Retail translation has many important conventions to ensure best practice. Translators ignore them at their peril, but we often find retail clients unaware of some of these important issues. So this is our retail translation best practice guide.

1. Human or machine?

If you want the gist of an email, Google translate is a useful aid. If applied to retail projects machine translation can spell disaster. Why? Language is complex, with a multiplicity of meanings. A machine simply can’t produce the same result as a human author.

Your branding team probably spent hours coming up with the concepts in your product titles, features and benefits. Letting a computer translate them will take seconds, so looks tempting on a tight deadline. It also costs little or nothing – tempting on a tight budget. However, this is like asking a person to write down the first thing that comes into their head when they see the product! Actually worse, since computers can’t see.

2. Product and brand names

The normal concept is that we don’t translate brand names. For example what is Velcro in Spanish? Yes, it’s Velcro, as the brand name is also used in the Spanish language. This is true of many brand names. Where a business or product has a descriptive name, like our company name “Better Languages” it might be tempting to translate. The problem is that a brand or concept rarely sounds as good in another language.

Where a text contains brand names, sometimes clients then think the translation should cost less. This word or phrase stays the same, so why am I paying for it? Translation is always contextual, for example word order is usually different between English and a latin language like French. The translator still has to consider and place the phrase when working.

3. The sanctity – or not, of the source text

The source text is usually pretty much sacred to the translator when they work. The task of the translator is to convey the intended meaning of the source text within the target language. Some translation is all about extracting the original intended meaning. This is the case with many legal texts. Here the translation will be almost literal and word for word to the original.

At the other extreme is transcreation. Here the translator acts virtually as a copywriter. They express concepts and ideas in the target language. This could read quite differently to the original. Their aim is to produce a good flow and feel within the target language.

Where does retail translation sit within this spectrum? Normally we have to express legally tight wording, such as product claims, and other legal wording such as warnings and allergy advice. Here the source text is “sacred” in the sense that we are guided by the terms the client provides. This is logical if you think about it, you’ve tested the product, and we haven’t. If you miss a warning, or wrongly describe a product in the source text, we will consistently miss-describe it in all the translations. You should approve and finalise your text before we start work.

4. Following language rules

This one is easy to miss if you aren’t a linguist. There are many distinct and different rules within different languages. For example, German routinely capitalises many common nouns which would be lower case in English. This could be at odds with your brand guidelines. However a German reader will find the text horrible if you don’t correctly capitalise the German. French has different spacing rules to English with colons and semi-colons. They normally appear with a space before them in French.

Best practice if you need a lot of translation is to have language specific brand guidelines, ensuring that people such as your artworkers know that the capitalised German noun is correct, and isn’t a translation error.

5. Deadlines

I’ve often heard retailers joke about all projects being marked either urgent, or extremely urgent. Translators can work quickly, but if they do, they risk error, and there may not be time for the proper checks such as independent QA that you would expect of a professional translation. We realise that retail is very deadline driven. Translation is usually late in the supply chain, so the risk is that timescales get cut because of over runs earlier in the project. If it took your marketing team 5 days to develop a concept, don’t expect a translator to translate it in 10 minutes, it will take time and thought.

6. Intended purpose and audience

This is easily overlooked. The same text may need different approaches in different situations. For example, translating a lease agreement, is this for your internal use and understanding, or is it being used in contentious litigation? In the latter context which side is the the translation for, do you want the translator to word things well, to give your lease agreement maximum impact, or if you are contesting it, perhaps the task is to highlight how bad the original is.

Style and tone of voice are also important, who is your customer? Are you addressing a young or old audience, formal/informal etc. Sometimes company tone can be different in internal communications to external. Do let your translators have any relevant background and tone of voice guidelines.

Retail translation best practice guide

So in summary, there are important translation concepts and ideas which affect translation. Get them wrong at your peril. Do talk to your translators, and understand their needs and requirements. Great translation is a team effort between retailer and translation supplier.