An unfortunate blunder by Coca-Cola in writing “Kia ora, Mate” on a New Zealand vending machine, which translates to “Hello, Death” in Māori, reinforces the importance for brands to protect their reputations by ensuring their translated material is handled using the correct translation solution and taking into account its context.

It’s also a problem because Māori has been experiencing a revival across New Zealand. Google has launched a Māori version of its website; Google Maps has been recording more accurate Māori pronunciations, and Disney is releasing a Māori version of its hit film Moana. In 2013, just 3.7% of New Zealanders spoke the language fluently, but now New Zealand’s government, which says it wants more than 20% of the country’s population to speak basic Maori by 2040, has pledged to provide Maori lessons in all New Zealand schools by 2025.

More businesses operating on a multi-lingual basis need to adopt a transcreation rather than a translation strategy for the translation of tag lines and marketing related content.

Companies have often committed enormous amounts of time and money on the development of their brand, voice, messages and marketing, carefully crafting campaigns so they appeal to and convert their target audiences. Sometimes, as Coca-Cola has found out, your wording, message or even your brand name simply does not translate well into a new target language. But if you are present in a market where your audience has different cultural touchstones and contexts for things and even different colour and image associations, then your marketing message can be understood in a completely different way.

The temptation for brands is, with the best intent, to opt for a simple translation or a machine translation solution, as the costs are much lower.

However, they would be better advised to investigate what the best solution is for them based on the content they have, the target language they need and the context and subject field. In some cases, opting for transcreation, which allows for more creative licence, greater awareness of the cultural sensitivities of individual languages, and a change of tone or text to ensure that what you are doing will work best for short impactful marketing messages”

Transcreation is recreating a message in a new language so that its original concepts, style, tone and intent are retained, even if the message itself needs to be completely rewritten. It is sometimes known as “creative translation”.

Consider how important any of the following relatively simple concepts might be in the language that you plan to use for your marketing:

A well-placed popular idiomatic expression, perhaps tweaked for your product or service, is a common and highly effective base for a marketing slogan. The problem is that a common phrase in your home dialect and region may have a very different equivalent somewhere else or have none at all. Even speakers of two very closely related dialects such as British and American English have idioms, which would mean nothing to speakers of the other: “Bob’s your uncle” is a fairly well used British English idiom for “voila!” or “ta-da!” which hasn’t found its way across the Atlantic yet. Now try and imagine how little that phrase might mean to a Chinese or Russian audience.

Similarly, metaphors are very challenging to directly translate. Comparing one thing to another may make perfect sense in one language or region but have vastly different connotations elsewhere. They might require substitution, translation into direct language, complete deletion or a different approach entirely depending on your situation.

When it comes to puns, smart word play might be an act of genius in one language, but can be impossible to replicate the same effect in another language.

After thinking a little about idioms, it’s easy to picture how confusing some cultural touchstones might be to an audience from a different culture. One clear example of this actually happening was when Pampers started selling their nappies or diapers in Japan. That storks carry babies to new parents is a common bit of folklore and cultural touchstone in many English-speaking markets. Hence, Pampers features a bird on the packaging of their baby products. In Japan, there is no such touchstone. A local equivalent might be babies floating down the river to new parents on a peach. In parts of Europe, similar folklore says babies are left hidden from the sun beneath cabbages. It all depends on the culture your audience was raised in. But Japanese consumers had no basis for connecting the product packaging to its purpose.

Successful transcreation of your brand and marketing messages will ensure they have the same power as they do in their home market. It can be challenging enough to successfully launch goods or services in a foreign market without a failure to address something as fundamental as language from stifling its chances.

Julie Giguere

Julie Giguere


Managing Director - Asian Absolute