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.)


Jill said...

Outstanding post! Informative and interesting from start to finish. You did a very good job explaining to non-translators how difficult translating slogans can be. No wonder it was published in Multilingual. Now get it published in something like The Economist or Wall Street Journal! This is a must-read for business folks.

Caitilin said...

Kudos to you for an excellent article, and a great example of helping clients get what they came for. Jill is right--we need to see this get exposure beyond the T&I press.

I'd be interested to see how you handle the other side of the equation, subcontracting such work to languages you may not have in house. Obviously a per-word rate won't work; an inflexible minimum may not do the trick either. Are we finally to the point where we bill like professionals--by the hour?

Melissa said...

Hello! I was googling around for info and came across this blog post.

I'm a little confused, b/c I was under the impression (1st gen. American; Cuban family) that "¡Cosa más grande!" is a phrase used for dismay, not for praise. Or is it just that I'm thinking about it in terms of: "Pero que cosa mas/tan grande, caballero!" ? That one's definitely dismay.