Linear Translation of Brands and the Domain of Wrong

Wait – what do you mean with: “linear translation of brands?” I thought that translators should respectfully leave brand names alone? That’s absolutely correct: you don’t translate brands. That’s why in Spanish speaking countries you won’t see cars marketed under the Evasión brand; you know, the one that advertises in the US with an invitation to grab life by the horns. The problem is that when dealing with compounds, such as in the case of sub-products, it’s less immediately clear where in the target language the clarifying noun goes.

Let’s look at a well-known web brand asset to illustrate this:

The Google Images logo
The Google Images logo

Here, ‘Google Images’ is such a compound: the brand and the clarifying noun (‘images’) together define a specific service, combining to form a new, specific term. Great, where’s the beef? Think about the web address or URI: that service is offered at http://images.google.com which follows the standardized approach of adding a subdomain (‘images’) to the main domain, i.e. google.com. Now, if you were to look at the many localized versions of that same service, you’ll see something interesting: although the domain is localized, the subdomain isn’t; in e.g. the case of http://images.google.es the subdomain remains the English word ‘images’ instead of using its properly translated equivalent, i.e. imágenes. Not only is that translated or localized term not used, it isn’t even supported by way of redirection; try going to http://imagenes.google.es and your trip will abruptly end in a HTTP 404 error message, Page not found.

For purposes of consistency across the entire web property, such a consistent use of English terms as the ‘root words’ for the web address in other language top-level domains (in that example .es for Spain) is perfectly understandable and in my opinion very much legitimate. Just think of the ensuing mess in all the different addresses served across the entire Google network. Plus, there’s the issue of currently lacking support for accented or non-ASCII characters in general for web addresses and domains. For example, and right now, I can’t register www.álvarodegivesmás.com – although the increasing usage of IPv6 might facilitate the introduction of that option at a later moment. Be that as it may, the given reality is that Google even if it wanted to simply can’t use the linguistically correct imágenes.google.es or imágenes.google.com to offer search capability for images to native Spanish speakers.

Now, as a result of that situation, an interesting phenomenon is spreading: localized web properties are being established in a pseudo-translated form. That is, the universal brand is affixed with a translated noun to reflect the service in question, but still following the English morphology, i.e. word order. Let’s take that same example and look at what image googlers in Spain will see at the images.google.es location:

The logo of Google Images used in Spain
The logo of Google Images used in Spain

This analogous, if not homogenized use of the ‘brand+noun’ formula creates a problem when the word order in the target language differs from the source, i.e. in English. In Spanish, a linguistically correct representation of this service would be Imágenes Google – not the current Google Imágenes which looks decidedly awkward, forced, just plain wrong. Yet such a rigid consistency, as applied in these illustrations by Google, arguably out of a sense of corporate uniformity across all its assets in all languages, and perhaps also in pursuit of a visual consistency in the uniform placement of graphic design elements, results in linguistic snafu.

A purist would prefer a solution such as this (note: I’ve edited the real logo – it’s not in use by Google):

The Google Images logo, adapted more correctly to Spanish
The Google Images logo, adapted more correctly to Spanish

Great, so the logo might arguably be designed with its constituent elements in a different order: what is the linguistic significance of not doing so? Well… The problem is that such a practice results in mangled localized representations, due to an otherwise understandable rigid application of word order in one given language (here, English) but still leads to the introduction in other languages of absurdly contorted brand composites in everyday usage, especially in cases that have such a widespread use, such as Google and its web-based services. I am quite convinced that this result, a garbled brand in other languages, is neither intended or desired. In fact, in the specific case of Google I know that a great effort is made to produce correctly localized content across their international span of web assets.

Nonetheless, I am also quite certain that in an imaginary reverse situation, in which Google as (say) a Spanish brand were to project its operations onto the US market, it wouldn’t be using the following logo – at least, not for a long time – for exactly that same reason of creating an awkward impression (again, this is a version I doctored up, it’s not Google’s):

The Google Images logo retrofitted from a Spanish perspective
The Google Images logo retrofitted from a Spanish perspective

Undoubtedly, that logo would be quickly modified to change the word order to reflect the English language. And I suspect that they’d quickly change the link from its hypothetical Spanish originated imagenes.google.com to images.google.com also!

All well and good: am I picking nits here? I don’t think so. After all, the implied conclusion is that there’s a measure of linguistic or even cultural insensitivity in play. In case you believe I’m weaving a fluffy tapestry out of thin air, here’s one example of such weirdness, stemming from that rigorous linearity in translating and localizing content, taken from a recent article from Spanish newspaper El Mundo reporting on a controversial case of photographic retouching (quick summary: an FBI expert improperly used a campaign photo of Gaspar Llamazares, a Spanish leftist politician, to create artificially aged images of Usama bin Ladin and another terrorist, which appeared on the FBI’s Rewards for Justice site). Here’s a snapshot from a part of that article, which illustrates the problem:

Partial screenshot of El Mundo article
Partial screenshot of El Mundo article

You see that? Google Imágenes, obviously directly read as such from the site. So there you have it: Google has unwittingly introduced the equivalent of “Images Google” in another language. Again, I’m using Google here as just one instance; there are scores of such examples around, in many languages, of other web properties.

I submit that that’s just wrong. Also, I believe that an effort to avoid improper parallelisms and linear translations should not just focus on ‘pure’ language, but also on rendering harmonious and especially correct localized versions in visual elements, and where possible, also in web addresses.

Let’s put it this way: as an English speaker, would you put up with a website that is the property of a foreign country-based brand, where you’d have to guess the translation in that foreign language of what its subdomain and subproduct page address might be? I don’t think so.

It’s plain wrong.

2 Replies to “Linear Translation of Brands and the Domain of Wrong”

  1. Great post. I’m currently working on a Spanish port of a well-known website and this has been an ongoing debate: “Brand, Sub-brand” vs. “Sub-brand, Brand”.

    Linguistically you’re absolutely correct — but the problem is that consistency is one of the great immutable pillars of branding.

    My question is: Have Spanish speakers become so accustomed to seeing the sequence of “Brand, Sub-brand” at this point, that the inversion has become acceptable in the limited context of branding?

    1. Thanks! Well, as it turns out, Ralph Waldo Emerson had something to say about consistency, too… However, more on point: I don’t think the key of the issue here is whether speakers of a given language sufficiently “accept” an inherently foreign formula, but whether the marketing effort indeed allows for a consistent application of the well-known think globally, act locally adage. By that I mean: if one respects the market – and along with it, its language – enough to allocate always scarce resources to it, so as to provide a “localized” version of the message, then it follows that word order (and hence brand / sub-brand order) should be dictated by local custom, and not convenience.

      Here’s another way of looking at it. Can one put a price on respect for a language? I think so; just ask the French corporate marketeers over at Danone why they re-branded their product as Dannon in the USA. The price they were willing to pay, i.e. accepting a different spelling of their very own brand (!) was apparently sweetened enough by the projected revenue of American consumers who therefor don’t have to wonder what on Earth to call their product. An alternative and infamously opposite case is made by “Made in China” translations of user manuals, which typically are the product of blind faith in a blind use of dictionaries, resulting in otherwise deservedly mocked Engrish.

      So, instead of gaging the degree of entrenched linguistic contamination as a yardstick of what one arguably may get away with, I’d simplify and look at whether it’s correct in the target language in the first place. That’s because I believe that irritating people with funny language is not the cleverest marketing communication ploy.

      I’ll leave it at that. 🙂

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