Digital marketing professionals often think translation is straightforward and simple.
Words in, words out, right? Basic!
Whoops, not so fast!
Consider the thought and care that you put into every single word of your copy in English. Think about the deep knowledge you have of your brand values, understanding of your target audience, and desire to achieve specific goals for a campaign all come together and harmonize within the very words you choose. Take a step back to think about how all this knowledge enables you to write great copy.
You do this work in English with extreme consideration, creativity, and care.
But you’re also under pressure too.
Digital Marketers Face Increasing Complexity of Content Channels and Formats
It’s harder and harder to get people’s attention. Channels have multiplied and so has the complexity of the marketer’s workload. For a digital ad, you have to think about how it will actually look in the limited space you have available. You have to make sure your blog posts are highly targeted and include the right keywords for SEO.
You also have to think about content clusters, email subject lines, product names, CTA buttons, and so on. You even have to carefully choose the number of fields on a form and what words you use to label them. Cleverly worded 404 messages have become something standard. You might even be writing copy that appears in-app too. Really, is there no end to the copy that digital marketers have to own? The overall content picture has become pretty complex.
In the age of digital marketing, copywriting requires lightning speed as well as surgical precision. But with more and more channels and ways to communicate with people, it also requires context. You have to understand what the goal is, what the format is, and who will be reading it, before you can even come up with good content to begin with.
Digital marketers, you have an extremely difficult job.
And that’s before we even talk about extending your work into more languages.
If Digital Marketing Is Difficult, Doing It In Multiple Languages Is… Exponentially More Difficult
Now, imagine you had to write your copy without knowing anything about the target audience, without knowing the goal of that copy, without knowing anything about the company’s brand, without knowing what kind of ad it will be used for, how much space it will take up on the page, or any other information other than some seemingly random words that were given to you by someone else.
This is what translators are asked to do all the time.
You might say, but wait, translators have all that work done for them by the time my words reach them, don’t they? After all, I’ve already done the hard part for them. I put a lot of thought into this! This is the biggest misconception I’ve observed among marketers.
Most marketers are simply unaware that marketing translation is essentially copywriting in another language, without the benefit of all the contextual information that you, the marketer, has available.
Adding More Languages Isn’t Additive; It’s Multiplicative
This is why, in my opinion, when considering the effort it will take, digital marketers need to understand that the complexity of going into a new language is higher than they would typically assume. They think it will be something like this:
1 language + 3 languages = 30% more effort
Actually, it’s more like this:
1 language x 3 languages = 300% more effort
I know — you think I’m exaggerating. How could going into more languages possibly be that much more effort? Don’t you just get stuff translated? Obviously there is some leverage in the foundations you’ve already built in your native language. It’s just not quick or easy to extract, and in some cases, you’ll have to replicate entire teams and structures you already have in English, especially as you start to scale.
I believe it’s important for marketers to view languages as not merely “additive” to growth but as “multipliers” of growth. Otherwise, they will always short-change not only the benefit every new language can offer, but they will also under-estimate the investments they’ll need to make to truly unlock the value of adding a new language in the first place.
In the section that follows, I’ll offer you a glimpse at why most aspects of simply “going into a new language” are so much more difficult than most marketers tend to understand.
Let’s shed light on this by looking at a common marketing requirement that, in theory, should be simple:
Translating just seven words.
Fit to Print Or Merely Good Enough to Be Published? An Example from the New York Times
To help shed light on how this plays out in practice every day, let’s take one of the most famous slogans in the world, from the New York Times:
All the news that's fit to print.
Ahhhh. This slogan sounds so clear, so simple, so perfect in English. You immediately get a sense of the brand’s well-known factual, straight-forward reporting style and the idea that the news will be curated.
It might even seem like a dream for translation at first glance. It’s concise, short, and easy to understand. There’s no clever rhyming or alliteration that you’d have to worry about trying to replicate in another language. It doesn’t seem highly creative. So, it should be easy to translate, right? And, it’s just seven words!
Oh, how I wish that were true. Life would be so much simpler. Brands could expand so much faster into other markets if only this were the case. But unfortunately, it’s anything but easy to get these words across, even in linguistically similar languages.
Here is a very literal — but not technically incorrect — translation of the words into Spanish, courtesy of Google Translate. I have also included a rough English back-translation below it, with the goal of conveying where the translation into Spanish falls short.
Todas las noticias adecuadas para imprimir All the news that is good enough to be printed
Hmmm. The marketers reading this will think, “good enough to be printed” doesn’t exactly jump of the page, does it? It actually dilutes the aspect of the New York Times brand that relates to the curated experience they offer. It conveys more the idea of “fit” as “adequate” or “suited” but not “just right,” let alone “selective.”
In fact, “all the news” is in a bit of a conflict with “good enough” in this sense. They probably wanted to convey a brand attribute of “comprehensive” with “all,” but when you translate that word, it actually creates a message that is in conflict with the brand. It makes it sounds like the emphasis is on quantity instead of quality, and yet we know that isn’t what the New York Times is all about.
Now, let’s assume the translator tries swapping out the word “adecuadas” for “correctas” which is another possible translation of “fit” in this context, as a modifier of “news.” This would give us:
Todas las noticias correctas para imprimir All the right news to be printed
Now, we have swapped out just one synonym for “fit” in Spanish. But there is yet a different problem with this version. The word “correctas” implies that the New York Times only wants to print things that are “appropriate” to print. This makes it sound rather stern, almost moralistic, rather like a schoolmarm who only wants you to read what’s good for you. This conveys that in fact, you won’t get comprehensive reporting, and they are going to pre-judge the news before you’ve had a chance to decide. Next!
So for now, let’s assume we address the “fit” problem and try to convey a more curated and selective experience instead, replacing the rather judgmental-sounding “correctas” with “mejores” or “best” instead.
Todas las mejores noticias para imprimir All the best news to be printed
Now, we’ve introduced another problem. By saying “best” we’re unintentionally also implying (in Spanish anyway) that the only stories the New York Times covers will be good news. Lighthearted and jolly! It dilutes the seriousness and the true value of the brand. It dumbs it down and makes it sound like the opposite of comprehensive.
Another big problem here is the word “imprimir” which sounds very antiquated. It makes people think of the actual printing process as opposed to publishing. In Spanish you’d need to use a different word, like “publicar” to convey that it refers to the publishing process, which is different from the mechanics of printing, which is what “imprimir” refers to.
Here is where most professional translators would take a step back and ask themselves:
“So what is the message underneath all this? What is it that makes the New York Times different? What are they actually trying to say? What aspect of their brand are they trying to convey? What is the real value here for the audience?”
Let’s assume the translator lives in the United States (not typically the case for Spanish). Let’s assume they know the brand fairly well. If the brand has tremendous reach, the translator might have the advantage of knowing something about them. With their knowledge of the New York Times brand, they might say that one of their core differentiators is simply the quality of their journalists and the depth of their reporting.
This could lead a translator come up with other options like:
Noticias completas y bien investigadas. Comprehensive and well-reported news.
Sounds bad and boring in English, and not very exciting or compelling in Spanish, but at least it says something in Spanish. It also doesn’t go against the brand values, which the other versions did. But, it still doesn’t really convey the true value, in my opinion, of what the New York Times truly offers its readers.
Let’s try again, although this is getting tiring, right?
Reportaje completo y profundo. Comprehensive, in-depth reporting.
Maybe this sounds a bit more accurate and in line with the brand values, but it just sounds so… blah. In English it sounds really yawn-worthy and has too many syllables. In Spanish it’s a bit more punchy but still not exactly what would differentiate a brand from any other that makes the same claim. Might be a bit closer to something we could work with, but still not really there yet.
Attempt #… wait, why are we doing this?
But by the time you get to this place, as a marketer, you have to ask yourself: “What was my goal in requesting a translation in the first place? Do I want this copy in another language to really resonate? Is it OK if it sounds empty and basically has a diluted message? Or, is it OK with me if it conveys absolutely nothing close to my original message in the other language? And if so, why am I even bothering to translate it to begin with?”
At the end of this process, you can see that you’ll have to address these questions, or you’ll end up with a translation that isn’t “fit to print” but merely “good enough to be published.” And that’s if you’re lucky. Most marketers blindly trust that their brand isn’t being embarrassed, but they have no market feedback to ever really know if the translation was even the slightest bit effective.
Most Translators Have Zero Incentive to Make Your Message Resonate
What’s truly sad about all of this is that the marketer is unlikely to ever know, or have any input into what their brand is conveying in the other language to begin with. Once the translator gets to the point in the process where they could zero in on the brand values, a translator would usually stop and ask, “But can I change this so drastically? I wasn’t asked to reinvent the message. I was just asked to translate it.”
Oh, and guess what. The freelance translator who spent about an hour deliberating over these seven words? They will probably only be paid around $1.40 as thanks for their trouble. Forget about all of the options they entertained and discarded before they did their best to come up with a solution that might come closer to doing the trick.
Your company might have paid an agency thousands of dollars to come up with your messaging. Yet, the freelance translator you’re leaving it up to do in another language will in the vast majority of cases be paid less than $2 to do the same work, with even more challenges and restrictions than the copywriters in English had, and none of the benefit of the context.
Unlike the agency who came up with the slogan, translators can’t just say whatever comes into their mind. They don’t get to come up with endless creative options til the cows come home. They are chained to the copy in English. And they also have to ask themselves what time they are willing to put into it for $1.40.
What’s even sadder about this is that most trained, professional marketing translators are completely capable of delivering great options to you. There is an entire industry of people out there who can deliver amazing work to make your message really pop. The problem is that they are not motivated to even spend the time it would take to come up with an excellent option, because the industry they work in simply does not value their time this way.
It’s Not About the Words, It’s About the Message
At the end of the day, if you want to receive back a great translation, you have to invest a little more time in removing the ambiguity and providing your translators with far more context than they are accustomed to getting. They need insight. They need context. They need details. They need to understand your brand, in depth, in order to truly make your message come across.
For marketers, translation is never just about words. It’s about the message.
To get your message across in another language, your translators need more than just the “source words” when it comes to marketing copy. They truly need to understand the message, and how it will be used.
4 Things Digital Marketers Can Do to Improve How Your Message Resonates In Other Languages
Fortunately, there are some things that fall within your control as as a digital marketing professional. Here are four things you can do starting with your next project.
1. Insist on knowing the names and backgrounds of the linguistic talent who will work on your project.
Don’t work with agencies who offer you faceless, nameless “vendors” and can swap them out blindly without you knowing. If you work with an. agency, you should know the name of your lead linguist for each language your company offers, as well as the name of the other linguistic talent assigned to your company. They are the people who largely ensure that your brand voice carries through in another language. In some cases, they even define that brand voice for you.
Better yet, work directly with a translator you can put on a retainer and who will truly seek to understand your brand and its value. Don’t get me wrong. There are some translation agencies out there who value their human translators enough to make this possible. But they are few and far between.
The vast majority of translation agencies have a business model that works very differently. They focus on volumes, their profit margins are very slim (usually 25% or less, which is paltry for anyone accustomed to profit margins in SaaS for example), and they aren’t interested in re-organizing their operations to suit your needs. Buyers who are well-informed are pretty uncommon.
Yet, you’re the one paying the bill. And your company deserves to have its brand represented well in other markets. If you are tied to an agency for other reasons, like translating large volumes of non-marketing content, I would suggest that you ask them to guarantee you consistent access to linguistic talent who knows your brand on a recurring basis. This can be done at scale on a retainer model.
If they say no, move on and partner with some other agency for your marketing work instead. There are 30,000+ translation agencies out there and hundreds of thousands of translators you can work with. Not all of them understand marketers’ needs to this degree. Look for ones that truly “get” marketers! Surely some of them will agree to get with the times.
2. Ask about their process for translating creative copy.
If you want to understand the likelihood that your message will resonate, ask the vendor to send over a copy of their process. It should be something they can easily share with you right away. A big red flag is if they ask for a phone call or a meeting instead. Have them send you the deck or the infographic that explains it. This is the least they can do before you bother to waste time meeting them!
Once you get the copy of the process, look to see if it’s suited for marketing content. Do they use the word “copywriter?” Do they talk about the “message” or only about “target words”? “Do they understand the creative process? Is it reflected in their process? Do they have any linguists who work on a recurring basis? If their process doesn’t actually show you how they recruit, find, and vet talent, move along.
3. Run away if they insist on charging exclusively on the basis of words.
I’ll write more in a separate post about why I believe charging by the word is like charging by the pound, and basically has led to the current Walmart-ization of the entire translation profession. What most marketers need is more like an Etsy. They seek carefully crafted copy, well chosen words, and the people behind those words truly matter. The human being who translates your messages needs to be the type of person who can identify with and understand your brand. Like the work of any creative professional, this type of service should be compensated by the hour, or on a retainer basis.
It’s OK if some aspects of a project are charged on a per word basis, sure. There are many projects, and even pieces of content within projects, that have text that is meant to inform a person, versus marketing copy, which needs to inspire, to evoke an action, or create an impression — or as many of our top-notch marketers at HubSpot would say, to win hearts and minds. But, if you want a translation agency that truly “gets” marketing, you need to have higher standards than the agencies that just cares exclusively about selling you a bunch of words. If that is all they care about, simply don’t work with them. Run in the other direction!
After all, words are not what translation is really about. It’s about delivering a message, one that needs to resonate in another language. This is the only reason for doing it in the first place!
4. Share all the context with your translators. Yes, all of it.
Here is where so many marketers struggle because they haven’t always taken the time to document their style guide, brand voice guidelines, key terms, and so on to begin with. They barely have time to execute all of their campaigns, let alone sit around showing translators the size of the CTA button to make sure it will fit.
My biggest advice is to make time for it. Make time for something, anything. Whatever you can do to provide context to your linguistic talent will yield hugely better results than you are currently getting. At the very least, record a Loom or have a Zoom meeting with the linguists who will work on your projects.
Translation agencies might not like it if you want to set up Zoom calls with “their” linguists. Too bad! Do it anyway. They don’t own these people. Most of their linguistic talent consists of freelancers. If they won’t work with you to make this happen, simply find someone who will. This industry is largely broken and needs change, and you as the buyer have more power to make change happen than you probably realize.
My other biggest piece of advice on this — share your “outtakes” with translators. Often, the word that wasn’t just quite right in English might be perfect when translated. If someone documents your thought process on how you landed on your ultimate source copy in English, as well as the options you discarded, you can hand this off to translators and it will be hugely helpful. Or, just use your notes to create a briefing summary so they can understand your thought process.
It’s Not Just You – The Translation Industry Really Does Need a Kick In the Pants
If you’re a digital marketer, rest assured you’re not alone in your frustrations with the translation industry, and how translation works in general today. I’m here, as someone who has worked in this industry since 1996, to admit to you that it’s broken and needs reinvention. The translation industry has not caught up with modern needs of modern times.
Paradoxically, the translation industry was remote-first decades before it became a trend among tech companies. It was automating things humans do decades before many other industries. And we knew about machine learning algorithms pretty early on because the tools we rely on have been using it for many many years (even before Franz Och put Google Translate more squarely on the public radar back in 2006).
I’m reminded of when people learn that certain developed markets are ahead of the technology curve and are digital natives and have higher mobile adoption rates than Americans (more modern infrastructure because it came later) but “behind” in some areas too (not everyone might be able to use that infrastructure just yet). It’s really hard for people to grasp this because the two things seem, on the surface, to be in conflict with each other.
The translation industry is like that. Technology use is more widespread than anyone realizes, but translation technology is older and desperately needs modernization. (Just look at how old-school most CAT and TMS tools are, with an extremely hard-to-look-at UI and very limited tools with a SaaS model available.)
Those technologies were also built around older models and an outdated scenario that presumes that buyers’ worlds revolve around words, not messages. As digital marketing continues to grow and find its way into more and more technologies, and as marketers gain more and more power to change this, not only will the tech offerings of the translation industry need to change, but the underlying business model of most people working in translation will need to change too.
The Coming Convergence of Digital Marketing with Linguistic Talent
This transformation will come, and I think digital marketers are in a great position to help push it along. And when it does, I think this will be a good thing for linguistic talent and the translation profession overall. It will create new opportunities, new jobs, and new career paths just as machine translation takes over most of the stuff that human translators don’t enjoy doing anyway. Translators’ work will be valued differently.
It will also be a good thing for marketers, who will finally be able to get what they need with the right speed and quality. (In the meantime, digital marketers, we’re sorry the translation industry simply hasn’t caught up with your needs…yet.)
But most of all, it will be a good thing for the end customers these businesses seek to reach with their products and services. It will break down more barriers to market entry and growth. And it will ultimately make the world a more connected and equitable place.
Until then, I hope this post sheds some light on the realities of both my friends in digital marketing and my equally well-intentioned friends in the translation profession. These two worlds need to connect, and quickly, for more digital marketers to truly achieve their goals at global scale.