For those of you who don’t know me (and if my name didn’t give it away), my grandmother is from Japan.
Even though she’s spent more of her life in America than not, I swear her accent gets thicker every year. And bless her heart, even though she speaks fluent English, sometimes it’s just hard to understand what she’s trying to say.
Maybe she uses the wrong word, like describing green traffic lights as “blue,” or maybe she does something cultural that makes it hard to understand, like saying “ah, a little” instead of “no” when she doesn’t want to do something.
If you have a foreign born parent, or grandparent, or even a foreign friend, you know exactly what I’m talking about. Just because someone knows what the correct words are, it doesn’t mean they know what the right words are. Or maybe they don’t always understand social nuance. So even if they speak fine English, the way they act comes across weird.
In Japanese, understanding cultural context is referred to as kuki wo yomu, which translates to “reading the air. If you’re like me, however, you’ll probably hear “Ay-aaah! Kuuki Yomenai!” more. (That literally translates to “you can’t read the air!” and more figuratively means, “Jesus Christ, I can’t believe you did that – how are you my granddaughter?”)
So you can understand why the first time I saw a multi-lingual campaign pass through Jeffrey Scott, I braced myself.
If huge companies like Coca-Cola or KFC could manage to make grave translation errors, what chance did we stand?
Several images from my multi-cultural experience flew through my mind, all at once:
My older cousin Isao (who now, incidentally, writes commercial jingles) trying to be in a Visual Kei band. In an attempt to cross the Pacific, he passed his band’s debut album along to us. Except, the album touted the band as “Pink Lemon’d” and not “Pink Lemonade.”
My first Japanese professor describing “Macaroni and Cheese” as “Maccucheese,” much to the confusion of everyone in my class except for me and the one other Japanese kid who were used to translating that kind of English.
And, one of my most embarrassing errors, a Japanese assignment, where I proudly proclaimed that I was a TV, instead of that I watched TV.
(Watashi wa terebi desu, and not Watashi wa terebi o mimasu)
And these were just small personal errors. None of the above mistakes were going to cost a company billions of dollars, like marketing your soda as “Bite the Wax Tadpole” or insisting your chicken is “eat your fingers off” good.
(There’s a whole category of “marketing fails” dedicated to just mistranslations. If you ever think you’re bad at your job, give those a Google, and take a deep breath.)
The thing is, when you’re trying to translate a campaign or just a singular ad to a different language, you’ve got to understand that there’s a lot more to factor in than just words.
There are cultural nuances, and even slang that you wouldn’t think about. That metaphor, that play-on-words, alliteration, assonance or pun that worked so well in English just isn’t going to translate in another language.
We ad types don’t like to brag about our ability to stalk and understand targets who are vastly different from us and connect eerily well with them (cough, cough we totally do), but this is one of those rare “it takes one to know one” situations. When executing multi-lingual campaigns, you’d not only be doing a disservice to your audience by not employing a native speaker to create culturally specific content—you’d be doing a disservice to your clients and their brands.
Luckily, the folks here at JSA were a lot savvier than my little intern mind realized. When I mustered up the courage to ask, who, exactly, was translating these campaigns, I was informed that we’re smart enough over here on Fulton street to hire native speakers in Spanish, Hmong, and yes, unbelievably, even English.
There’s a reason the government trusts us with their jobs.
So next time you find yourself in a Bill Murray-esque quandary…remember, we know what “more intensity” actually means.