why translation fails

Translating a business strategy into revenue is doubly challenging when facing the barriers of language and culture. When companies notice poor marketing performance in foreign marketstranslators are often the first ones to be blamed for it.

However, translation in an international marketing context, no matter how you call it—localisation, marketing translation, cultural and linguistic adaptation, transcreation or anything else—is not only a translator's job.

Translation is a value-creation process and everyone involved in it contributes to, or hinders, its success. Without translator-friendly processes and management practices, translation fails.

Translators know that "Can we get it translated?" is not a strategy for success, but too often those who outsource translation rely on itbecause they know too little about translation, have too little time or do not consider the impact poor translation can have on the business.

As a result, translators have to guess what is expected of them by reading it between the lines. It is also hard to be motivated to grow someone's business when your work is paid a few cents per unit of output.

And sometimes translation is expected to achieve what only localisation strategy can. If a business model is incompatible with the local culture or the local industry landscape does not allow to achieve a product-market fit, there is not much translation can do.

what to do when translation fails >

why marketing efforts get lost in translation

These are just some of the reasons for international marketing underperformance that companies I helped had attributed to a lack of experience within their translators' teams:

  • poor decisions due to time-to-market pressure

    A company in the middle of international expansion invested in revision of all of its translated content without seeing any significant improvement, even though the language services provider did a good job. A rushed decision to localise the content in the first place without having adequate processes, and another rushed decision to review the underperforming native-language content without considering that the changes would be too difficult to implement, led the company to make three investments instead of one—the third time it invested in getting its localisation processes redesigned.

  • lack of strategy & product-market fit

    An American multinational was not generating revenue in the German market. Because the company's localisation strategy and processes were limited to translation (which was also an afterthought) and were not supported by local market intelligence, only a year after entering Germany did the company find out that its business model was not compatible with the local culture and hindered the effectiveness of the brand's marketing efforts. The key concept behind the pricing model (and the basis for competitive advantage) was not transparent enough for the German customers.

  • growing out of old processes & lack of trust

    In a growing start-up, reporting lines and processes defined to support international expansion did not work well when the company's marketing activity switched to the growth mode. The lean localisation team could not adapt its processes promptly to support the growth marketing needs and lost the momentum to establish itself as a partner to the marketing teams who started to rely for translation on colleagues from other functions, friends and Google Translate. Localisation team was unaware of those practices and was blamed for the poor grammar and spelling mistakes in marketing translations and local ads.

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what to do when translation fails

  • strategic & organisational context

    If you do not see the expected results from your international marketing efforts, you might be missing essential steps in your localisation process (even when you do not translate content). To find them, you should look into your business, marketing and brand strategy, management practices, organisational structure and even company culture.

  • processes & information flow

    If you were told that your translated content is not good, you should audit your content management processes because the information your translators need to receive does not reach them. It is also possible that the way you produce content or use software to manage it is not translation- and locallisation-friendly.

  • culture & communication norms

    Depending on their national culture, people might need more or less information before they can make a decision, or prefer that information to be delivered in a more or less explicit way. This is why translation might not always work. To make content appealing to local customers, it might be necessary to add or remove some content, or change it completely.