May 11, 2009

Lost in adaptation

Our agency's a little different than most, since we work in both official languages. That means a whole lot of making sure our projects work equally well in English and fran├žais--with just the right twist and tempo to appeal to two pretty different audiences.

So a word to the uninitiated--or at least the unilingual: be careful how you develop a campaign intended for a market that doesn't speak your mother tongue. There are two equally important but extremely different ways to turn one language into another:

1. Translate. That means word for word--as in exactly word for word. Translators are absolute masters at finding exactly the right meaning for just about anything you throw at them. They can debate the finest nuances between purple and mauve. They make sure every word is included and no bit of thought is left out. They are impeccable at legal copy and straightforward text and go over everything with a fine-tooth comb.

2. Adapt. And here, you see, is where a lot of people err. People who adapt--and it's usually the bilingual copywriter that gets this job--take the essence of one ad and carry it over into another language. That doesn't mean they'll use the same words--they may not even use the same play on words. Sometimes you just can't. Languages are not exact translations of one another; they each have their own essence and rhythm and expressions. Those who adapt take the core of the idea and massage the dang thing until it fits just right (or, at times, shout back up the pipeline that it just isn't going to work).

And so, dear readers, knowing when to translate and when to adapt is crucial to ensuring the successful switcheroo of your ad. Cause if you go about it the wrong way, you may well end up with this:


  1. Years ago I met a fresh MBA graduate who started with a large firm in Toronto on what he called the "Kraft refrigerator" account as a Account Manager or similar. I told him I saw a TV ad for a Kraft cheese of a burly man in white tshirt and bald sweating and wiping his brow with his arm as he grated cheese. (insert ewww sound)

    I asked him "Why did you have the filming done in a stop motion like a fast slide show?" He didnt know what I meant until next time i saw him month later he explained that someone sent the wrong film, apparently a test reel for the client and not a finished commercial product. I probably saw it a dozen times on my local station. Apparently my city is used alot for a test market, and they were testing pre-grated cheese." Ooopsy

    I am reminded of this situation from your story because for the millions of dollars I am sure it costs to produce an ad, and even go to air it, isnt there someone who does the final sign off on these things? Or is there such a position as Account Scapegoat?

  2. You'd think someone would sign off on these things, but sometimes they are terribly clueless...

    And definitely eww for the sweaty cheese grater. Blech!

  3. That is a brilliant example of bad translation! I shall blog about it!

  4. Cheers, Jane! We see some doozies over here--although nothing this hilarious.

  5. Ha! This is the baddest bad translation I've ever seen, Teenie! I'm blogging about it, too!