Archive for January, 2010

Losing it in translation

January 20, 2010

For the past couple of months I’ve been working with a multinational insurance company on their internal corporate responsibility (CR) messaging. Headquartered in Paris and doing business in roughly 19 languages, the company’s central comms teams is not only brave but incredibly patient.

I had the fun job of talking by phone to CR managers in many of the locations (thankfully in English) to test potential messages. Although I’m definitely not a linguist, I thought I’d done a fair bit of ‘cultural appreciation and translation’ over the years, however this comms exercise made me appreciate even more the importance of communicating essence not just words. The call for native speaking copy-writers rang loud and clear every time. Otherwise there’s a real risk of ‘losing it’ in translation, in both the ‘failing to retain the meaning’ and ‘breakdown in mirth’ senses of the word.

In my travels near and far I like looking out for signs, especially those with a clever play on words or just amusing errors in translation. I set up a Flickr group last year to store the signs I found.

Here are a few of my favourites:

A typo or a genuine error? Use one sheep at a time – the guidance for taking a towel to dry your hands in Argentina.

A clever play on words: Don’t take A Fence – displayed in a pub competition “The Turnip Prize” in Devon.

An unfortunate brand name: The Malaysian Fatman cushion. It reminds me of the Women’s Institute in a village near where I grew up called Ugley. Unfortunately I don’t have a picture.

And finally one from Southern Africa where I’m going tonight. I’m hoping it will be what it says on the box: Very Nice!