Translating Taboos


There are countless opportunities that come with the internationalization of a company, but there are also some obstacles that have to be cleared to settle into a new market.

There are countless opportunities that come with the internationalization of a company, but there are also some obstacles that have to be cleared to settle into a new market and gain the trust of its customers. Here is where the need for translation and localization comes in, and depending on the target country, one of the first things to figure out are the taboos within its society and how to deal with them effectively.

Along the years, there have been notorious marketing disasters stemming from poor localization and knowledge of local culture and its more delicate subjects. In the early 70’s, the American Motor Corporation released their brand new sports car, which was rather tastelessly named the “Matador”. While the name itself didn’t cause much of a stir in the home market, when AMC had to market it in Puerto Rico, they happened to find out a bit too late that the direct translation of “Matador” is “Killer”. While that alone was already a bit risqué, the fact that the road system on the island was notoriously poorly maintained at the time and regularly blamed for the high number of motoring accidents, pretty much killed the marketing campaign right out the door.

Another marketing escapade gone horribly wrong came from a golf ball manufacturing company who was attempting to break into the Japanese market. The decided to package the golf balls in lots of four, which seems pretty acceptable until they found out that the word “four” sounds like the word “death” in Japanese, and Japanese companies tend to avoid four-item packages because of this odd coincidence (and a healthy dose of superstition added into the mix). I’m sure you can guess how many packs they sold.

The fact is that it’s rather easy to find one self stepping on cultural quicksand when breaking into foreign markets without knowing their taboos. Death is a notoriously delicate subject in the Asian continent. Sex and violence can be heavily censored almost all over the world, and they regularly garner varying degrees of outrage depending on the region. Another touchy subject is religion and a lot of its associated practices, rituals, and traditions, so keep an eye out for those too.

So now that we know about the effect of taboos, how do we tackle them? There are a few common workarounds that can be used to navigate these dire straits.

A well placed euphemism is the best solution when what is deemed offensive or taboo is a certain word instead of a concept or its meaning. We all know of words that were originally safe and have been corrupted and misused until the point they are pretty much a red line. All cultures and languages have their own list of dangerous double entendres, so make sure to find out where the no-go words are at, and fetch yourself a friendly euphemism to fill its place.

Substitutions come into the fray when there is no euphemism on the planet powerful enough to mask the true meaning of the message. If a company deals with alcoholic beverages for example, it will be deeply challenging to run any kind of campaign in a country where drinking alcohol is heavily discouraged or frowned upon. Generally, the best approach will be to avoid referencing alcohol and the lifestyles associated wit it as much as possible, and center on safer areas like the flavor of the drink instead. While the message and the intended use of the product will very likely be somewhat distorted, it will undoubtedly work better than describing a crowded night club with booze flying around unchecked.

Censorship is when we hit a hard wall and there is really no way to climb over it. Certain things are considered so deeply taboo in some cultures that they are outright banned and deemed illegal by the state. Euphemisms and substitutions won’t cut it here, as the mere whiff of one of these will raise red flags. While in very specific cases there might be an angle from which one can approach one of these bans and get around it, attempting to circumvent them will more often than not result in a loss of time, money and a great deal of frustration.

The bottom line is that taboos are a bit of a minefield, and the best way to deal with them is with an expert translator that is well versed in the language and culture of the country and can guide your endeavor to the success it deserves.



Image Credits: MuyPymes

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