Getting Translations Right the First Time



Aug 10, 2021

Complexity behind Translations

The next time you’re watching the next international flick on Netflix or some other streaming service, think about the effort required to translate the original script to English subtitles: idioms must be understood (which is nearly impossible at times), the intent of the message has to be clear, the tone must be consistent, and the resulting translations must not be too long to read. These constraints can quickly complicate translating one line of dialogue. While translations can be done with a click of a Google Translate button, the accuracy behind such actions can be devastating. 

When Things Go Wrong

Take for example, the United States Dairy Association (USDA). Their slogan, “Got Milk” was extremely successful decades ago and really did get people to drink more milk for most of the US. In fact, those who have seen their ads have had plenty of celebrity milk mustaches burned into our memories! However, it had the opposite effect for the Spanish speaking demographic. The reason being was a large blunder in translating “Got Milk” into Spanish. “¿Tienes Leche?” was the resulting translation, which roughly translates to “Are You Lactating?” This was seen as offensive not only to Spanish speakers but also to women and people who knew of women having difficulties producing breast milk. The Spanish translation oversight was a bad look for the USDA and did some serious damage to milk sales. Even forgetting who your target audience is, as Marriot did in China, can be costly in hotel booking.

Knowing The Difference

As you can see, even large brands can make these mistakes, causing them millions in lost sales and damaging their brand. Obviously, not every incorrect translation is as devastating as the USDA or Marriot example. A lot of the time though, poor translations can cause a slight disconnect with your customer, which can lead to missed opportunities. Fortunately, poor translations can be easily fixed with the right human intervention. The USDA could have easily collaborated with a native Spanish speaker to prevent “¿Tienes Leche?” from being the Spanish slogan. As marketers, we can only guess as to why the USDA failed to take that extra step to run it through a focus group.

Today, we know that not every translation uses human translators. Instead, some opt for machine translations. Perhaps this was the reason why the USDA faced the issues that they did. In short, machine translation uses probability to predict the most likely translation. It is extremely accurate when translating shorter sentences that do not require any context, saving a lot of time and effort during translations. The challenge however, is when context is required. You start introducing “Are You Lactating” and other incorrect translation problems with machine translations. Natural language processing is helping advance the field and shows promise for these more complex translations. In addition to context, when marketing and copywriting come into play, humans are very much needed to get it right and may never be replaced.

Getting It Right

Revisiting our Netflix example, we can confidently say that human translations are the answer for movie subtitles. In fact, when we can get language right like Netflix does in 190 countries, we unlock a captivated audience who will not only listen to your message but also pay for your services over and over again. Not many companies operate at the same language scale as Netflix, but you get the point.

Unsure of what to think? Reach out to Uplancer for more information. We can help you understand whether translations are right for you and to see if there are issues with your existing translations. 

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