Lost in Transcreation: the problems with translating for advertising

31 October 2019
By : Jorge De Jesús

Each language has its own peculiarities. In English, one rule of thumb is that ‘I’ goes before ‘E,’ except after ‘C.’ But, what if you heinously seize your weird foreign neighbor’s beige heifer? Aside from stealing your neighbor’s pregnant cow, can you see the problem(s) with that entire sentence? Even though the words are spelled correctly, they each disregard the rule I initially mentioned. That’s only one example of the issues we face when working with the English language. Considering we have the same pronunciation for there, their, and they’re, it’s a miracle we survived grammar in school. The same goes for most other languages, and if that isn’t already enough to digest—imagine translating from one language to another… for an advertising campaign to be seen by millions!

When you work with multicultural markets, you often have to translate a lot of text. Although text translator software programs like Google Translate mean well, things can most certainly go awry if you’re not careful. Sometimes funny things can happen, like translating fall as the season instead of the action. Both words are written the same in English, but in Spanish, we have caída and otoño (which speaks more to Autumn). Another common mistake is thinking you can cap an English word with an A or an O to get the Spanish word, but you should know that’s far from correct… o.


In this example, “Exit Only” got translated to “Success Here.” There’s art and nuance to a proper translation and a lot of people don’t see the value in that, which is why they miss out on opportunities with Hispanic Markets. Given the example, we’re not talking about this happening to only small companies. This can happen to any size of business. All you need is one person to overlook the proper translation or forget to double check. Translation problems and shortcomings are actually quite common and happen for a variety of reasons. Maybe the person in charge of the translation was rushed; maybe they weren’t sure how to translate something and blindly trusted in a program; or maybe there wasn’t even a person assigned to translate the text because A.I. is so advanced they didn’t feel the need to involve a human. Before you get overwhelmed with all the translation problems that exist, let’s address how to avoid these issues with some solutions (and if you need help from people who do this on a daily basis, you can always call us).


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funny translations from english to espanish blog post pm3 agency word translation problems


Here’s the truth

Every language and category have their translation challenges. What’s more, when you deal with translating to Spanish, you have to validate content with people from different countries, because one word that could mean bug for most countries, could actually mean – well – something that isn’t a bug for other countries. There are also things that simply do not translate, humor being one of them, and colloquialisms are in a world of their own. You see, there’s a difference between something being lost in translation and something just being poorly translated. That’s where expertise plays a key role in ensuring that what the client wants to say is what is being said in communication pieces. It’s also what will dictate whether you opt for a translation, where the focus is on language and message, or if you require a transcreation. A transcreation is when you go beyond language to make sure the concept and message are adjusted to maintain cultural relevance for the target audience.

Another common issue is the use of terms in English for Hispanic audiences. This is something you see when looking at SEO data for the categories that you’re working on. It’s good to know the translation of something, but it’s also ideal to know the common name people use to refer to something in order to increase engagement. All of this is valid and part of the job, but it doesn’t mean that some people aren’t lazy. In the example shown for a job posting, literally 50% of the translation was not translated. One thing many businesses don’t realize is that a poor translation is not just a mistake in terms of saying the wrong thing — it also shows how invested a company is in connecting with audiences beyond their core. If your communications show that you care about 50% of what this audience thinks, then you can trust they’ll care even less. Mind you, these are all real situations and real “translations,” but the stakes can go even higher.

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One language says, “One Way,” but the Spanish phrase says, “Do Not Enter.” Which is the right one? Not sure, and despite being funny, it could be potentially dangerous. When you translate instructions, warning labels, indications, and countless other things, the right translation can be essential to the point of it being life or death. Clearly, this is a perfect example of how a little translation mistake can cause big problems.

Working translations can be downright hard and should not be handled by the average joe… or José. Sure, software helps streamline things and speed up the process, but trust me, you’ll always need someone with the knowhow and dominion of both languages to ensure a proper translation makes it to your audience. Remember, if you leave your audience hanging, there’s no reason they won’t do the same…


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