How To Not Lose Content in Translation

What we can learn from the world’s biggest brands’ translation mistakes

A lost tourist holding a map
Image by Grégory ROOSE from Pixabay

Imagine the following situation: You’re dragging a suitcase along the dining area at the airport to grab some overpriced snack before boarding your flight. All of a sudden, a scary poster seeks your attention. It informs you of some extraordinary dishes that will make you eat your fingers just to savor the taste of the dish. This not the opening scene of a low budget horror movie, but a true scenario that occurred in JFK airport, where passengers read a poster produced by the Chinese extension of KFC.

The Chinese KFC management branch removed the poster quickly, but the source for the mistake is clear. The verb lick in Chinese translates into eat in English, which ended up with the message that American diners have to pay with their fingers for munching on chicken wings. The Americans had a similar mistake when they tried to appeal to the Chinese market with the slogan “Pepsi brings you back to life.” Nobody in the American office considered that the slogan translates natively into “Pepsi brings you back from the dead.” Chinese culture is rich with mentions of the undead, and nobody needs Pepsi for a resurrection.

It’s easy to laugh at the failure of Pepsi and KFC, but it’s hard to blame them. If there’s one thing content managers and creators hate most, it’s creating content that is not in their native language. Creating content for an audience that speaks a foreign language, not to mention a whole different market, forces content professionals out of their comfort zone. In many cases, they have to outsource their work, hence losing much of their ability to control the content creation process and assure its quality.

Many content managers believe they can translate existing content into high-quality native copy merely by hiring a writer who is a native speaker. That means someone who can translate the text without grammar, spelling, and semantic mistakes. However, today it is clear this is not enough. Not every native Spanish speaker knows the cultural nuances of Mexico or Argentina, for instance. Furthermore, not every native speaker is a good content writer, who knows how to adjust the content’s style to maintain its value for the target audience.

The fashion designer Marc Jacobs perhaps didn’t consider recommended adjustments when presenting his Spring 2017 collection, inspired by the “Harajuku girls,” the young residents of the fashionable quarter in Tokyo. This isn’t the first time Jacobs was accused of appropriating other cultures for clothes that white models wear. Only that time, critics said he went too far when he enabled his supermodels (Kendall Jenner, Adriana Lima, etc.) to walk along the aisle with their hair braided in colorful dreadlocks. That haircut is associated with black culture in general, and Jamaica in particular. The result offended two potential target audiences and taught that if you have to copy, at least do it sensitively.

Another common mistake by content professionals is believing that they can still control the quality of their content as long as it’s in English, a language they’re familiar with. This assumes that the content is translated for an audience in English-speaking countries like the USA, Australia, and the UK. However, English is also recognized as an official language in the UAE and Saudi Arabia, as well as Singapore, India, Hong Kong, and the Philippines.

Needless to say that the same piece of content would be consumed differently by an American and a Saudi Arabian. You can learn that also from the joke about the cola salesman in the desert. They tell about a disappointed salesman who failed when trying to market the drink with a comic strip. In that strip, a person is seen dried out on the left side, and going out for a run on the right side, after supposedly drinking from a can. It looks like an effective advertisement until the salesman realizes, “nobody told me that in Arabic you read from right to left.” That means that when translating the comic strip, the salesman had to consider that Saudi Arabians speak both languages.

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Photo by Ernest Brillo on Unsplash

Remember that even in the first English-speaking markets that come to mind, there are sensitivities to consider. The American writers of Pop-Tarts’ Twitter page learned it first hand when they used fanny to describe a wallet, without considering that in British English, that word relates to the female genitals in a vulgar way.

But the gravest mistake of content managers is to save costs by translating using Google Translate or using it to assure the quality of existing content, rather than using a human editor. Google Translate, as any translator would tell you, is unreliable. It is indifferent to semantics and vulnerable to spelling mistakes and would lose your message along the way. Just look how it massacred the lyrics of the songs by The Weekend and P!nk when Jimmy Kimmel’s show translated them into Hungarian and back to English

The localization of content is not a mistake. You can duplicate content into selected languages professionally, as long as you hire the right personnel, who are familiar with the target audience. Nevertheless, it is best to spread a story in several markets instead of blind translation to fit a single market. That way, each market can create content that is better suited for its target audience. It is, perhaps, more expensive, but it prevents the common scenario of content silos, in which several agencies are working on the same project in different countries, without cooperating or worse, when the content created by one agency is dictated to another, even if it’s not suited for the local audience.

Let’s finish with an example of how to do it the right way. The hotelier network Palladium has 44 assets, under ten different brand names, from Italy to the Dominican Republic. So, when the network intended to increase the number of leads from its home website, it invested in more than just performance optimization but also in pages that were written in American English. The network made sure to do the same to all the pages of the different target audiences in the relevant countries.

That included intensive global SEO work that optimized the site’s architecture while upgrading the quality of content in six languages, including Portuguese and German, to make it readable for native speakers and consider localized keywords. Also, they enriched each asset with tailored information according to geographical location, including dining and leisure recommendations. That created a customer journey that was suited to the qualities of every hotel and the reason customers are interested in it in the first place. If an international hotelier network had managed to pull it off, there is no reason your brand can’t.

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