The Translation of Advertisements: from Adaptation to Localization

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The globalization of economies and trade intensification lead companies to communicate with consumers of different languages and cultures.

Within the framework of international marketing strategies, advertising plays a key role. It has to resolve a dilemma which can be summarized in the following question: How can we sell a standardized product to local and different consumers?

This study aims, on one hand, at underscoring some problems related to translation of international advertising campaigns, and on the other hand, at raising pressing questions regarding the place and the function of the professional translator in this specific framework.

These issues will be dealt with from the perspective of the consulting translation specialist with a large expertise in “advertising adaptation”. As for the reference corpus of this study, it consists of one thousand “translated” ads from French into the main international languages (English, Spanish, Portuguese and Arabic). It was gathered over a five-year period between 1995 and 2000.

General Framework of Advertising Localization

The general framework would be that of communication and marketing strategies adopted by multinational companies especially French multinationals. The debate between the upholders of global standardization and those of local adaptation is still open and will likely stay that way as long as the Earth is teeming with different languages and cultures. Nevertheless, the elements of this debate should be defined and elucidated briefly. International advertising consists of using the same strategy of communication in all targeted countries. The advantage of this approach lies mainly in the economies of scale generated because of the standardization of the campaign.

Numerous arguments, whether theoretical or practical, were given to justify the internationalization of some products advertising campaigns. Among the most frequently given arguments, we name the following:

  • The standardization of consumer behaviours in many countries (a tangible evidence of the cultural homogenization).
  • The emergence of similar new categories of consumers on the international level (new transnational markets).
  • The introduction of international themes and icons thanks to the television networks and the pop music (movie stars and supermodels)


To that, one may add the relatively scarce numbers of brilliant ideas in the field of communication and thus it is easy to understand why companies tend, in their vast majority, to this type of standardized strategy.
But it is also obvious that the risks of a forced standardization are not insignificant. The relevance and the influence of the local culture are still very substantial in numerous countries around the globe including in Western Europe. It is indeed very risky not to adapt communication to some local markets especially in countries where the cultural tradition is still very present.


Faced with a potential failure, which can have serious sequels financially speaking, the trend towards localization is gradually gaining ground. But what does it really entail in the advertising field?
Localization of international advertising campaigns consists of adapting the company’s communication to the specificities of the local environment of the hosting countries targeted by the campaign.


This local environment could be divided in several components to which the localizing translator must pay careful attention:

  • The socio-cultural component: which includes the local particularities stemming from religion, mores, social and commercial habits, rules of conduct and ethical norms. In short, this component is related to the main features of the hosting culture and society.
  •  The politico-legal component: which includes the local particularities stemming from the nature of the political system, the stage of opening onto the world, the restrictions imposed on advertisements and the regulations related to information and to certain products (such as spirits and tobacco).


The localization of advertising campaigns consists of adapting the company’s communication while taking into account the above-mentioned parameters. The relevance and influence of these parameters are certainly varied according to regions and countries but overlooking them leads undoubtedly to the failure of the campaign.


In this context, the translator plays a key role in the adaptation of the communication campaign. Beside his role as a translator of the speech – strictly speaking – he must make sure that the socio-cultural restrictions, which could be problematic in the advertising transfer, are taken into consideration.


The issue, which is at the heart of multilingual communication in this globalized era, is about managing cultural differences between the different hosting countries of a single advertising campaign.


I shall try to explain briefly the terms of the problem and the diverging points of view of the parties involved in this process concerning specifically the cultural issue.


First of all, we have the sponsors of the ads (in other words the producers of goods and services) who champion an offensive approach with a very peculiar conception of culture stating the following: culture is “global”; it is American and global based on international icons and standard messages.


Then we have the point of view of communicators/advertising executives who consider that communication applies for a particular public viewed as a “target” and known as the “target audience”. For them, culture is defined as the culture of a transnational group of consumers having the same life style and similar consumption habits.


And finally, we have the point of view of the ads translators/localizers. As linguistic and cultural go-betweens, translators are, by principle, in a mediation position that allows them to see the problem from the conciliatory and flexible angle of interculturality.


I shall give here a few actual examples of the intercultural approach of translators within the framework of international advertising. The recurrent question for them being: how to convey a single message written in two different languages without losing neither the spirit nor the identity?


“The management of the other”, which is what international advertising is all about, will be a challenge for the translator/localizer at varying levels related to the different parts of the advertising message namely: the image on one hand, and the text on the other. Within the latter (the text of the ad), one can recognize: the brand name, the slogan or the catch line and finally the caption.
Every part of these could be a problem when transferring it from one language to another. And every one reflects a facet of the cultural issues.


To understand the stakes of the problem, one should think in semiotic terms, that is to say that culture is embedded in linguistic, plastic, graphic and pictorial signs that constitute the message.
For the sake of convenience, we are going to distinguish between the advertisements that have been graphically adapted and those that have been adapted textually before looking into the relation between the text and the graphics which is an essential element in advertising.


The adaptations in content and form that we are going to see are typical examples of the cultural problem in the field of advertising.


The first example of international advertising is what we can call the “graphic adaptation”. In this advertisement for the perfume Tuscany, there was a transformation of the ad’s framework. The image background was adapted to the socio-cultural environment of the hosting country. The substitution of a Mediterranean type “street scene” for an “Italian” type family scene is not insignificant. It aims at adapting the semiotic elements of the original iconography to the imagination of the targeted Arabic consumers and to life scenes that are more common in Arab societies (the cafés and their terraces).


In brief, the observed adaptations of the advertising image can be divided in two categories: on one hand, the adaptation of the meaning related to the background in the different ad’s versions. On the other hand, the adaptation of the relation between the chosen background and the product in question.


a) Regarding the iconography: we find the same graphic elements in the French and Arabic versions: the perfume bottle is at the bottom of the page on the right; the advertising character (a woman) is at the center of the image and moving. She’s displaying the same smile in the two ads and the extras on the background are in the same position (sitting around a table). We can thus notice, on the iconographic level, the same scene shot from the same angle in both versions.


But despite these common points, we easily notice a radical scene change when we go from one language to another. Instead of the indoor scene poorly lit and well delimited, one can see an outdoor scene much brighter and more open to the eye. The contrast between shooting indoors and outdoors is well illustrated by moving from a family scene (in French) to a street scene (in Arabic); the change is also obvious in the setting and the extras in the background. We go from the backyard of a house to a busy street. The impression of graphic similarity between the two versions is maintained mainly by the unity of perspective that puts the perfume bottle and the woman on the same line in both ads. The perfume is on the foreground, the character in the middle distance and the rest in the background blurred but crucial.


b) Regarding the meaning: this graphic stratification renders the background elements that are decisive in determining the meaning of the advertising message. But these elements are totally different in the two versions, which leads to a change in meaning despite an apparent unity of perception. The unity is due to the Italian identity of the product in both versions whereas the difference is due to the shown aspect of this Italian identity. In both cases, the perfume brand name, clearly mentioned in the foreground (Tuscany per Donna) reflects the identity of the product and guides the reading of the advertising message. But the interpretation of the scene is also dependent on other graphic elements especially in this case, the elements that vary from one version to another.


The privacy of the house is replaced by the exuberance of seduction, and the family smile by the flirtatious laughter. Thus the attitude of the ad’s character could be interpreted differently. Instead of the complicity of the female attitude in French we have the feigned playfulness of the character in Arabic. In fact, in one version the woman turns her eyes towards the family and in the other version she turns her eyes away of the young men in the background. And yet it is the same character, the same smile and the same look; only the angle of shooting has been changed completely altering thus the global meaning of the message.


The product (the perfume) which is at the heart of the ad doesn’t bring about joy and delight in the family but instead it has a seductive power in attracting the attention of men on the woman who is wearing it. Thus the scene is totally different but it perfectly fits with the prevailing social representations in the cultural contexts targeted by the product. Pragmatism establishes therefore the nature of iconographic adaptation in international advertising.


Let us take now a case of textual adaptation that illustrates, among other things, the ideological dimension of advertising message.


As example, we shall take the advertisement of the luxurious watches Tissot that have at least four different versions (French/ English/ Arabic/ Polish) and were broadcasted simultaneously in four different languages. What particularly interests me at this point is to show how the advertising message was adapted by translators to the real restrictions of the targeted market.


Let us take the French and Arabic versions.This textual adaptation is visible on two levels.
On one hand, on the level of rhetoric images with the translation of the expression “blue planet” in French by “our mother, the Earth” in Arabic which is more idiomatic and emotionally-charged.
And on the other hand, on the level of the ideologically chosen words, with the translation of the word “citizen” by “inhabitant” in order to neutralize the political dimension that is still very consequential in Arabic because it refers to a type of government that is rare in the Arab world (the republican and democratic system); to that we could add the universalistic range of the original message (“we are all citizens of the blue planet”) that could irritate some nationalistic regimes.


These two examples of localization show how the interaction between the translation itself and the cultural factors of the targeted market takes place within the commercial communication.
Let us now take an example of localization that illustrates, in the same time, an adaptation of the text and the image and beyond that an adaptation of the interaction between linguistic signs and graphic signs in international advertising.


We shall examine an advertisement for the perfume Poême by Lancome that was a huge success in France and Europe. We have four versions in four different languages (French/ English/ Portuguese/ Arabic).
The message efficiency lies in its poetic nature at both the text and image levels as well as in the double meaning of the woman’s speech (interpreted by Juliette Binoche) who intones in French a line of poetry as a slogan (“You are the sun that rises to my head).
Needless to insist on the real and objective difficulty to adapt such a message whose meaning even in French is still ambiguous and subject to several interpretations.
(It is noteworthy that in the English version, this line was adapted as follows: “You are the sea, you cradle the stars” and in the Portuguese version as follows: ” Tu es o sol que me escaladante a me cabeça”)


Adaptation of Text + Image + Praxis=”Localization”


The striking graphic adaptations in this version can be summarized in three prominent points:

  • Dealing with nudity and adapting it to the culture (“blurring” the model’s chest).
  • The writing style (the undulating and coloured calligraphy)
  • The layout of the catching line (writing/reading direction)


In fact, the slogan has the specificity of being represented following a curve line that infringes the usual linearity of writing. However, it reproduces the temporal successive nature of the oral speech which strengthens the slogan themes (it speaks directly to the reader). The translated version keeps the same slogan design (the curve line) while replacing the Latin characters by Arabic ones. Still, there are two major differences between the two layouts.


On one hand, the curve line of French characters results in an ascendant reading movement that goes from the perfume bottle to the head of the advertising actress, whereas the Arabic characters arise from the perfume bottle and give the sentence a descendant movement that ends where the slogan of the French version begins. On the other hand, the letters – thus the words- that are enlarged to the maximum differ from one version to another. The proportions are totally reversed simply because of the reading direction change. The form of the slogan is obviously affected but is not really different from the initial line. This is mainly due to the undulating movement and to the use of the same character proportions in both versions.


Thus the localization of the iconography seems to be done in a comprehensive way taking into consideration all the distinctive features of the advertising message. The text is not only perceived as a verbal entity; it has also a graphic identity easily detectable that the translator ought to transfer. Whether it is the trademark, the brand name or the slogan, the visual expression is as important as the verbal expression that underlies it. In this way, the art of the translator/ localizer consists of pushing as far as possible the cultural mimesis without losing however the identity of the original message.


The cultural “added-value”


Beside his technical skills and semiotic training, the translator/ localizer of the 21st century is a professional of culture able to decode and encode the cultural signs within the advertising communication. His role has become all the more important since globalization has paradoxically exacerbated the feelings of local identity in a culturally globalized era. Schematically, let us say that he/she has changed – in a short period of time – into an “expert in intercultural communication” because he/she masters the cultural codes that “sell”. It is this added-value of his/her work as translator that renders him/her, today, a localizer.


But in real practice, what does this “added-value” cover?


The answer is both varied and heterogeneous just like the culture that the translator/ localizer must harness in its moving, yet efficient, outlines. Among the “technical” knowledge of cultural nature that must be mastered, we name the following categories:

  • The adaptation of dates and hours, weights and measures, currencies and addresses that often vary according to countries and languages.
  • The meaning of colours and the symbolism of geometrical and architectural forms that could be contradictory sometimes from one region to another.
  • The cultural stereotypes and the social clichés in use in the hosting societies of the advertising message. (i.e. the representation of oneself and of others, ethnic preferences, religious convictions, national spirit, etc.)


All of these cultural elements could play a decisive role not only in the good understanding of the advertising message but also, and especially, in its success on the targeted market. Having disregarded the “weight” of local cultures, numerous multinationals learnt it to their cost. The cultural signs could be a source of problems in the commercial communication but they may also optimize the beneficial effects by meeting the local consumer’s wishes of identification and complicity. In any case, mastering these signs is a “technical know-how” that a translator/localizer ought to highlight and benefit from in a materialistic world where everything is negotiable. And it is up to the translator to use his/her cleverness to bargain for a better future.


Re-produced courtesy of (

By Mathieu Guidere
Master in Arabic language and literature and Ph.D in Translation Studies and Applied Linguistics from the University of Paris-Sorbonne,
Lyon 2 University – France
Saint-Cyr Research Centre, France

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