More Than Words: Translating Cultural Nuances into Effective Online Marketing

Christopher Hurtado —  November 1, 2005
More Than Words: Translating Cultural Nuances into Effective Online Marketing | Christopher Hurtado

Marketing Bad translation has been the cause of many international marketing blunders. When Hunt-Wesson introduced its Big John family brand in Canada, it was translated as “Gros Jos.” Unfortunately, this turned out to be French slang for a woman with large breasts. Fortunately, this actually helped the brand sell. Apparently, a number of Canadian men were interested in “Gros Jos.” A United States (U.S.) airline got lots of attention in Brazil when advertising its swank “rendezvous lounges” on its Boeing 747s. Unfortunately, it wasn’t the kind of attention that leads to increased revenues, since Brazilians didn’t want to be seen entering or leaving an airliner with rooms rented out for prostitution, which is what “rendez-vous” means to them. In Miami, where a number of Spanish dialects are spoken by Hispanics from all over Latin American, a company advertising a bug spray that kills all “bichos,” meaning bugs to Mexicans, didn’t fare so well among Puerto Ricans since, to them, “bichos” are men’s private parts (Ricks 87-88). The proliferation of the Web as a medium for international marketing and commerce underscores the importance of good translation to international marketing success.

Translating Web content is key to capturing global markets. According to Forrester Research, “shoppers are three times more likely to buy products from Web sites in their own language” and over 65% of Internet users shy away from Web sites in a foreign tongue (Heckman 1). However, it takes more than just translation to capture global markets. Translation means converting text into another language, taking into account its full meaning and paying special attention to cultural nuances and style (Esselink 4). According to James Heckman, director of publishing,, “the message and presentation must be tailored to the audience.” (Heckman 2). Tailoring the message to the audience is known as localization. The Localization Industry Standards Association (LISA) defines localization as “taking a product and making it linguistically and culturally appropriate to the target locale (country/region and language) where it will be used and sold” (Esselink 3).

Translation isn’t so much about words as it is about meaning. Translations must take into account cultural differences. Web globalization analyst, John Yunker, warns companies not to “skimp on translators” and that “literal translations can be risky” (Yunker 191). Yunker points out that translation is the most important part of Web site localization (Yunker 191) and that it is an art of far more complexity than meets the eye (Yunker 193).

There is a well-known hypothesis, called the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis, which proposes that the way we encode and store knowledge is determined by our language. There is also enough research into how language affects how people think to give credence to this hypothesis and to suggest that there are, perhaps, as many ways to perceive information as there are languages in the world (Singh 31). For example, the French think of dying as “pushing up the cabbages.” while for the Italians it’s “pulling their leathers.” Meanwhile, Britons and Americans “bite the dust” and Germans “eat the grass” (Anholt 218).

For online marketing, it’s especially important to get localization right. Bert Esselink, a globalization consultant for Lionbridge Technologies, argues that Web pages intended for marketing purposes require a high degree of localization or adaptation to regional standards and conventions. He further argues that, since marketing content on the Web is part of a company’s overall branding, the localization of this content requires more than just translation. He even goes so far as to suggest that marketing copy may need to be rewritten by local copywriters. He also suggests adding local content to translated or localized content to help visitors feel at home (Esselink 39). This means that the localized version of a Web site may be demonstrably different from the original.

A high degree of localization may be necessary for a Web site to fulfill its intended purpose; especially when it comes to marketing and advertising. Simon Anholt, one of the United Kingdom’s best-known international marketing thinkers, argues that it isn’t words, but the subtlety of the ways in which the words combine to form meaning in the reader’s mind, that makes ad copy work. “Advertising,” he says, “is not made of words, but made of culture” (Anholt 5). Anholt goes so far as to argue that translating ad copy doesn’t work because it strips the copy of the inherent qualities it has that make it functional in communicating brand attributes and selling products (Anholt 9). He points out that attempting to reproduce the form of the original copy in another language is futile when what is necessary is to re-enact its function (Anholt 10). Again, taking into account the culture of the locale and crafting a message that speaks to that culture is the secret to global marketing and advertising success.

When it comes to marketing to international users, associate professor of marketing, Nitish Singh, of California State University, Chico, also agrees with Heckman, Yunker, Esselink and Anholt in that translation alone is insufficient (Singh 3). However, although, as Yunker points out, translation is more of an art than a science, there is a science to getting localization right: translation equivalence. Singh points out that idiomatic equivalence, vocabulary equivalence, conceptual equivalence, dialects, text length and color categories all have an impact on translation equivalence (Singh 35). It is important to address each of these areas for localization success. Furthermore, Singh argues that translation errors such as skewed conceptual meaning can result from conceptual misunderstandings (Singh 37). Singh also suggests that, for best results, local terminology such as country-specific metaphors and puns be used in Web localization, not just translation (Singh 94): “grass for Germans,” “dust for Britons.”

Would you buy a workbench with storage space under the seat called “Fartfull?” If so, you can get one at Ikea (Singh 37). This is clearly a cultural blunder. Translation and cultural blunders are common in marketing. Translating idioms can be tricky, as seen in the dust vs. grass example above. Translating grass from German into dust in English in this context is known as idiomatic equivalence (Singh 35). Vocabulary equivalence can be problematic as well. How does one translate words that don’t have an exact or equivalent counterpart in the other language (Singh 35)? For instance, how does one translate “to own” into Spanish? In Spanish one can “be owner of,” but one cannot “own.” There is no such verb in Spanish. Another translation problem is conceptual equivalence. There are two words for trust in German: “trauen” and “vertarauen” “Trauen” has a negative connotation, as in “Ich traue Dir nicht” (“I don’t trust you.”) “Ich vertraue Dir” (“I trust you”) has the prefix “Ver,” which indicates a transformation, because the German worldview assumes that there can be no trust until it is established by an initial favorable exchange (Singh 37).

When it comes to online marketing, terminology goes beyond Web content; it extends to other linguistic and cultural conventions as well. Web usability guru Jakob Nielsen reminds us that “as part of a user-centered design, the terminology in user interfaces should be in the user’s language” The same goes for dialogues, whenever possible. Nielsen also reminds us that “language” issues in Web design are not limited to words, but include icons and other nonverbal elements (Nielsen 123). Nielsen suggests that translation for the Web be done by translators expert in interactive system usability principles (Nielsen 242). These expert translators are tasked with answering questions such as “how do I navigate this Web site?” from the user’s point of view, keeping in mind the conventions of the user’s culture. For example, for Arabic users, whose language is read right to left, it makes a lot more sense to place the navigation on the right and the scroll bar on the left than vice versa (Singh 33-34).

As the Web population outside the U.S. continues to grow, the need for online marketing localization is quickly becoming an imperative. Over 50% of Internet users live outside the U.S. speak languages other than English, and have “very different preferences, experiences, and tastes” than U.S. Internet users. (Gareiss 1) Capturing global markets then, becomes dependent on a marketer’s ability to translate cultural insights into effective marketing communications. Again, translation isn’t about words, it’s about meaning. Without fully communicating its intended meaning, a marketing message will fail to elicit the desired response. InformationWeek columnist, Dawn Gareiss, warns that ignoring other cultures in E-business will lead to a “rude awakening.” An English-only Web site “hawking wares marketed with an American mentality” will not likely convert many visitors into buyers. Localization is necessary to help companies “adapt their business to a particular market or culture” (Gareiss 2).

Works Cited

Anholt, Simon. Another One Bites the Grass: Making Sense of International Advertising. New York: John Wiley and Sons, Inc., 2000.
Esselink, Bert. A Practical Guide to Localization. Philadelphia: John Benjamins Publishing Co, 2000.
Gareiss, Dawn. “Business On The World Wide Web.” InformationWeek 816 (2000): 69. EBSCOhost. 8 Oct. 2005 <>.
Heckman, James. “”International” in Internet closes U.S. lead.” Marketing News 34.4 (2000): 7. ProQuest. 8 Oct. 2005 <>.
Nielsen, Jakob. Usability Engineering. San Francisco: Morgan Kaufmann, 1994.
Ricks, David A. Blunders in International Business. 3rd ed. Malden: Blackwell Publishers Inc., 1999.
Singh, Nitish, and Arun Pereira. The Culturally Customized Web Site: Customizing Web Sites for the Global Marketplace. Boston: Elsevier Butterworth-Heinemann, 2005.
Yunker, John. Beyond Borders: Web Globalization Strategies. Indianapolis: New Riders Publishing, 2002.

Christopher Hurtado

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Christopher Hurtado is President and CEO of Linguistic Solutions and Adjunct Instructor of Philosophy and Political Science at Utah Valley University. He holds a BA in Middle East Studies/Arabic and Philosophy and an MA in Nonproliferation and Terrorism Studies. He coauthored Vacation Spanish: A Survival Guide for Mexico, the Caribbean, Central & South America. He is married to children's book author and homeschool mom, Alysia Gonzalez. Together they have nine children. They are active in their church and in their community.