When doing business with foreign companies, how much do you invest in translation? If you understand the pitfalls of cutting corners, says Agnes Marceau of Swindon firm Syntacta, you realise why it’s the effort to get it right

Translation is not a commodity, like gold or platinum. It’s far more valuable than that. If you’ve invested money and time crafting marketing material about your products or services for the domestic market, when you’re trying to crack a foreign market your messages need to be just as clear and compelling to your new audience.

But if you see translation as a straightforward mechanical process, akin to changing a font or colour on a word document, you could be heading for commercial disaster. Try typing the previous three sentences into Google Translate and then translating them into Spanish or German or Turkish. Then copy that translation, and turn it back into English. It’s almost certainly close, but not quite right.

If you wouldn’t be happy sending the resulting text out on one of your products, or on your marketing material, you need a professional (human!) translator. But you’ll also need to invest some time to brief your translation agency clearly – and to allow the translator to complete the work.

A good rule of thumb is to assume that a translation will take around the same time that the original copy took to write. He or she may well need some time to research the subject, reflect and go back to it, to get it absolutely right. Be clear with the translation agency about the target audience for your text, too.

A set of instructions for manual labourers on how to assemble a product will have a very different tone and positioning from an arts brochure or a scientific paper. And marketing material aimed at teenagers and young adults will be different again. Get it slightly wrong, and you’ll lose credibility – and lose the interest of your key audience. In short, take exactly the same care and pride in your translation as you would in the original language.

If you’ve never used a translation agency before and don’t know where to start, check if the ones you’re considering are members of a recognised trade association, such as the Institute of Translation and Interpreting. The ITI’s professional code of conduct requires its members to act with honesty and integrity with professional competence and to maintain client confidentiality. Check what will be included in the price, too – proof-reading is usually an optional extra, but if you’re not fluent in the dialect or language, it’s worth paying for. Your foreign text should be flawless, to reflect the high standards of your goods or services.

And if you find you have to wait a little for your copy to be translated, recognise it as the good sign that it is. The best translators are always busy. They’re also worth the wait.

Lost in translation

Even the multinationals get it wrong at times: Scandinavian vacuum cleaner manufacturer Electrolux launched an American advertising campaign with the strapline “Nothing sucks like an Electrolux”.

When Pepsi launched in China, their "Come alive with the Pepsi generation" slogan was translated less than well as "Pepsi brings your ancestors back from the grave."

And Coca Cola did little better when they broke into China. They selected the characters that, when spoken aloud, sounded most like “Coca Cola”. Unfortunately, those characters actually mean “taste the wax tadpole”. The corporate giant soon changed the name to characters that mean “happiness in the mouth”.

Culture clash

It’s as important to use a native speaking translator who is totally familiar with the culture of the country you’re targeting. Cultural misjudgements can be expensive: One company printed the OK finger-to-thumb sign on every page of its catalogue – unaware that in many parts of Latin America the sign is an obscene gesture. Months of sales were lost while they redesigned and reprinted all their catalogues.

In some African countries it is usual to show an image of the contents of a box or container on the label. When staff at the port of Stevadores saw the international sign for “fragile! – a broken wine glass – they presumed all the boxes contained broken glass, and to save space they threw them all into the sea.