Why We Shouldn’t Translate Marketing… And Why We Do It Anyway


At Dell we have built a world class e-commerce and marketing translation program; delivering best in class quality (and value) for our spend.  We have a robust Ad Agency – Internal Marketing – Translation workflow, and yet, we (the translation process) still fail to deliver to expectations much more often than we would like.  This scenario is repeated in nearly every major enterprise; begging the question:

Why are we translating marketing content?

Let’s start by dispelling some myths.  We don’t translate to get good quality local copy.

There, I’ve said it.

If all we cared about was the best possible local copy, we would use either company employees in market or an ad agency with experience in that local market.  We wouldn’t translate.

We will come back to the translation topic in a moment, but for now let’s step back and think about how we create the source English.  Typically the source content is created over a few weeks’ time, involving several peer and executive reviews, and likely with some agency involvement.  Quite often the bulk of this work is done by US based marketers, who don’t know anything about anything that happens outside of the US.  We have all seen examples of this:

Marketing copy for the healthcare vertical that highlights Medicare and Medicaid without an understanding that it doesn’t exist outside the United States.

Or… Copy that touts the applicability of a ruggedized product to the military, completely ignoring the fact that Japan has no real standing military and no public who associates importance with the military (meaning you can translate it perfectly and it still fails to engage).

We invest all of this effort into creating beautiful marketing copy in English (or whatever your source is), and then turn it over to the translation team – and expect the same level of quality at a fraction of the cost and delivered within a few days.

Here is a typical scenario played out in companies all over the world:

A new marketing campaign is sent off for translations, it comes back and is distributed to regional teams, and the Italian marketing contact comes back and says, “There are a few issues with this, we need to rework some of it,” and the marketing team comes back to the translation team and says “What?  We paid $350 for the translation (compared to the $75K invested in the source), and we gave the translators 3 whole days to do the work (compared to the 6 weeks and 19 different exec reviews for the English), and it isn’t spot on!?  Who is the translation agency, they should be fired, let’s get a new vendor!!”.

And meanwhile me, and the hundreds of people just like me in companies across the world, are sitting back waiting for the bluster to fade so we can explain the escalation process (again), rework the file based on the brilliantly deductive feedback of “this isn’t good,” and then move on to the next call with the next marketing team who are equally beside themselves.

Sound familiar?

Now, let’s imagine for a moment we aren’t using a translation process, because, come on, obviously it doesn’t work, instead we are using the local agency model:

We have our marketing copy and we need it in 12 languages, we send it off to an agency in the UK, one in Slovakia for the eastern European countries, and a couple of agencies in Asia; we spend 10s of thousands of dollars, it won’t come back in 5 days, maybe not even 5 weeks, you’re going to be constantly chasing the agencies for when it will come back, and when you get it back it will be inconsistent, as a matter of fact, you won’t even recognize the product in the Asian copy.  BUT, it will likely be of great quality, engaging, and locally meaningful: far superior to what you would have gotten from the translation process.

This brings us back to the start: Using translations isn’t about getting your message into local language, it’s about doing it at scale.  Translation may be the worst way to get good quality local copy… but it’s the only way to do it in a way that furthers business goals.  Doing it any other way costs too much, takes too much time, and requires too much overhead.

Confusion about the process often leads to translation teams blaming the quality of the source, agencies blaming the quality of the translation, and marketing teams frustrated – because the mixed messaging leaves them unsure as to who to believe and makes them spend too much time trying to arbitrate the process, instead of focusing on delivering the message to end customers.

What is lacking is an understanding of the capabilities and limitations of translations, as well as ad agencies, and how to integrate the processes to maximize value, velocity, and quality of message.  There are three key steps to optimize the process:

  1. Understanding what you can expect from each participant (translations team, agency, internal marketing teams) – and what you can’t.
  2. Defining a tiered approach where the majority of the work goes through a translation process (which can be further tiered for standard marketing and copywriting) and a smaller subset goes to ad agencies.
  3. Develop robust quality checkpoints to triangulate on the right balance of quality, velocity and cost ; as well as frequent communication between parties.

If marketing and localization leaders invest time in pulling these often conflicting parties together, the end result is a highly scalable, polished global message that meets business objectives.  It’s not easy, it takes people out of their comfort zones, and it requires constant vigilance, but the best of both worlds, scale and quality of message, can be achieved.