Social media: Lost in translation?

by Urs E. Gattiker on 2012/05/13 · 31 comments 8,900 views

in f standards - client focus, customer exp.

Translation and culture – make it work
Good social CRM (customer relationship management) requires that we consider cross-cultural differences, but challenges remain.
How do you ensure quality control when it comes to translating text?
Does the translated text convey the image AND style you want for your brand?
This is the third post in a series of sure-fire tips for making your corporate blog successful while communicating more effectively. The first one addressed, Blogging: The death of trust? and was followed by, Is your blog a failure?. Today we address translation. In the global market place, translation is increasingly necessary to communicate in the clients’ preferred language, whether a product manual, a flyer or an email communiqué. Read on for insights to help you master the communication challenge.

QuantityClick on image - Lost in translation - it takes fewer characters in Chinese than English.

A 78-character tweet or SMS/text in English is 24 characters long in Chinese and about 110 characters long in French or German.

The graph (click for more information) indicates that compared to Chinese, most translations will make a text longer. But even in English, things should be shorter than, for example, in German, French or Italian.

In short: When you translate your next blog post or sales brochure from English into Spanish, remember it will take more words to convey the message properly.

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New, wrong or different meaning(s) gained in translation

Denotation refers to the literal meaning of a word. But sometimes we use irony, whereby we say something but mean the opposite. Irony travels badly across languages. Unfortunately, giving something a different meaning than intended (humor) does not mean that a non-native speaker understands it. It certainly makes things harder for your translator.

To illustrate this further, countries use different words to achieve similar things. For instance, Tuesday May 1 was the date when trade unionists across the world joined May Day marches and other events to mark International Workers’ Day. In Germany the term used is Tag der Arbeit, which fits better with the term Labor Day. However, the latter is usually observed on the first Monday of September in Canada and the US – nowhere near May 1.

See also History of Labor Day – Chicago – Tuesday, May 4, 1886 – strike for 8-hour workday.

In short: Some things are hard to translate. Nevertheless, failing to communicate properly will neither help your reputation nor gain your clients’ trust.


In addition to the above, the simple fact is that languages do not really translate very well or easily from one to the other. For instance, translating the nuances of French into American English idioms is really hard. The denotations of words are one thing. The connotations (i.e. an idea that is implied or suggested) are a whole other story, and never really parallel from one language to another.

In short: Things may lose some of their intended meaning when they get translated, so best practice means double-check to be sure (Auswertung der Februar-Umfrage – Evaluation of our February Survey – Technical Documentation blog from Britta Görs).

Click on image - French and German text is usually about 20 percent longer than an English one.

Good practice or best practice?

Needless to say, one person may translate things and the next one edits your brochure to ensure the right message comes across. Some translating services call this paying for the use of four eyes, because often the translation means that you basically need to re-write the document, whatever it is, to make sure it conveys the message you want to share. Here are some benchmarks to consider:

1. Computer dilemma: Remember the last time you wanted to fix a computer problem? The same thing tends to happen with properly translating your brochure – it will take more time and effort than you first thought.
2. Beware making risky, if not stupid, choices: People increasingly choose online translation servies without having any idea who ends up doing the work. Do you not wish to know who is teaching your child?
3. Making it work: Finding a great translator and editor takes time, requires that they understand your product/service and necessitates a close working relationship. It is worth it, however, because a bad translation may confuse your potential client, thereby causing you to lose the sale, something you do not want.

More resources on this topic:

– Don’t forget the language factor
– Why less targeted traffic is better than more drive-by traffic
Does your translation account for non-native speakers?
What is social media – definition by Andy Warhol
– Control, mediating and moderator variable – why they matter
Why RSS fails with most blog readers
Why culture and language matter and Twitter is no longer an option

A question for YOU

How do you decide what translation service to use and, most important, how do you make sure it gets done well? Please leave a comment! ;-)

Tip: Search for more ComMetrics and CyTRAP sources on best practice, benchmark, social CRM, SME, reputation, ROI, SEO Google, social media (click to query).

@ComMetrics Social media: Lost in translation? | (click on Tweet This, and voilà!)

Urs E. Gattiker, Ph.D. - CyTRAP Labs - ComMetrics.

The author: This post was written by social media marketing and strategy expert Urs E. Gattiker, who also writes about issues that connect social media with compliance, and thrives on the challenge of measuring how it all affects your bottom line.
His latest book, Social Media Audit: Measure for Impact, is scheduled to appear from Springer Science Publishers in Summer, 2012.
Connect with ComMetrics on Google+ or with the author using: Email | Twitter | | Xing

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  • Marita Roebkes

    Another factor is culture – I am currently working in Europe with German language settings on my smartphone – amazing how some application vendors  just assume that a word by word translation would fit the culture of a country.
    One example Foursquare translation – original text in English – “your friend checked in @ ….”  – translated German text “Dein Kumpel checkt sich grad in die Kneipe   ….”   oops this contact is a business friend and not a buddy and the bar is not a Kneipe – avoiding too colloquial translation would be great.   BestMarita 

    • Urs E. Gattiker

      Dear @twitter-11028352:disqus 
      Thanks so much for your comment.  Absolutely, culture is a big issue (some cultures are more formal than others :-) )….. 

      I tried to address this here: Why culture and language matter and Twitter is no longer an option (click to read)

      I love your @Foursquare:twitter example and the translation from English to German (and how it apparently fails miserably)
      Thanks for sharing. Nevertheless, hope you enjoy Germany even though the smartphone translations for @Foursquare:disqus leave something to be desired…

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  • Maria Bike’

    Interesting post!

    • Urs E. Gattiker

      Dear   @32e7e729a56a57abc3c966b2e35765e3:disqus 
      Thanks so much for the comment.  I appreciate such positive feedback. Especially since I am having a tough time doing another post but translating some stuff into German.Sometimes it is a pain to get the message across properly in another language than it was originally written in.Merci Urs from @ComMetrics:twitter 

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  • WiseStep

    yup they lost they cnt translate 

    • Urs E. Gattiker

      Dear @WiseStep:disqus 

      Thanks so much for stopping by
      Maybe next time you can add two or three lines of ‘beef’ to your comment I love to get your insights regarding these issues.
      @WiseStep:twitter thanks and until next time.

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