The Translator is dead, long live the localiser.

Zu den deutschsprachigen Blogs The Translator is dead, long live the localiser.
Zu den deutschsprachigen Blogs The Translator is dead, long live the localiser.

I’ll admit it. I’m a pedant. Whether I was before I moved to Germany or not is another matter. One thing is for sure, however, outside of the technical sciences, translation is one of few career choices where pedants are not just welcome but cherished.

An article on localisation from David, localiser, translator, occasional tour guide and Berlin denizen.

How to recognise a translator.

Translators are easily recognisable, their kitchen or sitting room lights are usually on all night during the week as they race to meet another impossible deadline. At social events, they are invariably to be heard jabbering away incessantly to large groups as they make up for the previous 300 hours they spent alone at a desk with a thesaurus and a metric ton of coffee beans.

You can also pick them out at restaurants, particularly in holiday resorts, snorting and chortling into their egg and chips while basking in their innate genius as they loudly read out the grammatical and semantic faux pas of the proprietors’ attempts to translate the menus into 7 languages using a certain internet company’s translation software and/or their eldest children. “Look, darling, everybody knows we don’t say ‘Have a Good Appetite’ in English, we say ‘Bon Appétit’, but they’ve translated it anyway, ha, ha, ha, if only they knew!”  As we leave the translator’s guffaws to spill out into the evening sky and ‘Darling’ reconsiders his or her decision to shack up with a pedant for the 67,167.243rd time, we should reflect on the crucial difference between translation and localisation or, in other words, between pedantry and communication.

You see, nobody likes a pedant, even pedants don’t like pedants. People will listen to them, they may even be correct all the time, however, being correct all the time does not necessarily mean that it is the right thing to do. Don’t get me wrong, translation involves a huge amount of technical skill and studied knowledge which both have to be employed in a precise and correct manner. Nevertheless, as we know from the oodles of translation software and freeware available, the matching translation term is not always the right one, the right choice is always that which is adapted to the context in which the word will be read.

Voices, contexts and consumers.

It is one thing to translate a novel, where the author’s voice and not the target audience become the leitmotif for the translator, it is different matter to move a website from one linguistic and cultural domain to another. The myriad contextual factors which influence and trigger culturally specific consumer behaviour can never be captured by the mere rapid indexing and correlating algorithms of translation softwares or by the efforts of a pathological pedant.

There are some hilarious examples where the short-sightedness of marketing departments cost major brands a lot of money. Think of Mitsubishi’s cringe-inducing attempt to sell its internationally successful ‘Pajero’ four-wheel drive vehicles in Spanish-speaking countries – a ‘Pajero’ in Spanish is a derogatory term for someone who masturbates. Native Spanish speakers would have spotted this immediately, it took a doomed advertising campaign and widespread ridicule for Mitsubishi to reconsider its branding (they changed it to Montero).

Or ponder the attempts of a different corporation to sell an (soupy brown coloured) Irish cream liqueur in Germany under its international brand name ‘Irish Mist’. Despite widespread Hibernophilia in Germany, the liqueur did not sell well. “Mist” in German more or less translates as “crap” or “poo” in English. An undoubtedly costly and easily avoidable mistake.  Anyone for a glass of Irish poo? Anyone?

How effective localisation works

Localisation only works with people who intuitively understand the specific linguistic cultural contexts in which copy, images, websites, brochures, legal texts, or, quite frankly, whatever it is which needs to be localised are translated to. Only native speakers experienced in translation and localisation can provide this service.

Someone who learns or studies a language or even immerses him- or herself in the culture/those cultures of that language for a period of time may make an acceptable translator, but they will never make a good localiser. There are simply too many factors above and beyond semantics which are critical to turning one language into another; this is particularly pertinent to eCommerce where consumer confidence is key to winning sales.

If users cannot trust a website – and they make these decisions in nanoseconds – they will shop elsewhere. First impressions in eCommerce, eBanking, or eMedical really count, this can even be measured using the so-called ‘bounce rate’ statistics which quickly calculate how rapidly potential customers leave a page.  With no personal contact, the first contact with potential customers or clients happens exclusively on a web interface – the interface is everything.

Contexts and globalisation

I think we can all agree that we are now living in a digitalized and globalized world. We are constantly inundated with a plurality of choices for each and everything we wish to do or want to purchase. We make decisions on who to trust, what to read, where to spend time or where to shop in a matter of seconds. Good localisation is about helping to increase the odds of potential customers and users favouring your client’s brand or message and building trust from there.

So good localisation is not about pedantically sticking to a tone or voice from cultural context A and then replanting it in cultural context B. Rather, effective localisation is all about getting people in B to trust the people in A and for the users in B to want whatever it is they are offering.  This can only be achieved using localisers from B, ergo. experienced native speakers who grew up in these cultures.

You see, what the pedant in the restaurant above is failing to acknowledge (and something that has not been lost on “Darling”), is that that the menu’s translation is unimportant. He or she is already sitting there waiting to order; the restaurant will be judged on the food or maybe even the view. In respect of the context, a restaurant, the pedant is missing the point.  This would have been different if the restaurateur was selling translation services or, worse still, dictionaries.

In this current age of digital globalization, the translator is dead, long live the localiser.

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