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The Pitfalls and Underwater Reefs of Marketing Translation

By Andrei Gerasimov, PhD - Russian Federation

Key points

  • A good translation, from the customer’s point of view, is one that uses familiar terminology.
  • Effective marketing translation is pitched in the language register of the target audience.
  • Self-respecting translators only translate into their mother tongue.
  • Quality translation, like quality advertising, is always created in cooperation with the customer.

The purpose of this article, which is based on many years of translating for the PR and marketing departments at the Russian offices of Ford Motor Company, Volvo Cars and Princess Yachts, as well as for European marketing communications (marcom) and translation agencies working for Lexus, Honda, Aston Martin and Bentley, is to improve the understanding and interaction between customers and providers of marketing translation services. It is extremely important that customers and providers of translation services interact correctly, as this not only determines how effective marketing communications are, but also their quality. Within the frame of this article, the term ‘marketing translation’ refers to the translation of any documents which communicate a brand to its target market. These include press releases, advertising materials, product brochures and catalogues, web-sites, training handbooks and even manuals.

It would be hard to overestimate how important quality translation is for marketing western brands efficiently, since translation helps to achieve the following marketing objectives:

  • Create an appropriate brand image, as poor translation undermines brand image and reputation (especially for premium brands).
  • Increase sales volumes by communicating product information and brand philosophy accurately to the target audience.
  • Increase customer satisfaction and brand loyalty (which of us has not been frustrated by a translated manual which is impossible to understand?).
  • Demonstrate the brand’s high standards.
  • In general, each translation must meet the following basic requirements:
    • Accuracy – in other words, complete and adequate reproduction of the source text in the target language.
    • Style – the text is easy to read and understand.
    • Terminology – must be used correctly and consistently.
    • Meaning based – the translation is based on an in depth and correct understanding of the source text, as well as its context and subtext.
Marketing translation requires special attention to the following two challenges:
  1. A Russian advertising guru once wrote that there is no special ‘advertising’ language. The only appropriate ‘advertising’ language is that of the target audience, the language which it uses and to which it reacts positively. And this statement should, in my opinion, define the stylistics and vocabulary of any marketing translation. Psychologists say that we trust things which are familiar and habitual to us. Therefore, even if information is new, it should be pitched to any audience in a language which is familiar to it. By this I mean not just the target language, but the kind of target language register that is spoken by potential customers. A simple example - I translate the common English word ‘click’ by three different Russian words depending on how conservative or ‘hip’ the brand and the target audience are. A translator should understand the purpose of the source text (whether it is simply to communicate information or to create an emotional impact), know the target audience, and take both into account when working on a translation. This is what may be described as ‘communication stylistics’. When working on a marketing translation, I always try to bear the end users (readers) in mind and use words which are familiar to them. I try to remember that my translation is NOT for:
    • a translation manager from the translation agency, who will frequently not know the target language
    • a client from a foreign company, who definitely does not know target language
    • the editor/proof-reader hired by the translation or marcom agency - this person may be unqualified or possibly even be malicious because s/he consciously or subconsciously sees the translator as a competitor who should be discredited (for a variety of reasons, this has historically been the case with Russian proofreaders and indeed there is even a specific Russian term for such malicious unprofessional behaviour.
    • the marketing manager from the Russian representative office of a western company who will receive my translation for validation, because such people tend to communicate in English all the time and often lose their ability to speak correct Russian (they speak in a corrupted Russian littered with poor anglicisms, a “new-office-speak”, full of transliterations.
    No, my translation is for the end reader/target audience, who will evaluate my translation and who is ultimately paying for it. This approach, oriented exclusively to the end reader/consumer, has been perfected and became an industry standard in medical translation. In addition to reverse translation, the multi-step process of translating medical documents (which includes, for example, surveys to evaluate quality of life improvements as a result of taking a certain medication) involves specially created groups comprising representatives of the target audience evaluating how correctly the translation has been understood.
  2. Another important ‘must’ for marketing translation is to be consistent in your use of corporate terminology in all documents associated with a brand. The only way to ensure that standard corporate terminology is used consistently is to create a corporate glossary, approved by the customer (since even within a single company different specialists may offer different translations). I have encountered essentially different methods of organising the translation process on the international market. In most cases there are four parties to the process:
    • A western manufacturer which is selling its products on a variety of markets, including in Russia.
    • A western translation or marcom agency.
    • A freelance translator, who actually undertakes the translation.
    • The Russian representative office of the western manufacturer, which approves, distributes and uses the translations.
This is the point where problems (or more accurately, conflicts of interest) may arise. A manufacturer orders a local (western) agency to translate and print a brochure (as it does not, itself, have the resources and skills necessary to organise for this text to be translated into 10-15 languages). As with any intermediary, the translation/marcom agency is mainly afraid of being eliminated (by the manufacturer contacting translators directly). Therefore the agency will often get translators to sign documents such as confidentiality agreements that prohibit them from consulting on terminology and parts of the source text that are unclear, even from the manufacturer’s Russian representative office. Furthermore, in many cases the Russian representative offices are themselves reluctant to provide such consultation as they would like to control the translation process. There are two main reasons for this. First, as a rule they have already received (poor) translations from a western agency and second because they want to get a kickback from local translation/advertising agencies. The parties which suffer most from this are western manufacturers and the end consumer (who receives a poorly translated manual or brochure). However, some companies have been able to organise a process for translating and publishing marketing documentation which actually meets the interests of both the manufacturer and end users. One such company is the Swedish advertising agency Leapfrog ICS AB. It has developed a web-site for a manufacturer (Volvo Cars) and all the English-language marketing brochures are uploaded to the site in proprietary format. A Russian translator downloads them and, during the translation process, is able to consult with highly qualified, intelligent and cooperative technical and marketing specialists from the Russian representative office of Volvo Cars. As employees are meticulously selected and a Swedish corporate culture has been ‘implanted’, conflicts of interest do not arise and there is an atmosphere of creative cooperation in the interests of the end user. The freelance translator (who is not an employee of the representative office) regularly participates in corporate events, training and test drives. This helps him or her to understand, and then reflect in translation, not only the technology but also the brand philosophy.

Furthermore, the translator is only ever used when the company actually has work to be done and so there is no question of just sitting in the office at the manufacturer’s expense. State-of-the-art translation technology (TM) and many years of experience working for the client mean that this translator can complete large translations to very tight deadline. The key factor for success is that the translation is supported, checked and market-adapted by the local representative office. The results of this cooperation can be seen (and evaluated) at any Volvo dealership in Russia. Volvo’s documents for other markets are translated in the same way. Cooperation between a freelance translator and the customer is the key factor for ensuring that a marketing (or any other sort of) translation is of the highest quality. This co-operation includes:

  1. the customer provides high quality reference materials, such as previous translations, approved/edited by the client, to the translator
  2. creation of a corporate glossary, agreed with the client
  3. client consultation on terminology and technology
  4. clarification of any unclear parts of the text (English is increasingly becoming a ‘telegram language’ and often requires detailed clarifications from an insider)
  5. products being provided to the translator so that s/he can get familiar with them.
Since 1999, when I began translating for Volvo, I have test driven all the Volvo models, which is why I am able to describe them using first-hand experience and not just the texts written by Swedish people in English (!).

Separately, I would like to say a few words about the role of the editor/proof-reader. Competent editors and proof-readers do not allow themselves to make arbitrary, preferential edits, nor do they try to prove to the client that they are a necessary part of the process (by intentionally increasing the volume of editing). The translator is fully responsible for translation while the proof-reader’s role is to eliminate typos, punctuation mistakes, obvious mistakes and anything else that jumps out of the text. Arbitrary or preferential editing is the sign of a poor editor. Sometimes I think that most editors are so frequently left without work that when they do get a job, they want to make up for everything they have missed by exceeding all reasonable limits of editing. I could not help smiling recently when an editor from the representative office of an elite British car manufacturer replaced the term “grabbing” (illegal acquisition of a security code) in my translation by the term “robbery”. Malicious or excessive proofreading/editing is especially typical for Russians. One of the simplest methods is to replace correct target terms with synonyms to create the impression of numerous mistakes. If you cannot improve a translation, just change it to discredit the translator. After such proofreading, a good translation may look like a dictation taken down by an illiterate primary school pupil and ruthlessly revised in teacher’s red ink. This unscrupulous practice has deep historic and cultural roots. For centuries, Russians made political and professional careers (and even tried to survive in the Soviet era) by framing and defaming their colleagues and other compatriots. No wonder a Russian philosopher once said that “in no other country do people treat each other so badly and disrespectfully as in Russia ... except maybe in North Korea.” This should always be taken into account by innocent Western translation managers.

My other articles on software and human QA methods in marketing translation have been published in Multilingual Computing, Translation Journal and on, and well as being available on my website (

Andrei Gerasimov (Russian Federation) - This e-mail address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it -


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