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.