How much do cheap translations cost? Millions.

When you’re operating on a budget, it might be tempting to choose the lowest quote for your translation project. There’s nothing inherently wrong with that. Everybody loves a bargain. However, you should not just compare prices, but the level and quality of service as well. Cheap translations, while attractive, can end up costing you big bucks in the long run.

Let’s have a look at some brands that have experienced this. Sometimes painfully so.

Cheap translations and advertising don’t mix

Thinking man shows that taking your time protects against cheap translations
Good translations are the result of attention to details and thinking. Cheap ones are not.

We talked about this before. Advertisements are complex pieces of work. Advertisement copy is no exception. In a few words, you need to send a message, to be memorable, to transmit an emotion to the person reading it.

Brands spend hundreds of thousands getting it right in English. Why should it be any different for translations? Well, not hundreds of thousands, since the work is technically done in English. But if you want to translate the same message and emotions into French, you can’t just translate word for word.

You need to spend time thinking.

And once you’ve found the right words, someone else needs to look at your work to make sure it’s culturally appropriate. That it will be understood and, most importantly, that it won’t be misunderstood.

All that time, of course, is money. It may seem like a lot, but if you compare it to the cost of not following this process, it’s a great investment.

Big brands have paid dearly to learn this… so you don’t have to

Examples of costly translation mistakes abound on the internet. HSBC and KFC often come up. These are big, international companies. Did they treat marketing translation as an afterthought? Maybe not. But somehow, they ended up with cheap translations that made them look bad in international markets.

KFC’s “finger lick…” wait, what?

KFC was the victim of cheap translations back in the 80s
KFC in China suffered from cheap translations too

When KFC moved into the Chinese market thirty years ago, they couldn’t rely on their slogan to attract new customers.

Due to a translation mistake, the famous “Finger-lickin’ good” tagline was translated into the Chinese equivalent of “Eat your fingers off”.

Maybe it was that good though, as KFC is now the number one foreign brand in China, according to Millward Brown research, with over 5,000 stores in the country.

Nevertheless, they probably spent a good deal of money and a few stressful months changing the slogan and their promotional materials.

HSBC asks their clients to “Do nothing”, and they oblige

HSBC logo with the slogan "do nothing".
Also a cautionary tale against centrally controlled marketing campaigns.

HSBC’s US campaign, “Assume Nothing” had a nice message and was a moderate success. However, in some territories the translation was “Do Nothing.”

Doesn’t have the same ring to it.

It’s hard to guess just how this mistake occurred, but it was the trigger the bank needed to scrap its campaign entirely. In 2009, clients were just sitting on cash and not doing anything with it. In fairness, the campaign was not to blame, but it sure didn’t help.

The cost of the new campaign? £6.8m (CAD 12.1 million). Plus the cost of the “Do Nothing” campaign. Plus the missed prospects due to the confusing message.

We were serious when we said cheap translations can cost millions to correct.

How you can protect yourself against cheap translations?

Good translations are not expensive. At least not compared to the cost of correcting bad ones.

But if you’re ready to spend money, you want value. How do you make sure you are getting what you need, a good translation that minimizes the risk on your brand’s image and translates your message faithfully, and creatively?

The solution is really, really simple. And it only takes two steps:

  1. When you send your documents for translations, send a briefing with it. Describe what the message is, the intended audience, the inteneded results.
    Then, ask your translation agency, or more specifically your translators, to paraphrase it. Basically, tell them to send you a short summary of what your campaign is about. If it looks way wrong, correct them.
  2. When you receive the translation, ask the translators to justify their word choice. Don’t do it for all your documents, but say, for a slogan or an advert, it’s more than okay to do that. Maybe they have reasons for straying far from your original word choice. Maybe they found better options to translate your message in a way that makes sense for the local audience. Either way, you’ll quickly see any possible mistake or conflict.

Just doing these two things might protect you against a lot of headaches down the line. It’s not foolproof, but the more safeguards you put in place, the better your results will be. You can even do some QA tests on the translated content with native audiences.

Do you have other examples of translations that went wrong for major brands? Let us know in the comments!