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When Spanish Isn’t Spanish

Parker Pen’s slogan claimed: ‘It won’t leak in your pocket and embarrass you.’ However, when introduced to the Spanish market, the slogan said, ‘It won’t leak in your pocket and make you pregnant.’  Just in case, I’d rather use a pencil!

Have you ever noticed how vastly dialects differ here in America? Not only do different parts of the country have different manners of speaking (“Howdy, y’all!” as opposed to “Wassup!”), but each corner of the nation can even have its own terminology. In really rural places, you might ask, Is that even English?

Guess what?

Other countries are the same way!

The US, Canada, and Britain all speak English, but if you asked someone in the US, “Do you have a tire in your boot?” people might wonder what you mean.

Deivy is a friend of mine from the Dominican Republic who greets close friends with “Que lo que.” Our True North Hispanic lead, Alejandra, on the other hand, is from Mexico and is not familiar with this colloquialism.

And then there’s Yarima, our Operations Manager. If Alejandra said “¡Qué padre!” Yarima might tilt her head to the side, brow wrinkled, pondering what Alejandra could mean.

They’ve all told me it’s essential to be careful what you say – and what you print – because some Latin American phrases (that we’ll not print here!) can have multiple meanings depending on the country or origin.

What Are We Getting At?

Latin American countries with a native Spanish-speaking tongue are just like their northern counterparts – they also have their own slang and dialects. Some pockets in certain countries even have words that aren’t spoken elsewhere.

If you’re not entirely familiar with Spanish or the various countries’ dialects, Hispanic marketing is challenging – it’s something you have to nail at the very beginning, or you risk alienating the same people you’re trying to reach.

Gauge the quality of your materials by reaching out to Spanish speakers from different regions before you click Send.

Here’s another example of not understanding the language:

When Coors introduced it’s cool ‘Turn It Loose’ campaign to the Spanish market, the translated version of the slogan sounded like ‘Suffer from diarrhea.’  I think I’ll pass on that beer; thanks!

Not all Spanish is the same.

Hopefully, you haven’t found out the hard way that Google Translate returns literal “translations” between languages, not always accounting for the transposition of adjectives and nouns – much less for the distinction between Dominican and Mexican Spanish. Of course, this makes marketing to Spanish speakers difficult. This is also why good Hispanic marketers are worth their weight in gold.

Unfortunately, some marketers learned the importance of proper translation the hard way:

  • The La Puta was a Mazda model in the 1970s. However, it means “whore” in Spanish. The advertisement said that “Laputa is designed to deliver maximum utility in a minimum space while providing a smooth, comfortable ride” and “a lightweight, impact-absorbing body.” No wonder why it cracks a smile in the streets!
  • American Airlines decided to use its successful campaign Fly in leather” in Mexico. It was translated to “Vuela en cueros,” which invites passengers to fly naked. No comment here!

One more?

  • Why would the American Dairy Association translate its slogan ‘Got milk’ to “Are you lactating?” in Spanish?

Here’s why this means something to you:

  • Are you planning to put Spanish on your product labels?
  • Do you want to create Spanish versions of other marketing materials?
  • Do you want to conduct Spanish Speaking market research studies?

Well, by now, you know you can’t just use Google Translate to change your materials to Spanish. Qualtrics, the questionnaire programming software, even has a feature to change English materials to Spanish — but if you go down that path, make sure you’re not alone.

At True North, all of our Spanish speaking market research surveys must meet the approval of our native speakers from different countries. Do you have this kind of backup on your marketing team? They proof materials to ensure the language makes sense for all Spanish-speaking audiences. And if they’re stumped? We call Deivy.


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