Lost in Translation

By Armando L. Martín
December 2011

Language is important when dealing with Hispanic shoppers, but it’s not the only method of communication.

Here’s a sample online job posting: “Looking for an ambitious category manager. The ideal candidate will be bicultural and bilingual.” In an attempt to broaden the search, the human resources department says you’re being sent an online job posting and it would like a Spanish translation to circulate within the company ASAP. As the company’s designated cultural and language expert, you say, “No problema” — until you get to the word “ambitious.”

The word itself is easily translated as ambicioso, but something’s nagging at you. In your youth, Abuelita (Grandma) used to say: Tu eres una ambiciosa! In Abuelita’s context, “ambitious” was arrogant, conceited, worldly, materialistic and not to be trusted. On the opposite side of the continuum, the word “ambitious” in American business denotes a highly desirable trait.

Think about the power of words. We count on them every day in spoken as well as written form. But one poorly positioned word can distort the message you intended to communicate. It’s not hard to get lost in translation, but words aren’t the only way that can happen.

Now here’s a theoretical situation: Michael has been working extra hours preparing the 2012 business plan, and is getting pushback from bosses and colleagues asking for the Hispanic strategy to be included. The higher-ups are even asking for the strategy to be integrated with the general market plan. Michael is a little lost, because of his confusion as to what a general market plan should contain. He’s not even certain how the task landed on his desk. Does it mean the incremental budget? How does he split the allocation? Does the company have any research to support the assumptions? Michael’s confusion is emblematic of scenes being repeated every day all over the American business landscape.

You don’t have to be Hispanic or even a Spanish speaker to be an excellent marketer or merchandiser to Hispanics. It certainly gives you a leg up, but it doesn’t replace the necessary business skills.

Michael also wonders why there’s this sudden sense of urgency to appeal to Hispanic shoppers. While the reasons are obvious for many retail professionals these days, they are less apparent to someone like Michael, who doesn’t speak Spanish or share Hispanic cultural sensibilities.

It must be imposing at first to go into large Spanish-speaking communities that have changed so vastly from 20 years ago. Some of the businesses you compete with in these densely populated commercial areas don’t even bother putting their signs in English. Spanish-only signage from mom-and-pop stores sends a powerful message regarding the new rules of engagement.

In many ways, today’s marketplace is as foreign as an overseas market. Even though we’ve come far in 20 years, we still have a long way to go to become fully ambidextrous in two cultures. Adapting to words in Spanish is the easier part of Hispanic initiatives. Embracing Hispanic context and cultural cues, and then translating them back into your corporate culture, is much more daunting.

You don’t have to be Hispanic or even a Spanish speaker to be an excellent marketer or merchandiser to Hispanics. It certainly gives you a leg up, but it doesn’t replace the necessary business skills. However, possessing the hard skills — that same rigorous discipline you employ in operating your business — along with the intangibles of cultural sensibility, will make you unique and in high demand.

The Antidote
What’s the antidote to avoid being lost in translation in a market that’s becoming more Hispanic daily? Here are a few easy tips to get started:

  • On your way home, stop at the nearest Hispanic market and make a fewpurchases to create your own version of your favorite Latino dish.
  • When traveling, make it a point to spend some time going through the neighborhood, walking the commercial centers and doing some
    window-shopping.
  • While channel-surfing at home, check out Spanish-language television stations, and monitor the programming and commercials.
  • Listen to Spanish-language radio stations for the tempo, sound, production values, etc.
  • Be forever curious.

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