Translations and International Business

American advertising has involved with foreign advertising for about forty years. Ever since European countries decided to allow commercials into their programming. Most of those years have been a struggle attempting to utilize American “know how” and injecting it into a foreign culture. American multinational advertising Agencies such as McCann-Erickson, Ogilvy & Mather, J. Walter Thomson and Leo Burnett have needed to hire local talent to understand the market and the culture in order to be effective.

There are translation sites on the internet. There are still many Americans who believe that translation in the mere substitution of one sentence or word in English for another sentence or word into a foreign language. I caution you, these languages are called foreign for a reason. They are derived from an entirely different culture sometimes thousands of years older than the American culture.

Aside from witty comments, jokes and colloquial expressions that are not literally translatable, there are cultural differences. I once went with my grandfather into a dutch restaurant when I was twelve. I asked for a “hot dog.” Every American knows what “hot dog” is, but in The Netherlands, they never heard of such a thing. I tried translating, but that just made the restaurant staff grin. Then, I described it as a small wurst between two slices of bread and I was served just that. Ketchup and American mustard weren’t yet available.

When Mercedes-Benz first came to the United States about 1955, they perceived their vehicles as competing with Chevrolet or Ford. Mercedes-Benz had no perception of a premium niche. They were perceived in Europe as a daily transportation vehicle, perhaps a step above a Volkswagen. Even today 75% of the taxis in Europe are Mercedes-Benz.

In 1962, when Chevrolet decided to go international for the first time, they decided to export their new compact car, the Chevy Nova to Spain. GM executives thought “Nova” meaning new star or one that shines brightly would be ideal. However, with reliability and available parts being in question, the Chevy Nova became the GM “NO VA.” (Spanish for doesn’t move.)

Somethings can be more directly translated, such as a call to action. Push here! Commands do not change much. However, Americans do not really use the subjunctive tenses at all. German, Dutch, French, Spanish, Italian, Greek, Japanese, Chinese and other Asian languages, have two to eight subjunctive tenses. They can in their language communicate on a much more personal level than we can in English. Intonations, meanings, perceptions do not transfer well from one language to another. Tonal emphasis on one part of a word may create a totally different meaning, and could even alienate your prospective customer.

One can be very successful and profitable, especially as cultures move closer and interconnect. Many American Businesses have been embraced abroad such as McDonald’ Hamburgers. But, before one ventures into a foreign culture, check with at least two native speakers, who know the language and the culture.

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