Volume 5, No. 1 
January 2001

  M. Guidere





Translation Journal

Translation Practices in International Advertising

by Mathieu Guidère, Ph.D.

lobalization, which is the current buzzword in discussions about the economy, has also affected the world of translation. With the media revolution and its string of intangible exchanges, the translator suddenly found himself involved in every aspect of intercultural communication. Wherever the local language is an influential parameter, he is called in as a decoder and mediator, sometimes even as a negotiator. Advertising, be it written or audiovisual, is now one of the areas of activity that most often makes use of the services of specialized translators.

Indeed, the intensification of international exchanges involves a growing need for communication and thus of translation. The amount of advertising translations is already substantial, and keeps increasing. In this regard, it follows the opening of new linguistic areas to international trade. The media are more and more varied: the press, the radio, television, and the Internet. The multinational advertising agencies, the cross-border television networks, and the success achieved by multilingual publications have contributed to the expansion of this phenomenon. For all of them depend, for their own survival, on the manna of advertising.

advertising translation is the means of communication par excellence of a company exporting its products.
You just have to watch the satellite broadcast television channels for a day to see the same campaigns shown in several languages. In the same way, consulting various weekly or monthly editions of the same magazine enables you to come across the same translated advertisements1 again and again. All these media provide an extraordinary amount of advertisements and rich material for the study of advertising translations.2

The purpose of this article is to give an insight into the essential set of problems that enables one to define a profession that is recognized and misunderstood at the same time. Although in 1972 an article by Pierre Hurbin was published in the journal Babel about the possibility of translating the language of advertising,3 at that time the situation regarding advertising translation was not comparable with that of today. About twenty years later, an article was published by Claude Tatilon, in which he still hesitated between "translation" and "adaptation" of the advertising text.4 Since then, nothing or almost nothing has been published.5 However, several questions arise for whoever is interested in this field of activity:

  • What is the role of translation in international business communications?
  • What is the impact of the business environment on the process of advertising translation? In other words, what influence does this environment have on the translators' professional practice?
  • Should we consider advertising translation as just another type of technical translation? In other words, how specific are translations done in this particular context?
  • What criteria should be applied in evaluating these translations and what value should we give them?

We must study all of these questions in light of the huge corpus available to us which keeps growing richer day after day, with new experiences and new solutions contributed by translators in the field of intercultural mediation.

The perspective chosen here for presenting these experiences is that of the research scientist external to the company but nevertheless involved, as an observer and a translation specialist, in defining and delimiting the object of his analysis. In whatever business of the company may operate, the questions associated with this definition remain the same. Yet we must point out that originally, our study essentially dealt with multinationals of American and French origin.6 We will try to describe below the context in which advertising translation is processed and its role in international marketing. Then we will analyze the type of work required from translators and the impact of this professional environment on their practice. Lastly, we will explain the main difficulties experienced by the translator and the skills required to accomplish his mission successfully.


1) The context and the questions

The definition of advertising translation depends on the meaning given to the word "advertising." This word must be understood as a generic designation including all forms of commercial communication and promotion, from a leaflet to a television campaign broadcast on an international scale, because the translator is involved at all levels as long as the advertiser is targeting a foreign market. Obviously, the translation of an advertising brochure is not to be placed on the same level as a million-dollar multimedia campaign, but the practical principles and the management of the translation process are comparable.

In fact, advertising translation is the means of communication par excellence of a company exporting its products. But defining translation as a mere tool or even as another type of international marketing is somewhat restrictive, because an essential fact is then forgotten: communication becomes effective abroad only after the message has been translated. Without this prior translation, it is very unlikely to have an impact on the foreign consumer.

But this implies that a translation must be adapted to each country. This concept encourages companies to systematically adapt their communication to the consumers they are targeting, without any real business strategy. Actually, translation must be considered as a business function, the mission of which consists of adapting marketing strategies to a group of market countries.

The implementation of such a function within the company is the result of a general diagnosis aiming at appraising the relevance of advertising campaigns translated for the business considered, with reference to the competitors having such a communication function. This diagnosis varies according to the markets targeted by the company: we know that automatic adaptation of advertisements from one country to another does not involve the same risk, depending on whether or not you are located on the Western Hemisphere.

Several aspects must to be taken into account: first, do in fact foreign markets differ from the national market or not? Does this difference justify the translation of the advertising message? Then, does the competition resort to this kind of service for marketing its products? Will the translation be an advantage for the company? Lastly, which objectives are assigned to the translator, i.e., what will be the effect of this new business function?

Three types of effects can be observed:

The first one is a zero effect, in which the translation of the original message into the languages of the foreign consumers does not bring any change to the communication status of the company, either in terms of brand image or in terms of commercial repercussions (neither drop nor increase in sales). This effect has already been observed in some European markets (for instance, for Renault in Spain).

The second one is a positive effect, more or less according to business expectations, in which the translation almost automatically involves increased brand awareness and an increase in demand on the market targeted by the translated campaign. This effect is fairly common in the Arab and oriental markets, especially in the luxury, perfumes, and cosmetics sector.

The third effect, always unexpected and often incomprehensible, is a negative effect in which translation nullifies the strengths of the company on the international market and becomes a disadvantage which does not serve the interests of the producers or those of the distributors. This effect has been observed in the case of sports articles and of country-typical products, the expected potential of which has been annihilated by the translation that has somehow made them ordinary in the eyes of the foreign consumers.

All this leads us to underline the complexity of the problems raised by implementing a translation function or department within the company. This also reveals the huge pressure put on the translator of advertisements, since he is perceived, all things considered, as the guarantor of the success or of the failure of the campaign. Being the last link in the chain, he is therefore responsible for the entire communication process.


2) The environment and the influencing parameters

Advertising translation is part of a body of elements, which must be clarified for one to better grasp the characteristics of the whole. The advertising message is not conveyed in the creative loneliness of the translator. It belongs in the confined world of advertising and the larger world of communication. Parameters external to the advertising message thus largely determine the translating practice and decisively modulate the message. Moreover, the combination of these different parameters makes advertising translation specific, and understanding them allows one to better grasp the nature and the stakes of this type of translation.

From this point of view, the economic dimension of advertising determines a first group of influencing factors. Translation not only is part of a specific channel of exchanges which has to be known, but it is also an economic concept in itself. These two aspects set the translator on unexplored tracks and condition his practice to an unsuspected extent.

In order to fully grasp the importance of the economic parameter in the approach to advertising translation, two interdependent and supplementary points have to be taken into account: the cost of the translation process and the linguistic added value, which both refer to the question of money within advertising communication. The cost of the translation process indicates the totality of adaptations necessary to convey the advertisement from one language area to the other. Contrary to what one could think, these adaptations affect not only the strictly linguistic dimension of communication; but also some other essential aspects which are often difficult to adapt, and therefore very expensive (such as graphics).7

Thus the cost of a translation includes the financial investment necessary for transferring the message into the target language on the one hand, and the related investments, which are generally recommended by the publicity agent in order to ensure the success of the transfer, on the other hand. This cost can be very high and is only justified by a satisfactory benefit. Therefore, it is all about a calculated risk which is part of well-studied internationalization strategies. The revenues generated by the international campaign depend on the nature of the communication strategies used.8 Translation can not only contribute to increasing the direct revenues of the multinational by acting as a leveraging effect on sales abroad, but it can also be considered as a strategic asset with respect to competition, in the sense that it enables the company to stand out in a highly competitive market.

This primary link established between the translation of the message and its expected benefit raises the problem of "linguistic added value." If the success of international advertising depends on the conversion of the original message into the linguistic code of the foreign consumer, then the language has an intrinsic added value. In this case, the advertiser finds himself confronted with two problems: the first one is that of the criteria for estimating this value, the second one is that of the optimization of the added value. Indeed, how can the quality of a translation be judged before seeing its effect on sales? How can it then be ascertained that it ensures the best communication possible?

Profitability of the translation actually represents the Gordian knot of international advertising. The amount of money produced by the language must exceed the amount invested in the language. Yet nothing enables us to say that success—or failure—is due to the translation, and above all, nothing enables us to know to what extent the translation contributes to one or the other. Since there is no comparative research on linguistic praxis and on the effectiveness of communication, the question is asked in practical, even prosaic, terms, i.e., that quality is evaluated according to the result.

The cultural dimension offers a second group of parameters determining the environment in which the translator of advertising operates. Culture is to be understood here in the broad sense of virtual or effective context in which the translated advertising message is received. The parameters related to this aspect of advertising translation can be prescriptive and explicit (for instance, the legislature of the target country) or implicit and left to the judgment of the translator (like uses and customs). Getting into the old and unsolved debate on impossible intercultural correspondence is not the point here. Advertising producers, under the pressure of economic logic, not only tackle this subject from a pragmatic point of view, but the advertising approach to cultural facts is so specific that the debate is on a different level from the outset. Culture is not considered in the absolute; it is associated with the commercial concerns of communication. Only those cultural elements that are refractory to transfer are examined. This does not mean that it is necessary to go through the entire culture with a fine-toothed comb; only some aspects of culture create a problem in international advertising. Only some points, generally clarified by opinion leaders in the target countries, deserve particular attention. These delicate points themselves are not considered in the absolute; they are grasped with reference to advertising communication. Thus it is possible to differentiate two main components. The first, strictly sociocultural, component, is essentially about religion, traditions, ethnic attitudes, the spirit of community, and purchasing habits. The second one, the legal component, is essentially about products that cannot be advertised and legislation specific to commercial promotion (for example, the ban on misleading or comparative advertising).

This last effect not only varies according to the countries and the products affected by advertising,9 but it is also evolutionary and often dependent on the political system and the political situation. Thus the translator is forced to take the legislation of the target countries into account, at the risk of seeing the entire advertising campaign refused. The law regulates advertisement contents as well as their expression and their presentation. In France, the Evin Act compels advertisers to use the French language exclusively. In Quebec, advertising posters have to be bilingual. In Saudi Arabia, the code regulating advertising stipulates that "it is forbidden to show all or part of a woman's body except for the features of the face, and to make any allusion whatsoever in advertising to the relationship between man and woman"!

Thus the cultural parameter is of course given short shrift in advertising, but it is considerably more important. The neglect or non-observance of certain indications during the translation process can wreck the best of advertising campaigns. These indications correspond to a focusing of attention on the elements that culture itself has indicated as meaningful and crucial. Far from representing a restrictive or erroneous approach to culture, the advertising approach—and therefore the translation approach—represents a way of reconciling economic requirements and cultural constraints. In doing so, commercial communicators may risk censorship, but they also achieve their goal. In this case, the ethical point of view gives in to the strong and multiple pressures of the economic aspect.

Lastly, there is an ideological dimension to advertising transfer which is not to be neglected. It includes a specific approach to linguistic and cultural phenomena, an approach which characterizes the economic roles involved in the translation process. Ideological considerations, whatever their terms, are always present in advertising practice and underlie the translating activity. They refer to apriorisms about the language as well as to empiric observations about the target countries. Two theories start to compete as soon as an internationalization of an advertising campaign is considered. The first one is based on the belief that "the language belongs to those who speak it," and the second one on the premise that "the language belongs to a geography." This dichotomy, which appears to be artificial and superfluous, covers well-identified linguistic facts and refers to different professional practices. Behind each concept lies a specific expertise about translation and a different set of internationalization strategies.


3) Translation practices and communication strategies

The professional practices observed can be explained by several factors: business culture, organizational pattern, years in business and expertise of the multinational, nature of the market and of the product, etc. These factors influence the process which will be adopted. Relating to this subject, it is possible to distinguish two main types of process. The first one, which tends to be centralizing, is characterized by in-house management of the entire process. Translators are wage earners of the company, generally attached to the publishing department and working closely with other departments in the multinational.10 The translation is then produced by translators residing in the country of origin of the advertisement. The second type of strategy can be characterized as "decentralized," since translation is outsourced to organizations external to the company. There are two possibilities: the translation can be managed by an international translation center or entrusted to multinational agencies having anchor points in the target markets. In both cases, the translation is executed according to strict standards which are supposed to guarantee the brand image of the company and the commercial success of the advertising campaign.11

In practice, the belief—described above—that "language belongs to those who speak it" reflects a centralized corporate organization, aiming at integrating all the economic agents into the same unified structure. It is manifested in a specific job distribution and strict performance monitoring. Translators work within specialized business departments.

Regarding the strictly linguistic aspect, translators are native speakers of the target countries' languages, but they live and work in the source countries. Multinationals that believe that language "belongs" to those who speak it do not resort to "local" translators nor do they outsource their translations to foreign translation shops. From this point of view, the export of products and services is always accompanied by linguistic and cultural export.12

In this type of strategy, the translator rarely faces the problems often raised about the target text and the target language. He is facing all the difficulties of the source text and the culture producing it. He determinedly looks at things from the issuer-exporter's point of view, who is convinced of the quality of his offer and of the value of his products. By no means does the recipient-consumer benefit from the position of neutrality usually observed by the translator, which makes him a reliable transmission channel of linguistic messages.

In fact, the translator's alienation is two-fold. It is spatial in the sense that he is geographically remote from his readers-recipients. It is also cultural in the sense that he does not share the location where they live or their way of living, and even less their everyday worries and everyday language. To a certain extent, he does not translate for his recipients but for his financial backers. This strategy is not open to criticism in itself. It just raises questions regarding its effectiveness, which is the ultimate goal of advertising translation.

Conversely, it appears that, through an in-depth scrutiny of internationalization strategies, close link between language and geography is typical of decentralized organizational models. The conviction that "language belongs to a geography," however vague and unstable it may be, generates specific professional practices. Not only is the translation entrusted to organizations exterior to the company, but the translator also generally finds himself on the spot, i.e., in the countries where the product is marketed.

Indeed, he is closer to the recipients than to the issuer, and he receives the manufactured product and the written product at the same time. From that moment on, his concerns are centered on the target text and on the target culture. The questions related to the process of translation are asked from the point of view of the reception and not of the issuance. Unlike his expatriated colleague, he looks at things from his readers' point of view, with whom he is in daily contact. If necessary, he can test the quality and the effects of his translation in the field before sending his copy back to the issuer.

However, remoteness of the decision-making center means stricter standardization requirements. Translation is subject to draconian regulations as regards both form and expression. Here quality is judged through the translator's cleverness, who will or will not be able to find a difficult compromise between the identity of the message and the particularities of the reception. In other words, a certain type of message and form of linguistic expression corresponds to each geographic area. Thus Germans are supposed to like technical information and not to be disheartened by long directions for use; and the English would appreciate caustic and parodic humor, whereas the French would be fond of bombast in the advertising language!

Of course, these last observations refer to the idea that we have of the consumer culture. In regard to the problems of cultural adaptation of advertisements in the translation process, the situation is even more complex. Usually, you can distinguish four types of companies according to the attitude adopted regarding the culture of the target countries.13 The ethnocentric company adopts an attitude strongly linked to the original context and carries out as few adaptations as possible. The polycentric company integrates the cultural specificity of each country by adapting its advertisements as best as possible. The regiocentric company adapts its campaigns according to "regions" and not to "countries." Lastly, the geocentric company transcends geographic frontiers and cultural specificities by creating messages intended to be universal from the outset.

In short, advertising translation finds itself caught in a body of parameters, the stakes of which transcend the limits of the language. These parameters are of a pragmatic and immediate nature: the problems raised by advertising translation, both at the economic and linguistic level, originate from a concern for short-term commercial achievement and long-term staying power. The responsibility for achieving of these goals, both legitimate and paradoxical, is assigned to the translator. He must have some knowledge having to do with a real communicative skill of an interdisciplinary nature. To accomplish his mission successfully, the translator is required to think and to integrate a certain amount of data, not only about marketing and basic communication, but also about geopolitics and ethnology.

This account cannot be concluded without mentioning the ethical stakes in advertising translation. Translators are of course subject to the absolute power of economic logic, but they must see to it that they do not reduce the scope of their activities and their chance of survival. Economics should not dictate what is relevant and what is not in the field of language and culture; it is up to the translator to affirm it forcefully, convinced of his intercultural mission. Hence the need for positive and rational ethics. The necessary ethics must be understood as translation's return to its sources. Rather than the conveyer of sacred words, the translator is the holder of truth. Therefore, sometimes it is necessary to straighten out the world made topsy-turvy by economics. The translator does not need the "advertising International"14 for his living, but the advertising International needs him to survive. On a limited scale, it may not be an exaggeration to state that translators are the kingpins of globalization.



Suggested literature

De Pedro (R.), "Beyond the Words: The Translation of Television Adverts," in Babel, No. 42: 1, pp. 27-45.

Decaudin (J.-M.), Stratégies de publicité internationale, Paris, Editions Liaisons, 1991.

Gouadec (D.), Le traducteur, la traduction et l'entreprise, Paris, Afnor, 1989.

Guidère (M.), Publicité et Traduction, Paris, Editions l'Harmattan, 2000, 320 pp.

Guillard (G.), "Publicité, traduction et reproduction de la culture," in Babel, No. 45: 1, pp. 39-52.

Hurbin (P.), "Peut-on traduire la langue de la publicité ?," Babel, 18, No. 3, 1972.

Rozeboom (Ch.), "Stratégies de traduction dans les multinationales informatiques américaines," in La liberté en traduction, Paris, Didier Erudition, 1991, pp. 159-164.

Tatilon (Cl.), "Le texte publicitaire : traduction ou adaptation," Meta, 35, No. 1, 1990.

Wind (Y.), Douglas (S.P.) and Perlmutter (H.), "Guidelines for developing international market strategies," Journal of Marketing, No. 37, 1973. .