Avoiding translation traps

Article  \  4 Feb 2014

It is difficult enough finding a brand that is available to use and register in New Zealand. But global brands that can be translated into other languages without losing their core meaning are even harder to find.

Translating a brand involves challenges that need to be handled carefully. Translating is a creative process. Finding an equivalent expression or brand name in a local language that sends the same or a similar message can be difficult. And if a brand translation for a single product goes wrong, it can adversely affect the whole business.

Not all brands translate well

A business that wants to operate globally under the same brand needs to decide whether the brand will be used in English, in a local language or a mixture of both.

While use in English may provide benefits with consistent marketing and brand profile, consumers in non-English speaking countries may struggle to pronounce and recall a brand easily. Local consumers may simply adopt their own translation for a brand - and that translation might not suit the business.

Images and colours

The way a brand is interpreted in New Zealand will not necessarily be the same in other countries. Not only can there be differences in word meanings, but graphics, colours and imagery can also be interpreted in unexpected ways.

What's hot?

Cultural adaptation is key. It is important to understand what a brand is saying before translating or adapting and sending a certain meaning rather than making literal word for word translations. Apart from meaning, nuances and associations, phonetic appeal, associations with local literature, historical figures, and legends also need to be considered.

Words should not be chosen by how they sound, with little regard to their original meaning; put aside the time to research how the brand will be perceived from a range of perspectives - including aurally, visually, culturally, and conceptually.

Every business looking to choose a brand for use on a global basis needs to do so with caution.

Not all translations are registrable

A translated brand may not be registrable as a trademark if it is descriptive of the goods or services it is used for. The same is true for the brand name in English. Translating a trade mark in a foreign language will not get around the rules for registering trade marks.

Do some research

Plucking words from foreign dictionaries without first checking how they might be received by native speakers can only lead to tears.

Check, check, check that the word you want to choose for your new product or service does not have any negative connotations.

Some pointers

  • Decide whether a literal or a liberal translation is required.
  • Work with a local translator.
  • Take the trouble to understand the local culture where your products or services are sold.
  • Does the translation fit your brand image aurally, visually, culturally and conceptually?
  • Talk to a local business unit or agent - what are their thoughts on the translation?
  • Test the translation with customers and gauge reaction.

The ability to locally adapt a brand is dependent on hard work, the particular culture and language. And when they are successful, they are hard to beat.

An edited version of this article appeared in the February 2014 issue of NZ Retail.