Cliché Got Your Tongue? Copywriting for an International Audience

Category: Culture, Language

Guest author Christine Kent is an editor with the Content Bureau, a full-service copywriting agency.

The process of transcreation requires writers and translators to come up with alternatives for the 4756389037_380e04126d_b (1)idiomatic and casual language often used in marketing campaigns, particularly for consumer products and advertising. However, for some marketing pieces, the transcreation process can be made vastly easier by simply writing clean, usable copy from the very beginning. In other words, assume that your text will need to be translated down the road, and from the get-go, avoid piling on the clichés and idioms.

(Whoops, I’ve already broken this rule in the line above: “down the road,” “get-go,” and “piling on” would not make life easier for writers doing a transcreation. Lucky for me, we’re not planning to get this blog post translated!)

This “think before you write” approach makes sense for some, not all, marketing pieces. Ad campaigns usually demand highly colloquial language, especially for taglines—better to write them in the fashion required for the initial audience, then recast the copy into another language using idioms that convey the same idea. However, product brochures, fact sheets, and white papers likely don’t require the use of much untranslatable wording, so it makes more sense to tone down the casual lingo in these documents.

At the Content Bureau, some of our major clients request such an approach for all of the copy we write. That is, we are directed to deliver copy that is easy to localize, and avoids colloquialisms or obvious U.S.-centric references that would have to be deleted when copy is translated. In many cases, the client may not need to translate the copy (at least not right away), but does need it to be comprehended by someone whose mother tongue is not English—hence the need to develop copy that is easier for a global audience to understand.

Of course, the down side to “sanitizing” copy in this manner is that it can be painfully easy to make the text dull and lifeless. I work with a global technology company that puts all copy through a corporate edit process that’s designed to take out (in the writers’ view) any slightly creative language or fun turns-of-phrase. For a recent piece, references to “chilling” (as in a scary outcome) were changed to “cause a problem” or something similarly indistinctive. The phrase “food chain” was changed to “lifecycle,” a much duller word. And a reference to a “cocktail” of technology problems was eliminated altogether for fear of offending readers from countries where alcohol is banned—not so much a translation problem as a cultural concern.

Still, being told to avoid all-too-easy idioms and slang can force you to higher levels of creativity, since you have to do a lot with a little. I think of my French friends who are fanatics about Apple products, and who understood the (now retired) “Think different” tagline without any explanation from an English speaker. (To my ears, that tagline sounds even lovelier when delivered with a French accent: “Zink diffair-ONT.”) Two little words, and Apple conveyed its value proposition to any audience with just a smattering of English knowledge. That’s what we should strive for.

Photo attribution: Kaptain Kobold