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Translations: How not to be a savage

bltcommentaryweb“Take a walk on the wild side.”

What does that phrase evoke in your mind? For some, it raises thoughts of adventure and action; for others, it promotes experimentation. Actually, the phrase was used as a campaign to encourage elderly folks to be more active to maintain their physical and mental health. Meaning, walk, hike, run, do something outdoors.

When the campaign was used to engage the Latino market, the phrase was translated into “Hagase Salvaje” which literally means “Be a savage.”

Now, I don’t know about you, but I sure as heck don’t want my mom or aunts running around being savage and then busting a hip.

This silly error is not uncommon; we also had a natural gas translation that literally said, “Did you fart?”

I bet you are actually LOL’ing!  But a gas explosion wouldn’t be funny. These mistakes happen for three reasons,

  • Cutting corners. Using machine translations like Google Translate, are OK in a pinch, but you still need a native speaker to double check the final results.
  • Just didn’t know. Decision-makers simply don’t know (or don’t consider) that there are multiple ways of saying something in a foreign language, from idioms, to slang, localization and so much more. They may not even know there’s a huge market opportunity available for them to sell their product/service if they would simply offer said product/service in another language.
  • Misassessed proficiency. Because the decision-makers are not fluent in the foreign language there’s no true way to assess whether their translators are actually proficient. Or whether the quality of the final product is acceptable (ideally, you want an “exceptional” product, not just acceptable).

The last one is one of my favorite objections to overcome. “No, Veronica, we don’t need your translation services, we have Maria, our receptionist. She is fluent in Spanish.” Oh, I see. But you speak English fluently, no? Then why do you have a marketing team? Can’t you write your own words? Can’t you proof, edit, and revise your own marketing materials?

As the population grows, so do the opportunities. As shown by the 2010 U.S. Census, there are more than 50 million Hispanics living in the U.S., and 38 million are bilingual. Organizations that seek to capitalize on this untapped market are learning that Latinos are eager for engagement in their native language. A Spanish message, or even a Spanglish message, stands out from the sea of content that is barraging consumers today. But the message has to work.

It has to be compelling and culturally appropriate. And for the love of God, it has to be grammatically correct! Latinos are savvy consumers, we know we are coveted and a botched attempt at engaging us can have dire consequences. From offending to alienating and — even worse — mistakes could lead to legal action.

Machine translation, or MT, like Google Translate although improving exponentially and super affordable (I mean, you can’t be FREE!) may not be accurate. While typos, grammatical errors and misuse of vocabulary can be embarrassing in some scenarios, bungled translations can cause safety risks (think of a safety manual) or provide wrong information that can lead to injury or death.

These tools don’t often incorporate context, like the “walk on the wild side” example. The MT didn’t know it was about activities for the aging population. And glitches can occur too — MT is influenced by millions of online variables. For instance, back in 2015, Google had to fix a bug in its software that kept translating “Russian Federation” as “Mordor” from Lord of the Rings and “Russians” as “occupiers.”

Here’s how to avoid embarrassment, lawsuits, accidents AND employee burnout:

  • Use native speakers, at the very least as editors or final proofreaders of the document. But do not overload bilingual employees with out-of-scope tasks — this leads to major burnout.
  • Hire professionals with documented experience in translations and expertise in the native language
  • Use the appropriate expertise and skill set. Just because the receptionist speaks Spanish, doesn’t mean he/she understands neuroscience, employee or sexual harassment laws.

Our world is changing.  Our consumer base is changing. Our employee base is changing.

These are very basic reasons to engage these folks appropriately — in a safe, cost-effective and professional manner. Please allocate and invest resources for professional language services.

Amigos, remember, you don’t want to be a savage!

Veronica Cool is founder of Cool & Associates LLC, a business management firm specializing in financial wellness and diverse segment marketing. Her column appears each month in The Daily Record and online. Contact her at [email protected] Follow her on Twitter at @verocool.