The Art of Translating Slogans

13th Apr 2021
Entre les lignes

In his writing, Flaubert was famously devoted to finding le mot juste: the exact right word. Every translator knows there’s nothing quite like the feeling of les mot justes clicking into place in another language. 

But translating slogans requires a cultural click as well as a linguistic one. Adapting a brand’s slogan for a new market is a delicate craft, and only the best translators manage to convey both the slogan’s meaning and the brand’s emotional texture. When this happens, translation becomes transcreation – the art of creatively rewriting slogans to resonate with a new audience. 

At Entre les lignes, we consider ourselves connoisseurs of beautifully translated words – take a look at some of our favourite transcreation examples. Slogans are notoriously tricky to adapt: a quick Google search will bring you pages of slogan translation fails. But rather than focus on the slogans that went wrong, we want to appreciate the ones that went right. 

This article breaks down the art of translating slogans. We’ll outline the obstacles translators face and show you how to seamlessly translate – or transcreate – brand slogans for a new market, and what it looks like when it works. 

Could your translations do with a more creative touch? Let us help. Get in touch today.

Why are slogans so important for brands?

Understanding why slogans matter is key to the translation process. Slogans capture a brand’s essence – that je ne sais quoi that immediately makes you think of the product or company. The best ones produce instant recognition of the brand but also evoke an emotional connection. 

Through the perfect combination of language and rhythm, slogans become ingrained into the cultural consciousness. Slogans communicate the brand’s reputation, as well as its values – which is why slogans that are poorly translated, ineffective or even offensive can diminish trust in a brand. 

Why are slogans so difficult to translate? 

Slogans have immense cultural and emotional weight, which makes them tough to translate. They’re short and highly specific, so every word has to work hard to convey the meaning – there’s no room for fluff or ambiguity. There’s often no direct translation for the words or phrases they employ, especially since many slogans play on cultural idioms, puns, or rhymes. 

Translating slogans is also tricky because translators have to consider the distinct meanings, uses, or nuances of words across different regions. Slogans rely on emotional responses, and emotional registers and protocols vary wildly around the world, adding another challenge to the translation process.  

How can you adapt slogans to a new market? 

There are three main strategies brands and translators use when changing a slogan to fit a new market. 

1. Translate the literal meaning

Some brands literally translate the slogan created for their original market, word for word. This is usually a terrible idea – and it often makes for slogans that are nonsensical, offensive or both. One infamous example: Pepsi translated its slogan “Come alive with the Pepsi generation” into Mandarin literally – where it meant “Pepsi brings your ancestors back from the grave”. They became a laughing stock on the Chinese market.  

Of course, this strategy can work for more universal-seeming slogans – but even then, cultural nuances need to be taken into account. Take the slogan “I’m lovin’ it” from McDonald’s. It might seem easy to translate literally, given that the concept of enjoying food is common to all cultures. But “love” means different things in different places. In Spanish, using the verb “amar” would have produced an odd emotional effect, as it’s used for stronger expressions of romantic love. McDonald’s had to adapt the slogan for their Spanish-speaking audience to “me encanta”, which expresses strongly liking, rather than “lovin’ it”. 

2. Use the original language 

In some cases, brands have decided not to translate their slogan, using the slogan in its original language all around the world. Often, this isn’t a great option, as it’s much more difficult for a slogan to produce an emotional connection with an audience if it’s not in their first language. 

However, in particular contexts, this approach can evoke curiosity in the new market, or play on useful associations with another culture. In the car industry, for example, Audi uses “Vorsprung durch Technik” in most of its markets, and Volkswagen uses its short and sweet slogan “Das Auto” everywhere. Since Germany is famed for its strong automotive industry, keeping the slogans in the original language reinforces positive associations with high-quality German manufacturing. 

3. Creatively translate slogans 

In most cases, transcreating a brand’s original slogan is the most effective, most elegant solution. Creative translations require a deep understanding of the new target culture, a deep dive into how people think and feel there. Transcreation means getting involved in the brand’s entire expansion process, understanding their goals for their new market and using local knowledge to create the effect they want. 

The best transcreations recreate the emotional pull of a slogan for an entirely new audience. Later on, we’ll give you some core examples of how Haribo, Johnnie Walker and De Beers diamonds all managed to create perfectly adapted new slogans.  

How to craft translated slogans 

Now that we’ve established the importance of creatively translating slogans for success in new markets, let’s look at how to do it. Here are our top four tried-and-tested strategies for slogan transcreation. 

Engage deeply with the brand’s marketers – and keep engaging 

Translators need to work closely with the brand’s marketers to really grasp what they’re going for with their slogan – its goal, its angle, and its overall approach. It’s crucial to understand their vision and mission as a brand, and to know what their ideal outcome is: what do they want this slogan to do for them? 

Translation is often thought of as the final step in a marketing process – but it’s the first step in opening to another market. That means going back to the drawing board with the company and co-designing their communications with their new audience.  

Excellent transcreation doesn’t follow linear steps. It’s not a matter of engaging with the brand, then designing the project, then doing the translation. Instead, a translator should have a constant flow of communication with the client, soliciting and offering feedback. 

It’s also important for a translator to have an ongoing dialogue with the brand as their needs in the target market may change over time. For instance, when McDonald’s first moved to new locations like Japan, it used slogans designed to introduce its food products to a new market (“Tastes good, McDonald’s”). Once they were mature globally, they decided to switch to their more universal “I’m lovin’ it” slogan in all of their markets, as they no longer needed to communicate what their product was, but rather the feelings it created.

Ensure you have local expertise 

Great transcreation requires fluency not only in the target language but also in the target culture. This typically requires in-country linguists or linguists who are intimately familiar with the market. 

That means that brands looking to translate their slogans for a Latin American audience should use an expert in Latin American, rather than European, Spanish. But they’ll also need to break it down further and get inputs from specialists in the specific countries or regions they plan to target, as words and their emotional meaning vary even across countries with lots of things in common. We’ve written before about the Dutch-Belgian cultural gap, and how important it is for brands to recognise the differences between countries that may seem similar.

The ideal translator will be fully immersed in the target culture and au fait with its slang, idioms, double-entendres and proverbs. 

Consider symbolic registers  

Excellent translators are sociologists, even philosophers, as well as linguists. They’re able to understand the trends, habits, feelings, and overarching concepts that define a culture. Symbolic registers express major cultural differences. A US market, for example, may respond positively to language related to personal authenticity – “being yourself” – and striving for success. This language reflects the individualistic culture of the US and may not go down well in a region more oriented towards collectivism. 

Words related to time also vary significantly across regions. A translator adapting a slogan into Japanese should be aware that Japan is a future-oriented society, for instance, meaning there’s a cultural tendency to value forward-thinking innovation and to believe that present actions can shape future outcomes. 

Finally, translators should also be aware of the symbolic meaning of numbers across different cultures. For example, the number thirteen can be considered lucky or unlucky, depending on where in the world you are, so a slogan that uses the concept of “unlucky thirteen” won’t work in Italy, France and parts of China, where the number has positive associations. 

Build cultural bridges that combine local and universal elements

Transcreation connects cultures. It’s not about obliterating the original culture of the brand for the new culture of their target market – creative translation blends both. In many cases, brands won’t want to adapt their slogan so much that it no longer fits with their original brand identity. 

Translation can be a powerful form of intercultural exchange, tweaking concepts so that they reverberate in a new space. For instance, a brand’s original slogan may evoke a relatively global need, like the desire to succeed – but a skilled translator will sculpt that concept to resonate with what success means in the target market. 

Celebrating the best slogan translations 

Now that you know how to go about crafting translated slogans, let’s take a look at some of the best. We’ve curated some of our favourite examples of slogans rendered perfectly in other languages.

Haribo – a playful melody

 The German sweets company Haribo uses a fun, rhyming slogan in their home territory: “Haribo macht Kinder froh, und Erwachsene ebenso”. Translated directly into English, it becomes “Haribo makes children happy, and grown-ups too”, which feels clunky and much less appealing. Since Haribo advertise on TV, the rhyme was important for a catchy jingle. 

 By creatively rewriting the slogan, prioritising Haribo’s brand identity, rhythm and rhyme, they came up with the English version, “Kids and grown-ups love it so, the happy world of Haribo”. They’ve managed to reproduce the playful, rhyming, sing-song feel in several other languages, too – “Haribo, c’est beau la vie, pour les grands et les petits!” in French, and “Haribo doces sabores – para os pequenos e os maiores!” in Portuguese. 


Johnnie Walker whiskey – multicultural quotes

High-end whiskey brand Johnnie Walker famously uses an iconic logo of a walking man alongside the slogan “keep walking”. When they launched an international marketing campaign to modernise their brand, they decided to translate the slogan similarly across each culture, since the idea that everyone wants to move forward in their lives in some way applies to all cultures. But what people consider a step forward, and how they go about taking it, varies from culture to culture, meaning some adaptation was needed. 

So, they localised across over 120 countries by making creative use of famous quotes tailored to a multitude of cultures to accompany the slogan. Their multimedia campaign – across print and TV ads – used several international quotes. A quote by Lao Tzu, “A journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step”, was popular with the brand’s Chinese audience, while they used more forceful goal-centred quotes like Hannibal’s “We will either find a way or make one” in Western territories. 

To connect with the market in Brazil, where there’s a focus on collective achievement rather than individual success, they added an extra person to the walking man logo and designed a new slogan: “O progresso de um é o progresso de todos”; “The progress of one is the progress of all”.

De Beers diamonds – evoking timeless luxury

De Beers’ slogan “Diamonds are forever” is immediately recognizable in much of the Western world. The slogan evokes a sophisticated emotional response grounded in a sense of diamonds as a luxury that can be cherished forever, as well as signalling the long-lasting commitment associated with giving someone a diamond, often as an engagement ring. 

But a literal translation of “Diamonds are forever” into Mandarin would carry none of these connotations, suggesting only the physical durability of the product.  

Via transcreation, they found an elegant solution: 钻石恒久远,一颗永流传, “One diamond is forever, it can be passed from generation to generation”. In Mandarin, the phrase has a soft, lyrical rhythm, making it memorable. They have also used variations like “When only forever will do”. By adding an intergenerational focus to the connection between diamonds and romantic love, the slogan also speaks to the importance of family in Chinese culture. 

Translating slogans the artisanal way

Adapting a slogan for a new market is a true art that involves selecting, sculpting, and honing language for maximal impact. By engaging with the brand’s vision and understanding local mindsets, creative translators can create genuine bonds between brands and cultures. 

Beautifully transcreated slogans are objets d’art to appreciate and enjoy – but they also have a major effect on brands’ global success. The best slogans feel right. With creative craftsmanship, translated slogans allow brands to make a deep emotional connection with a whole new culture. 

Could your translations do with a more creative touch? Let us help. Get in touch today.