Lost in translation

Posted on 28 Jun 2012 by The Manufacturer

Is your brand getting lost in translation? David Wheatley, translator and managing director of Dot Comma Translations, hooks into recent interest in Brazil and gives his perspective on one of the biggest challenges facing UK companies entering foreign markets.

David Wheatley, Managing Director, Dot Comma

Announcements from Diageo about expansion, success for JCB and heavy investment from AkzoNobel to cement its market share and increase capacity, are just a few recent stories which have highlighted the opportunities to be taken in Brazil, now the world’s sixth largest economy.

But as Brazil’s economy continues its ascent and increases in global significance, so does the Brazilian Portuguese language. Yet TM’s recent article Latin America: there for the taking, made no reference to the challenges that overcoming language barriers can raise for companies eager to hook into prosperous markets.

Translation of business documentation and marketing material should always form an important part of any export operation or other strategy in foreign markets.

But UK firms have a tendency to neglect this concern. In fact, the Education and Employers Taskforce has recently calculated that the UK is losing $11-26bn each year by not using foreign languages in business.

We have seen real evidence to show that markets, wherever they are in the world, respond well to material in their native language. Statistics[i] show that seven out of ten purchasers require information in their own language before deciding to buy. This figure increases the more valuable the product or service is.

With particular reference to Brazil, even companies that may have exported to Portugal as part of their European operations should not be complacent about having established appropriate business documentation, marketing and customer information.

For though Brazil and Portugal share a common language, distinct differences exist between the two, and understanding these linguistic differences is crucial to ensure the correct brand messages are being conveyed.

A new spelling agreement has recently been introduced to try and harmonise spelling differences between European and Brazilian Portuguese.  However, the agreement isn’t favoured by many Portuguese who feel that due to its current economic dominance, it is favouring the Brazilian style – a clear reflection of new found importance.

Poorly translated material gives the wrong impression of a company and can even distort its messages. All this has an impact on the bottom line. Brazilian company balance sheets have terms that can pose problems for the unskilled translator. ‘Valor demonstrado no realizável’[iii] can often be translated as ‘receivables’, but the word ‘realizável’ can also encompass ‘inventories’, which are not ‘receivables’ from an accounting perspective.

And imagine the embarrassment if you were to mistakenly use the word ‘bicha’ in a Brazilian business document or piece of marketing material. In Portugal this means ‘queue’, but in Brazil it means homosexual!

The above examples illustrate why a literal, word-for-word translation will not work, and you need an expert.

Many companies spend hours deliberating over the precise wording of their sales literature to ensure maximum impact. Yet, the very same companies often entrust the task of translation to a non-native speaker, a student, or, worse still, a machine.

One study, Can’t Read Wont buy[iv] highlights that 56.2% of customers consider information in their own language to be more important than price. This demonstrates that the job is best left to a professional company that will show the same level of care and skill when recreating a client’s message in the foreign language.

So what are the most important documents to get translated properly? Well, ideally it should be anything that will be seen by a company’s new or existing clients, whether it’s an order form, a corporate brochure, terms and conditions or an advert in a glossy magazine. After all, 72.4 %[ii] of consumers would be more likely to buy a product with information in their own language.

So the important question – how much will this cost?

Well translation isn’t expensive, and it can actually generate new business for you by enhancing client relationships, opening up new markets and increasing your exposure overseas.

We have seen an increase in the number of Portuguese people claiming to be ‘translators’ because of a lack of jobs in the current economic climate. These translators however, are unqualified and the expression ‘you get what you pay for’ is certainly true, as French Utilities provider Electricité de France discovered in 1999, when it spent over £100,000 on advertising space to promote its expertise, but paid less than £60 for the English translation of its key message. The resulting translation didn’t fit the brand image and failed to meet the campaign’s objectives.

So remember when you are looking to target a growing economy like Brazil, you want to find a company that offers more than just translations. You need to find a partner that understands the cultural complexities and possesses the relevant specialist knowledge and experience – after all, some translators are naturally better at creative writing, while others have a greater understanding of technical subjects.

And don’t forget – make sure the translation company you choose takes you through a detailed brief and they choose a translator with the most suitable profile for your project – because it’s all in the translation.



[i] Statistics from Fact & Figures: Global Marketing, Common Sense Advisory (2011)

[ii] Statistics from Fact & Figures: Global Marketing, Common Sense Advisory (2011)

[iv] Can’t Read, Won’t Buy: Why Language Matters on Global Websites, Common Sense Advisory (2006)