Bad translations as a marketing tool

A reader asks: I come across lots of bad translations in my language pairs. How can I use these to pitch my freelance services to new clients without sounding like a hyper-critical tattletale?

This is a regular topic of conversation among translators who work with direct clients, and bad translations can be a great marketing tool if you handle them correctly. Let’s say you come across a slick website, one that indicates that the company or government department has put a lot of time and money into its marketing efforts, but where the translation falls short. There are no shortage of these; in French to English, I recently came across the official site of the Paris Vélib program (“Bikes conceived and improved for your safety and your comfort!”) and the Montreux Jazz Festival (“an ideal platform and an intimate setting for the duration of its two weeks…”) as examples of great programs with great websites and not-great translations. Chris Durban regularly sends me examples of consumer enterprises in France that need better translations. So, there’s no shortage of material out there.

The key here is a three-step process. Before beginning, you have to expunge the “hyper-critical tattletale” part of your personality. If you’re like most translators, you regularly engage in behaviors like refusing to order misspelled items on restaurant menus, because won’t condone that type of behavior. I personally avoid the express lanes at my neighborhood supermarket, as a silent act of protest against their signs that read “15 items or less” instead of “15 items or fewer.” So, first have your judgmental moment, then move on to constructive marketing.

Step 1: Compliment the effort, maybe like this: “Very few U.S. museums attempt to reach out to the non-English speaking public, and I really admire your willingness to do that.” “During a recent trip to Paris, I was impressed by your efforts to create a multilingual rental system for your bike fleet.” “Your recent press release caught my eye; congratulations on your efforts to invite international exhibitors to your trade fair.”

Step 2: Provide a carefully-worded reality check. When I’m writing these kinds of pitches, I try to keep in mind that a) the person I’m writing to may be the author of the bad translation, and b) the person I’m writing to may have no clue that the translation is bad. So, maybe something like this: “As a professional translator, I know how challenging it can be to get a multilingual website right. I noticed that your site’s current English version has some translation glitches, and therefore doesn’t convey the same impression of your film festival that the Italian version does,” or “You’ve clearly put a great deal of effort into the graphic design and French text for your wine labels; as a professional translator, I’d love to help you bring that same quality to the English version,” or “Your slogan is the first thing that people notice about your company, and I’d love to help you create a German slogan that better reflects your mission and values.”

Step 3: Give them a little something for free. I’ve heard this referred to as “the free sample approach,” “the taste my truffles approach,” the get them hooked on you approach,”…you get the picture! Like this: “As an example of what professional translation services could do for you, I’ve taken the liberty of re-translating your home page, and I’m including it here for your perusal.” Or, “I’ve included three Portuguese slogans that better convey the spirit of your music festival. Feel free to run them by your Portuguese-speaking colleagues to get their take,” or “As a professional translator specializing in your industry, I’ve re-translated your press release using more consistent technical terminology. Feel free to take a look and let me know if this approach might help you in the future.”

Then of course, you wait, and then you follow up. You accept that the person on the receiving end of your pitch might know that the translations are sub-par and might not care, that the person might not “get” why good translations are important, or might have absolutely no budget with which to do better. For what it’s worth, I’ve received all three of those responses to pitches that I’ve sent to potential clients. However, you also have a chance to improve your pitch every time, and you have a good chance of landing a good direct client who really appreciates your work.

Readers, any tips or illustrative examples on this topic?

32 Responses to “Bad translations as a marketing tool”
  1. Allison Wright March 3, 2014
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