Phrases to Avoid in Translation

One of the hardest things about preparing a document for translation is looking for things that don't translate well. Many times, they make perfect sense to the writer, and it never occurs to them that someone else in another culture would not have the same shared references.

Unfortunately, shared references are part of what makes a culture, and therefore is the first thing that needs to be expunged from documents intended for multi-cultural audiences.

Off the top of my head, here is a list of regionalisms that should be avoided:

Any sports/game reference: "get your game on", "it's the bottom of the ninth", "hit a home run", "sticky wicket", "poker face" "checkmate" etc
Popular culture references: "re-gifting" ,"bizzaro", "Benny Hill" etc
Local News references: "____-gate", "bob's your uncle", etc
Local slang: "yob", "the pond", coke (when referring to drinks other than Coca-Cola)", "trailer trash" etc
Famous Sayings: "The only dumb question is the one that's never asked", "It's always in the last place you look", "A bird in the hand is worth two in the bush", etc
Most acronyms: The list here is extremely long, ranging from tanstaafl to SERP.

The reason that famous sayings are on the list is because they take on special meaning (cultural shorthand) in their native language and can be used in ways that make little sense (and can sound pretentious or insulting) once translated. If you use them (and I recommend not) then make it clear that it's a saying, and not your own words.

Finally, try to avoid corporate jargon. That "professional sounding" phrase you use to describe an internal process or concept at your company probably just sounds stupid or pretentious once translated. It probably sounds stupid or pretentious to people outside your company in your native language, as well, but that's a post for another day.

I hope this has helped illustrate how easy it is to make yourself almost unintelligible to others without knowing it. A good translator can help with this, but only if the translator knows enough about your cultural references to know what you are trying to say in the first place.

The problem is, these shared concepts can be very powerful marketing and communication tools - they clearly convey both meaning and emotion quickly and easily to an audience that understands them.

This is why we use a minimum two step process for SEO translation at my company, first, we translate the document by someone in your country that understands your local culture. The resulting document is as devoid of cultural references as possible. Then we send it to a professional marketer in your target market, who then localizes and SEO's it to appeal to the target market. Many of our clients then request that we translate that final document back to English (round trip translation) to make sure that it says what they want it to say.


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