Six steps for preparing a nuanced marketing campaign for a local translation… and getting great results

Part five of our five-part series on international copywriting.
Learn six key steps for working with a translation agency when you have a culturally sensitive marketing campaign (web copy, ad copy, etc.) to adapt to a local market. Find out how to prepare for a successful project – and learn about a few red flags to watch out for in the process.


Japanese translation company
International copywriting series

International copywriting
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Follow 6 key steps. Avoid pitfalls.
A prerequisite for all of our tips below is to find a local copywriting supplier with marketing savvy, lots of experience and a work style compatible with your team’s. And, truth be told, though one of us works at a leading Japanese translation agency, we know that not all companies and projects are a good fit. Carefully choose a vendor who works the way you need them to work.

For the sake of today’s article, let’s assume you’ve already found the right agency. When you’ve selected a vendor and you’re about to order the full process, from translation through independent proofreading through a final copy rewrite, here are six preparation steps that will take you a long way toward a satisfactory result.

1. Prepare a copywriting brief. The purpose is to give the vendor some background and explain the persuasive intent of the copy. There’s no special format necessary when writing a brief. You could put it all in an email if you prefer. Just be sure to explain the target market/audience, the context of the campaign, the company’s branding strategy, and any visuals that go along with the copy. Most importantly, explain what the current copy is meant to say to the reader, the impact and/or effect it’s supposed to have.

2. Save and share background materials. Always keep your original source files for layouts in whatever program (InDesign, Illustrator, Flash, etc.) with editable text layers (if you’re not familiar with that term, just pass it on to your graphic designer!). In fact, always keep everything related to the original campaign development or translation process. Better to have it and not need it than vice versa.

3. Make sure that your agency contact understands you’re ordering more than just translation. In the conventional workflow of volume-driven translation agencies, we know from experience that normal text is handled by a translator and independent proofreader, neither of whom is expected to go beyond carrying the meaning of the text. When we say “normal text” we mean straightforward documents that merely explain, describe or inform. (Think: user guides, city signage, product instructions, engineering specs, academic papers, and so on.) If your text is straightforward, a translator and proofreader can take care of the whole job. In that case, you don’t even have to be reading about copywriting.

But, if your original persuasive copy is for marketing material, a snappy ad or tagline, which requires cultural savvy or a native play on words, then that’s another story. You need to make this very clear to any potential firm and make sure they have the expertise to handle the project. It’s a much different kind of project. In this case, the copywriter will work with the project manager to understand the goals of the project and will need to rewrite the text to be persuasive in the new language and culture. Make sure any potential vendor knows that.

4. Encourage the local copywriter to be creative. This may seem like odd advice, but your encouragement can make a huge difference in the persuasiveness of the final copy. Unlike copywriters at advertising agencies, you may find that translation agency copywriters hold back their creativity. This is natural. Translation is by its nature a conservative art. If you want bold ideas, be sure to encourage boldness throughout the process. Try it. You’ll see what we mean.

The Japanese copywriter, for example, understands how to adapt your original copy to convert Japanese readers into buyers or brand loyalists but needs to be “licensed to kill” with creativity. The agency coordinator or project manager will select the writer with the most appropriate industry knowledge and background. A good project manager will ask for multiple iterations and form internal focus groups to ensure the highest quality results. The desired result is copy that persuades. Remember, people from any culture – Japanese, Western or other — can consciously or subconsciously sense when copy is truly speaking their language and when it’s just a bland, safe, “faithful” translation of some foreign copy. Wording really counts. Tell your agency NOT to play it safe. Get unique copy in each language.

5. Find fussy final reviewers at the client’s local office, but make sure they understand the goal. If possible, the final client-side reviewers should be at a local office in the new target market. For example, if the end-client has a Tokyo office they’ll probably want the local staff there to review the Japanese copy. If you find that the native reviewers fuss over details, don’t worry – but do listen. It means they’re paying attention. This is a good thing, because then you can discuss their feedback with the copywriter to decide whether or not to make edits. But beware: The local office staff are also trained to play it safe. If they feel that the unique copy is a “bad translation” of the original campaign, make sure they understand that it’s not the meaning but rather the persuasive effect of the copy that needs to be equivalent with the source campaign.

6. Don’t forget to request font selection and layout. The translation company team should be able to present you with a selection of appropriate font samples, ranked according to their recommendations. Fonts matter, and are often overlooked in requests for proposals. Bring it up when you’re negotiating the order. Make sure that it’s included. Also, most translation companies offer layout and graphic design services. This can add a lot to the budget — but for very special copy such as the large text in ads, it’s usually necessary to have native layout engineers choose font spacing and line breaks.

Those are just some basics and we’re sure there’s a lot more to add here. Comments? What else has helped you or your clients prepare for projects? We especially welcome input from other professionals from inside our industry. If you’re a copywriter or a translation agency professional, are there other tips you’d like to share? Ways to keep a project progressing smoothly? If you’re new to all of this, what other questions do you still have about preparing for your translation project?

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