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Why not to trust a machine with the reputation of your brand

Posted by Elena del Valle on May 11, 2012

Would You Trust a Machine With Your Brand’s Reputation? Technology is Great, but Successful Cross-Cultural Communication Requires a Human Touch
By George Rimalower
President of ISI Translation Services

George Rimalower, president, ISI Translation Services

George Rimalower, president, ISI Translation Services

Photo: ISI Translation Services

Earlier this year the Malaysian Defense Ministry was mocked worldwide when its English translation errors went viral via social media.

Its staff dress code, published online, warned against “clothes that poke eye.” The history section of the ministry’s website explained: “After the withdrawal of British army, the Malaysian Government take drastic measures to increase the level of any national security threat.”

Anyone who’s had a cross-cultural experience of any kind has likely had at least one moment of absurd misunderstanding. In a personal situation it can be funny. In a business setting, it can be damaging.

Organizations spend millions of dollars creating a brand, designing a logo, and registering those images and taglines to protect them legally. Their legal and communications teams examine every press release, ad slogan, brochure, sales letter and billboard ad to make sure that brand and the company’s reputation are guarded at all times. Every English word is scrutinized.

Then, to reach a Spanish-speaking audience – or any audience in another language – they’ll run that same content through a free online translation tool. The extent of their quality control might include asking the bi-lingual person from the accounting department to look it over.


After all that time, expense and effort to protect the brand, they trust the company’s reputation in the hands of a free online translation tool and someone who’s never been trained as a translator.

Even if the service provides an accurate translation, the fact is that whether or not accurate is the same as correct for a given audience depends on that given audience. The same Spanish translation might not be the right Spanish translation for every Spanish-speaker.

Confused? Now you know you how your audience feels.

Spanish varies according to the particular audience:  the meaning of a word or phrase may differ from Mexico to Guatemala, and even from Florida to Texas or California.  Take for instance, “beans.” Are we referring to frijoles, porotos or judías? When and where do we reference a palta, an aguacate or even avocado? When should we hop on the autobús, the guagua, the colectivo or simply the bus?

Here’s the incentive to get it right: as reported by the Center for Hispanic Leadership: Hispanic consumers are brand loyal and are more likely to engage with companies, both online and off, that resonate with their voice, culture and community. A new Nielsen report found that Latinos exhibit distinct product consumption patterns and are not buying in ways that are the same as the total market. Their technology and media use do not mirror the general market but have distinct patterns due to language, culture, and ownership dynamics.

Practical Tips for Achieving Accurate Translations

Here are some practical tips for marketers wanting to communicate effectively in Spanish – whether the audience is in another country, another state or just down the street.

Symbols – To North American English-speakers, an owl represents wisdom. In Mexico the owl represents stupidity. Always put symbols through a cultural review process or test them with focus groups. That’s a situation in which a machine translation might accurately translate “owl,” but wouldn’t recognize the faux pas.

Numbers and dates – 1,107.61 in the United States would be written as 1.107,61 in Latin American Spanish. Likewise, 6/3/11 is June 3rd here in the States, but represents the 6th of March in many countries outside the United States.

Color – While red conveys a sense of danger or alarm to North American English speakers, the color represents a sense of happiness or good luck to other cultural groups.

Text expansion – Most other languages use more words than English. Translated material can be 25 to 35 percent longer, which can cause problems and delays when the text has to fit into an already-designed template.

Also, don’t forget to examine the entire chain of communication. If a Spanish-language brochure sends someone to your English-only website, you’ll lose your audience. For example: if your brochure translates the phrase “click on the PRINT button” to “haga clic en el botón IMPRIMIR” – but the website button actually is labeled “PRINT” – you will needlessly frustrate consumers and possibly lose them as potential customers in the process. This may seem obvious, but it’s all too common for people to forget how their translations ultimately will be used.

While technology certainly has streamlined translation, true communication can’t happen without a professional, human touch.

It takes a lot of thought and strategy to build a brand, and only a few viral blunders to bring it down. Take as much care with your cross-cultural communications, and you’ll be rewarded with loyal customers.

George Rimalower is president of ISI Translation Services (, a language services company specializing in healthcare and other industries. ISI was one of the first translation companies to address the special linguistic and cultural needs of both non- and limited-English-proficient communities of the United States.