Not Just Words – It’s a Cultural Revolution

Your intern, co-worker or employee speaks and writes another language fluently. Can that person translate your materials? They probably can. The real question is can they LOCALIZE your materials?

Translation turns words from one language (the source) into another language (the target). But to localize, Christopher Robin, the translated words must be meaningful to the local culture. Preferably they are meaningful in a way that will shine a positive light on your company.

I am reminded of a story from when I worked in the marketing department of an American Fortune 500 company. The company was releasing a new product and the marketing specialist assigned to tell the world designed an elegant announcement printed on a beautiful cream cardstock outlined with a black border. What that specialist did not know is that in Europe death announcements are outlined with a black border. That marketing missive produced a reaction, but certainly not the one the company wanted. Some of those prospective customers probably forgave the faux pas, but others likely vowed never to buy from such a culturally insensitive company.

What is culture? Grab a slice of mom’s apple pie while I tell you. It is the rituals, beliefs, values and social practices that make up the “personality” of a country. Each culture has its own characteristics derived from dialectmusicartssocial habitscuisine, and folklore. Cultural differences can be subtle and not easily known unless you have been immersed in that society. Uncle Sam wants you to know that whether you are tossing a caber in Scotland, a sausage in Switzerland or participating in Belgium’s bathtub regatta knowing the local nuances can go a long way in making or a breaking communications with your audience.

I’ll leave you with the facts, Ma’am, just the facts. A beauty company marketed a hair product in Germany. The product name included the word “mist.” If they had used a localization company, they would have known that “Mist is the German word for “manure.” A different company launched their “Cue” toothpaste in France, unaware of the adult-themed magazine in that country with the same name. Now that puts a new spin on washing your mouth out with soap.

Written by Dawn Lawien

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