Monday, January 31, 2011

Translating Slogans

In a per-word world, slogan translation should be some of the most inexpensive work we do. After all, something like Refreshingly Real is only two words. But what’s refreshingly real about slogan translation is that this type of work comes anything but cheap, in all the senses of the word. Translating slogans is difficult, pain-staking and downright costly -- especially if you don’t get it right.

Since opening in 2005, In Every Language has translated slogans and catch phrases for everything from hamburgers to recliners to stud farms -- that’d be horses, not good looking men. I’ve found that the act of translating slogans requires a collaborative environment between the translation company, the ad agency and the end client. And as with anything else we do, some clients are more collaborative than others. When both the ad agency and the end client are on board, the translation itself is more effective, the work is done more quickly and the bill itself can be lower. To translate anything, you have to understand it, but if you translate slogans long enough, it’s inevitable that someone -- ad agency or end client side -- will misunderstand and it unfortunately doesn’t take long for the email to arrive asking  why they have to “spend so much” or “wait so long” for something that’s “just a few words.”

When things go right, though, the client understands. Fortunately for us, there are agencies out there that know how much work they put into crafting those “few words” and realize  that translation will take more than an hour and $25. Others, though -- especially smaller ones working with their first national or global account -- somehow don’t grasp that what took them hours of work will also take hours -- or maybe even days -- of work from you.

That’s because our work parameters may be different, but the work itself can be very much the same. The ad folks are idea makers, given weeks or months with a product, hours or weeks with its maker, truly able to start from scratch in their conceptual dreaming. When it comes to writing or translating a slogan, in any language, you really are cramming everything about a product or a company -- its soul, its spirit, its I Ch’ing -- into “just a few words.”  You have to make the buyer acknowledge the product, you have to make him want the product and you have to make him remember to buy the product, all in the blink of an eye. That type of thoughtful capturing takes time, both in target and source.

But the ad agency has the home court advantage, so to speak, because it gets to start from scratch. Translators are guests in the deal, having to play on the ad agency’s basketball court, as they take what ad writers have decided is persuasive, then make it equally persuasive in another language for another group of people living in another culture -- all while being true to the original text.

That’s why I still say slogan translation instead of transcreation, a term swiftly taking hold in our industry. If, as some argue, localization is simply translation done right, then transcreation is localization in the emperor’s new clothing. Despite the creative energies required, translators are not the creators here. If you go to, transcreation as a word isn’t even in there yet, but creation is. It’s “the act of producing or causing to exist; an original product of the mind.”  Translators are producing and their slogans definitely would not exist in the target language if it weren’t for them, but translated slogans are anything but “an original product of the mind.”  They’re much more intrinsically and difficulty birthed than that. In translating a slogan, you have to make people want, remember and buy the product, but you also have to do it within the confines of the original slogan’s want-remember-buy trifecta. Where the agency was free to explore, design and dream without any non-product parameters, translators must do those things within the parameters they have set. We are reshaping the idea, but we did not create the materials it is made of. But on what level?  And in what way?

Take the slogan “This should go over big.”  When McDonald’s ad agency came to us, they needed it translated specifically for Spanish speakers living in the United States. Now, before you get all excited, I have to tell you In Every Language is not the me encanta (I’m lovin’ it) company. While I’d love seeing my name -- ahem, I mean my translation -- up in lights, the slogan work we do for McDonald’s is much more local(ized) than anything marketed on an international level. The portion of Mickey D’s “billions and billions served” that sees our work is Hispanic Americans in the Midwest and Mid-South -- principally Indiana, Ohio, Kentucky and Tennessee. The translated slogans run in Spanish-language newspapers and are on roadside billboards in immigrant neighborhoods. Because of where the slogans appear, they can’t really be localized for a specific dialect. Here in Louisville, Kentucky alone, we have Spanish speakers born in Cuba, Mexico, Argentina, Venezuela, Spain, Guatemala, Belize, Uruguay, Ecuador, Colombia, Peru and Puerto Rico. Take in the rest of the state, then the rest of the region and the list grows longer. And McDonald’s understandably doesn’t want to have to put up multiple billboards for all those different countries. The work we do must be localized for a Spanish-speaking consumer, but it must be generalized for all ethnicities of consumer all at once.

In most of these countries, a Big Mac is called a Big Mac. It’s not a Grande Mac, a Mac Gigante or anything where we could readily use the name of the sandwich to linguistically play on its size. The word big itself wasn’t capitalized, either, which means that the link between the sandwich being a Big Mac and its being big in size wasn’t meant to be overly overt, anyway. So on to the next point of consideration: what the slogan was trying to say, as opposed to exactly what it said. And I think it’s quite obvious to anyone reading this article that the core message of this slogan was that a Big Mac is big. Not only is it big, but it was going to be a smash hit.

In Louisville, we’re odd for the United States in that there are more Cubans than Spanish-speakers of any type. So our first impulse was ¡Cosa más grande! (The biggest thing!), a typical Cuban expression used to denote surprise or praise. Perfect, you might think, as it gets across the sheer overwhelming nature of the Big Mac’s large size and also manages to play on the word big. But not so quick. Remember we’re working with different dialects and outside of Cuba, this phrase is actually quite funny because of the triteness of it all. Remember Bart Simpson?  Well, “Cowabunga, dude” might have been alright -- I would never argue cool -- to say when Bart first hit the scene in 1989, but say it now and you’ll get laughed right out of pretty much anywhere except an English-as-a-foreign-language class. So, think of ¡Cosa más grande! as something like that -- a phrase that does, in fact, mean something and that some speakers might think was cool – but think of Cuba as English class -- the one place where ¡Cosa más grande! is actually okay for grown-ups to seriously say. Next, please.

Leave Louisville and go into the rest of our region and you’ll meet a lot of Mexicans. And face it, when clients say they want generalized Spanish for the US, what they most often ask for is Mexican. Mexican is the catch-all Spanish in our country, whether it  should be or not. So, effort number two was No te hagas de la boca chiquita (Don’t pretend you have a small mouth) -- a Mexican expression, but at least one people from other countries wouldn’t make fun of. First problem, though: it was still a little dialect-specific. Second problem: While the expression is said when a host wants a dinner guest to feel comfortable and eat up, its size word (chiquita) references small, not big. We wanted to stay away from any subliminal ties small vs. big might convey.

So onto solution three: Esto va en grande (This is going to be big). Pay dirt. Esto va en grande is understood in multiple countries, uses the word grande and is said when the speaker wants to reassure the listener that what is heading his way really is the real deal, positive and not just a promise.

So, our translation for This should go over big went over pretty well with the client and we got set to translate our next slogan for them: Refreshingly Real. When we received the copy, there was no context at all, just the slogan and this sentence: “Is it possible to have a few words translated into Spanish by Monday?,” followed by a request that we also translate the word small. So, we didn’t know what McDonald’s item was being modified, just that it was refreshing, real and might come in different sizes. I think we’d all agree that’s not enough to go on. This is where that collaborative environment comes in. With This is going to be big, there was some back and forth trying to get it right, but given a picture of a Big Mac and the original slogan, it didn’t take a genius to figure out the factors involved. Refreshingly Real, though, was a bit more problematic.

We asked for an image, like we’d had of the Big Mac and point blank asked, “What is refreshingly real? (McDonald's? A specific sandwich? A drink?)”  Enter fruit smoothies ad, the magical PDF that held the key to solving all our dangling modifier problems.  Or so we thought.

Smoothies, by and large, are an American concept. Going through a drive-thru and ordering a cold drink that comes in a cup the size of Montana is not really something folks do outside of the United States. We found ourselves not only translating a slogan, but introducing its concept, since we had to complete the rest of the ad, which promoted real fruit smoothies. 

Now, while I’ll argue that slogans are still translated, naming products definitely falls under transcreation. Research showed that frappé is the most common Spanish word for smoothie, where smoothies do exist, but the problem was McDonald’s already sold frappés and those frappés were already called frappés by Spanish-speakers in the Midwest and Mid-South. In this forever determining of the linguistic path of the fruit smoothie, we were truly starting from scratch.

So what did we name it? In most of South America, people say smoothie for fruit drinks and frappé for coffee drinks. In Mexico, frappé works for both coffee and fruit drinks. Malteada and batido both specifically mean milkshake, but McDonald’s new fruit smoothies don’t have any ice cream in them. Our team thought of raspado, which is similar to slushie, but raspado was too regional; non-Mexicans would be confused by McDonald's selling fruit scraps. In the end, we went with frappé after all and stuck de fruitas (fruit) after it to modify. Boring, I know, but why reinvent the rueda (wheel)?

After getting smoothie figured out, refreshingly real (verdaderamente refrescantes) was refreshingly easy.

It just goes to show, though, that what may be “just a few words” to the client is an entire thought process for us. Our world is anything but a per-word one, where two little words can quickly turn into an intensive spelunking mission deep into the heart of Spanish smoothie history. Translation can turn into transcreation and next thing you know, the project scope has changed.  But what hasn’t changed and what’s sitting there making your job harder is that translators must still consider the original marketer’s intent, the original ad’s language, the product itself and the target market(s). Creativity can be controlled, but collaboration can‘t be, as some clients are naturally more forthcoming and cooperative than others. I suppose we should take it as a compliment when these clients get upset about having to “spend so much” or “wait so long.”  It just means that we as translators are good at what we do, that we’re offering the type of customer service where cultural and linguistic exploration is a given, because the best slogan translators are skilled at making something look easy that clearly is not.

(This article initially ran in MultiLingual Magazine.)

Monday, January 24, 2011

Should We Translate or Shouldn’t We?

If Blackwater asked you to translate assembly instructions for an automatic rifle, would you do it? What if they told you the document’s target audience was teenagers in the Sudan?  This is not a hypothetical, but a real dilemma my staff had to grabble with a few years ago.  At the height of Blackwater’s unpopularity, not that long after the shooting crisis in Iraq, my staff sat in an office in Louisville, Kentucky and asked ourselves, “Should we or shouldn’t we?”  In Every Language was still a young company, starting to grow an early, national-level client list, and to be quite frank, we probably could have used the money.  But we decided not to touch the project with the proverbial ten-foot pole.

Personally, I don’t know as much about the Sudan as I should, but I do know I don’t want to be responsible for anybody killing anybody there or anywhere else, for that matter.  For all I know, though, these guns could have been used for defensive purposes.  For all I know, without this translation, someone might not have known how to properly assemble his gun and gotten his defenseless head blown off as a result.  The point is, once we’ve translated, the power leaves our hands and the document returns to the hands of the client.  We rarely know exactly what happens to it.  I didn’t know then and I don’t know today.  So given the chance, would I turn down translating that project again? That’s something else I don’t know.

Military contracts and contractors aside, the language services profession is rote with controversial issues as subject matter.  If you’re pro-life, do you interpret for an abortion?  If you’re pro-choice, do you interpret for a crisis pregnancy center?  And it doesn’t stop there.  Legal interpreters who are against the death penalty having to interpret judgments they don’t agree with, feminist translators asked to localize for adult entertainment.  Read enough bumper stickers and you’ll quickly learn everyone has their issues.

In truth, though, these issues are important to us on many levels.  Regardless of your set of ethics, no one likes to think of herself as an unethical person.  We each have our constructs, whether we have religion or not, the sheer having or not-having of religion being yet another.  Be we ruled religiously, morally, or ethically, we all have certain things we will or will not do: murder, theft, translation for two competing clients?

Located in Arlington, Virginia, Alboum and Associates bills itself as “translators for the good guys.”  There, the meaning of good guys includes clients in the stop-smoking market, or as CEO Sandra Alboum calls it, “tobacco control.”  Because of the large number of clients Alboum has in this industry, her contract translators pledge not to translate for big tobacco while they’re translating for her.  Alboum claims, “We are translating for you but we are also supporting your cause and as part of your cause, we commit to not work for big tobacco or any pro-tobacco organization or pro-tobacco lobbying. We’re not going to work for competition, if you will.”  In fact, Alboum goes one step further by promoting her company and her contractors to clients as being tobacco-free.

Now, I’m from Kentucky, where tobacco wasn’t just the number one cash crop, but where farming it was a way of life.  But in today’s climate, you don’t have to tell me or our dwindling state economy that smoking is no longer cool.  Anti-tobacco sentiment is, in fact, the well-shared, majority opinion.  But many issues don’t boil down into majority and minority categories with such ease.  Take abortion for example.  According to Derek Selznick with the American Civil Liberties Union of Kentucky, 20% of Americans are adamantly pro-life, 20% are adamantly pro-choice and the rest are either in between or without opinion.  No majority or minority here, unless you claim the majority as undecided.  Tobacco use may be a clearer cut issue, but when your opinion is without clear majority, whose ethics does a company follow then?

In Alboum’s case, her company would drop a translator who translated for both sides. If her company had pro-choice clients, “then [a translator started] translating for the conservative, right-to-lifers…we would have to re-evaluate.  You’re supposed to be on the same page as your client and you’re providing a service for people that understand and are sensitive toward their cause.”

Victor Hertz, CEO of Accredited Language Services in New York, New York, disagrees.  He claims he would never drop a freelance translator based on who else hse translated for or on any set of ethics that translator might hold.  “Unless you can prove that there’s a social good that’s being infringed upon, it’s none of your business,” he says, asking “At what point do you impose your personal values upon others?”

And that is the question.  Whose is it to judge?  As company owners, I suppose you could say it’s ours.  In the end, I, Terena Bell, am responsible for In Every Language as a business.  Sandra Alboum is responsible for Alboum and Associates; Victor Hertz is responsible for Accredited Language Services.  As CEO’s, the buck stops with us and whether and how our companies judge will be based off the executive judgments we make.  In fact, this responsibility is exactly why LinguaLinx in Cohoes, New York, owned by CEO David Smith, doesn’t judge as a business.  “We don’t judge,” Smith says matter-of-factly.  “I would limit the company if I injected my personal viewpoints or morals or values into it.”  Not limiting his company is a personal driver for Smith, whose company regularly takes on projects and clients he doesn’t agree with.  “My company does a lot of things I don’t agree with but in the interest of growing the company as its own independent entity, that I just need to [do].”

One of these things may or may not be pornography translation.  At this year’s annual conference of the American Translators Association –Translation Company Division, Smith sat a panel where he admitted to accepting adult entertainment projects after another panelist expressed opinions against it.  To Smith, though, the ethic at hand is not whether pornography itself is good or bad.  The more important ethic -- the larger priority -- is that responsibility I mentioned earlier.  “Because of my decisions and what I’ve done,” Smith states, “forty-three people go home to their families and can pay their bills.  That’s a good feeling.  I’m creating jobs. That’s the way I look at it.  I’m creating jobs, I’m creating profitability, I’m creating opportunity. People have 401K’s, their retirements, and they rely on me, they rely on my decisions. So whether I personally agree with porn or not, the decision is made that it’s profitable and it needs to be done.”  To Smith, each assignment LinguaLinx accepts gets him one step closer to a goal and creates greater provision for his employees.

 For some of us, though, the two concepts of growing our businesses and pushing our own beliefs aside are not mutually exclusive.  At the end of the day, both translators and business owners are still people.  In fact, 46% of translators and interpreters recently polled by Foreign Exchange Translations occasionally turn assignments down for ethical reasons, and even Smith admits, “I don’t think [accepting assignments you’re against is] necessary to grow, but I think you’re limiting your growth.”

Assignment acceptation and rejection are more clearly addressed in the interpreting world, where one might argue that individual interpreters have an obligation to reject assignments that run contrary to their personal beliefs.  In fact, the National Council on Interpreting in Health Care (NCIHC) Code of Ethics includes provisions on both impartiality and neutrality:

Impartiality: The interpreter strives to maintain impartiality and refrains from counseling, advising or projecting personal biases or beliefs.

Neutrality: The interpreter maintains the boundaries of the professional role, refraining from personal involvement.
Both of these core ethics speak of separation between yourself and your assignment, but the way in which interpreters, well, interpret these rules can be very different.

Marjory Bancroft, Director of Cross-Cultural Communications in Columbia, Maryland, claims “interpreters divide roughly into three categories on this issue: 1) Interpreters who are certain they could remain neutral no matter what the assignment (or just about certain), 2) Interpreters who know there are certain assignments they could not be impartial about and who would therefore decline or withdraw from such assignments, [and] 3) Interpreters who are not sure what they would do and may have to face such a situation in real life to know.”

I think we would all admit that categories one or two would be preferred: interpreters who are certain in their abilities and limitations.  Actually, for Victor Hertz, ethical boundaries are just one more area that make a linguist qualified or unqualified for a particular assignment.  “If [freelancers are] good, they’ll say I can’t do this. If the reason they can’t do this is ethical -- whatever the issue is -- that seems to me to be no different than a translator saying I do technical but not legal.”

Personally, I wish all freelancers would bow out when they knew they wouldn’t do a good job. It would keep a lot of the world’s bad translations from being out there. Whether you think a certain client is evil or whether you simply don’t know the words involved with a particular topic, the fact of the matter remains that you should be professional enough to know what assignments you can do well and which ones you can’t–for whatever reason.  Translation is not the place for martyrs and regardless of which jobs we accept, it’s our job to do those jobs well.  Only we, as individuals, can tell what will and what won’t get in the way.  When Blackwater came to my company, there were a lot of things I didn’t know about the project.  But there was one thing I did know: my individual ethics would have gotten in the way.  So what gets in your way? When should you and when shouldn’t you translate?

(This article initially ran in MultiLingual Magazine.)



Clark, Ken.  “That which must not be translated.”  Translation Guy Blog.  March 29, 2010.

National Council on Interpreting in Health Care. Code of Ethics.

Monday, January 17, 2011

Certification for Domestic Violence Interpreters

How's certification coming along for domestic violence interpreters?  Here's an update on what we're doing in Kentucky:

Wednesday, January 12, 2011

In Every Language Position on Ky SB6

As a business, In Every Language tries not to engage in political debate. But as interpreters, we must be aware when political issues threaten or affect the people we work with.

Kentucky Senate Bill 6 is an Arizona-style immigration bill for the Commonwealth that, if made law, would allow state and local police to fine or detain anyone they suspect of being undocumented.

Regardless of your position on immigration or your personal political beliefs, the passing of this bill--and even its being considered--has a clear impact on Kentucky's limited-English proficient (LEP) population.

What You Can Do
First, we would like interpreters to consider how this bill impacts LEPs you interpret for.  Are they going to feel welcomed in the facilities where we interpret?  Are they going to be forthcoming with medical, legal, and other information?  How does this change the tone or vocabulary you use as an interpreter?  If the bill passes, will you as an interpreter need to bring your residency documents with you to appointments?

Secondly, we understand that some of you may be adamantly for or against this bill, which has already successfully gone through the Ky Senate.  We encourage you to contact your Kentucky House Representative to express your opinion and to tell your representative how you would like for him or her to vote.  You may find your representative's contact information by clicking here.

Third, be present so you can learn more! Community information sessions regarding this bill will be held in Louisville on

Saturday, January 22nd (2 pm) at the Americana Community Center
(The Americana is independently seeking volunteer interpreters for this event. To volunteer, call 502-366-7813.)

Saturday, January 29th (3 pm) at Beechmont Presbyterian Church
(In Spanish)

Yours to Decide
Again, I would like to stress that you have a right to your own opinion.  Whether you are for or against Ky SB6 is yours to decide and our interpreters' individual positions will not affect whether or not In Every Language gives them interpreting assignments.  But, again, as interpreters, we must be aware of what impacts our clients and our LEP audience, which is why I am posting this in my blog.

Thank you.

Monday, January 10, 2011

Interpreting for Domestic Violence Victims

A few weeks ago, I discussed an upcoming training for domestic violence interpreting that In Every Language was putting together with the Ky Domestic Violence Association.  Well, the training was a success!  For those of you who were unable to make it, please find a clip from the training below, where we discuss the (lack of?) appropriateness of physical contact with the LEP.

Monday, January 3, 2011

Translation's Role in International Sales

Paul Simpson with Big Ass Fans, an In Every Language client, discusses the importance of translation to success in international sales. Paul gave this speech at a Global Business Forum hosted by the Ky World Trade Center and Greater Louisville, International (GLI), Louisville, Ky's chamber of commerce.  Because of its length, GLI has broken Paul's speech down into two videos.