By George P. Rimalower
President, Interpreting Services International, Inc.

“Estoy embarazada,” said the girl, meeting her boyfriend’s parents for the first time. She meant to say she’s embarrassed. What she said was: “I am pregnant.”

Anyone who’s had a cross-cultural experience of any kind has likely had at least one moment like that. In a personal situation it can be funny. In a business setting, it can be damaging.

I love the discussions in this newsletter about the use of language and when and how Spanish-language translations are most effective. I’d like to offer some practical tips for marketers wanting to communicate effectively in Spanish — whether the audience is in another country, another state or just down the street.

Making language meaningful requires more than just a literal translation of the content. In fact, the terms that have become common in the language services industry to describe what we do are “translation” and “localization” — underscoring the fact that translation is really only half of it.

We all know the challenges of trying to make slang and colloquialisms work in another language. But icons, cultural symbols and even colors all have different meanings for different language groups — and have just as much potential to cause miscommunication or, worse, irreparable offense. That’s something marketers can ill afford. Better to ensure that all marketing communications embody the identical spirit, creativity and sensitivity found in the source material.

And even the same language — Spanish, especially — will vary according to the particular audience: the meaning of a word or phrase may differ from Mexico to Guatemala and even from Florida to Texas or California. Take for instance, “beans.” Are we referring to frijoles, porotos or judías? When and where do we reference a palta, an aguacate or even avocado? When should we hop on the autobus, the guagua, the colectivo or, simply, the bus?

While technology certainly has streamlined the process, true communication can’t happen without a professional, human touch. That’s especially true with content that is particularly idiomatic or that relies on context — whether witty, inspirational or simply aspirational in tone.

Consider these specific tips for communicating with Spanish-speaking audiences:

  • Whose website is it? Even the simplest computer instructions (such as “and press Enter”) may need to be rethought when working on material for a printed “how-to” manual or brochure that gives instructions that refer back to a company website — because often the website itself is not translated. If your brochure translates the phrase “click on the PRINT button” to “haga clic en el botón IMPRIMIR” — but the website button actually is labeled “PRINT” — you will needlessly frustrate consumers and possibly lose them as potential customers in the process. This may seem obvious, but it’s all too common for people to forget how their translations ultimately will be used.
  • True colors — or off-color? Colors communicate, too, and different colors convey distinct meanings to various cultural groups. While red conveys a sense of danger or alarm to North American English speakers, the color represents a sense of happiness or good luck to other cultural groups.
  • Symbolically speaking. Always put symbols through a cultural review process or test them with focus groups. For example, take the OK sign. We usually use a hand in which the thumb and index finger meet to form a circle. While that works in some countries, in other countries it implies a word we won’t mention here.

For the number two, in Latin America we use a hand with index finger and middle finger raised, with the palm of the hand facing the person whose hand is used. In Great Britain that same symbol is equivalent to giving someone the middle finger.

Another thought on symbols: while we assume that “$” refers to U.S. dollars, it is often used to represent local currency in other countries (Argentina, for example). While on the subject of numbers, take heed: $1,345.27 in the United States would be written as $1.345,27 in Latin American Spanish.

  • Writing for translation. If you know your content is destined for translation, avoid colloquial expressions at all costs, as well as any potential dates that represent holidays to any members of your target audience. Steer clear of references to sports figures and local folk heroes. Rhymes, jargon, poems, puns and witty sayings mean absolutely nothing when translated into other languages. A line that may be clever in English — “Dollars and Sense,” an example of something my company was asked to translate — loses all meaning in another language where the words for “cents” and “sense” don’t sound the same.

Marketing communications inherently seek to educate and to persuade. There’s no reason why marketers should experience any drop-off in either as they migrate their copy from English to Spanish — so long as they don’t lose their grasp of nuance or their respect for what can be crucial linguistic and cultural differences.

Story courtesy: Media Post Engage:Hispanics

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