When Your Carefully Crafted English Feels Lost in Translation

By David Mendoza GAICD

As a marketer, there will come a time when you need to translate your content to another language, whether it’s for business-to-consumer, business-to-business, or government messaging. You are responsible and you will take the flak if something goes wrong. But each language has its quirks, its cultural nuances, and its hidden pitfalls. Sometimes idioms fall flat and formality turns robotic. Suddenly your carefully crafted English copy feels lost in translation. That’s where the real challenge lies. For example, how do you ensure that the translation of your English copy is accurate in meaning, has the same tone, and reads as well as the original? And how do you know what the translation says if you can’t read it? Addressing these concerns is a challenging process, which makes it clear that translation is not as simple a process as one might hope. For us, that is really where the fun begins!

Understanding the Complexity of Translations

As a provider of multilingual communication services, we often come across two types of translations: extensive texts like books, brochures, and flyers, and shorter texts such as advertisements, banners, and videos. The goal is to ensure that these translations are not only accurate but also resonate with the intended audience in a culturally relevant way. In an ideal scenario, assessing the translation is as simple as comparing and checking the translated version against the original English document to ensure that everything has been translated correctly. This straightforward approach is commonly used by our law firm clients, particularly when it comes to discovery documents and there is zero margin for error or creativity.

In 2013, we had the pleasure of translating and typesetting Penfolds Rewards of Patience into Chinese.

Marketing content, however, presents its own set of challenges due to the graphic design component of how to best lay out translations into creative assets. This process, known as typesetting, involves placing the translated text into design software like Canva, InDesign, Photoshop, or FinalCut Pro. The aim is to ensure that the translation matches the same look and feel as the English version. This step can be difficult because translations do not always take up the same amount of space in your artwork as the original English text. For example, English copy that takes 600 characters might only need half as many characters when translated into Japanese. On the other hand, a Vietnamese translation might expand to 700 characters and require additional line spacing to accommodate diacritics (accents). The main challenge in translating content into different languages lies in the fact that languages differ vastly from one another.

Subtitling is an art form that requires translation and layout into Final Cut Pro or Adobe Premiere. Post-subtitling proofing is also necessary to ensure that it matches talking heads, visuals, and follows a logical sequence.
The Tip of the Language Iceberg

However, this is merely the tip of the iceberg, or in Chinese 冰山一角 (bīngshān yìjiǎo), which literally translates to a small, noticeable part of a problem, the total size of which is really much greater. The intricacies of typesetting translations involve decisions about line breaks, such as determining where lines should be broken and how these breaks might alter the meaning. It is about going beyond copying and pasting and involves considering typography to avoid jarring “widows” and “orphans” that disrupt the reading experience. The ultimate goal here is to strike a delicate balance between accurate meaning and clear communication. Achieving this sweet spot requires careful consideration of readability, word choice, and line breaks – all while staying true to the original English copy.

Vietnamese is a language that utilises diacritics, which are accents that modify the pronunciation of certain letters. In order to ensure readability, there needs to be enough space between lines of text.
How Do I Know the Translation is Accurate?

One important question that arises when translating content into another language is how to ensure that the translation accurately conveys the original English message. This is especially important for advertisements and banners, and legal and compliance departments that often require translations to be back-translated for verification. Back-translation involves translating content twice, such as from English to Vietnamese and then back to English, to confirm that the translation reflects the original intent. However, it should be noted that this method assumes a level of linguistic symmetry that does not always exist across languages, as they often express ideas and concepts differently.

Imagine an English advertisement with the slogan, “Empower your journey.” Suppose it’s translated into Spanish as “Potencia tu viaje.” Then, for back translation, “Potencia tu viaje” is translated back into English as “Power your trip.” Notice the differences? While “Empower your journey” and “Power your trip” share similar themes, the nuances of “empower”, suggesting inspiration and encouragement, may not be fully captured by the more direct “power” in the back translation. Is this a case of the back-translation revealing a mistranslation in the original translation? Actually, this difference is not a sign of mistranslation. It is rather an indication that languages don’t always have a one-to-one word equivalent and that translation often involves the restructuring of thoughts and ideas. This is why relying on back translation to assess translation quality can be problematic, as it overlooks ideas, thoughts, meaning and how they are conveyed in another language. Clients may want to see the exact same words in English, but this is often not possible when translating between languages.

It can be difficult to understand and interpret back translations of headings and taglines, as languages convey ideas and meaning differently.

When evaluating back translations, it’s essential not to view discrepancies as errors but as reflections of the natural differences between languages. The goal is not to accomplish a word-for-word exact match but to ensure that the translated message is in line with the original English intent. This approach views deviations not as mistakes, but as opportunities to refine and clarify the translation, making sure that it correctly reflects the original English copy. By focusing on intent over literal accuracy, you can confidently rely on translations that have been carefully reviewed. This gives you confidence that your translated content is accurate and maintains the quality and integrity of your communications across different languages.

Understanding Linguistic Structures: SVO vs. SOV

While carefully reviewed back translations offer a degree of confidence in the translation, differences in word choice and structure compared to the original English often raise concerns. It’s important to remember that languages do not often have linguistic parallels, and they express ideas and meaning differently. Let’s explore these underlying differences, looking at the subject-verb-object (SVO) structure. English, for instance, uses the SVO structure. For example, the sentence “I love you” consists of “I” as the subject, “love” as the verb (the doing word), and “you” as the object. This forms a complete sentence, and the word choice and pairing make sense to English speakers. But languages like Korean prefer subject-object-verb (SOV) sentence structure. Leading to a seemingly odd “I you love” in a very literal back translation for this example. This isn’t a mistake; it’s just a different way of saying the same thing but in another language. Now, delving deeper, using Chinese, which follows the same language structure as English SVO, you will see how translations restructure thoughts and ideas to convey the meaning and concept. This can result in a back translation that significantly differs from the original English text.

• English original: “Break new ground.”

• Chinese translation: “开辟新天地。” (kāipì xīn tiāndì.)

• Back translation to English: “Open up new skies and earth.”

The original English phrase “Break new ground” is an idiom that means to do something innovative. Its meaning is associated with the act of venturing beyond known boundaries, forging a path where none existed before. The Chinese translation “开辟新天地” literally means “to open up new skies and earth,” which is a poetic way of expressing the idea of pioneering new boundaries or initiating new ventures. Both sentences fundamentally convey the same meaning of innovation and discovery, but the Chinese translation uses more grandiose and metaphorical language, showcasing how translations restructure thoughts and ideas to convey the underlying meaning and concept differently. Again, does this mean that the Chinese translation is wrong? No, it is just that languages don’t always have a one-to-one equivalent and that linguistic symmetry does not always exist across languages.

Let’s now consider SOV languages, like Japanese, where the placement of the verb at the end of a sentence can have a significant impact on the message’s rhythm and emphasis. Take the phrase, “The company launched a new product.” In Japanese, this might be translated as “会社は新しい製品を発売しました。” (kaisha wa atarashī seihin o hatsubai shimashita), which translates back to English as “The company a new product launched.” While the meaning remains the same, the shift in structure can impact the flow and emphasis of the message. This structural shift highlights why it’s so hard for marketers to assess and provide guidance to translators. In a back translation, what is wrong, and what is right? It’s not just about matching words; it’s about understanding the cultural nuances and rhythms woven into each language.

Throughout its operation, we provided Japanese translation for the Melbourne Star, formerly known as the Southern Star. We hope to see it spin once more.
Enhancing Readability for CALD Audiences

The varying structures of languages brings us back to the topic of the importance of line breaks. Typesetting of languages must consider how a particular language communicates ideas, thoughts, and meanings. As you now know, misplacing a line break not only affects the readability but can also alter the intended meaning of the content if broken in the wrong spot. When you engage a multilingual communications provider, what you pay for is the expertise and understanding in:

Adjusting sentence structure within the creative asset without altering the meaning.

Using synonyms that fit better within the allocated space.

Creatively rephrasing content to align with visual elements.

That is why we advise our creative agency and marketing clients that it should come as no surprise that the translation process requires a collaborative effort from translators, designers, and English copywriters. This collaboration ensures that the final product—whether a printed brochure, an online advertisement, or a subtitled video—respects the linguistic characteristics of the target language while retaining the original’s English essence.

If all of this sounds a bit too hard, you can always trust and rely on us to help. As you’ve seen, the process involves a complex interplay of linguistic skills and cultural sensitivity. It involves the careful placements of line breaks, modifying sentence structures without changing the intended meaning, and working together in a team. Although it may seem challenging at first, it can be a rewarding experience, as it allows you to connect with multicultural audiences both locally in Australia and around the world.

We hope the above pointers will help you in your next multicultural marketing campaign. Let us guide you if you are unsure what steps to take next. Email info@chincommunications.com.au or call 1300 792 446.


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