Lost in translation makes for better adaptation

In 1985, Dr. Henry Adams, one of the founders of Market Development, Inc., and one of the country’s few Ph.D. psycholinguists and experimental psychologists, developed the concept of transcultural marketing. Its purpose was to allow the collection of solid, objective consumer data from multiple cultures that were conceptually equivalent.

One of the terms he coined was “adaptation” when talking about “translation” in research. Why adaptation and not translation? Because data must be comparable from one language to the other, and translation misses that completely, in other words, when you translate from one language to the other, the underlying “conceptual anchor” (meaning) is lost. In addition, translation imposes the concepts of one language on the other arbitrarily, whereas adaptation looks at each language conceptually independent from another, on their own merits, the only truly valid alternative for decision purposes. Technically, the researcher must assess (functional equivalence) whether a given concept or behavior serves the same function from country to country (or market to market); he must also determine (conceptual equivalence) whether these same concepts or behavior occur in different countries (or markets) and whether they are expressed is similar ways; and finally, he must examine whether the same classification scheme of objects can be used across countries (category equivalence). Without being too technical, the easiest example I always use to explain this is the word “fun” which cannot be directed translated in either Portuguese or Spanish, and therefore must be “adapted” to these languages in order to extract meaning.

Adaptation requires intimate knowledge of the culture and its idiosyncrasies, something that translation lacks in principle. Proof of that is the fact that not all Spanish-speaking people from Central and South America speak the same Spanish and have the same culture, even though they speak the same language.

I had the privilege of working with my husband on Fortune 100 client accts and learned his method first-hand. Unfortunately, this is something that’s not taught in schools, and if you don’t work in the field, the likelihood is that you won’t have any idea of its existence. Actually, if you don’t work for a decent-sized and sophisticated company or agency, it’s very unlikely that this methodology would ever be applied.

If you want to expand your marketing knowledge and globalize yourself, I highly recommend watching foreign films, TV shows, listening to foreign music, and also reading the extensive marketing research articles and magazines put out by ESOMAR (World Association of Research Professionals) and the leading European and Asian marketing research association that focuses a lot on transcultural marketing; TNS and Nielsen, the two largest marketing intelligence firms in the world with affiliates in most major countries, and various international marketing research books and articles, such as Research World published by ESOMAR.


3 responses to “Lost in translation makes for better adaptation

  1. Very interesting post. We seem share similar backgrounds 🙂

    I work for Research International in London and as a linguist, I have to deal with translation issues regularly.

    Adapting can work fine for certain documents if one is dealing with countries that share ‘similar’ cultures for e.g. 5 EUs (UK, FR, ITA, GR and SP). I would however advise companies to write completely different concepts depending on the country they are targeting – think global, act local!

  2. I have to grapple with this issue time and again, made all the more difficult because my work’s and blog’s target audience is multi-lingual and multi-cultural. It’s not easy. Often what might make perfect sense in English is strange or nonsense in Portuguese, and what works in Brazilian Portuguese might be vaguely understood in Argentina or Uruguay but not in the Republica Dominicana (where my wife is from) or Central America. In fact, as you rightly point out, words used all too commonly in a place like the DR might elicit giggles or stares in Argentina or Bolivia (despite my wife’s claims to the contrary!), which one does not want in an ad, presentation, project proposal or marketing pitch to one of those audiences.

    You note that this is something that is not taught in schools — I’m not at all sure it could be. Perhaps colleges emphasizing some time and/or internship work abroad in another language or culture would sensitive professionals to taking the language and cultural differences into account at an early stage, but there is never going to be a satisfactory substitute for field experience and careful prior research… mas, eu acho que sim, pelo menos!

    saludos atentos,

  3. oops, meant to say “sensitize” in the prior comment. You’d think after 25 yrs of editing I’d do better… 😦

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