Translation Experience

translate-lettersOne of the things I’ve learned from working with global startups like BSG Corporation, Agillion and Appconomy is best practices for marketing communications language translation.

In my experience, there are 4 levels of translation:

  1. Basic comprehension
    • you can get this level from, Microsoft’s Skype Translator, or other similar tools
    • this is sufficient for about 40-60% comprehension
    • translate-skype
    • using these tools is ok for quick chat app translations and other headlines or phrases from non-native websites
    • but, I’ve found trying to use them for anything else is quite cumbersome and unproductive
    • avoid using them for document or web page translation. It’ll look like a 5 year old translated it to the native speaker
  2. Rough draft
    • you can get this level from application providers, like,, and other similar tools
    • this is sufficient for 60-80% comprehension and 80-90% spelling/grammar precision
    • they are useful for a head-start on large volume translation, but they aren’t a replacement for people…yet
    • the providers of these tools tend to imply that higher quality results are possible over time with statements like “the more you use the tool, the more it will become tuned to your favored phrases and words”
    • indeed, some possess what appears to be basic machine learning capability, but it remains inferior to the judgment of a human translator
  3. Finished, professional copy
    • for this level, you need a live human being (preferably a team) who is expert in the source (“starting”) and target (“ending”) languages
    • this is sufficient for 80-90% comprehension and 90-95% spelling/grammar precision
    • most people typically use a fluent, bi-lingual employee, a translator from a university that has students majoring in foreign languages, or an online service with independent contractors like (formerly Odesk) or
    • translate-appconomy
    • I highly recommend testing two or three of these providers with the same 3-4 sample work products, at the same time. Once they finish translating all samples, then have a trusted individual, fluent in the target language, review and score the results. (If possible, have more than one person do the review, so they can compare notes.)
    • before you give them the test – which you should pay them for, BTW – require that they provide you their pricing structure, both for the test as well as the full project or long-term assignment you have for them, so that you can do an “apples to apples” comparison of cost v. quality
  4. Localized, native-equivalent content
    • for this level, you need a fluent, bi- or multi-lingual speaker AND reader, either highly familiar with the target region or a native of it
    • this is sufficient for up to 99% comprehension and spelling/grammar precision
    • the difference between this level and the prior, “professional” level is like the difference between an English-language news release written by an Australian-based translator for US target audience versus the same news release written by an American-based translator.
      • the former may choose to include “ue” at the end of words like “catalog” or “dialog” or use “s” instead of “z” for words like “categorize” or “digitize”
      • they will also have a different understanding of idioms and colloquialisms that indicate a truly, locally-appropriate translation
    • providers for this level of quality are usually from the top translating agencies in the target countries, for example, in China it would be companies like Linguitronics and Real Idea
You probably noticed that I only scored the level of comprehension and spelling/grammatical precision at 99%, even for the highest level of translation. In my experience, that last 1% will only come from having a professional copywriter from a PR or marcom firm do a final, editorial pass through the translation.

Yes, an additional pass adds time and money to the cost. But, if you want to achieve the highest level of quality, that’s what it takes. I can assure you that you want to avoid the alternative – embarrassing translations like the one I received just today.
[NOTE: for the record, the correct words are: “focused” “of” “markets” and “platform”]

Whether due to poor translation or general sloppiness, the multiple mistakes in the English-language translation in this example diminish the message and perception of the initiative – an outcome no one wants.

Designing a Chinese Logo


How an American Software Startup Chose an Indigenous Australian Marsupial as the Logo of a Chinese Mobile App

I know, right? Truth is better than fiction, most of the time.

But, indeed, that second blog title is the more colorful description of the actual process from 3 years ago, when I oversaw the creation of the logo and name for Appconomy’s first mobile app in China.

bbv-brand slideshareNOTE: The brand design example in this post is drawn from a larger presentation – Brand Element Basics – that is available on Slideshare.

Here’s what happened.

Our first app was designed to be an “every man’s” version of the Starbucks loyalty app, primarily for small-footprint, food & beverage (F&B) locations, like small tea shops or food stands, but also for other retail merchants, like  jewelry stores or mobile phone kiosks.

It is very common for Asia-Pacific mobile apps to have mascots or other anthropomorphic features (like eyes or hands) integrated into their branding.

So, we began by studying and evaluating the branding of various competing apps that were broadly in our category, as show in the example below.

bbv-logo 1

From that initial survey, we chose a lengthy set of shape/color/font combinations, each with one or more referring sources.

We had already gone through an initial app naming process, settling on the working name of “Jinnang.” 

A jinnang is a special kind of man-purse, if you will, that is a key element in Chinese fairy tale that nearly everyone in China knows, kind of like the magic beans in Jack-in-the-Beanstalk, from Mother Goose in the US.

bbv-logo 2

From the large set of options, we worked through pros and cons and down-selected to a smaller set of concepts that we wanted to further develop.

For the next round, we focused more on shapes and narrowing in on simple, unique, original imagery.

To help, we kept to a mostly black & white palette, to keep attention on the core visual composition.

bbv-logo 3

As you can see, by this stage there were 2 macro-design concepts emerging, with one purely emphasizing the magic purse and another incorporating cute animal mascots.

The kangaroo was a natural option because of its pouch, which was kind of a built-in jinnang, and because it had friendly, yet strong character attributes.

And, it was a mascot that was still available, unclaimed by any other major software competitor, as far as we could tell.

Next, we undertook yet another round of narrowing on images, with the addition of color and fonts to the options, to give them full character.

At this point, it was TIME to CHOOSE a final concept!

bbv-logo 4

Winner: the kangaroo!

From there, we advanced to a round of micro-tailoring of the concept elements, e.g., mouth, headwear, neckwear, color and more.

bbv-logo 5

As you can see, we made him skinnier and gave him better posture, in the process!

Eventually, we settled on the finalized logo, both symbol & wordmark.

bbv-logo 6

You may have noticed that, in the process, between the 4th round and the 6th & final round, the brand name changed from Jinnang to Jinjin.

The simple rationale was that “jin jin” was easier for English speakers to say and, as a meaningless set of morphemes – similar to the “goo goo or ga ga” of babytalk –  it would be easier to trademark.

There’s more to it than that, but I’ll save that story for another time.

The 12 Months of Qin-mas

SteveG 2012 holiday chop-rotateThe Qin dynasty (not to be confused with Qing, seriously!) was the first imperial dynasty of China and, thus, is the namesake of modern China.  (Qin = Chin, in pronunciation.)

It is with tongue-in-cheek but also great respect for the warmth and industry of my many new Chinese friends, that I reflect on a charmingly odd 12 months living in China with this riff on the 12 Days of Christmas.

I give you The 12 Months of Qin-mas.

“On the ______ month of Qin-mas, my true love gave to me…”

TWELVE middle-aged ladies: they were out by the Xintiandi subway stop, most every night, country & western line dancing to Alan Jackson on a boom box

…An ELEVEN a.m. bon vivant: but what was extra-special about this middle-aged gent was that he had a hair comb-over so long that he had literally shaped it into the style of a golf cap, complete with brim

…TEN well-dressed dogs: little dogs are the norm in Shanghai: poodles, terrier, pugs, etc. But, what distinguishes them are their outfits: shoes, pants, coats and hats – most dogs are much better dressed than many people you see

…A NINE amp power drill: being wielded by a guy in the pouring rain squatting in a puddle of water, plugged into an exposed electricity outlet, with everyone else walking in the puddles & rain too – me included!

stevep_yao…EIGHT little kids squatting: in fact, pretty much every little kid under the age of two has a slit in the rear of their pants so they can “do their business” directly where they stand or squat… a visual tribute to the pragmatism of the Chinese parent

…SEVEN-foot tall Yao Ming: former Houston Rockets basketball superstar was a neighbor in my apartment complex – you can’t miss him, as he is probably the tallest person you will ever see in a Starbucks, anywhere – and told me during a brief chat that he really liked Austin because it was a “such a quaint small town”

…SIX legs, no pants: the legs being attached to any three women, who are often linked arm-in-arm (although a pair of women is more common) in the winter, basically only wearing black leggings below the waist, with their derrieres barely – not always – covered by a warm sweater, top, or coat. You’ll have to give it to Chinese women: a majority of them have the figures to get away with the style; a combination of their fruit & vegetable diets and genes, no doubt

IMG_3618…A FIVE second stun: when a well-dressed young woman strolled up and swatted me with a rolled up newspaper, as I was sitting with my wife on the outside deck at a coffee shop, one lovely Sunday afternoon.  About the only thing we could think of that had caused her moment of huff was when I had given her an odd stare, searching what I thought was her perplexed face, after she stood aimlessly behind my chair for a few seconds. All I can say is Rebecca nearly fell out of her seat, laughing so hard, as the woman strolled off and I was left speechless.

…FOUR-foot tall trash bag: this was the dark-gray, heavy-duty variety of trash bag, which in itself is nothing unusual, until you see (by all appearances) a normal-looking guy walking down the street wearing it for wardrobe, shaped like a pair of Cossack pants – and looked pretty stylish, in fact. No, it wasn’t raining.

…A THREE story tall tower of cardboard: …and Styrofoam, stacked & tied down, being peddled by an elderly gent at least in his sixties on a bicycle cart for delivery to the recycling center. Seriously, it was taller than the average house; those pictures you may have seen about amazing Chinese feats of transportation ingenuity aren’t Photoshop’d – they’re real!

…TWO ladies walking: they were strolling in opposite directions, but directly towards each other, neither ever swerving until the point when they literally stopped in front of one another, nose to nose – just like in the Dr. Seuss book – before they each sidestepped to go around the other

regency leak ceiling…And a partly-carved hole in my ceiling. Shortly after returning from a trip to the US in August, we noticed after a heavy rain one afternoon that there appeared to be a wet wood around the doorframe of our apartment’s hallway bathroom.

We lived on the twelfth floor of a thirteen floor building. So, we naturally assumed that a leak had sprung in our above-stairs neighbor. We called the property manager, who sent a few different repairmen to inspect.  They said there wasn’t a problem on the 13th floor and, thus, they needed to inspect further, so they cut a big hole in our hallway ceiling.

From that point forward, about every other week on average, they sent a few people over to stand on a chair, stick their phone-illuminated flashlights (they never seemed to have a real one) up into the dark recess of our ceiling space, argue for one to ten minutes and then say to Rebecca and me “call us when it rains.”

It rained, we called, repeat cycle. Through monsoons (literally!), fall/winter freezing rain, and… well, you get the idea. As of our final moment of departure, the hole was still there, four and a half months after we first reported the leak.

Things that Can Kill You in Shanghai

The air – it’s terrible.

The pollution is visible most days and resembles a noxious, detectable sewer smell in the city.

Many people get the ‘Shanghai burn’ within the first few weeks of visiting or living there – an allergic reaction coming with a hybrid sore throat, runny nose, and drainage.

The water – tap water is high in both light and heavy pollutants, depending on which part of the city you are in. Even filters on the tap are ineffective.  Bottled water is the only way to go.

The food – street vendor food for the ex-pat, whose digestive system hasn’t acclimated, can be downright dangerous.

Not counting poisonous wild cards like the ‘gutter oil’ scandal that was reported earlier in 2012, when vendors were caught literally scraping the garbage slough of oily residue off the street and mixing it with other low quality cooking oil and then re-selling it to food & beverage merchants who used it for food preparation.

Scooters on the sidewalk – they are quiet, since most are battery powered, and thus it is easy to be walking along and all of a sudden have one speed by you on one side or the other.  If you had accidentally turned to look at a store window display or whatever, they would knock you 20 yards.

Cars and other vehicles that run red lights – traffic laws are treated like suggestions. Pedestrians at intersections are on their own and second-class citizens.  It’s every man for him/herself.

The trash – I walk down city sidewalks in busy, upscale areas all of the time where there are large panes of broken glass, unprotected power tools, nails, tacks, razors, open manhole covers, sharp-edged steel, and more

Celebrations – during the 2012 Chinese New Year’s celebration, ‘only’ about 150 people were killed as a result of fireworks in Shanghai alone, as compared to 2011 when more died during this annual largest holiday season.

Low hanging air conditioners, signs, entrances – they are everywhere, inside, outside, and primely positioned for delivering a wicked head injury.

The dark – scooters and cars, already dangerous during the day, often don’t use their headlights at night, making them even more lethal. Especially, since streetlights are uncommon.

Drinking – I’ve had colleagues say China is an alcohol-based business culture.  Based on personal experience, I believe it.  ‘Nuff said.

Not guns – the only people that have them in China are the police, the military …and, of course, criminals.

China Inc. – Part 2

I didn’t mention it in my last post, but the ‘China Inc.’ title of this two-part series has meaning beyond just my semi-random, personal observations about doing business in China.

It also represents a view others more astute than me have shared about the way China is run.  Which is to say: China looks far more similar to a diversified multinational corporation or holding company like Berkshire Hathaway, IBM, or General Electric than it does a fearsome, totalitarian state like Orwell’s 1984 or Stalinist Russia.

Think about it: the main decision-making body, the Politburo, operates like a board of directors. Every decade, a new top management team (the premier and president) is appointed with other promotions (provincial governors, ministry heads, etc.) following suit.

The management is mainly concerned with ensuring that the workforce (i.e., citizenry) avoids unrest and is reasonably well taken care of.  And the overwhelming focus is on protecting an economic growth agenda that is oriented around a market-based system of regulated enterprise that incentivizes individuals and encourages wealth creation.

It’s China Inc., plain and simple.

With that in mind, here are a few more of my observations from doing business in China.

7.  The Chinese are extremely pragmatic. They don’t over plan or overdesign.  Copying models that work isn’t being imitative; it’s being efficient and practical.  I have a high degree of admiration for the get-it-done, results-focused, speed-oriented work ethic I’ve seen among many of my Chinese colleagues.

8.  Of course, this emphasis on the pragmatic can have a downside as well.  It is common for people to interrupt what they are doing in a business meeting – even if they are the speaker! – and pick up a ringing phone to answer a phone call.

More than once, I’ve found myself in the middle of a conversation with someone from a service organization – like a hotel desk clerk or a desk manager of a fitness club – to have them immediately pick up a phone the moment it rings, cutting off something they or I might have been saying mid-sentence.

9.  Another counter-balance to the pragmatism and speed is the emphasis in Chinese business on alignment-before-process and, in my observation, process-before-innovation.

Pains are taken to make sure that everyone is fully aligned before work begins. This can often mean many, many meetings, back-channel communications, and documents before work begins.

Then, when the work begins, there is little tolerance for deviation to the process.  Customer-inspired product pivots, rapid assimilation of new data, and quick reactions to new competitive developments are frequently treated as breaking the process.

This is where the American tradition of creativity, agility, and opportunistic innovation still retains an advantage in start-up ventures over Chinese process and pragmatism.

This is somewhat an ironic situation, considering that the Chinese can be highly creative when it comes to finding a way to overcome a barrier or steer around an obstacle.   I’ve had more than one ex-pat colleague say – despite all of the rules and regulations you must navigate when conducting business – that there is always a way to get something done.

10.  Which leads to an area of conducting business that every country and culture has its own fair share of: corruption.  In China, the corruption can be ‘soft,’ like signing an agreement, but then attempting to renegotiate the terms on the fly after the deal is signed before delivering on commitments.

Corruption can also be ‘hard,’ like the institutionalized payments to editors, writers, and key opinion leaders in return for attending your press events or receiving your briefing materials. These payments are usually referred to as expense reimbursements for travel and they certainly don’t guarantee coverage. Yet, everyone participates in the system.

Is it corruption? Or is it simply Chinese pragmatism kicking in, by creating a more easily understood system, as compared to the gifts, ‘special events,’ and other favors that their Western counterparts use to curry favor with the media?

It’s certainly a good example of behavior that is acceptable in one country/culture that is unacceptable in another, where one could argue that the difference is in degrees, definitely not in absolutes.

China Inc. – Part 1

I’m in China for most of 2012 launching a new business.  You can read more about it at Appconomy.

Since I’m here working, I thought I’d share some impressions – in no particular order of importance – of doing business in China.

1.  Make sure when you get materials translated that you have them reviewed for professional writing standards.  There are several times that I have relied on translators to convert my wonderful prose – whether it was website copy or an article – to find out days (sometimes weeks!) later that there are problems with it.

The problems range from missing whole phrases or sentences I wrote, to a grammatically poor translation, to just badly executed meaning.  Thus, for something really important, it wouldn’t be overdoing it to get two different parties to review materials, after the translator has done their work.

2.  For any presentation that you do, always prepare for the ability to deliver it in dual language.

At a minimum, this means translating your PowerPoint or Keynote content into Chinese to go along with your native English.

If you don’t, then you may want to consider having someone verbally translate your presentation while you are giving it.

3.  The need for ‘brown face’ in your business relationship building is important. This phrase comes from my Chinese colleagues – it’s not mine.  Not unlike any other culture or country, the fact is that one needs to have Chinese members on your team to build credibility with Chinese customers and business partners.

4.  Taiwan and Hong Kong are and aren’t China.  The mainland of China is the People’s Republic of China (or PRC, in English).  As far as the PRC authorities are concerned, Taiwan and HK are part of the same nation.  So, if you are presenting a map, for example, of your offices in Asia, be sure to use the one that shows Taiwan and HK as part of the PRC.

However, while geopolitically, both regions are part of the Mainland, they aren’t governed in the same way.  Instead, they operate under their own special sets of rules, based on their unique histories.

Thus, Hong Kong enjoys a much more liberal atmosphere that permits everything from public protests to largely uncensored media. For example, Google operates its services in China from Hong Kong.

Likewise, Taiwan enjoys a more liberal, free society, with its own overlay of elected politicians.  The relationship between the PRC and Taiwan is principally governed via a construct and collection of governance called the Cross Straits Agreements.  But make no mistake: at the end of the day, the PRC firmly believes Taiwan to be part of its sovereign territory every bit as much as the USA believes Puerto Rico to be part of its.

5.  When someone in China says ‘no problem’ or ‘I understand’ the chances are that there is a problem or they don’t understand, but they are just trying to get rid of you.

6.  Americans use a lot – and I mean A LOT – of idioms in their business-speak. This especially becomes clear when you are consciously trying to avoid them with a Chinese audience that is modestly English speaking.  It’s also painfully obvious if you actively listen when there is an American who isn’t as attuned to the literal nature of their speech.

I very clearly remember sitting in a conference call with a team of Austin busdev people on a conference call talking to a Chinese team on the other end of the line. At one point, one of the main Austin speakers used seven sports metaphors in consecutive sentences: ‘ball over the goal line’ ‘quarterback the project’ ‘try an end run’ etc.

It was borderline comical!  I could only imagine to myself what it would have been like if our Chinese colleague had used as rich a set of sports metaphors in reply that were all based on the art of Sumo wrestling!

Bad Things About Good People

It is one thing to travel somewhere for a vacation or touring visit. It’s quite another to actually stay beyond a few days or even a couple of weeks.

Because when you actually stay for a while and live among the people, then your perspective shifts. Those odd, ‘cute’ ways of the locals you might have observed – but were mostly shielded from – as a tourist, turn into curious, annoying, frustrating elements of everyday life.

Take for instance walking on a city street – or really anywhere for that matter. To use an animal kingdom metaphor, I’ve come describe the Chinese way of walking as similar to a bat’s flying, whereas the Westerner is more like a cat.

Most of the time, the Chinese will turn into you – literally starting to walk towards you – as they approach, with only a last moment turn to the side to avoid brushing against you or literally bumping into you when you pass…just like the chaotic flight of a bat whose sonar enables them to avoid crashing into each other at the last second.

A Westerner on the other hand, starts making room to one side or the other, well in advance of passing another, so that there is plenty of extra distance between you and them when you actually pass each other…just like a couple of cautious cats passing, giving each other a wide berth of space as they cross paths.

Another example, which as a boy raised in Texas I’m perhaps especially attuned to, is the difference in common courtesy, especially with women.  Things you never see in Shanghai: a man opening a door for a woman, a man letting a woman get on the elevator (or subway) first, a man giving up his seat for a woman on a full subway or bus.

I recognize that this custom smacks of a particular male Southern tradition that, frankly, may even annoy certain American women who think there shouldn’t be any special treatment for women, as equally as the custom might perplex a native Chinese man.  But, in China, all I can do is model my upbringing, because I’m certain not to see any others practicing this form of Southern gender hospitality.

While these little differences in personal space and courtesy can wear you thin over time, I’d be remiss if I didn’t highlight some of the behaviors that seem to me quite admirable.  Here are a few of the more noteworthy:

People do their own community policing – in my short time in Shanghai, we’ve seen:

  • a purse snatcher chased down and caught by people on the street,
  • a taxi driver who ran a traffic signal (which is alarmingly common) at night and t-boned a scooter driver in an intersection thwarted from leaving the scene of the accident by a crowd that surrounded him and his taxi, and
  • a bonfire that was lighted on a city street in memorial of a passing relative closely monitored and ultimately safely extinguished by a citizens brigade of neighbors.

Closeness between men/women – It is very common (typical in fact) for women to hold hands and cross arms and for men – mostly younger men, under 40 – with their arms closely slung over the shoulder of another man, walking down city streets, in shopping malls, etc.

Personal relationships – While the younger generation practices it less, there is a long-standing Chinese  way of building relationships over meals, drinking, and shared activities (like karaoke, known as KTV in China) that include conversation that is given ample time to explore, go deep, provide room for learning your colleagues’ personal stories, etc.

Celebration of youth – there is a genuine joy in playing with and interacting with young children that seems much more broadly shared than I find in the USA.

And later, when they are working age, there seems to be a much greater acceptance of young men and women assuming roles of expertise or leadership.

Whether it is the apartment complex repairman or the director of a computer outsourcing center, it is far more common to see these same roles filled by people at least 5-10 years younger in China than in the US.

Taken up a notch, at more of the community and regional level, there are other admirable social qualities like a heavy emphasis on recycling materials of every and all kinds, as well as what appears to be a full employment philosophy about making sure there are jobs for everyone.

And, of course, one other social quality I favor as a foreigner, is that English is taught in school from an early age, so I can nearly always find at least one person who can understand me at a bar, restaurant, store, etc.

It’s been a fascinating time living in Shanghai, so far – unlike any other travel experience we’ve had elsewhere in North America, Europe, or Australia.  Next: some novice observations about Chinese business practices.