If somebody gave you an opportunity to correct 60 essays of Spanish 101 in one sitting, the first thing you would notice is that 50 out of 60 students would hand in their essays perfectly printed out. Ten students out of those 60 would hand in handwritten essays. And 30 of the 50 perfectly printed out essays would have accent marks added here and there with a black pen.
The spectrum of unintended prejudice against the infamous accent mark in Spanish is as wide and diverse as the various Spanish modalities spoken across 22 countries. On one end of the spectrum, the assumption that every word in Spanish must come with an accent mark often results in a perfectly printed document with rushed marks on it. On the other end of the spectrum, since the student hasn't figured out the way to switch the keyboard into Spanish the night before the deadline, the result is the most feared document a teacher has ever to grade: a handwritten essay in a foreign language at a beginner level. Among those 60 students there will one day be law enforcement officers, medical doctors, businessmen and marketers.
In the health and legal professions, even the smallest grammatical error could lead to devastating consequences. But, it is also worth exploring what happens when misspelled words or misplaced accent marks reach the consumer. Market research professionals, as well as marketers and advertisers should be aware of the threat that these errors pose to perpetuate stereotypes and misunderstandings and, as a consequence, miss out on an opportunity to connect with the consumer.
Efforts to reach a multicultural audience lie not only in creativity and innovative social media approaches, but also in linguistics. The correct use of language is key when conducting market research or introducing a new product to the market. The most innovative surveys, if plagued with grammatical errors, create the wrong atmosphere and do not facilitate a sense of engagement among the target audience. In addition, they may measure the wrong sentiment or attribute by not capturing the true intent of the questionnaire. After all, language contains historical, cultural and social context that may not be easily translatable. The end result is research that does not quite measure the attitudes or behaviors correctly, and paves the road to poor marketing decisions based on faulty data.
Translation is a professional endeavor. An accent mark in the wrong place, or simply absent, conveys the wrong message. Yerba matè (sic), for example, is not the same as yerba mate. We often see this word misspelled in hipster coffee shops or in locally advertised yerba mate packaging in some grocery stores. First of all, the grave accent (slanting downward) is a property of the French language, not Spanish. Second, the presence of a misplaced accent mark could be interpreted as a strategy to add value by way of exoticism (let's add something that the English language does not have); and exoticism is not a strategy that either encourages tolerance towards other cultures nor embraces cultural differences. The end consumer is likely to see right through it.
Examples of mistranslations abound in advertising, in signage, in instructions on how to take a medicine or how to put a bed together, and even in politics, which might make people tick in the wrong direction. During the last presidential campaign an unofficial Bernie ad in Spanish circulated for a few weeks. In this ad, originally written in English, Sanders’ qualities were listed: progressive, honest and committed; all excellent virtues if you are running as a candidate for president. But if you incorrectly translate the first of those adjectives as “continual” instead of the correct translation for the word “progressive” (progresista, not progresivo in Spanish) you undermine opportunities to connect with your stakeholders.
Bernie and yerba mate have nothing in common, except for how they have been introduced to a multicultural market. In case you are wondering, Yerba mate is a South American beverage that people drink — by sucking through a metal straw — not only in place of coffee or tea, but also, and most importantly, as a social experience. The same straw is shared with friends, neighbors or just the occasional guest. So, hipster-oriented grocery shops, market researchers, marketers and advertisers, make sure you hire the right person for the job, get rid of the misplaced accents and make an effort to convey the original set of values ascribed to your product.