Six Ways Bad Translations Can Hurt Your Brand
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Six Ways Bad Translations Can Hurt Your Brand

We know anecdotally that getting translation right is important, but it can be difficult to measure the direct effects of precision and accuracy.

For example, it’s tough to tie profitability and growth directly to translation quality. After all, downturns or lack of growth could be due to a weaker economy, lower brand recognition or any of the other variables that come with entering a new market.

But here are six reminders that bad localization can have a big impact on your profitability.

1. Brand damage

There are lots of examples of businesses getting translation wrong.

Sometimes the translation is simply incorrect. When KFC entered China, they inadvertently changed their slogan “It’s finger lickin’ good” to “Eat your fingers off.”

Sometimes the actual words of the translation are fine, but there’s a colloquial twist that changes the connotation. Like when Coors launched their “Turn It Loose” slogan only to find out that in Spanish it became slang for having diarrhea.

And sometimes it’s linguistically fine, but cultural nuances on the ground change the meaning. Take Colgate: they launched a toothpaste in France without realizing they gave it the same name as a local adult magazine.

(It happens in English too—it’s hardly high praise to a US audience when they hear “Nothing sucks like an Electrolux.")

All these instances make brands look silly and clueless. And giving people that kind of impression right out of the gate can be a big problem.

That’s what makes the difference between ‘translation’ and ‘transcreation’ so important.

(If you’re not sure what that difference is, this post will give you an explanation and some advice on how to pick the right translation approach for you. And you can see the 20 worst translations of all time here.)

2. Potential fines

Getting translation wrong can be costly, too.

It’s tough enough to get everything right in your own language. For example, a shipping company was forced to pay $5 million of overtime to workers because of the lack of an Oxford comma in a state law, meaning the law had to be updated.

Adding language barriers only makes these issues worse. And it can have dramatic effects.

For instance, a hospital in Florida mistranslated "intoxicado" as "intoxicated" rather than the more accurate “poisoned.” This caused a delay in treatment, which left a patient with brain damage that made him quadriplegic.

The eventual settlement for the error was $71 million.

3. Costly back-office errors

It’s not just language that can cause issues. As much as we think that math is universal, even regional differences there can have real-world ramifications.

In English-speaking countries, a comma in numbers usually represents a thousands’ separation to make it easier to read, like in 100,500.

But in many countries, a comma represents a decimal point.

That’s easy enough to decipher while on your holiday, but pretty serious if you’re invoicing for 1/1000th of the amount you meant to.

4. Increased cost from rework

Getting things wrong can cost you a whole lot more than just sales. There’s the physical costs—the reprints, reshoots and missed deadlines.

HSBC launched their ‘Assume Nothing’ branding internationally. Only they translated it as ‘Do Nothing.’

The final cost? A $10 million rebranding effort.

5. Poor user experience means lost customers

When people land on a webpage, they start to judge it immediately—the look, the feel and, of course, the words.

Research has shown that users often leave a website after 10–20 seconds. That means you have very little time to show them that you’re worth sticking around for.

Spelling mistakes, poor-quality translation and clumsy or difficult wording all add up to a less-than-appealing experience for the user. And that means lower conversions.

It’s estimated that 59% of visitors would not do business with a company that has poor grammar on its website.

Can you afford to lose nearly two-thirds of your market?

Even a single spelling mistake can cut sales in half.

6. Search engines punish you

Not only are potential customers less likely to buy from your site, they are actually less likely to find it in the first place.

Search engines will punish poorly translated sites by pushing them down the rankings.

This is bad in all sectors, but if you happen to be in a particularly competitive market, this becomes a huge problem as more people are fighting for those top spots.

One of the worst offenders is linguistic errors from automatic Machine Translation (MT). 

In the words of SEO company Moz:  “Automatic translations can be inaccurate and off-putting. They can hurt a website trying to rank in a competitive landscape. A great way to get an edge on your competitors is to use professional, high-quality native translators to localize your content into your target languages. High-quality localization is one of the key factors in improving your rankings when it comes to international SEO.”

On the other hand, if you can get it right when your competitors are struggling, that’s a great way to get ahead in the rankings.

Appropriate translations help your bottom line

Good translation is not a ‘nice to have’; it’s a fundamental part of the marketing journey on the international stage. Getting it wrong can hurt your brand, your customers and your bottom line.

It might be tempting to cut corners by using non-professional translators, translating creative content automatically, or skipping quality assurance steps. But the examples above prove that getting things right the first time is worth the investment.