Category Archives: Transcultural research

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.


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