Commentary

Won In Translation

Recently, I’ve become aware of the value of a good translation. Perhaps it would have occurred earlier in my life, say, if I had called the IT guy and he shocked me by translating his instructions, but that did not happen. I am, rather, referring to the kind of translations that we do in our agency, of advertising from English to Spanish.

Having come from the general market, I had never given it much thought. Evidently, it’s not as simple as flipping back and forth in the Spanish-English dictionary. And, with Spanish, you have to work around words that tend to have more syllables than English, so good luck trying to make your 30-second commercial not sound like the legal gunfire at the end of car dealer ads. It ain’t easy. You have to know the intent of the original ad, how it is intended to make you feel, the rhythms and the subtleties of two languages. 

Fortunately, for me, I had a frame of reference for this realization. Twenty-some years ago, I had read a review of a translation of The Brothers Karamazov in The New York Times Book Review. The reviewer raved about it, how the translators, Pevear and Volokhonsky, had captured the music of the original, apparently more of the author’s intent than any preceding translation. Since Dostoevsky was one of those authors on my must-read-before-I-die list, I was compelled to tackle the tome. Then, two years later, when Pevear and Volokhonsky came out with a translation of Crime and Punishment, I tackled that, too. Then Notes from the Underground. And Demons. And The Gambler. I became a fan of these translators. They wrote a chapter in my history.

I realize, of course, that translating some ads can’t possibly be the equivalent of translating a literary classic –– I get that –– but it still ain’t easy. That said, I’ve become a big fan of the copywriters who work on a lot of the translations and adaptations at Grupo. Gabriel, Moises and Christian put great thought into their work, with no promise of hardware for what they do. And while they would grudgingly admit that something would always get lost in translation, they stubbornly believe that something can always, also, be gained.

Why do I bring this up? In an effort to adapt to the changing demographics, a lot of agencies are building departments to offer this kind of service. Just know that these guys, and the like, have been doing this awhile and they tell me that they’re always being challenged and learning something new. Given the degree to which demographics have become important, this deserves to be treated as a craft.

Look, the next time you pose a question about your computer to the IT guy, and he drones on about hyperlinks and RAM and makes some allusion to “Star Trek” (you think), and you stop nodding to look like you “get it” because it dawns on you, finally, that he is not exactly blessed with abounding social skills, give this some thought: In advertising, we can’t afford to be like that IT guy.

3 comments about "Won In Translation".
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  1. Peter Zajonc from Epsilon, February 24, 2015 at 11 a.m.

    Thanks for this insight. There are some great things about our culture. It is import to recall that even though our products and services can be sold cross-culturally, the messaging we advertise should be adjusted becauase word-by-word transactions will not work. Much research supports this. One book of interest might be Clash!, by Markus and Conner, that explains how our interdepent culture contrasts with other inter-dependent cultures.

  2. Lisa Urias from Urias Communications, February 24, 2015 at 11:08 a.m.

    As multicultural agency, we ensure our clients understand that we never translate, but write for the audience. While we may take a Total Markey Approach to start - ensuring the overarching brand strategy works in multiple markets - copywriting for the specific audience, with their unique cultural sensibilities in mind, is crucial to a successful campaign.

  3. cara marcano from reporte hispano, March 4, 2015 at 4:04 p.m.

    That Target stuff about the "parts of you that don't translate" was almost romantic. Almost ; )

    Yes folks -- and Google Translate -- there are parts that don't translate. To English. From English. To Spanish. This is at-least a two-way street of near-romance and tremendous opportunity ! XO

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