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Lost in translation?

Getting your verbal and visual message across in different markets can be very tricky

You pour yourself a bowl of your favourite breakfast cereal, add milk, and wait for the familiar Snap! Crackle! and Pop!

Wait a minute, something's wrong! They're going Knisper! Knasper! Knusper! Welcome to Germany, where Rice Crispies make a completely different sound to the UK.

Apparently, they sound the same in Holland, but in Sweden they go Pif! Paf! Pouf! In France they say Cric! Crac! Croc! and if you're having your breakfast in Madrid, they're likely to be going Cris! Cras! Cros!

If we can't even agree on the sound our breakfast makes, what hope is there for European, let alone global advertising campaigns?

Being sick all over Europe

But, of course, international advertising campaigns can work. It's our job to make them work. It's just that we have to take a bit more care.

The problem is not just that nationalities speak different languages, but that some nations have words for things and suffer from diseases that others simply don't.

Only in Germany can you suffer from knalltrauma, a type of deafness caused by shockwaves; wurstvergiftung, sausage poisoning; or haftpsychose, prison psychosis. In France, heavy smoking has its own word, tabagisme, and you also can suffer from chiasse, a specific form of diarrhoea caused by fear.

Also, can any nation other than the Japanese suffer from koro - the irrational obsession that your penis is shrinking back into your body?

Acronyms may appear to be international, but this is not always the case: if you're French, you'll recognise AIDS as SIDA and HIV as VIH. The nasty little English STD you picked up may be a MST in France or a German geschlechtskrankheit. GIFT (a type of IVF) doesn't have the same suggestion of generosity in its German equivalent, ITGT.

It's a received wisdom among ad agency staff who produce international work that English is an economical language and you need to allow an extra 33 per cent for German text, as there are long words to describe things. But who can argue with the brevity of zug, (traction) and wut (frenzy), or the simple keilwirbel which English describes as 'a wedge shaped deformity of the spine'?

A particular favourite is the German kummerspeck or 'grief bacon' - a term the English can only render as 'excess weight gained from emotion-related overeating'.

There is, however, a serious point to all of this. We cannot assume a homogeneity of health. Nationalities invent different terms because they think about their health, and their illnesses, in a different way. We cannot assume that everyone will respond to a brand message in the same way - even if it has been translated correctly.

Not how it seems

You should beware, too, of the many linguistic false friends there are around.

In France, your tension is your blood pressure; a radio is an X-ray; sale is dirty; and your vÈgÈtations are your adenoids. However, suture is, thank heavens, a suture.

Vers are worms and verrues warts (woe betide the copywriter who gets them mixed up!). A rot is a burp and a choc is a shock. While you may remember from school that manger is to eat, watch it - demanger is to itch or scratch something.

In Spain too, you must be on your guard. If your back is sensible it is sore and at lunchtime be careful not to ask for a sarna as you'll get scabies.

To avoid these pitfalls, the answer might appear to be to construct international press adverts in strict medico-scientific language. Yet, the danger then is that all ads will look and read the same. Formal or international medical language doesn't allow the subtlety for sophisticated brand positioning and creative interpretation.

English-speakers can all describe the condition as allergic rhinitis, but as for hayfever, nasenschleimhautentz˙ndung or le rhume des foins are much more versatile linguistic tools.

While I'm not arguing that we are in the business of poetry, writing colloquially, or at least more naturally, opens up a richer more flexible language, giving your brand a competitive edge; but tread warily.

The problem with pictures

Of course, we can work our way around the language barrier with some intelligent trans-interpretation. However, there is such a thing as visual language, as well as verbal, and the visual element of your communication can become a major headache.

To take one obvious example, animal similes and metaphors are particularly troublesome in international campaigns. There is probably more cultural difference in the national attitudes to animals than anything else.

You can only be as 'sick as a parrot' in English, while 'as poor as a church mouse' would mean nothing to anyone in any other language if translated literally.

Anthropomorphism is the attribution of human characteristics to animals and only a complete ass would fail to realise that the symbolism of any animal is strongly culturally mediated.

You can be pretty sure that what it means to you will not be the same as its meaning to someone on the other side of Europe.

A rose may be a rose by any other name but a butterfly (papillon) is also a parking ticket in France and its Greek-Cypriot equivalent petalouda is the small device used to remove staples - it doesn't even have a name in English.

So check out and re-interpret the visual as well as the headline, especially if it features an animal. But be careful. It's a jungle out there.

Without a doubt, the age of the pan-European and global ad campaign is here to stay, and rightly so. Given the increasing internationality of our audience it would be confusing, if not stupid, to have different positionings and different product messages in each market.

Yet, that is not to say that the message has to be expressed in the same way.

It is a mistake to assume that in advertising one-size-fits-all. There must always be room for local adaptation and re-interpretation if you are to maximise your promotional spend in each of your markets.

Work with a writer, art director and strategist who speak the language and are part of the culture.

And let's just hope patients don't end up with the Chinese illness huiji-jiyi, the fear of taking your doctor's advice in case people think you are suffering from a disease!

The Author
Phil Cox is creative director of Lane, Earl and Cox Advertising, TBWA/WORLDHEALTH's London agency.

2nd September 2008


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