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Zero translation – controversy or convenience?

in Language Connect

shutterstock_2787312While translation has always been an integral part of any communication, the practice of translating all text except for very specific names or terminologies, i.e. zero translation, has caused some language champions to protest the adoption of certain foreign words in common vocabulary.

Specifically in China and Japan, where English words and brand names such as YouTube, HTML appear liberally alongside local language text, there is a call to localise these to the relevant audience.

In the context of the size of the audience and the economic influence, this could be a valid argument, however, is it practical, is it necessary and most of all, is there a long term risk to native languages?

Language has always been enriched by the introduction of new cultures and terminologies. An example of this is the word for shirt which exists in almost identical format across a range of Latin and Eastern languages as camisa, chemise, qamis, camicia, kameez and many more localised versions across south East Asia. The term can be traced back to the 4th century and undoubtedly followed the trade routes to eventually become a commonly known and used word in most languages across the world.

The relevance of this example is that languages naturally evolve with its cultural landscape and are shaped by the preferences of the audience. Simply put, people are practical in nature and will adopt the easiest platform for communication, even if that means introducing a new word in their vocabulary. This is particularly evident in Europe, where English is spoken fluently across most countries and business terms liberally mixed with the native languages of each country. Whereas this to some extent erodes the native languages, it vastly improves the communication landscape for colleagues and customers in a multilingual environment.

For brands translating their communications to customers in a global environment, localisation becomes increasingly complex and must be carefully considered with the meaning, context, audience, and visual identity in perspective.

Particularly, in communicating their ‘essence’, brands must consider if elements such as brand names and slogans work best in their original or a localised form. When Coca-Cola launched in China in 1927, the translation of the brand famously proved highly challenging but the translation to the Mandarin “K’o K’ou K’o Lê” fortuitously meant “let your mouth rejoice”. Had the brand launched in today’s China, the strategy for localising the marque would likely have been different and the parameters driven by an audience that is heavily online and inherently more ‘globalised’.

However, correct translation and localisation remain critical in customer communications away from media and advertising. The necessity to accurately exchange information still demands deep translation of documentation such as user guides, contractual documents, educational material and reports. In these cases, the translation must include a reference guide to any zero translated words, to ensure that the audience fully understands the terms of reference.

Communication will continue to evolve, shape and change languages across the world. Zero translation is inevitable but, if managed correctly, may benefit information exchange and safeguard the essence of the original message.

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