top of page

To translate or not to translate, that is the question...

Updated: Oct 26, 2021

Let’s face it: As linguists, our natural tendency is to translate at all cost. Beyond our mere inclination to protect our own language against the evil of anglicisms, there are clear business benefits to such an approach, from local foothold and brand image to keywords performance and increased engagement. And yet… Could there be times when keeping it in English might be the best practice? Let’s play devil’s advocate and look at the potential benefits of English invasion in the midst of localisation.

Let’s get global

Most if not all of the time, the main purpose of localising content is to access new local markets. Be it for websites, marketing emails or social media, your reach will undoubtedly (and unsurprisingly) be greater if you speak the language of your target customers. But while you need to be understood at a local level, there may be times when you want to project a global image rather than be too closely attached to one particular region. For instance, if your whole business is to connect the world, then you may be better off not sounding too overly local.

Air France plane

These may have been the thoughts within Air France when deciding on the name for its loyalty programme, Flying Blue. Though a French company, Air France provides its services to international customers across the world. “Flying Blue” is simple and on target: It conveys both the idea of the airline’s core business, but also one of its brand colours. You could even argue that “flying blue” evokes flying in a clear blue sky, under good and pleasant conditions. Finally, and no less importantly, the program name is made up of two common and easy to pronounce English words.

Down to business

The trend of using English to sound global is even more valid when it comes to B2B communications. Whether we like it or not, English terminology has invaded the business world around the globe. So while certain words can in theory be easily translated, they should not, in order to avoid bringing an outdated, clunky feel to your local content. Instead, it is important to use the same language as your target audience in order to foster confidence and demonstrate the relevance of your expertise.

This notion of being current also pervades some B2C industries at least, in particular those where appearing hip and ahead of the curve is of the utmost importance. One example here is the fashion industry, where keeping some English terms immediately makes your product look cool and trendsetting. In some cases, this may also come out of necessity, when no equivalent exists in the target language. Such is often the case with garments with specific features or cuts, details and style elements. This is why in Spanish, you see words such as “slim fit”, “boyfriend cut” and “Mom jeans” popping up in fashion magazines and websites. Even more strangely, some English terms get “translated” into other English terms that the audience is more familiar with. For instance, “hot pants” has become “mini shorts” in Spanish. Contrary to the original phrase, it is made up of two words already known in Spanish, which still convey the intended meaning without being overly long like the Spanish literal translation, “pantalón corto mini”. As such, it is the perfect compromise between linguistic trends and clarity of meaning.

One size fits all

There is little doubt that keeping English terms helps to streamline matters. When it comes to branding and logos, it follows that only one design and one branded slogan are required. Beyond the simplification of tasks and the cost-saving it represents, this also contributes to reinforcing brand identity and awareness on a global scale.

The nature of the slogan or tagline also matters: Is it conveying a specific message, about a unique selling point of the company, for instance? Or is it aiming to embody what the brand stands for without providing actual information about the brand? If the latter, retaining the English might be just the right choice. Of course, it helps when you happen to be an American or British company: The use of English may not come as an oddity, but rather as the natural voice of the brand.

Nike Logo

A good example is undoubtedly Nike’s famous slogan: “Just do it”. It would be hard to make a message more generic. And yet, its sheer simplicity is part of its force: Whatever sports you are into, it’s all about “doing it” and going the extra mile. As such, the tagline is not actually saying anything, but rather evoking what the brand is about. It is also straightforward, with common words that are both easy to remember and easy to pronounce.

What else?

This might just be one of the most famous taglines of all time, and its simple mention immediately brings to mind the fancy little coffee pod. With his old Hollywood charm and swag, Clooney (and his movie star pals) have turned the Nespresso TV campaign into an on-going success, ever since its launch in 2006. The series of short and funny storylines played out in elegant settings have greatly contributed to building the brand image as both attainable and sophisticated.

But why not translate the tagline, or indeed the videos themselves? Instead of subtitles, it would have been easy enough to dub the various episodes, as is common practice in many non-English speaking countries. This would seemingly not deviate from the brand strategy, as neither the product nor the general look of the videos are particularly American in nature.

This is anyone’s guess. However, it could be argued that the use of the English original version with subtitles adds a layer of refinement and worldliness. Also, Clooney and co. are playing versions of themselves: Hearing their real voices only plays into the make-believe. When we hear “What else?”, we hear George deliver the famous, rhetorical question. We are invited into his exclusive club by joining him in drinking Nespresso.

So, are we about to lose our jobs as translators? Not quite. As mentioned, the key is to speak the customer’s language and to embody the brand’s identity. While this involves an increasing number of English words and phrases in our ever more global world, it does not remove the overall need for localisation and transcreation. Instead, the real complexity is to find the right balance between the two tendencies in order to sound natural and relevant.

40 views0 comments

Recent Posts

See All
bottom of page