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My interview on ATA’s Slavic Languages Division podcast

Podcast interview
Photo: CoWomen

In 2021 I was invited to talk on ATA’s Slavic Languages Division podcast and I really enjoyed our chat about marketing translation, transcreation and localization with SLD podcast host Maria Guzenko. This was my first interview – as an interviewee anyway – so it was a little daunting, but I do hope it makes sense! Here’s the transcript, slightly shortened and hopefully a little bit more coherent!  

SLD: Today we have with us Yulia Tsybysheva. Yulia is a Russian marketing translator based in Bristol, UK. She works with fashion, beauty, jewellery and lifestyle brands, as well as clients in the tourism and hospitality industries providing translation, localization and transcreation services. Yulia, thank you so much for joining us today.

Yulia: Hello, Maria. It’s a real pleasure to be here.

SLD: Let’s start from the beginning. How did you get started in translation in general and marketing translation in particular?

Yulia: I did a linguistics degree in English and German. From about my third year I started actively looking for freelance translation work. I started off doing mostly technical translations because I was living in Ekaterinburg at the time and as it’s quite an industrial city there was a lot of demand for that. Gradually I switched more to finance and business and did a one-year postgraduate degree in that area, which helped me get an in-house job as a translator and interpreter at PricewaterhouseCoopers in Moscow. Unfortunately, this happened just before the crisis of 2008, so I was let go pretty quickly and I found myself freelancing again.

I started working for a small boutique translation agency in Moscow and they did quite a lot of projects for Louis Vuitton, so this is how I got introduced to marketing translation. My colleagues and I got a chance to translate not only product descriptions for the website, but also press releases and articles about the brand and its history. So it was a great opportunity to get to know the brand quite well and all the different techniques that they used to produce their leather goods and accessories. Plus we were getting some feedback from the Russian branch, which is always super helpful in getting to know client’s preferences.

Over the years, I got to work on some other exciting projects for cruise companies, hotels, museums, jewellery and beauty brands. I was gradually building up my expertise in the fields of marketing translation. Recently I started getting transcreation projects as well, for example, transcreating a slogan or a tagline for a brand or a specific marketing campaign. These projects are a lot of fun! I like brainstorming and seeing where this process would take me.

SLD: Yeah, that sounds really exciting. And besides the obvious linguistic aspects what is important to keep in mind for marketing translation and transcreation?

Yulia: There’s actually quite a lot to think about and this is exactly what makes it so challenging at times. To begin with, it’s quite important to have as much information as possible about the project and where exactly the translation would appear: whether it’s a printed publication, whether it’s online, whether it’s a digital app. Obviously sometimes it’s quite clear just from the documents that you get, but sometimes it’s not. And this really sets some parameters and gives you an idea of possible limitations such as character limits that you have to be aware of, because Russian tends to be quite a bit longer than English.

Also it’s quite important to have a good understanding of the brand, its values and its tone of voice. I think now it’s getting easier to obtain this kind of information from the client or from the agency you’re dealing with. There’s a better understanding of why we as linguists need this kind of input. Still, sometimes, you need to be quite upfront and say that this is the information that you require to do a good job.

For example, I work quite a lot with jewellery brands and product descriptions can be quite poetic. Each collection usually has a theme, so it’s essential to keep this in mind when translating. I once read in a book about gemstones that “buying jewellery is rarely about logic or sense”. And you as a translator have to appeal to this ‘non-logical’ side of humans.

And to build up on this idea, I also wanted to mention that storytelling is becoming quite popular in branding and marketing these days. I think that we as translators have to be good storytellers too. The text you produce in your target language must be impactful, powerful and engaging. Nina Sattler-Hovdar, who has written a brilliant book on transcreation, says that transcreation must “intrigue, engage and motivate”.

And then there’s the cultural element. As a translator, you have to be extra careful and extra aware of how the message that you’re trying to translate is going to be perceived in your language, your culture and your market. Is it irrelevant? Is it going to be well-received? At the very least, it cannot be offensive.

So I think there’s quite a lot to think about when you’re dealing with transcreation, which is why those projects can be a little bit time consuming and they also need quite a bit of research.

SLD: That makes perfect sense. And I love the fact that you brought up talking to the clients and explaining why you need this information and perhaps getting a buy-in from them as well. You mentioned that there are quite a few pitfalls. So what are some of the possible mistakes that you could make in marketing translations?

Yulia: Yes, unfortunately Russian marketing translations that you see online are not always of stellar quality. What worries me personally is that the clients often don’t always have a way of knowing that there’s an issue if they don’t have a Russian speaker on their team. However, sometimes you can make them aware and they’re still not in a rush to fix it, but we can’t force them to.

In terms of issues that can arise, there’s usually a number of things going on. The first thing that doesn’t help with the general impression of the text is staying too close to the source. Very often you see texts that practically scream at you that they’ve been translated and yes, it doesn’t leave a very good impression. Unfortunately, there can be some factual mistakes as well: mistranslations, problems with colloquial phrases or phrasal verbs. My favourite example that I like to give was in a text for a cruise company. They were introducing their Antarctic cruises and giving a bit of history about the expeditions and exploration of the South Pole. Well, there was a phrase that “Amundsen managed to beat Scott to it”, and it was completely mistranslated. According to the Russian translation, one of them was beating the other up and there was a fight on the South Pole, which obviously was not the case! This was quite entertaining to read at first, but also made me think of how poor the quality was.

Another common mistake that I see in marketing texts, especially for high-end brands, is the text that is trying too hard and is using lots of pompous language, which as a result does not sound authentic at all. You’d probably agree: we’ve all seen texts where words like “luxury”, “premium”, “unique” and “exclusive” are being thrown about and overused and in the end they just lose their meaning. They become clichés and people stop caring about them.

On the opposite side of the spectrum, there’s sometimes a different issue where you have descriptions of an exclusive and high-end product or service, and the words that are chosen clash with this image. My pet peeve is the word that you can sometimes come across in hotel or property descriptions – «удобство». It is often used to translate “amenities”. I personally don’t think that it’s a good equivalent.

SLD: It makes you think of a public toilet!

Yulia: Yes, exactly! That’s what I would say as well! I don’t think it’s a very good candidate for any kinds of luxury descriptions, especially if we’re talking about multimillion dollar developments where there’s a private gym, tennis courts, rooftop restaurants, swimming pools, etc. I don’t think this kind of word has a place in this content or context.

These are some of the issues that I come across in marketing translations.

SLD: Yeah, that definitely rings true. I do more corporate stuff myself, but what you said about high-flying words… I agree that they don’t sound authentic when translated literally into Russian. So things like “commitment” or “excellence” sound almost theatrical, in my opinion.

Yulia: Yes!

SLD: You and I were talking earlier and you brought up this new, or maybe not so new, trend in Russian writing called “informational style” («инфостиль»). So how does that fit in with marketing translation?

Yulia: Thanks so much for bringing it up. It’s something I feel quite passionate about and I think it’s one of really useful tools in a translator’s toolset. I came across this concept in a book by Maxim Ilyahov. In Russian it’s called «Пиши, сокращай» (I’d translate this as “Writing concisely” or “Write something and cross it out”). So he’s a proponent of a writing style, which is concise, to the point and tells users exactly what they need to know without unnecessary descriptions and padding out.

Even though the book is primarily for writers, bloggers and editors, I as a translator learnt quite a lot from it. I try to use this approach in my translation and revision work as much as possible. I think of it as a “stop and think” strategy. When you translate – and especially when you re-read or edit your translation – you have to stop and think, first of all, does it make sense? Is there maybe a shorter way of saying this? Are there any unnecessary words that clutter the message and that you can take out without losing any important information?

I think it’s such a valuable skill to have – especially in this digital age, when everything’s moving online and onto phone screens, so you don’t have vast amounts of space – or people’s attention, for that matter. So you have to be really strategic with how you use this space, time and reader’s attention. Another good point that he makes is that people are simply getting tired or reading long texts that don’t make sense and don’t really add value for the users. They want something that’s informative and fun to read.

SLD: Oh, yeah. I’m also a believer in cutting out the fluff and cutting to the chase. So I think that’s definitely good advice. So among your services, you list app localization alongside marketing in translation. That sounds quite technical. So how much technical or engineering knowledge does one need to work in this area?

Yulia: It’s a good question. Yes, I’ve worked on a number of localization projects, both for websites and mobile apps. And I feel I’m still relatively new in this industry, even though the first big localization job I did was back in 2017. But it’s the kind of industry that moves at quite a speed in terms of what tools are available and how many digital products there are on the market.

So to answer your question I’d say you don’t need a ton of technical knowledge if you’re localizing a product, but you definitely need a basic understanding of how app UI and how content is presented for translation. It’s usually in the form of strings and they are often quite problematic as there isn’t always a lot of context. Most tools would have some kind of string identifiers and they usually provide a clue as to where a string appears – they come in the form of mainscreen_error message or signup_button. If not, it’s up to you to either try and find where it is in the app, or if it’s a new release to get in touch with the developers and ask for context.

So with this in mind I’d say it’s really essential that a translator or localizer really care about quality and try and get to the bottom of the issue and it’s not just a case of “oh I don’t have any clue what this means so I’ll just stick this translation in here and hope for the best”. Equally, it’s not always entirely translators’ responsibility to get everything right – developers usually do a lot of testing before releasing a product in a new language or before releasing an update, so they’d normally pick up on issues where the text won’t fit on the button, for example, and they’d get back to you and ask “hey, can you make it shorter please”. So this kind of communication is really key to making localization a success and in the localization circles it’s seen as one of the main virtues to be able to put yourself in other peoples’ shoes and see their problems and what they struggle with.

And another thing to mention in terms of localization, especially for the apps that are content-heavy, is that the content needs to be really engaging. Going back to what we just discussed in terms of concise and natural style. I think localization does benefit a lot from using everyday language and perhaps occasionally making the user smile.

Another thing to bear in mind is visuals, which also need to be localised, not just the text.

SLD: These are great tips! I think everyone would agree that context is so important for this kind of translation – to see how these strings actually appear, what they refer to so we don’t get confused by homonyms and such things. Thank you!