Being fluent in a language requires more than just knowing the meaning of words. In addition, there are fixed English phrases with meanings that cannot be inferred simply by translating the individual words. 

To translate, or not to translate? When taking your PR content into international waters, making sure that idioms are not lost in translation is important for maintaining continuity. 

By Courtney Cowperthwaite, account executive

Idioms are a more casual way of talking about an idea and can be more concise than alternative wording.

Take the well-known phrase in the doghouse, for example. If worded literally, we could say “somebody is angry with this person for something they did or said”. To put it idiomatically, this alternative doesn’t quite have the same ring to it.

Lost in translation
Companies often commit huge amounts of time and money to the development of their messaging, carefully crafting campaigns to appeal to their audiences. However, messages do not always translate well into a new target language.

In 2014, Coca-Cola faced its own marketing blunder when the company attempted to contribute to New Zealand’s push for increasing the number of Māori speakers in the country. However, by emblazoning vending machines with the slogan “Kia Ora, Mate”, Coca-Cola actually greeted consumers with the phrase “Hello, Death”.

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.

For example, if something is expensive in England, it may cost an arm and a leg. In France, the same product would coûter les yeux de la tête – meaning that it costs the eyes in your head. Although subtle, this example demonstrates how directly translating idioms risks losing the meaning of the phrase. When considering languages such as Chinese or Russian, smart plays on words could be even trickier to translate.

Translation vs transcreation

After thinking about idioms, it’s easy to picture how confusing some cultural cornerstones might be to international audiences. Instead of solely thinking about effective translation, companies should also consider adopting a transcreation strategy. This involves modifying copy, to keep the spirit of the original message without leaving room for confusion.

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 products or services in an international market, without something as fundamental as language stifling your chances. Although they’re often a means of injecting some casual humour into your copy, effectively conveying idioms is an essential part of maintaining the continuity of your campaign.

Our multilingual team has the expertise to take your PR campaign to new places. We fluently speak eight languages, so there’s no need to get lost in translation. To find out more about how our international PR services can help your next global campaign, give me a call on +44 (0)1785 225 416 or e-mail me at
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