Adaptation vs. Translation for Web Content

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In today’s world of shrinking borders, multiculturalism, and global ecommerce, it’s common for companies to have websites and content in different languages. Whether they’re targeting different countries or different languages within a country, translating web content for international audiences is a way of life. But there’s more to targeting an international audience than just translating the content, it must also be adapted to that particular audience.

We’ve all seen the examples of funny translation blunders. One restaurant featured some "meat fried cat ear" with a side of "fries pulls out the rotten child" – delicious!

But what about when a major brand makes these same blunders? Does it make them seem a little less professional? Do consumers feel like the brand isn’t really talking to them since they didn’t make an effort to understand their language or culture?

Crate & Barrel wanted to advise customers that hand washing the plate was recommended but instead they recommended that their French customers wash their hands.

English to french translation mistake

KFC’s “Finger Lickin’ Good” slogan was translated to “Eat Your Fingers Off” in Chinese, sending a slightly different message than intended

KFC English to Chinese mistake in translation

It’s not enough to drop your text into Google Translate and hope for the best. Even when Google does an accurate translation, you need to make sure that the resulting message is correct – which is where adaptation comes in.

After a lovely meal with my French-speaking in-laws I casually declared “I’m full” which I, and Google, translated into “Je suis plein”. “Plein” means “full” so I thought I was getting my message across.

While that may be the literal translation, in French saying “Je suis plein” is slang for “I’m pregnant.” Luckily, my faux-pas only resulted in merciless teasing, but a brand could cause confusion amongst consumers, lose credibility, or even sales if their messaging isn’t clear.

You also need to make sure that the images you use are culturally appropriate. Here’s an example of an ecommerce retailer that took advantage of Friday the 13th to offer a one-day sale.

Friday 13 marketing mistake translation for international markets

While this message is on-point in North America, rolling it out to other countries without adapting the message doesn’t make sense. In Spain, the equivalent to Friday the 13th is Martes 13 (Tuesday the 13th) and in Italy it’s Friday the 17th. To make this same offer in these countries would involve doing it on a completely different day and different discount offer.

This sign was spotted in an airport in China.

Chinese airport mistake in translating to English

While the intention is good and the literal translation may be accurate, without adaptation the messaging appears too straightforward and somewhat discriminatory to English speaking travelers. Instead of translating the text, an adaptation advising that those seats are reserved for people with reduced mobility would be more culturally appropriate.

Simply translating content and skipping the adaptation step may speed up the process of getting your content out, but if the message isn’t right it could damage your brand, your credibility, and even cost you customers.

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Ally Bootsma
Ally Bootsma

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