Three levels of translation needed for international marketing

When most marketers think of translations in relation to their international marketing efforts, they are usually only considering the translation of a set of words from one language into another. Yet, actually, translation is a much deeper concept, involving three levels of message transformation.

The first level is an intersemiotic translation, where a company’s ideas about their product, including branding and benefits, are translated into the words and images in marketing collateral (ads, websites, etc.). Note that this level of translation occurs in all marketing efforts, regardless of whether a product is slated for international sales. For example, if you are a manufacturer of cutting-edge men’s fashion, you may position your suits as being for the unique man who wants to stand apart from the crowd. Your ad message may be “You alone appreciate style”; the visuals show a man in your suit at the forefront of your ad, while other men stand in a group behind him.

The second level is an interpretive translation, where the words and images are translated by your target audience. Again, this level of translation takes place for all audiences, local or international. Using the example from above, this ad may be interpreted as intended in a country with strong individualistic traits, such as the US or Canada; the man’s sense of style makes him special and other men look on in envy. However, in a collectivist culture, such as an Asian country, it could be interpreted that the man’s suit made him an outcast and he no longer fits in with his peers.

Finally, the third level of translation is the translation of the text from one language to another. In this case, the translator is attempting to not only translate the words themselves, but convey the same type of intersemiotic translation that was meant in the first place. Again using the ad example from above, a Western translator would likely have no problem understanding the semiotic message and would adapt the translation appropriately; he or she might not do an exact translation but would instead use a culturally appropriate phrase that captured the essence of the original while appealing better to the local audience. However, an Eastern translator would have difficulty understanding the core semiotic message and, therefore, would likely perform more of a an exact word translation, even if the ultimate message is fairly incomprehensible – from an emotional level – to the collectivist audience.

As you can see, it becomes critical in international marketing to understand the relationship between these three levels of translation. It becomes even more critical to work closely with your translation company to explain the semiotic message and determine if the message itself should change in certain markets.


Millan-Varela, C. (2014), Exploring Advertising in a Global Context. The Translator, 10:2, 245-267, DOI: 10.1080/13556509.2004.10799179


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