Posted by: kwbrand | December 16, 2007

Translating Values


In a recent meeting, a prospective client asked me what the “translation” piece of “KW Brand Translation” means. I provided him my answer, but his question stuck with me for quite a while.

For as long as I can remember, translation has been a part of my life. I come from a long legacy of good Scottish folk who are irresistibly drawn to life somewhere other than “home.” My great-grandparents moved to Africa in 1929. Back then, that part of the world was called the Belgian Congo, and when my mother was raised there in the forties and fifties, she recalls that five languages were needed to get through the average day. After my nuclear family moved to Ecuador in 1986, I would often ditch school to serve as a translator for the doctors in medical caravans that came from the States to serve remote populations in the jungle. What I learned through all of those experiences is that words matter, but what matters more is the symbolism, values and meaning under the words.

I learned that “vasectomy” was not only a term which my high school Spanish classes had not prepared me to explain, but more importantly, that it was not a concept to which a culture steeped in “machismo” would warm to. I learned that it was not enough to simply relay the English equivalent of the words our patients were saying; I also had to convey enough of the cultural context to provide meaning to those words. Just imagine the effort required to keep my high school face neutral when I explained to an American doctor who was accustomed to doing routine physicals and treating runny noses that the hand-gesture his current patient was making was an indication of the size of worm that crawled up and out of his throat at night (gross, I know).

When I returned to the States for college, it took me a while to remember that my peers’ lives had been characterized by events quite unlike mine. They had no idea that feminism hadn’t landed in most of the rest of the world. The white folk among them hadn’t consciously experienced the inequitable dynamics of their white privilege. And for some, national pride led them to assume that all the world’s inhabitants secretly long to live in America. For my part, I couldn’t imagine what it must be like to have lived in the same house all my life; on average, I’d moved every two years. And influences like peer pressure and the power of the “popular crowd” hadn’t been much of a force in my life because all 38 members of my graduating class were mostly just trying to get by.

Over time, I learned that even though we spoke the same language, my new peer-groups’ experiences and values had nuanced the way they used their words just as the life of a jungle-living Ecuadorian had influenced the way he or she saw their world.

Both exit and re-entry experiences taught me to take little for granted. I began to understand that the rich meanings of common words were heavily influenced by the personalized experiences that had contributed to their use. I learned not to assume that we all mean the same thing when we speak of concepts like “home,” “comfort,” “family,” “safety” or “wealth.” In my career, I observed how terms that seemed straightforward like “leadership,” “customer service,” “quality,” “integrity,” or “value” had wildly different meanings for different people depending on the life the word-user has led. I learned it was a mistake to assume that words elicited the same associations and memory triggers.

Now when clients ask me to research the dynamics of their brand, I borrow from this early realization and strive to understand the way their key audiences (e.g., customers, partners and competitors) make meaning of their experiences and how they organize and convey that meaning when they communicate in word and deed. Once I understand the motivating dynamics of these unique cultures, I translate the meanings back to my clients so they know how to avoid making too many assumptions about their audiences. Only then can they consciously and carefully connect with their audiences in a way that will make their audiences feel seen, heard, known and valued.

Kyndra Wilson, KW Brand Translation

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