If your business is heavily web-based, then you’re surely already aware of the Internet’s potential for reaching an international audience and for reaching it quickly via on-line advertising. To cater for your international customers, you’ll probably have your web site translated into the major languages spoken in the markets you are targeting. For many people, this part is relatively straightforward: you submit your copy to the translator, who will provide you a quote based on the volume of text and any other special requirements you may have, such as checking the translated text of web forms once they’re on line. But have you considered how you’re going to handle the translation of your on-line advertising material?
If done properly, translating on-line advertising material differs from ordinary translation in some important ways. Firstly, a significant part of the material to be translated will actually be the keywords that you bid on or purchase rather than the ad copy itself. Translating keywords effectively is somewhat different to translating paragraphs of text for reasons we’ll see below. A good ad translator must also work differently to a colleague dealing with ordinary text when it comes to the ad text itself.
The latter point may seem the more obvious but is worth expanding on. The advertising scheme that you are using will generally have restrictions imposed on them such as the maximum lengths of titles and other lines of the ad. The text of your ads was probably chosen to sound catchy rather than because a particular literal meaning was important. So to translate an on-line ad, it may be more effective to use an approximate translation that sounds catchy and adheres to the length restrictions. As an example of the kind of decisions the translator can make, there is a word in Spanish that can be used to translate “summer holidays” (“veraneo”) which is actually shorter than the general word for “holidays” (“vacaciones”). If the translator knows that your business or campaign is specifically dealing with summer holidays (and a good translator will always take the time to understand your business), they can use the shorter word which may be crucial when translating an ad title with a 25-character limit.
The problems involved in translating advertising keywords may be less obvious. But think first about the process you went through to choose your keywords. You probably starting by picking some phrases that characterize your business. You may then have expanded this list by considering synonyms, possibly using a tool such as Google Trends to find the most likely synonyms that a user would search for. You would also have considered which combinations of these synonyms were most likely in English. For example, in British English, the words “hire”, “rent” and “let” have similar meanings, but “hire” is often associated with vehicles or industrial machines, “rent” with residential property and “let” with commercial property. Subconsciously, your choice of possible keywords was probably influenced by the grammar of English and the grammar of web searches. For example, you would probably chose “van hire” rather than “vans hire” or “van hires”, neither of which are usually grammatical in English. If you were running a holiday company, you might choose “minibreaks Paris” rather than “minibreaks in Paris”, because you know people tend to omit short function words like ‘in’ in web searches.
When it comes to translating these keywords, you might naively think that you can look up translations of each individual word and do a search and replace on the list of keywords. Unfortunately, this will usually not be effective for several reasons. Where there are synonyms such as “hire”, “rent”, “let” in English, the foreign language probably won’t have exactly the same number of synonyms with a direct mapping between them. (In Spanish, for example, the two verbs “alquilar” and “rentar” can both apply to either vehicles or property.) So in the foreign language, you may need to consider combinations of words that you didn’t consider in English, and some combinations may not be viable.
Some of the grammatical restrictions that affected your keyword selection in English may not apply in the foreign language. For example, in English the phrase “vans hire” is generally ungrammatical. But in French, Italian and Spanish (and indeed many other languages), the phrase would be common and grammatical with either singular or plural, leading to more keyword combinations to consider bidding on. And in these and other Latin-based languages, compounds are usually formed by inserting the word for “of” between the content words (e.g. “de” in Spanish and French, “di” in Italian). But in web searches, this word may optionally be omitted, so that in Spanish, for example, a Spaniard looking for “car hire” may search (among other things) for either “alquiler DE coches” or simply “alquiler coches”.
Most subtly of all, the grammar of web searches actually differs from language to language. Some of my own research suggests, for example, that Spanish speakers are more likely to include the word “de” between content words than French speakers, and that Spanish speakers are more likely to pluralize words in their searches.
Finally, recall that some on-line advertising systems offer a keyword tool which will suggest alternatives for you to bid on giving a starting list. You should also speak to your translator to see if they can assist you in choosing between the list of suggestions and advising you on their meanings where necessary.
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