chinese whispers

Many of the things I learned as an interpreter are equally useful in advertising.

One such lesson is the importance of ‘back translation’ – a validation test where someone else translates your translation back into the original language.

This re-translation is the true measure of success, because it shows how well the intended message has survived communication.

Here’s an example:

Original English:

Some Japanese women believe that fairness
is more important than intelligence.

Italian translation:

Alcune donne giapponesi credono che la pelle chiara
sia più importante dell’intelligenza.

The ‘back translation’ – converting that Italian translation back into English:

Some Japanese women believe that pale skin
is more important than intelligence.

However, in the original, “fairness” refers to being evenhanded, not to skin pigmentation.

Looking back at that original, it’s easy to see how this misunderstanding occurred.

But if you only saw the Italian translation, you wouldn’t have the benefit of that context.

You’d only see this contentious statement, which could easily cause offense.

And therein lies the lesson: when it comes to communication, subtle nuances can have a significant impact.

Brand interpreters

Advertisers must navigate such nuances every day, because audiences only see translations.

They never see the beautifully crafted PowerPoint slides.

They never hear the eloquent strategic rationale.

They only ever see the ads.

And if they can’t translate the messages in those ads back to what we intended to share, we’ve failed.

So how do we mitigate the dangers of nuance?

From lesson to learning

During a particularly tough back-translation test, a colleague shared some invaluable advice:

It’s amazing how such a simple change can make a world of difference.

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2 Responses to “chinese whispers”


  1. 1 britalicus March 18, 2010 at 19:16

    So true in all walks of life! Verbal communication is very little about the words actually said, and far more about body language and intonation. Same can surely be said about the ‘voice’ used in brand presentation.

    Love the blog – keep it up!

    • 2 eskimon March 18, 2010 at 23:10

      Thanks! Posts have been a little thinner recently, but only because work has been keeping me so busy, and part of that involves lots of new stuff to explore. The drafts folder is nice and full- I just need some time to polish them all up.


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