By Elizabeth Brady, Scentsy Translation Coordinator
I bet we’ve all heard at least one story about a tourist inadvertently offending locals when the tourist made a gesture that is perfectly normal in their culture, but definitely means something quite different in the place they are visiting. Hand motions can get pretty tricky when you cross cultures! (Just a tip: don’t give anyone a thumbs-up in the Middle East, use the “come here” index finger motion in Asian cultures, and it’s really for the best if you never signal for two items by holding up your index and middle finger, palm out, in the United Kingdom. Oh! And the “ok” sign of touching the tip of your index finger to your thumb and holding up the other three fingers? Just avoid that in most cultures.)
Words carry a lot of implications, too. I have a friend from college who is from the United Kingdom. Whenever he would ask where the “toilet” was, invariably some freshman girl would raise an eyebrow or awkwardly giggle. To him, he was simply asking where to find the bathroom. To those Americans without any British context, it sounded like he was a little crass or just weird.
John F. Kennedy may have run into this dilemma as well with his “Ich bin ein Berliner” speech in Germany; some say his inclusion of the article “ein” changed the meaning from “I am a person from Berlin” to “I am a jelly-filled donut.”
Or maybe you’ve seen signs similar to the advertisement below—where the translation can really change the message:
There are also words that can have multiple translations, depending on the context. There are plenty of examples of this in a single language as well. For example, in English, bank could either mean a financial institution, a synonym for "rely upon," or refer to the edges of a river. Or there's present, which could refer to the current moment in time, a gift, or to be physically located somehwere. Or, with a slight change of inflection, present means to display or give a speech. You can see how this can get a little tricky! The photo below is a good example for Spanish: educación can translate to "manners" but also, depending on the context, can be translated to "education."
Because Scentsy reaches multiple cultures, it’s important for us to think about the possible misimplications of our words. We call this process of discernment translation versus transcreation. Translation is often simply a word-by-word conversion into another language, whereas transcreation aims to emphasize the meaning of the phrase. That can make a huge difference! In the photo below, the translation of each individual word is correct, but the meaning of the phrase is inaccurate:
As you can see, the translation really does make all the difference. At Scentsy, we strive for an accurate transcreation because it’s important for each customer and each Consultant to have not only a positive Scentsy experience, but an accurate Scentsy experience that is true to Scentsy culture within the lens of their own culture.
Franziska Ziegler, a German translator and copy editor for Scentsy, faces this dilemma every day. Franziska recalls a few situations in particular: “Christmas stockings—something that seems so ordinary for Americans. We do not have the Christmas stocking tradition in Germany; we have Nikolaus, who comes on the night of December 5 stuffing shoes with candy.” In preparing communications for the holiday season, those of us focusing on Scentsy’s European markets had to take this into consideration.
When Scentsy launched Solid Perfume, transcreation was a special consideration. In Spanish, Solid Perfume became Perfume Sólido, a direct translation. But in the German language, the direct translation, feststoffparfum didn’t provide enough context for our German customers. So we revised the category translation to parfumstick, which literally means “perfume stick,” but more clearly describes the essence of Scentsy Solid Perfume in the German language.
Those of us at Scentsy involved in transcreation truly aim for our communications to resonate cross-culturally. And while an occasional translation might call for a “Take 2,” we assure you we won’t ever promise that Scentsy “makes you 10 years younger than you look”—in any language.
So next time you flip through the catalog or visit a Consultant’s Personal Website, take a moment to play the transcreation game! Ask yourself, “How does my culture influence my understanding of this product? What context would someone from another culture bring to their experience of this product?” It may surprise you just how much your culture helps you make sense of the world around you!