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Adventures in Translation: Lessons From the Trenches

August 13, 2021

Have you ever had something become lost in translation? It happens more than we’d like to admit in the marketing industry, and it isn’t limited to language barriers. In this post, I’d like to explore a handful of challenges we’ve faced related to translations and examine the takeaways we learned as a result. I’m willing to bet you’ve encountered similar snags in your client work.

Translation Effort 1

On a recent project, we were asked to develop a series of social videos, posts, and display ads for a B2B client. These were initially in English and were meant to be translated into several languages, from Japanese to German. At key points in the creative development process, we reviewed the work with the agency tasked with translating the content. In most cases, we got the thumbs-up that what we were doing would work. Once the English versions of the content were approved by the client, we handed them off to that agency to begin the transcreation process.

There was more than language involved, but I’ll get to that a bit later and instead pose a question for discussion: What is copy? It’s not like other kinds of writing. It’s somewhat hard to describe. For me, the thought process that goes into writing a headline lets a brand speak through carefully chosen words to achieve a balance of meaning, voice, and feeling. Sometimes, it works through rhythm and sound. Or with a particular cleverness that’s unique to the brand’s voice.

But brand voices aren’t always clever, or humorous, or poetic. And marketing objectives, audiences, vertical considerations, and business models (are they B2B, B2C, or B2B disguised as B2C?) will always guide writing toward certain variances of tone and approach. Copy also adapts to the particular stage of the customer journey. Writing for awareness is not the same as writing for discovery, consideration, or purchase.

On any project, there are a lot of stakeholders weighing in on copy. Internally, everyone from creative direction to strategy to client services has an individual perspective based on a combination of subjective and objective concerns. The baseline for everyone involved should always be meeting the brief. From there, it is all about client objectives for client services; aligning strategically with messaging frameworks for strategy; and craft and magic for creative direction. And as everyone has their unique POV, there are always more subjective concerns that the copywriter needs to consider.

Depending on the number of external client approvers, this can vary widely, and it depends a lot on client backgrounds and job roles. For this particular project, there were many layers of copy feedback. This went from product marketing to brand marketing to global marketing to content experience — each having its own unique POV and concerns — and was ultimately guided by a partnership of product and brand approvers.

This might all seem like TMI (and a bit of a basic rundown of the process that we all follow every day as marketing professionals), but I bring it up here because it’s an additional type of translation. One of the essential skills for successful copywriters is translating all the layers of feedback we receive from multiple inputs and across all stakeholders into work that meets everyone’s objectives and inspires the confidence that “we heard you.”

With that said, this project had to both translate all the feedback into work that the clients were happy with and then run that work through the translation process to align with global marketing needs. Both stages had their challenges and pitfalls.

Translation Effort 2

One of the client’s brand differentiators was to follow a visual approach aligned closer with a consumer brand rather than B2B. B2B messaging needed to be translated into consumer-y language and visuals. How well did it work? What breaks through, what falls flat? What is the best approach or balance here?

The first stage of this project involved translation of the second kind: gathering feedback and consensus, revising the work accordingly, and getting to a place where the clients were happy with the work and were ready to send it to the transcreation agency for language and cultural adaptation.

Another one of this particular client’s brand differentiators was to make everything optimistic, human, and approachable. Conversational in tone with visuals focused on happy, playful people. It’s a consumer brand approach that can stand out in the sea of B2B sameness.

But given RAPP’s extensive demand-generation experience for both consumer and B2B brands, our initial strategic direction focused on a relevant level of detail to express the product’s value in language that would resonate. Light on fluff, with just the right specificity. Capturing the essence of the brand through an expression of the desired outcome our audience strives to achieve. It’s where we started. But our client felt we really needed to focus on bringing the humanity of the brand to life, mainly through language and visuals that aligned more closely with consumer awareness advertising than with demand-generation/lower-funnel work. It was an ambitious ask.

Job to Be Done No. 1: Turning our initial approach to specificity into work that felt even more human, pushing the current brand even closer to a consumer approach. Considering the ask — and thinking back on the project — what makes a brand voice more human?

  • Conversational: Copy that sounds like you’re talking to someone (and not at them) with a more casual approach to sentence structure.
  • Idiomatic: We all use phrases and euphemisms that add some personality to the way we speak; it makes the language more approachable or fun and playful.
  • Empathetic/emotive: Copy that shows an understanding of the audience’s challenges and is solution-focused from an emotional point of view. For example: “Relax, you can handle this — and we can help.”

Through this effort, the approved work was peppered with humor and idiomatic expressions that connected emotionally with the visuals presented as well as the audience — demonstrating on a very human level the positive outcomes you can achieve to eliminate the “pain points” you experience.

Job to Be Done No. 2: Turning over the approved work for transcreation. When you’re knee-deep in revising copy to align with the human approach — and creating the best, most evocative work possible — it can be easy to overlook idiomatic expressions or conversational structure as significant challenges when translation is required.

And as noted earlier, it’s not just language that needs translation. Imagery also needs to be adjusted through the lens of cultural adaptation. Do people high-five anywhere else in the world, for instance? What ethnicities are you showing, and do the people in the images you choose look like the people seeing this work in other regions? It’s quite an effort to align it all together (language and imagery) into content that can work across all regions and cultures. So there were challenges, and some of the idioms that we felt could work felt a bit odd or off when translated.

I should say that the initial “consumer-y” work created for the U.S. audience in social and display has shown significant positive results. Our client’s direction worked, and it pushed the possibilities for demand generation’s success into a new place where you can balance the specific with emotive inspiration. And create work that connects without a clear B2B or B2C identity that still drives target audiences to action.

But that’s in the U.S. And though the work still performed in other regions as the campaign continued and we kept developing new creative, we were asked to adjust to ensure the work we were doing more easily aligned across regions and cultures.

Job to Be Done No. 3: Creating work that captured the human essence of the first wave of work with language and imagery that could be more easily and fluidly adapted across the geographies targeted. What this meant was reducing idiomatic expressions to a minimum and taking the American out of the conversational structure.

Where this took us was closer to where we started. The universality of the challenges our audience faces across the globe would be the glue that could hold the conversation together. So we went back to inserting a layer of specificity to adjust the feel of the first wave of work, all with a little more outcome-driven language that tempered the emotive experiential approach and a sense of humanity at its core. We also looked at imagery and shifted from showing bits of life experiences that might not resonate globally to illustrations that captured universal human moments that could be adjusted according to cultural norms and ethnicities.

As we are still developing work that aligns with this third approach, we’ll see how well it will resonate and perform globally. But from our internal and our client’s perspective, the work still captures the human essence of the brand while adding a layer of product and outcome specificity that directly connects with our audience’s needs and aspirations — with a combination of the emotional and the functional.

Translation Effort 3

We often are asked to create assets that will work across social platforms, from LinkedIn to Facebook to Instagram. These platforms are quite different, and the messages and imagery we use should be looked at carefully (and ideally, differentiated among them). What are the key considerations? What about the combination of content and targeting?

There’s another type of translation beyond words and imagery for linguistic and cultural appropriateness that we also need to consider as we develop and deploy work across different social platforms.

The question is: Does work that’s developed specifically for success on LinkedIn (given its purpose and close alignment with the business side of our social world) also work on Facebook (given that platform’s more expansive friend-to-friend-to-family focus)?

We did use the same creative across Facebook and LinkedIn, primarily due to time and scope constraints, but is that the ideal way work should live across these two very different platforms? This particular B2B brand (with its consumer feel) seems like an apt fit for Facebook. But when you think of the work in context, how can it be seen as something more than an ad? It seems like there needs to be a conversational/content alignment where it appears to make it feel more native to the platform.

LinkedIn felt like a much more natural place for the work to thrive. It’s the whole “sea of sameness” thing. With its more human, conversational, relaxed, and emotive approach, this brand stands out on a platform built for B2B when placed against work that follows all the B2B tech tropes (like people in server rooms; workers looking at screens; bosses standing at whiteboards; subjects posing in the “lean-in” stance with hands firmly placed on a desk, smiling and looking forward with the requisite optimism).

So when translating work between platforms, I think there are a few things to consider:

  • In situ appropriateness: How is your content going to look in the social feed? Like a blaring B2B ad in a consumer-y environment? Or a breath of fresh humanity in the B2B sea? Take a look at where it will live: It might stick out like a sore thumb or be something unique and interesting. In situ concerns can be overcome by the next consideration:
  • Targeting: Can you keep your work in front of the eyes of the people actually looking for it? With carefully curated targeting (which is easier on LinkedIn than on Facebook for data points such as job titles), the in situ issue could become moot.
  • Best practices: LinkedIn is great at evaluating work and providing ever-evolving best practices for success on the platform. Facebook feels like somewhat of a shot in the dark, as best practices are rarely as specific and generally the same as most consumer advertising.

What We Learned

What opportunities are there for using these types of translation to get closer to the RAPP effort to create campaigns that directly connect with individuals driven by a “Million Little Big Ideas?”

Through the different translation efforts this project required and continues to, I think it gets us closer to refining approaches that can exemplify and evolve RAPP’s Million Little Big Ideas approach to connect with our audience on an individual level.

  • Know who you’re talking to (and where you’re doing the talking): The work initially deployed pinpointed individuals by knowing what their unique challenges were and creating work that connected on a human and emotional level, all while still driving outcome-focused messaging. But by experiencing the challenges of transcreation, the work also needs to be looked at through a more global lens so that it connects at the individual level — wherever the viewer might be. For this project, it involved stepping back from one half of the human part of the copy equation (idioms, casual structure) and dialing up the universal elements (challenge/outcome specificity, cross-cultural emotive moments).
  • Select the best places to make that individual connection (and further adapt the work): Going forward, one thing I’ll consider as I continue to work on campaigns that start with the “same creative for Facebook and LinkedIn” approach is pushing to create versioning that aligns more closely with the platform’s purpose and environment. We often need to create work that’s flexible across platforms, but when we have the scope, the resources, and the schedule, we should look at the work as individually as we approach targeting. And we need to look at the possibilities for targeting and always try to avoid scattershot approaches (or using a platform just because you use the platform).
  • Remember that translation is more than words: I never thought that the “high-five” wasn’t universal. Although most people who know me know I’m not a high-five kind of guy, I learned that there’s a lot to consider when making work that is culturally appropriate not only in terms of language, but also in terms of who you show in imagery and what they are doing. The more we can learn about the individuals we target and their cultural environments, the better we can drive results through a Million Little Big Ideas.


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