When expanding a business abroad, marketers have the difficult task of applying global brand values to a localised marketing campaign. Translation is a significant part of this process, but the subtle differences between words and their equivalents make it a challenge for direct translation to unite a global brand with its local audiences.
However, a recent study may have some shed light on why marketers are struggling to successfully translate their message from country to country; every other word is different and the meaning and associations that go with them bring many subtle differences that need to be factored in to any translation work.
One Single Word
According to scientists from the Max Planck Institute for Psycholinguistics, there is only one word in existence that’s the same in every language, and that word is ‘huh’. By recording segments of informal language from across five continents, the scientists have revealed that the world ‘huh’ is the same in 31 different languages, making it the most universally understood term in the world.
The researchers have suggested that the reason ‘huh’ is the only word to have spontaneously adopted the same meaning in almost every language is because there is no other word that is capable of filling its place. According to the study, ‘huh’ is the only word capable of stating that there is a problem, signalling that it has to do with a lack of knowledge and asking for a response without being aware of what that response may be.
Implications for Global Marketing
Although many have argued that ‘huh’ is more of a noise than a word, this research can be applied to the process of translating brand messages for use overseas. In many cases direct translation won’t work, and will simply leave companies with a message that’s irrelevant or confusing to other cultures. However, words and colloquialisms like ‘huh’ could be one way of tapping into truly universal marketing that appeals across cultures.
With the introduction of social media sites it’s becoming increasingly necessary for contrasting cultures to develop universal terms that effectively translate from country to country while remaining within the restricted character limits that dictate much of our communication.
While the complexity of language renders terms like ‘huh’ extremely rare, this new age process of rapid language development could see an increase in the number of colloquialisms understood across borders and across seas, which is good news for marketers and people across the world seeking greater understanding and unity.
Naseem is the project director at Bubbles Translation Services and has spent over 25 years in the translation service industry.