5 bilingual copywriting traps and how to avoid them

January 17, 2011 by Dean Rieck
Filed under: Copywriting Tips 

bilingual copywritingIt’s hard enough to write good copy in one language. Writing copy that works in two languages is at least twice as hard.

I’ll be honest … I have little facility in other languages.

I spoke a little German when I lived in Europe and stumbled through Spanish class in high school, but whatever communication skills I have exist only in English.

Whenever I’ve faced a situation where my copy had to be used in other languages, I’ve always turned the job over to specialists who could do it right.

Here are some of the most common mistakes you should avoid if you’re ever in a bilingual copywriting situation for the first time.

Mistake #1: Doing a simple translation. Let’s say you have a direct mail package that works for an English-speaking audience. Now you want to break into the Hispanic market with a bilingual package. So you figure all you have to do is hire a translator. Right? Not quite.

As an experiment, take a few paragraphs of English copy, paste it into an online translator, translate it into another language then back again. Not too good is it? That’s because language is more than words. Meaning, ideas, and cultural references often don’t translate well.

Just for giggles, I used Google Translate for a quick translation to Basque and back to English just as an example:

Don’t risk disappointment. Call today to get your free sample of this revolutionary 5-minute fish tank cleaner. No mess. No scrubbing. Your fish will love you for it.

Ez arriskua etsipena. Deialdia gaur zure hau 5 minutu iraultzaile arrain depositua garbiagoak lagin free lortzeko. Ez dago gaizki. No scrubbing. Zure arraina maite du jartzeko.

Do not risk disappointment. Today this call for your free sample of 5 minutes to achieve revolutionary fish tank cleaner. Not bad. No scrubbing. Your love to fish.

Mistake #2: Always writing in English first. This will be your first instinct if English is your native language. But sometimes it’s a good idea to start with the other language.

For example, some languages are more verbose. So if you start with 2,000 words in English, the version in the other language might be 2,500 or more words. It can be hard to cram that much extra copy into the same layout. By going in the other direction, you may end up with a more workable result.

Mistake #3: Making the same sales pitch in both languages. Never assume that everyone’s hot buttons are the same. Price might be the main motivator for people of one culture, while social status might be the main motivator in another. Once again, bilingual marketing isn’t about translation as much as it is about appealing to the sensibilities of two different audiences.

Mistake #4: Using culturally-base phrases and ideas. The advertising world is full of horror stories about how copy can go haywire in translation.

Pepsi’s upbeat slogan, “Come alive with the Pepsi Generation” translated poorly in China, where it meant “Pepsi brings your ancestors back from the grave.” The Parker Pen company goofed when it tried to sell a ballpoint pen in Mexico with ads bragging, “It won’t leak in your pocket and embarrass you.” Unfortunately, the translation proclaimed, “It won’t leak in your pocket and make you pregnant.”

Mistake #5: Going it alone. There’s just no way to market in another language if you’re not fluent in the language and don’t understand the culture. If you’re serious about bilingual marketing, you have to bring in people who understand both languages and cultures and have experience selling to each. There are no shortcuts.

Have I missed anything? Have you had any bad experiences with bilingual copywriting?

Related posts:

  1. The tweak trap: how to avoid nightmare rewrites

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Smart Comments

13 Comments on 5 bilingual copywriting traps and how to avoid them

  1. Javier Valcarcel on Jan 17th, 2011 7:50 am
  2. Bilingual copywriter here! If you ever want to reach out to the rapidly growing Hispanic market, contact me at javier.valcarcel@gmail.com or verbocreative@gmail.com

  3. Martin Stellar on Jan 17th, 2011 9:26 am
  4. This is a very good point, though your trying Basque is a funny choice. It’s an extremely complicated language and fairly obscure as well. Online translation can work for some purposes, but only if the original is written with perfect grammar, and avoiding colloquialisms.

    Still, your point is very valid throughout. I have one client who has me write in English and in Spanish, and yes: in most cases it’s much better to start fresh, and not by translating.

    In fact, unless you’re expert at the second language, I would say the best choice is to find a copywriter who is a native speaker in that language. So much of the punch and power gets lost in translation.

  5. Dean Rieck on Jan 17th, 2011 10:03 am
  6. Martin,
    I really wasn’t serious with the Basque. Just making a point that it’s not about simple translation. One of the funniest examples of something that didn’t survive translation, though, is from a box of Christmas lights I purchased years ago. I don’t recall the country of origin, but on the side it read, “Warning: Lights are for inside or outside use only!”

  7. Martin Stellar on Jan 17th, 2011 10:15 am
  8. Haha, that’s a good one! You’ll probably know that for some reason, Chinese products often have the most hilarious translations of all products.

    Probably because someone at head-office said: “No, we’re not hiring a translator for this! My cousin lived in America for half a year, he can do it for free.” With predictable results.

    I’m kicking myself now, because I threw away a bag of potato chips I bought last year here in Spain. Almost a third of the bag’s surface was dedicated to the slogan: “Contains real ingredients!” Should have taken a picture of it.

  9. Andrew B. on Jan 17th, 2011 10:43 am
  10. Excellent as always, Dean. The only exception to this is Asian restaurants: The poorer the English, the better the food.


  11. Dean Rieck on Jan 17th, 2011 11:06 am
  12. Andrew,
    I’m partial to Italian and it just doesn’t matter if I understand what anyone is saying. It’s all good.

  13. Laurie Holman on Jan 17th, 2011 5:53 pm
  14. Nice post! It reminded me of a list I saw awhile back of more of these not-quite translations, so I googled it and here it is: http://www.dailykitten.com/chat/topic/6175. Funny stuff!

  15. Helen Keevy on Jan 18th, 2011 7:31 am
  16. Good points Dean. Just to add on to your point #2 – the average length of words in different languages also needs to be considered. As I discovered when working on an English-Russian website project, 200 words in English is not going to equate to anywhere near the same number of characters as 200 words in Russian.

  17. Oliver Lawrence on Jan 18th, 2011 6:12 pm
  18. Well if you hire a qualified, professional translator who specializes in marketing copy then they will be expert enough to know these things and will save you a lot of hassle. Avoid mistake #5 with a quality translator and you’ve solved the other problems too.

  19. Sara Freitas-Maltaverne on Jan 19th, 2011 2:14 am
  20. Excellent list. Machine translation is *never* OK for marcomms or any other outbound communication regardless of how simple or complex the language is. It can be useful to get the gist of inbound information, however.

    I would add that whether you opt for a creative translation/adaptation or full-blown bilingual copywriting, it is important to bring the bilingual professional into the loop from the very beginning of the project (the brief) for insignt on visuals, colors, potential page layout issues, and other multilingual adaptation challenges. Also, make sure that your bilingual professional has an opportunity to check and sign off on final page layouts. By doing these things, you can avoid errors and delays and make the process more efficient for everyone involved.

  21. Patricia Lane on Jan 19th, 2011 3:44 am
  22. As a native French and English speaker and intercultural communications consultant, I provide copywriting services in both languages.

    That said, I will not take on bilingual copywriting projects unless the project’s time line allows a decent (i.e. several weeks) pause between language/culture A and language/culture B.


    Because I find I do not have enough distance from what I have created in language A to have the same level of freshness in language B unless I have engaged my brain in another, unrelated project. A bit of reading on how the brain creates its working memory reassured me this was not just an impression!

    When a client needs bilingual copy delivered at the same time, I team with another native language copywriter. We take the client brief and conduct interviews together. Then we work in tandem on the concepts, the strategy, the key words and the content nuggets (helped along in the process with tools such as http://www.writersblocks.com), write autonomously, and review each other’s prose.

    Being perfectly bilingual and bicultural sometimes just isn’t enough. When down time is lacking, teaming with another pro is the better way to meet your client’s needs.

  23. Javi Valca on Jan 19th, 2011 7:03 am
  24. Online translations work for single words. But even two or three word phrases can get lost in translation. Thing is, when it comes to copywriting, it’s not about translating the same words into another language, it’s about carrying over the same persuasive element into another language.

  25. Saf on Jan 20th, 2011 9:23 am
  26. Even if Pepsi hired a translator for their copy, it created a messy result !

    I don’t really see the best solution for copywriting for people like me. I don’t consider myself fluent, though I write copies in English (I’m Arabic native speaking, grew up speaking French) Though, I have followers !

    The best solution, is to learn english, that we are not tought at school !
    on TV, websites, etc !

    Good Luck to everyone !