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Found in Translation

By March 29, 2021July 1st, 2021No Comments
Found in Translation blog header, Image by Gordon Johnson from Pixabay

The second in a two-part series on copywriting. Find the first here.


Say what you mean, and mean what you say.

Sounds like a sound policy. But what if you say what you mean in Mandarin? And what if the person you’re saying what you mean to only speaks Spanish?

Enter the translator, or what I like to call “one of the most important occupations in the known universe.” This translator, whether it be your bilingual neighbor, Google Translate, Nicole Kidman in The Interpreter, or C-3PO, is our bridge to communication and understanding. A very particular set of skills.

When it comes to marketing and advertising, the words used to describe a product, service, company, or brand are hugely important in communicating what “the is” is. Beginning with a name (for example, “Alexa”), then moving to what the “is” does, then telling people how to get the is to do what it does, and finally explaining how someone can procure the is so that it can do what it does for your benefit — all of this instruction and communication happens with words.

And words come in many tantalizing flavors. Around some 6,000 here on earth, according to my count.

Made in China

According to the United Nations Statistics Division, China accounted for 28% of global manufacturing in 2018. That’s a lot of product. And just about every one of those SKUs is packaged, shipped, and delivered — often overseas. Like to America, or Brazil. Most people in China speak Mandarin, and most people in America and Brazil do not.

Translators, on your marks.

The words on the packaging. The name of the product, if it’s generic. Taglines and brand names. Shipping addresses. Instruction manuals, how-to guides, mailing labels, stickers, slips, and slogans. All in words, all the time.

So, translations must be made if any messaging that is to be read by, say, a native English speaker, was written by, say, a native Mandarin speaker. Or a native Swedish speaker, who happens to work for IKEA corporate. How on earth am I going to assemble this chest of drawers with 3,000 pieces if the instructions are written in Swedish? Which I don’t speak?

The Tower of Babel

According to The Bible, ours was once a monolinguistic world. Until people from different regions all met up, decided to build a tower, and screwed everything up:

1 And the whole earth was of one language, and of one speech.
2 And it came to pass, as they journeyed from the east, that they found a plain in the land of Shinar; and they dwelt there.
3 And they said one to another, Go to, let us make brick, and burn them throughly. And they had brick for stone, and slime had they for morter.
4 And they said, Go to, let us build us a city and a tower, whose top may reach unto heaven; and let us make us a name, lest we be scattered abroad upon the face of the whole earth.
5 And the LORD came down to see the city and the tower, which the children of men builded.
6 And the LORD said, Behold, the people is one, and they have all one language; and this they begin to do: and now nothing will be restrained from them, which they have imagined to do.
7 Go to, let us go down, and there confound their language, that they may not understand one another’s speech.
8 So the LORD scattered them abroad from thence upon the face of all the earth: and they left off to build the city.
9 Therefore is the name of it called Babel; because the LORD did there confound the language of all the earth: and from thence did the LORD scatter them abroad upon the face of all the earth.
— Genesis 11:1–9, King James Version

That confounded language. It always gets in the way.

Thanks be to translators.

Where we once might have been condemned to misunderstand each other, to talk over one another, to obfuscate, misdirect, confound, deceive, and completely baffle that poor soul who’s just trying to put together a Swedish chest of drawers, our irreplaceable translators swoop in, with their multitasking tongues, to save the day, by translating one language into an entirely other language, word by word, two by two, all for one and one for all, in sickness and in health.

Nowadays, “Babbel” (hey, who’s responsible for that translation?) is a business that helps you learn languages. Ah, the ahistorical irony.

Incident at IBM

I was a copywriter at IBM for a while, and there was an incident. It involved words, it involved language, and yes, it involved translation.

IBM is a global company, and its employees, contractors, products, and services are located all over the world. Virtually every piece of copy I touched as an IBM copywriter went through some sort of translation, which made writerly moves like colloquial language, adages, and folksy sayings bigtime potential troublespots. “A penny saved is a penny earned,” an adage from our dear old friend Benjie Franklin and his Poor Richard’s Almanack, just ain’t gonna fly in mainland China, because what the heck is a penny when you’re shoppin in Shanghai? “That dog won’t hunt,” as a certain ex-American President is fond of saying.

On this particular occasion, my IBM Subject Matter Expert spoke Hindi as his first language, with a bit of British English on the side. Long story short: my directives for the copy were completely lost in translation, and I missed on the primary points to message. It was a Babelian mess.

If only I had had C-3PO on the line during our kick-off call. I would have saved myself eons of time, and gallons of frustration. “An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure,” right? Try explaining that Ben Franklinism to a call center employee in Manila.

The Almighty SEO

Search Engine Optimization, or SEO, is a major part of modern linguistic tradecraft. Just ask any practitioner of the high science, and they’ll be more than happy to tell you. In my experience, they’ll tell you for hours.

The practitioners of the search science usually tend to think of SEO as, well, everything. The Be All, and The End All. The Alpha, and the Omega. The cake, and the eating of it.

And SEO is important. Hugely important. And it continues to evolve, in fascinating, UX-enabled, commerce-inducing ways.

But you still have to communicate. And in order to communicate, the words you choose should make sense. And The Almighty SEO doesn’t always have much time for sense, at least in my many run-ins with the high science’s high priests. After all, them web crawlers gotta eat.

Their motto should be David Byrne’s: Stop making sense.

But, thankfully, yet again, the truth shall be found in translation. By calling on our innate human skills to work with our favorite language, to shape it, form it, manipulate it, and translate it, we muddling, scrubby, cantankerous copywriters can scrawl words that appease the SEO gods while actually making sense to our multitudinous, multilingual, and multinational audience.

There you go, SEOsters. For you are not the only gods among this pantheon.

The translators are coming for your crown.

P.S.: There’s hope. I’m proud to say that my colleagues here at Outmark® do remarkable and human-friendly work in SEO, and I’ve relied on their skills to make my own work more searchable, visible, and clickable.

Great copy that converts? We’re here for it.

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