5 bilingual copy mistakes and how to avoid them

It’s hard enough to write good copy in one language. Writing copy that works in two languages is at least twice as hard.

Here are some mistakes you should avoid if you’re creating bilingual copy for the first time.

Mistake #1: Doing a simple translation.

Let’s say you have a direct mail package that works for an English-speaking audience. Now you want to break into the Hispanic market with a bilingual package. So you figure all you have to do is hire a translator. Right? Not quite.

The “words” may translate, more or less, but the meaning may not. Try this experiment: take a simple phrase and use an online translator to go from English to German then back to English.

English: He’s mellowing out and getting his grove on.

Translates to German: Er ist aus Gärung und immer sein Hain auf.

Translates back to English: He is on from fermentation and always be Hain.


Mistake #2: Always writing in English first.

This will be your first instinct if English is your native language. But sometimes it’s a good idea to start with the other language.

For example, some languages are more verbose. So if you start with 2,000 words in English, the version in the other language might be 2,500 or more words. It can be hard to cram that much extra copy into the same layout. By going in the other direction, you may end up with a more workable result.

Mistake #3: Making the same sales pitch in both languages.

Never assume that everyone’s hot buttons are the same. Price might be the main motivator for people of one culture, while social status might be the main motivator in another. Once again, bilingual marketing isn’t about translation as much as it is about appealing to the sensibilities of two different audiences.

Mistake #4: Using culturally-based phrases and ideas.

The advertising world is full of horror stories about how copy can go haywire in translation. Pepsi’s upbeat slogan, “Come alive with the Pepsi Generation” translated poorly in China, where it meant “Pepsi brings your ancestors back from the grave.”

The Parker Pen company goofed when it tried to sell a ballpoint pen in Mexico with ads bragging, “It won’t leak in your pocket and embarrass you.” Unfortunately, the translation proclaimed, “It won’t leak in your pocket and make you pregnant.”

Mistake #5: Going it alone.

There’s just no way to market in another language if you’re not fluent in the language and don’t understand the culture. If you’re serious about bilingual marketing, you have to bring in people who understand both languages and cultures and have experience selling to each.

There are no shortcuts.

If you’ve done any bilingual advertising copy, tell me about your experiences.

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2 Responses to “5 bilingual copy mistakes and how to avoid them”

  1. Joshua Black | The Underdog Millionaire on April 29th, 2010 2:19 pm

    The same can hold true when using just one language, but having customers from all over the world. Sometimes you have to be careful that you are not using too many local phrases that may be misconstrued by your customers from othere places.

    -Joshua Black
    The Underdog Millionaire

  2. Solomon on May 3rd, 2010 9:41 am

    Quite hilarious! I liked the Parker Pen ad translation. Translations of original ads into other languages need to be meaningful.

    If we’re not careful with the meaning of it, it backfires.

    One client told me to get the copy translated through a software tool…. I couldn’t laugh at the thought of it (ignorance of the purpose of copy!).

    Good article!

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