Languages are complex. That seems like a reasonably undisputed statement, but we underestimate the sheer extent of that complexity every day. Over time, human evolution has involved enormous changes, and our methods of communication have developed with us.
But, of course, we haven’t all followed the same path. A village in Indonesia has drastically different ideas, values and worldviews compared to a group of young professionals in New York. The words they use to represent these ideas are as unique as the people themselves. Our languages differ as greatly as our surroundings.
But just how do languages differ, and what does this mean to marketers looking to talk to, work with and connect with such a diverse range people across the globe?
Though most of us will have learned a language in school at one point or another, precious few of us are taught it in any depth. We’re taught that ‘cat’ has a word in French, and ‘dog’ has a word in German; every word has an equivalent word in another language, and translation is simply the act of memorising them.
While it’s obviously true that there is a word for ‘dog’ in German, (der Hund, if you’re interested), not everything is so simple.
The word ‘man’, for example, translates in English as the pronoun ‘one’, as in, ‘one shouldn’t be quick to judge’. But that simple translation says nothing about the associations of the words. ‘One’ in English is formal, even archaic, and often replaced by ‘you’ by a native speaker, as in, ‘you shouldn’t be quick to judge’.
The distinction doesn’t exist in German. ‘Man’ is considered normal spoken language. Should ‘you’ therefore be considered a more direct translation of ‘man’? Suddenly the art of translation begins to look very complicated indeed – and this is just one example with one simple word.
Some time ago, the Economist wrote a fantastic article highlighting an international marketing campaign by jewellery company Helzberg Diamonds, which printed the phrase ‘I am loved’ in 11 languages, on free, wearable badges.
The team responsible for arranging the translation services for the campaign ran into some complication when translating into certain Romance languages, such as Spanish and Italian, where the verb love changes depending on the gender of the speaker. This means that in Spanish there are two different versions of the phrase ‘I am loved’: ‘Soy amado’ for men and ‘Soy amada’ for women.
The gender neutral phrase ‘I am loved’ had no equivalent in Spanish, Portuguese or Italian. The translator was forced to select one. They opted for the female ‘Soy amada’, perhaps basing their decision on who they thought would most identify with their marketing and expand brand awareness in the region.
If the simple creation of badges can be as challenging as this, then trying to sell an entire product or service in a foreign language is a minefield for companies, so you need the most experienced of translators.
But it’s ridiculous to suggest companies would select their target markets based on the complexity of their language. If you want to work with or sell to another nation, you simply have to rise to the occasion and make sure your material works in their language.
It is in the second largest global economy, China, where we find the most profound of linguistic challenges. In English, the concept of time is embedded into all of our verb forms – ‘I go’, ‘I went’, ‘I have gone’; it’s very difficult in European languages to talk about doing something without specifying when it is being done.
In Chinese Mandarin, this is not the case; grammatical tenses don’t exist in the same way, so actions and concepts are often expressed as ‘time independent’.
This and other interesting examples of features that don’t exist in English are explained in this video.
Among one of the most bizarre of grammatical concepts not to exist in English is ‘evidentiality.’ In the Native American language of ‘Eastern Pomo’, the speaker must specify how they know something when revealing information.
In the same way as English verbs differ according to time, Eastern Pomo statements change, depending on whether the speaker saw something, felt something, was told something, or has evidence for something. It’s unlikely that marketers will have to negotiate with anything as complex as the Eastern Pomo language, but it’s a fascinating example of how utterly different languages can be.
What this means for marketers
So, despite being a fascinating topic, what does all this mean for international marketers? Well, marketers need to navigate the fact that there is no guarantee a marketing campaign that works in English will work in another language. Just for starters, concepts that are gender neutral won’t work directly in Spanish and those that are time specific may not make sense in Mandarin.
Languages evolve organically and develop individual idiosyncrasies for which there is rarely a direct equivalent in every other language.
Even defining what a language is is fraught with complications; often speakers of separate languages, such as Danish and Norwegian, can understand each other perfectly, whereas two dialects of one language, such as Standard and Swiss German, can be largely unintelligible to one another.
The answer to this endlessly complex problem is simple: employ translation agencies with native-tongue experience in your sector that can recognise these differences in languages and take great care with your translations by understanding the purpose and concept of the document and not just the words. Technical translation is vastly different to marketing translation – so we have multiple specialists in each area for each language.
Professional translation agencies spend their lives studying (and living) the tiny details of a language that even native speakers often struggle with. Here’s some examples of words you’re probably getting wrong in English to illustrate this.