Commonly Overlooked But Costly Translation Issues With Mergers and Acquisitions

In 2009, the well-known HSBC Bank had to invest $10 million in damage control after its "assume nothing" slogan was poorly translated as "do nothing" in several other countries.  This example is all too common about the major financial effects of a wrong translation in business.  Translation is an important concern when mergers or acquisitions take place.

Liability

Most of the focus during any M&A activity is on due diligence for financials, operations, staffing, legal obligations by contract, etc.  How much time is spent reviewing all material translated into different languages?  In the grand scheme of things, the percentage of resource allocated to vetting translated material is practically nothing.  The assumption would be that a review of the English material should uncover any issues, but what happens when the English material was translated poorly or incorrectly?  There could be a large hidden liability for items such as Safety Data Sheets or Product Data Sheets, warranties, advertising or other documents that carry legal obligations.

Legal Contracts and Documents

Some of the biggest potential problems lie within contracts and documents.  Industry jargon may come with some words that do not translate well in the other language.  It is important to work with a professional translator who understands these terms or can learn their meaning thoroughly.  Also, it is important that both parties receive, read and sign the same translated contracts.  Governance contracts signed between the British and New Zealand's Maori people in the 1840s were different for both sides, and the discrepancy is still causing problems today.  When there is a discrepancy in a global merger contract, it can create a long-lasting legal nightmare.  Make sure the legal department combs over the contracts to pinpoint any liabilities on either side.

Branding

As the example in the introduction shows, not all slogans translate well.  This is especially true with rhyming words, slang and even concepts.  For example, the "Pepsi brings you back to life" slogan was popular in American culture. However, the Chinese translation essentially told people that Pepsi would bring their ancestors back to life.  The famous "Got Milk?" brand was beyond popular in the United States but offended women in Mexico when it was translated into Spanish and asked if they were lactating.

In many cases, the dominant company's brand and slogans are used.  It may make sense to develop a new brand that speaks to both language groups or separate slogans for different markets.  Developing a slogan and a brand that speaks to a global market is a challenge. These are the major issues to consider:

  • Cultural values
  • Etiquette
  • Cultural norms
  • Taboos
  • Slang
  • Humor

Regulatory Issues

Will someone review all the material translated by the acquired company to ensure it is compliant with current regulations?  In the case where a business goes bankrupt and becomes an acquisition target, how much money do you think was spent on keeping translations up-to-date when the company was fighting for its life and struggling to meet payroll?  There could be thousands of translated documents to review for technical accuracy, regulatory compliance and product misrepresentations depending on the number of languages the acquired company supported.  Not reviewing this material could bring a heavy liability with it.

Language Service Vendors

If a company is planning an acquisition and the acquirer plans to keep its existing language service vendors, it is important to verify that the vendor can handle the influx. The acquired company may have documents that require expertise the current vendors of the acquirer do not possess.  Planning for the translation and interpreting impacts of the acquisition go far beyond just reviewing existing material.  Proper vendor management will require analysis of content, terminology, style, capacity, reliability and price.

Website

The site's writing style may have to change. For example, one company may have a first-person direct style while the other is a third-person suggestive style.  Any merger or acquisition requires careful planning to maintain a consistent voice across languages to keep the company's image and message consistent.  However, the style and tone must be appropriate for the target market as well. Much depends on whether the acquired company will be fully integrated by the acquirer, or left as a stand-alone entity with virtually all previously translated material intact.  At a minimum, a review of translated web pages should be a part of due diligence to avoid inheriting errors or liability.

CMS

In most cases, the merging companies use a different CMS, if they use one at all. If there are different historical TMs and glossaries, translating them clearly is important.  If the staff members with the historical knowledge of the CMS did not stay with the company because of downsizing or other issues, the task of translating and retrieving data will be especially difficult. Who will have the responsibility of aligning and checking terminology, style, spelling and grammar between the two entities?

Ideally, translating needs should be considered in advance of merging or acquiring. Be sure to have qualified personnel review all content, and always work with an experienced language service company.

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