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Three Facts About Translating Marketing Copy Effectively


Marketing translation budgets are largely wasted, because buyers do not realize that translating marketing copy is an entirely different realm from other translations. Treating such translations the same as, say, technical translations, means setting yourself up for failure. This article might help you avoid falling into this trap.

Style cannot be literal.

I draw on my experience with English to Russian translations mainly, but it definitely holds true for many other language combinations as well.

Marketing translation is counterintuitive from the standpoint of “accuracy”: training and experience tell translators to put accuracy first; but with marketing, style is of paramount importance, because marketing copy has to relate to the cultural and linguistic norms of the target population. With a user manual, for example, literal translations are more or less okay as long as they make sense, because end users are already “sold”; that is, they already bought the product. Stylistically inferior translation will have little or no negative impact on the manufacturer’s bottom line. However, marketing copy is all about selling, and therefore a word-for-word translation turns away potential clients, and the bottom line takes a hit. To illustrate, a poorly written hotel brochure will fail to sell the hotel services to customers, because it projects an unprofessional image and makes it impossible to perceive value behind clumsy sentences. Moreover, some marketing texts have nothing but style to engage prospective clients, because the authors do not have anything substantial to say on the subject, either because they do not know much about it (an external copywriter) or the company itself does not have anything that sets it apart from the competition. Style then becomes even more important for translation, and if translators fail to produce an engaging style, they create what is essentially an empty message. Let’s put this into math terms for clarity:

Description Formula Explanation
 Ideal message Substance + style = ideal message Authors have some sort of competitive edge to write about and use engaging style, too.
“Better than nothing” message Ideal message – substance = style only The marketing message lacks substance and has to rely exclusively on style.
 Empty message Style only – style = zero Translators fail to produce engaging style, so the entire translated copy is a flop.

It is a waste of time for translators.

Whereas with technical texts, average translator productivity is one hour per page, translating one page of marketing content can take anything from two hours to a day. Take the extreme example: slogans. A slogan is a short marketing message that can take hours or days to translate, resulting in ridiculous words-per-hour productivity. What do translators think after a day spent like this? “Why on earth did I accept this job? I could have already translated twice or thrice as much of something technical!” Some translators put up with this, as long as they are paid accordingly for such translations. But the truth is that translators have a hard time justifying these higher rates to clients. It is difficult to get clients to pay even a double rate, much less a triple or quadruple rate. And most people are reluctant to ask for a double rate to begin with. A typical translator ends up thinking like this: “This translation will bring me the stress of negotiating a higher rate, and then I will spend more time that I will be paid for anyway.” The decision to refuse the job and avoid the stress altogether comes naturally.

Barely 5% of translators are cut out for marketing work.

In my experience, a very small fraction of English to Russian translators can handle marketing copy well. Translating marketing content is extremely difficult. Not only are you supposed to be a great copywriter, but you also need to understand the subject area very well, which is usually a challenge with marketing, because it tends to lack substance, i.e, a context that translators could rely upon. Another factor is that most translators prefer to steer clear of marketing because of potential problems. Firstly, as you already know, translators end up spending much more time than they are paid for. Secondly, even if they do a good job, someone may tear it down in a blink of an eye. If the translator chose style over accuracy, she gets punished for inaccuracy. If she chose accuracy over style (a bad idea, in any case), she is ridiculed for copy that does not sound as if it were written by a native speaker.

What do I make of it as a translation buyer?

If you want to get more bang for your marketing buck, drop the misperception that marketing translations are just as easy as others. Find a translator who understands that style is crucial and pay this translator whatever she charges, to make sure she does not feel that she is wasting her time and does not start cutting corners. Further reading: “Don’t Let Translation Be a Bottleneck to Your Expansion

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About the Author

Roman Mironov
Roman Mironov
CEO & Founder

As the founder of Velior, Roman has had the privilege of being able to turn his passion for languages into a business. He has over 15 years of experience in the translation industry. Roman has helped dozens of clients increase sales by making their products appealing for speakers of other languages.