We’ve all heard the cautionary tales and chuckled at the humorous examples of translation gone wrong across borders and linguistic boundaries. KFC’s translation of its famous “Finger Lickin’ Good” slogan became “eat your fingers off” in Chinese. Ford’s attempt to market the Pinto in Brazil created some consternation when it discovered that Pinto translated to “tiny male genitals.” But it’s not just direct translations that create funny and embarrassing situations in other markets. Idiomatic expressions and local customs, cultures, and experiences can cause problems as well. Colgate discovered this when it launched its Cue toothpaste in France, unaware that Cue was the name of a French porn magazine.
It’s not easy taking information across borders. That’s particularly ironic in a digital environment in which the ability for information to cross borders is relatively seamless.
Bruno Herrmann is the director of globalization and localization at Nielsen, where he is responsible for digital content and product operations across six regions. He is based in the Brussels area. “Digital is global by nature, but not by default,” says Herrmann. For media companies, regardless of where they are based or who their audiences are, simply being in the digital environment in which content can be accessed globally does not mean they are global media companies. Many media companies, Herrmann says, may invest a lot in being present digitally, but not always in actually being effective. In today’s digital media environment, being global is relatively easy—being effective globally is not.
Localization: A Challenge—But Not Insurmountable
Translating content is not a simple endeavor. Doing it well requires more than a literal translation of English content to French, for instance. It requires a focus on context, as well as content. That means understanding the various local cultures and nuances that will impact the consumption of content. The complexity can be compounded since media companies aren’t only concerned about the translation of written content. Digital channels mean that audio and video content can easily be shared around the globe.
Todd Resnick is the CEO and president of The Voice Co., a Los Angeles-based casting, recording, and voiceover production company. He has been involved with dubbing and manufacturing content for about 20 years. “I think we cover about 90 languages right now,” he says. According to Resnick, the company is working on translating the entire Star Trek library into Russian.
The Voice Co. also worked with Amazon to bring the popular program Transparent, starring Jeffrey Tambor as a transgender character, to Germany. The challenge wasn’t simply translating the content from English to German, but ensuring the subtle nuances of what Resnick describes as “contemporary youthful banter with a local, southern California Jewish set of colloquialisms that I guess you could say are not effective for the German Jewish community.” Other localizations also needed to be addressed—for instance, jokes related to heavy traffic on the Los Angeles 405 freeway wouldn’t be relevant to a German audience.
Resnick points to Netflix as a company that’s effective at delivering content to other countries. “They pick and choose their territories. Two years ago, they took on Italy. Right now, they’re doing Cuban Spanish. They’ve done Russia.” China, he points out, has been a challenge, not only because of translation issues, but also because of government regulations—which is another factor that must be considered when globalizing content. “The problem is they can’t get money out of China,” says Resnick. “There are laws about what is allowed to leave that country. There are nuances to every territory that really need to be investigated before making a decision to go into those territories.”
Translation and localization aren’t the only issues that media companies will face when attempting to deliver their content in other locales, says Scott Abel, the founder, CEO, and chief strategist at The Content Wrangler in San Francisco. “News, magazines, and record companies have been restricted by licensing,” he says. For example, travelers who want to watch Netflix, or listen to iTunes, in other parts of the world may be hampered by licensing agreements.
In addition, Abel says, SEO considerations will come into play. People search in the language that they’re most comfortable with, obviously, which adds another layer of complexity for media companies that want their content to be found, consumed, and purchased in various global markets. While these barriers may initially seem to represent insurmountable hurdles, globalization of content can be done. However, doing so effectively, as Herrmann points out, requires a strategic approach, thorough market understanding, and effective collaborations.