In 2009, US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton presented a red button on a base engraved with the words “Reset” and “Peregruzka” to Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov to signify a commitment to improve relations between both  countries. However, “Peregruzka” means “over-charged” in Russian. The correct word is “Perezagruzka”.

When messages get lost in translation, there can be serious consequences for businesses.

Communicating right

In a recent survey conducted by global business service company, TransPerfect, which polled more than 200 executives and shoppers worldwide, more than 50 per cent of shoppers would terminate their shopping if they did not comprehend the language used on the websites. Alternatively, they would resort to using manual or browser-based translations, which decreases the experience of the customers.

Results also revealed that only 19 per cent of corporate executives viewed proper translations as a priority and 64 per cent were unsure whether doing so would be beneficial for the company. Evidently, huge losses in potential revenues are being incurred by many companies.

Communicating with customers in the right language definitely has its benefits for any company:  it promotes understanding of the customer benefits; connects the shopper with the company; and companies can express fully and correctly what they have to offer. 

To press the argument further, nine out of 10 European shoppers surveyed preferred to visit a website in their native language, and 63 per cent of shoppers expressed an increased inclination to buy if they found the website to be in their native language.

Translating accurately

Equally important is the correct translation and usage of the language. Often companies turn to browser-based applications or hire personnel trained in the foreign language to do translations. However, it is always best to entrust key channels of information, such as websites, press releases, advertising slogans, product information, White Papers and archived records, to a native speaker working as a professional translator. Not doing so has its pitfalls.

In the 1990s, the famous and wildly successful “Got Milk?” campaign initiated by the US Dairy Association took America by storm, increasing awareness and consumption of cow’s milk tremendously. However, when attempting to venture into its neighbouring market of Mexico, the translation turned out to be “Are you lactating?”

Not surprisingly, it did not sit very well with the Mexicans and the advertising campaign was not very successful, to say the least. This simply emphasises the necessity to have proper and effective translations when targeting customers overseas.

What to do

To provide the “native language” experience and reap its benefits, pay attention to the following:

Say it right

With a native speaker executing the translation, a company can establish a stronger rapport with the customer. The native language represents familiarity for the customer and communicates the rich culture that every language carries with it.

While it may be more economical to use more convenient sources, the probability of making mistakes or crossing taboo lines is higher. This will definitely diminish the customer’s shopping experience and, thus, their probability of purchase.

Hit the ground

Nothing beats having linguistic insight into the actual markets that your company is venturing into. When Honda introduced their new car “Fitta” into Nordic countries in 2001, sales suffered terribly. Only after further ground research was done did the executives at Honda discover that “Fitta” was actually an old vulgar word that referred to genitals in Swedish, Norwegian and Danish. The Honda “Fitta” was eventually renamed “Jazz”.

To avoid such costly mistakes, cross-cultural market research should be done with the locals on the ground through simple focus groups or surveys.

Respect the culture

While words communicate a significant amount of information to the costumers, audio-visuals and layouts should not be ignored. Different colours and objects have different significance for different cultures. For example, white signifies purity in western cultures, but it signifies mourning in some Asian countries. Thus, choosing inappropriate embellishments will jeopardise the customer’s experience.

Marketing channels and collaterals such as websites and brochures are often the starting point of a potential relationship with customers. With the right selection of elements displayed, these forms of communication will enhance the emotional experience for the customer when they are shopping around. Remember, first impressions count.

It is time that companies realise that non-localisation as well as poor translations of their communications affect their bottom line. In today’s competitive markets, you can avoid “cold wars” if you simply reset your priorities.