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Why Russian translations go wrong and how to fix them

 Photo: Sarah Kilian

A few weeks ago I was contacted by a potential client who had a problem with a course they were advertising. They noticed a 60% drop-off for the Russian landing page and decided to investigate. After taking a closer look, they realised the problem was most likely in the Russian translation. It wasn’t conversational enough, catchy enough or engaging enough and was turning users away. Yet another proof that when you’re expanding into a new market, the quality of translations can make or break your business.

In fact, I’m often I am approached by clients, content managers and localization project managers who need help revising or rewriting their existing Russian translations – for an app, an e-commerce website or a different project. After getting feedback from their clients or end users they realise that the Russian translation isn’t up to scratch and something needs to be done.

So why are these translations not fit for purpose? Here are at least four possible reasons:

1. Too formal

This is probably #1 problem when it comes to Russian translations. I cannot speak for all translators out there, but growing up in Russia can make you absorb the omnipresent ‘bureaucratese’ and it can be really difficult to shake it off when you’re writing or translating. You can end up with an overly long and complicated text that will bore readers to death before they can get to the end of it.

Only recently did Russian companies and brands start to move away from it and experiment with the tone of voice that’s more human and casual or even cheeky and irreverent. And while some are still hanging on to the tone of voice they consider more proper and respectable, this trend is here to stay!

2. Too informal

When the brief calls for an informal tone of voice, it is possible to take it too far. The result can be just as damaging and off-putting for the users. While in English it is perfectly fine to greet app users with ‘Hey …’, starting your sentence with «Эй, …» in Russian isn’t a good idea. And yet this is exactly what I came across in a recent localization project.

Yes, sometimes there’s a fine line between ‘casual’ and ‘rude’, but it’s important not to cross it.

3. Wrong tone of voice

This doesn’t happen very often, but I’ve worked on several projects when there was a clear mismatch between the brand and its tone of voice, and this is really hard to ignore. The brand was targeting people under 35, but the copy seemed to have been written for the Soviet party officials. This just didn’t make any sense!

When this is the case, the Russian translations will come out sounding even more bizarre than the English text and there’s not much you can do except rewriting the original.

4. Lacking flow and authenticity

This is another popular complaint from users and clients – sometimes the Russian copy just doesn’t flow well and readers get distracted by mistranslations, anglicisms or phrasing. This often happens when the translators stay too close to the original text.

From appalling to amazing

There’s usually a way to fix these issues and here are 3 tips for crafting creative, powerful and engaging Russian copy that reads well:

  1. Detachment from the original. When working on marketing translations or transcreations, it’s essential to pause and try to rephrase the message in a language that’s clear, natural and concise.
  2. Using everyday language. Unless the subject is extremely technical and complex language is unavoidable, it’s best to use a conversational tone. Users really appreciate brands that are human.
  3. Focusing on what’s important. This often means getting rid of unnecessary information that doesn’t add value. This is especially true for websites, where space is often limited (and users’ attention span even more so). This helps to counteract text expansion, which can be a problem for Russian.

Crafting Russian copy that’s effective, engaging and a pleasure to read takes time and effort. Very often translators or revisers need to start from scratch and recreate the original idea in their own words, especially when working on more creative projects.

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