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You say tomato… copywriting for international audiences

We have a lot of international clients. Most of them are European or American, but occasionally they’re based further afield. This generates an interesting issue: how do you accommodate international English speakers in your copy? The politics of translation has interested me since my Master’s degree – how do you remain faithful to the original? Do you translate word for word or sense for sense? This isn’t quite the issue with copywriting. If anything it’s even more complicated.

Spelling problemz

For example, if there are going to be a significant number of Yanks in your audience, you’re going to have to steer clear of UK English spellings: colour, favourite, manoeuvre. Unless you want to sound all ‘Ye Olde Village Shoppe’. You also need to avoid certain words (we all know the hilarity that can ensue from the abuse of such words as ‘fanny’ or ‘bum’). Often our clients have a preferred way to approach American versus British English spelling, so the issue doesn’t arise so much. But not always. So then it’s a judgement call.

You’re having a Turkish, right?*

The ‘British versus American’ English argument is relatively straightforward. But what about non-native English speakers? Most, if not all, languages use idioms and common metaphors. But if your mother tongue isn’t the same as the copy you’re reading then you’re likely to come up against some confusion. Take ‘stick that in your pipe and smoke it’. What does that have to do with the price of fish, unless you really are talking about tobacco? Even if your language skills are excellent it takes an extra level of concentration to read copy that’s full of this kind of thing.

The British can’t lecture anyone about their fluency in languages since we only just manage one (on a good day) so we ought to make an effort to help out any international readers in our audience. But the danger is we could lose everything that makes the copy interesting and lively for the native English speakers in the audience. We could just invest in translators but that opens up a whole new set of problems. So it’s something we keep wrestling with: how to square that circle.

image belongs to Pedro Ribeiro Simões

Some tips:

Use puns with caution There’s nothing worse than a pun that falls flat

Avoid specific cultural references Jokes about Marmite are only going to work among expat Brits

Keep sentences short and light Jargon, multiple sub clauses, obtuse syntax – it’s just going to give everyone a headache

If in doubt, go Yank Pedants may hate to admit it but American English is more widely understood than British English

Choose your idioms carefully They give a nice flavour to copy but they ought to be ones where the meaning can be inferred from the context. So ‘you’re on thin ice’ is probably ok, ‘you’re pulling my leg’ is not.

Hopefully we’re getting the balance right, but it’s something that maybe ought to bother me more, especially since I tend to write in quite a colloquial style. And it’s not just me who’s interested in this – there’s a useful blog devoted to it from Cindy King. But I have the feeling that the issue will continue as more and more people all over the world use the internet on a daily basis. Perhaps eventually we’ll get a whole new dialect of international English. Or perhaps we’ll all be implanted with a babelfish by then anyway.

*Not a reference to the country, but Cockney rhyming slang: ‘Turkish bath’ = laugh. ‘You’re having a laugh, right?’ = ‘Surely you can’t be serious!’

Photo credit: Pedro Ribeiro Simões

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3 Responses to “You say tomato… copywriting for international audiences”

  1. Mike Unwalla

    Your tips are a good start, but you can do more to make English clear to international audiences.

    To make sure that English is clear for international audiences, you must conform to more than only plain English guidelines. The best guidelines that I have seen for writing clear English are in ‘The Global English style guide: writing clear, translatable documentation for a global market’ by John R Kohl, 2008 (ISBN 978-1-59994-657-3). Although the book’s title contains the word ‘documentation’, the guidelines apply to most business texts. For a review of the book, see http://www.techscribe.co.uk/ta/global-english-style-guide.htm.

    @Lucy: Perhaps eventually we’ll get a whole new dialect of international English.

    Some popular types of international English are as follows:
    * Voice of America (http://www.voanews.com/specialenglish/about_special_english.cfm)
    * EasyEnglish (http://www.easyenglish.info/about-us/articles/communicator.htm)
    * Globish (http://www.globish.com). For a review of Globish, see http://www.techscribe.co.uk/ta/globish-the-world-over.htm.

  2. Lucy

    Thanks for the resources Mike! That looks like a great guide to writing for international audiences.

    On the subject of a global dialect of English, I’m unconvinced that it would be a good thing -it could so easily slip into being another instantiation of cultural imperialism. And as the failure of Esperanto shows, an artificial language will not necessarily be adopted as a lingua franca, even though the practical advantages seem obvious. Languages, defined and constituted as they are by their use (Saussure’s langue and parole idea), are too fluid and organic to be constructed from the outside in, as it were.

  3. Paul Davis

    Good stuff! Useful and insightful article.

    I’m always looking for intelligent internationally minded business professionals to work with.

    Paul

    Paul F. Davis is the author of 18 books and a worldwide speaker who has touched over 57 countries & 6 continents building bridges cross-culturally by joyfully disarming and empowering people throughout the earth to live their dreams!

    Earn 20% commissions on all paid speaking engagements Paul obtains through your referral / recommendation.

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