Why Bob the Builder can’t have four fingers in Japan

Headlines, taglines, slogans: some elements of a translation require special attention. Why? Supertext explains it all.

Bob the Builder vs. Yakuza

Marketing a product is always a challenge – and when the market in question is new to you, things become even more complex. New linguistic and cultural regions make new demands on a product.

Bob the Builder, for example, had to have his hands adapted for the Japanese market: the original character had only four fingers, which has unfortunate connotations in a country where yakuza members typically cut off their little fingers to demonstrate loyalty or do penance.

Such details may seem minor, but getting them wrong can put your product at a disadvantage in the new market, damage your business’s image and affect your profits.

What is a transcreation?

Translation is the first step to going global. Content is accurately transferred into the target language and aligned with the relevant cultural conventions. When it comes to slogans or campaigns, however, it’s time to bring out the linguistic big guns: a transcreation evokes the same emotions and implications in the target language as in the original. These are key to preserving a brand’s image – and ensuring success.

After all, even a correct translation may not get the desired message across. In the 1970s, the US airline Braniff advertised using the slogan “Fly in Leather”, emphasizing its leather seats and the associated top-quality service. The slogan was correctly translated, but Spanish speakers were bewildered by “Vuela en cuero”, which didn’t imply high-class service so much as flying naked.

Why you don’t notice a good transcreation

The internet offers countless examples of bad translations, but almost none of successful transcreations. Why? Like a good servant, a good transcreation does its job – arousing emotions, conveying meaning and strengthening a brand – without standing out. It may look easy, but getting it right takes hard work.

Experts in the original and target cultures rack their brains to create slogans that fit the new context like a (five-fingered) glove. That’s no mean feat. And it’s much better than flying blind – or naked – in the target culture. So if you need a transcreation, leave it to the experts at Supertext. We’ll put in a good word for you.

Cover image via Flickr – JD Hancock (CC BY 2.0)


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