removed from the culture of the source language – and convey it with comparable lexicon, and my point becomes clear.

But what does all of this have to do with content marketing?

While English may be the most prevalent language across our beloved worldwide web, it is far from the only one. Combine that with globalisation and the fact that many businesses are spreading their wings and heading for distant shores, and suddenly translation and marketing are meeting in the departure lounge – and they need to understand each other.

Why? Because bad translation can be funny, rude or downright wrong. Most likely, it will be a combination – if not all – of the above.

Perfect translations can still be poo

I had an Italian friend who used to entertain me no end with her translation clangers. Once, we were waiting for a bus that was taking a long time to arrive. “It makes me poo,” she announced to the queue, much to my – and everyone else’s – confusion and amusement. What she wanted to replicate was the Italian expression “mi fa cagare”, said to express frustration or annoyance, rather like we might say something ‘sucks’. In this case, a perfect translation of the words alone could not have landed her more in the poo, quite literally.

Sometimes, muddling up two very similar words – for example, on the large banner I saw in Japan which told me to ‘Marry Christmas’ – could end up having far greater repercussions than anticipated.

While there is nothing more entertaining than coming across amusing signage or questionable descriptions on menus when on holiday, no company wants to be the laughing stock of their sector. Bad translation has the potential to make an absolutely mockery of you and your company – even if the words are, apparently, correctly translated.

Not only can it be funny, but your translation could also end up being really quite rude. A marketing department who does not respect the intricacies of localisation could end up offending prospective partners or clients. The obvious case for this is the numerous languages which distinguish between different forms of ‘you’, depending who an individual is talking to. In English, we only have the one form, but if we do not respect that this is simply not the case with other languages, we might end up causing genuine offence, which is hardly fantastic for drumming up business.

If it’s not funny and it’s not rude, it may just end up being plain wrong. You won’t entertain, you won’t offend but nor will you make any sense whatsoever – and if that’s the case, your content becomes completely worthless.

To read more about the intricacies of cultural transposition and localisation, and about how you can use multicultural content marketing to engage local audiences in the international market, check out our whitepaper on the subject.

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