How Not to Get Lost in Translation: Thai, English and beyond

As a leading Translation Services in Bangkok, Thailand, we realize that both Thai and English people, like any two nationalities, are separated by more than just language.

There is an entire unique cultural background and history that each group of people inherits, which can come out of artistic traditions, religious sensibilities, political experiences and more. These sorts of intangible factors can color people’s perspectives and expectations in subtle ways, and can change how they experience a piece of art, a newspaper editorial, a work of literature or even an advertisement.

With so much time and research put into the creation and marketing of new products, it is a shame to see that often this entire effort can be made worthless by cutting corners at the last step of the process: The act of translating the product to foreign audiences. This is an issue that our Bangkok English to Thai translators face on a regular basis as companies try to ensure that they don’t make any cultural mistakes.

Examples of poor translation are legendary in the marketing industry, though the lessons to be learned aren’t just for marketers, but for anybody doing business or communicating potentially sensitive information in Thailand or overseas. A few of the more famous incidents include:

* Gerber, the company specializing in baby food, selling their products in Africa, and using their standard packaging of a picture of a baby’s face on the label. Nobody had told them that the labels on food products in Africa normally had pictures of the ingredients on them, because many customers were unable to read. People assumed their food product was made out of babies! More on this story here.

* The Scandinavian vacuum-cleaner company Electrolux marketed its products in the West with the slogan, “Nothing sucks like an Electrolux,” causing the wrong kind of audience reaction. More on this story here.

* Nike made an important video production for an advertisement in Kenya, a country famous for world-class runners. A local tribesman speaks, and the English subtitle shows Nike’s slogan: “Just do it.” After the ad went on TV, an American anthropologist was able to translate what the tribesman had actually said: I don’t want these. Give me big shoes.”

The Nike example is especially interesting. Its film crew didn’t understand what the Kenyan man wanted, and also didn’t understand what he thought about their product. The translation of words is always going to be the most visible challenge for anyone looking to communicate with people in other societies, but this linguistic challenge should be informed by a solid cultural understanding as much as possible. To that end, a competent translator is essential and we help Bangkok companies with Thai and English translations.

One of the guidelines among translators is: Don’t take on assignments that you aren’t fully qualified for. If you’re translating, read and experience as much as you can regarding the real-world material, news and cultural happenings in the country (or countries) where your target language is used. This habit will keep you attuned to both the ever-changing nuances of the language, and also the rich cultural well from which it draws.

About the Author

Steve Callerame is an experienced copywriter and reputation manager in Bangkok. He’s been an user user of social media since day one and has over 20 years experience telling stories on social media for clients.

Lexicon is an award-winning brand storytelling agency focusing on telling impactful stories for clients based in Thailand and South East Asia.


Latest Blogs