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Not every translation is created equal.

A basic word-for-word translation can be useful from time to time, but what about those times when you truly need to assimilate your message into the grassroots of different culture?

In today’s economy, with the ability to engage with almost anyone in the world, there are almost no limits to the reach your translation can have. This provides the unique opportunity to create a truly effective international message. Sounds kind of nice, right?

The hard part isn’t the translation itself. You’ve done that a million times. The real difficulty lies in sharing a message the way your audience needs to hear it so they will truly understand it the way you mean for them to.

Take a moment to think about someone who speaks a language other than the one you primarily speak. How would you interact with them?  You’d probably take more than just the words you’d say into consideration. You might think about body language, whether or not to look the other in the eyes, or how to end the conversation. Each of those elements would help you communicate to that person’s cultural preferences as well as using the language they speak.

It’s not any different when translating documents. The people you want to connect with don’t just speak a different combination of words and letters, they have a different culture. And, depending on the region or country, they could interpret various meanings from the message you thought was a simple translation (See an example of why this happens in Spanish Translations).

This is why cultural adaptation – the ability to translate both the words and meaning for a specific culture – is critical for your business. Ultimately, your messages need to connect with the people you want to engage. And people always have a cultural context.

Are you not quite convinced? Let’s take a look at a couple examples of campaigns with technically correct translations that missed the cultural interpretation mark by a mile.

 The Gerber Blunder

Gerber baby food is well known for the cute baby face on their labels and somehow even cuter babies in their commercials. And who doesn’t love a cute baby?

So when it was time to expand their business to Africa they assumed that cute babies are an internationally loved symbol. Makes sense, right?

Unfortunately, Gerber didn’t research the culture in the regions they we’re selling to. Had they done so they would have found that, at that time and in those regions, most people couldn’t read, and because of this package labels would normally show a picture of the food that was inside the package. Once again, we see an example where the actual words may be translated correctly, but without taking the resident culture into consideration this company ended up with a packaging nightmare.


On a lighter note, here’s a situation where Ikea took the time and energy to ensure they adapted well to Bangkok’s culture.

If you’ve ever walked through an Ikea and read and tried to pronounce some of the funny names of their furniture, you’ll know that this company likes to use names from their Scandinavian heritage. It’s part of their brand.

But before launching a superstore in Thailand’s capital city, Ikea wanted to make sure that the names of their furniture, including some names of towns, didn’t offend or sound improper. So, they hired locals to go over their product names just to make sure.

As it turns out, several of their products’ names sounded similar to sex acts in the Thai language. And because double entendres aren’t something Ikea wants to promote as part of their brand, they were able to adjust a few names to prevent any misconception.

You can see that cultural adaptation is critical when expanding your company internationally or even targeting audiences from a different culture within your country.  Don’t limit your reach by limiting yourself to a strict, word-for-word, translation. Explore and investigate the culture to which you are appealing and the nuance of their means of communication to ensure that your audience is receiving the message you intend to send.

This is a guest post by Lisa Garcia – a writer and translator working in the United States. When not translating for her clients, you can find Lisa hiking, biking, fishing, or doing just about anything outdoors.


Swedish Translation Services is a company owned by Tess Whitty, a freelance translator (English-Swedish), proofreader, editor, copy writer, localizer and entrepreneur.

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