LANGUAGE FOCUS: Fly Naked Lately?

It's a fact that a percentage of people who only speak one language on occasion have the mistaken notion that all other languages are exclusively based on their language, only translated word for word.

If you belong to this happy group, I have some news for you.


This is not how languages work. But you probably already knew that. Unfortunately, advertisers and marketing people (most of whom are said to have come from another planet) have not learned this little fact yet.

Here is a case in point from the English to Spanish language communication market which I've had the distinct pleasure to work in. But this happens all over the world.

So imagine for a minute you’re a Spanish speaking person watching Spanish-language television. Now whatever you’re watching goes into a commercial break and on comes a TV spot for one the world’s biggest airlines.

It’s a visual treat. 30 seconds of beautifully framed aerial shots of silver jets zipping through cotton white clouds, steadycams hovering down wide futuristic aisles and close ups of a friendly flight crew. “Nice”, you think, until the very end when the tagline invites you to “fly naked” with them. Yes, naked! As in "no clothes", amigo (friend).

You officially go into "confused" mode for a few seconds.

Then it hits you. “Claro” (of course), you say to no one in particular as you do the math and realize – because you happen to be bilingual - that the original tagline in English “fly in leather” was poorly translated to Spanish. Poorly meaning word for word. Poorly as in the advertisers responsible for the campaign didn't bother to transcreate their copy to Spanish. For all you know, they asked a Hispanic untrained in copywriting or proper Spanish to have a go at it en Español. Why waste money on a professional translator, right?

Now granted if you put the word “leather” into Google Translate, it’ll tell you it’s “cuero” (leather). What it won’t tell you is that to be “en cuero” in a great many Spanish speaking countries means to be naked as the day you were born, but said in a much more vulgar register. Now if this had been a cheesy infomercial for a weight loss product, you probably wouldn't have noticed, but coming from a top advertising agency for a world class air carrier that probably cost millions, you're disappointed, and strangely amused at the same time.

So you might be thinking. Has this ever happened before? Here are a few leading examples.

  • Many in the US remember a campaign for milk products known for its tagline “Got Milk?” It was brilliant! Unfortunately, in Spanish it came off as “Are you lactating?” 
  • Then there was the “Turn it Loose” tag for a beer brand which invited Hispanics to “Get Diarrhea”.
  • There was even a top pen manufacturer whose “"It won't leak in your pocket and embarrass you” copy became “it won’t leak in your pocket and make you pregnant” in Español
  • And there are many, many more examples, not just in the U.S., but throughout the world.

We understand it may be politically incorrect to reveal to the Emperor the truth about his "new clothes"; the "emperor" being some of the biggest players in big advertising and the corporate world; his "new clothes" being how these guys have approached communication with speakers of other languages. But as the Hispanic population in the U.S. becomes an increasingly active player, it isn't really muy bueno (very good) for any company, marketer or advertiser to pursue this lax approach. It is unprofessional, disrespectful and so easy to avoid.

Fortunately, some advertising and marketing professionals are starting to get it by hiring or outsourcing competent transcreative talent to culturally adapt campaigns for a particular market. Trans.. what?

Transcreation is a new concept in the translation universe and it means translating the message, but adapting it culturally to the audience receiving it. Yes, it might be a bit more costly then asking the secretary -whose grandmother was from Mexico- to do it, but it's the only way to ensure that people fly with their clothes on from here on, if you know what I mean.


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