E.g., 11/14/2019
E.g., 11/14/2019

Denim or Jeans: An Ode to In-House Resources

By: Mai Ihara (Old Navy)


06 March 2015

Any translator can speak at length on the challenges of translating emails. But it’s no secret that all corporations have their own special language, with slight yet significant nuances that transform simple terms into a variable with unique implications. Mai Ihara argues that the power of in-house language services is the translator’s familiarity with those nuances. 

The familiar voice of the automated conference call service signals that “San Francisco” has successfully dialed in and on the other end can be heard the usual shuffling of papers and the other half of the business team, otherwise known as the “in-market” team, who are walking into the first conference of the day. The greetings are a combination of good mornings and good evenings and as everyone gets settled, the discussion around the business and the commercial plan begins. What’s critical to the success of this meeting is the participation of the in-house interpreter, who sits in Tokyo, but also the carefully translated email exchanges that took place prior to the call.

The business model is such that the bulk of the business is managed by the team in San Francisco – in other words, the inventory is managed, forecasts are built, and margin blends are analyzed by a team who sits on the other side of the Pacific from where the business is being conducted. The market expertise is provided by the folks in Tokyo, along with the actual execution. It’s no longer an uncommon way of business, but what it takes to deliver a healthy business should not be understated. While it enables experts to do what they do best, unbound by geography, effective and efficient communication is the proverbial linchpin.

I’ve been involved in similarly structured teams for a number of years now with varying resources. The most common scenario seems to be the reliance on the few bilingual participants with no linguistic expert in place. The difference is staggering. The realization, or perhaps better described as appreciation, for providing language support that enables the experts to focus on what they were hired to do, instead of navigating the linguistic nuances, is a luxury that not all companies can afford, but for those that can, I would argue that it’s an extremely worthy investment with a measurable ROI.

Any translator can speak at length on the challenges of translating emails. There is no arguing that machine translations have come a long way, and certainly, the gist of any email could be broadly ascertained through even a free online translation program. However, it’s no secret that all corporations have their own special language – usually defined by a myriad of acronyms accompanied by slight yet significant nuances that transform what are often simple and common terms into a variable with unique implications. In my opinion, the power of in-house language services is the translator’s familiarity with those nuances.

My most recent example came from communication around denim and jeans. While one party interpreted “denim” to refer to the material, the other interpreted it as a synonym to “jeans,” which narrowed down the subject matter to denim pants. The translator caught the misalignment in definition and “denim” was defined without losing days in misguided assumptions and the painful process of clarification. The example may be inane, but I viewed the episode as a true testament to in-house resources.

Coming from a background in translating and transitioning to international marketing has had its advantages, but it has forced me to reexamine the scope of language services and its definitions. The undeniable reality is that all companies are turning to a more global model – I imagine what I describe above will be a common experience for most companies and not just a resource reserved for the elite. It will be a long time before any machine translation can serve that need.

The other need I see increasing, yet unthreatened by machine assistance, is the localization element. The companies I’ve been involved with run their marketing department on what’s referred to as a leveraged model – it allows for certain marketing assets, such as copy, photography and strategies, to be stretched globally and is often seen as an effective way of maintaining consistent branding across the globe. A big piece of what I do now is determining what elements to localize, translate, or maintain.

Most campaigns have catchy taglines – the translation process then starts with determining what to translate while maintaining aesthetic consistency for the brand. Speaking from experience, catchy copy translation is far more difficult than the most technical of translations. It requires not only a true command of both source and target languages, but to do so through a marketing filter – should the playfulness of the words be preserved, or will doing so detract from the message.

This may be stating the obvious, but demand for this realm is growing. Certainly, there are agencies that specialize in the work, but even then, success hinges on the clarity of the kickoff to the agency and the groundwork is laid by translations that help explain a brand or campaign. It’s often a feeling that marketers are trying to convey – intangible and rarely clearly defined.

From translating emails full of jargon and unique acronyms to conveying the feeling of a brand campaign, our in-house team is indispensable in the depth of their knowledge about our company’s needs. I can say with confidence that behind every champion global campaign was a translator who was able to identify the essence of that campaign, and behind every successful business meeting was an interpreter who accurately conveyed a meaning – even one as seemingly trivial as “jeans” versus “denim,” which, in the end, can be the difference between a model that works, and one that simply does not.

Mai Ihara works as an International Marketing Strategist at a global retailer based in San Francisco. She received her MA in Conference Interpreting from the Monterey Institute of International Studies. After pursuing a career in language services following her studies, Mai decided she no longer wanted to be the invisible participant in business, but rather an active one. She switched gears and joined the international marketing team at a cosmetics company where she eventually oversaw the marketing and packaging requirements for its Japanese market. She now works in the fashion industry, doing the same, but supporting the company’s broader Asia business. 

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