Translating your product packaging can often make or break your entry to a new market:

After all, this could be your only time to attract a new customer. If they are in a region where your brand doesn’t have widespread recognition, they might not even have heard of you before.

So getting your packaging translation right the first time is very important. That’s why you need to remember that properly localised packaging is about more than the simple, direct translation of the words on your label…

You need to consider what your target local culture tells you about the images you might use. Your marketing slogans. Your colour scheme. Your product name, even. You also need to investigate what information local laws say needs to be included on your product label. As well as the languages you must translate into.

All in all, translating product packaging correctly is a task which needs to be planned very carefully. Here’s everything you need to know:

Packaging translation – complications to watch out for

Before you get started with your plan for how to translate your product packaging, there are a few general considerations to bear in mind:

1) Labelling legislation

Different countries and regions have wildly different laws relating to the information which should and should not appear on your packaging. Carefully assess every region you plan to sell your products in so that you know you are in full compliance with all regulations.

For example, in the EU, there is even a minimum font size for information which legally must be on packaging. Most regions have specific rules for various types of product, including:

  • Food – in the EU, nutritional information needs to be displayed on the front of the package. The same is true in Thailand. But not in the US. The EU also requires a stated country of origin, an evidence-basis for health claims, lists of allergens and ingredients on pre-packaged food and has various quality schemes which can only be mentioned if they are adhered to.
  • Medicine and pharmaceuticals – the EU specifies that medical devices don’t need to have their names translated. But the patient does need to be able to access the information relating to a device’s use in their national language – or that of another EU community member. Overall, the packaging of pharmaceuticals and medical devices is heavily regulated by the EU.
  • Cosmetics – the laws of the EU mean that cosmetic items need to have their function, relevant warnings and ingredients on the label in the national language of every EU country. Outside of the EU, China and Japan are known to have very strict labelling laws when it comes to cosmetics.

2) Language legislation

The legal requirements for product labels don’t stop at what they should and should not say. They also cover which languages they should say it in.
Most countries and regions make it mandatory to provide product information in set languages on labels of all kinds. For instance:

  • Mexico insists on Spanish, specifically Mexican Spanish
  • Canada requires English and French
  • Certain EU countries also require product labels to be translated into multiple languages

3) Ingredients and component legislation

This potential complication is not strictly only related to labelling. But consideration of the legality of ingredients and components used in your products is a vital part of your initial assessment when considering which countries or regions you are marketing your product in.

For instance, the EU has – sensibly – committed to high standards when it comes to banned or restricted substances, especially when it comes to food and drink. There are also numerous national and international laws on which chemicals can cross borders legally.

4) Marketing legislation

For good reason, it is illegal in many countries and regions to make spurious marketing claims on product packaging. For example, in the UK, you cannot claim your product is a different size or comes in a different quantity than it actually does. You cannot lie about professional or celebrity endorsements either.

The EU also specifies that you cannot use descriptions which imply a product is of significantly higher quality than it really is. Equally, misleading pictures which imply a product contains certain ingredients when it does not are not allowed.

There are also certain words – such as “natural” – which cannot be used in reference to your product if you do not have any evidence to back up their use.

5) Cultural differences

This is a huge area to cover. But it should always be high on your list when you’re translating product packaging for a new market.

The simplest example of this is usually the use of colour. In most cultures, colour has some sort of symbolic relevance or attachment. For instance, the colour most often associated with mourning differs wildly by culture. It is:

  • Black, in many western cultures
  • White, in China
  • Purple, in Brazil and for widows in Thailand
  • Red, in South Africa
  • Grey, in Papua New Guinea

This is just a basic way to approach the idea that what makes your product packaging appealing in certain areas may make it utterly unappealing or even confusing in others. Consider this classic example:

Pampers started selling their baby nappies in stork-bedecked packaging in Japan. Only too late did they realise that the parable about the stork delivering newborn babies was unknown in Japan. Cue significant losses and Japanese consumers largely ignoring the otherwise eminently suitable product.

How to translate your product packaging

The above are some generalities to be aware of. Now let’s switch to how to translate your product packaging so it is an effective sales machine while being legally correct and culturally relevant:

1) Never use automatic translation

Software like Google Translate – generic machine translation software, as it’s more properly called – can be useful for getting the general sense of something written in another language. However, it’s completely unsuitable for a nuanced, accurate translation of the kind you need for product packaging.

This is exacerbated when your product labels contain non-factual, idiomatic phrases. These are the sorts of thing which Google Translate and other generic automated solutions really struggle with.

Product names and slogans, in particular, often suffer when they are directly translated:

  • KFC’s initially marketing catchphrase “we’ll eat your fingers off” somehow failed to convince Chinese consumers to enter their local restaurant.
  • Taco Bell’s “low-quality chips” did not inspire audiences in Japan to try them either. Even when they declared proudly, “What did we bring here to hide it?”
  • Pepsi’s claim that it “brings your ancestors back from the dead” also did not find favour among Chinese audiences.

Are these sort of translation errors funny? Sort of. Were they costly and damaging to the brands concerned? Definitely.

You might also want to consider the problems errors of this kind could cause when applied to contained ingredients or safety instructions.

That’s why you should always use a trained professional human translator who is native to your target audience. Preferably, you also want your label to be edited and proofread before it reaches your target market too.

2) Use an industry specialist

In addition to using a native speaker, you will always want to prioritise using a translator who is a specialist in your field.

This is particularly important for certain industries. For example, pharmaceutical products require specialist knowledge. You can’t just guess at the appropriate terms. A deep understanding of both source and target languages and culture relating to the industry is vital.

Many industry-specific phrases are not universal either. Most do not even mean that much to someone from outside the industry in a certain region.

Again, using an in-country compliance expert or native specialist is a necessity here. No one else is going to be able to say for sure that the final look of your product labelling is natural, sensical or even legal.

3) Translation works. Localisation succeeds.

Having the previously mentioned kind of native, industry specialist expertise on your side is necessary because product packaging translation needs to go further. Rather than simple translation, what you’re really looking for is effective localisation.

Localisation is all about adapting your packaging so that it is a natural fit for your target region or culture. Ideally, you will want to adapt every single aspect of it. This will include the words you use in addition to:

  • Images
  • Icons and symbols (many of these are not as universal as you might suppose)
  • Colour use
  • Diagrams
  • Instruction format
  • Things like correct expiry date or “best before” date formatting

4) Localisation means layout and design too

A major consideration when localising your product packaging is the layout. For this, you will almost certainly need a DTP (desktop publishing) specialist or graphic designer.

For instance, languages such as Arabic – which are read from right to left – will require the layout, artwork, images and even the placement of your labels on your products to be adjusted.

You also need to bear in mind that text tends to expand or contract when translated into different languages. Translating from English to Russian can result in an expansion of around 15%. English to German, perhaps 30%.

Building space for this into your designs is a challenging but vital part of packaging localisation – and something that’s best done right from the start.

5) Don’t forget cultural preferences

Your goal with all of this shouldn’t merely be not to offend your prospective customer. This is a good place to start. But of course, you also want to go further than this to actively attract potential buyers.

The key here is to always do your research or use a local specialist specific to every culture. What people from different cultures find aesthetically pleasing varies. So does effective colour use. As does what makes for persuasive imagery. And a dozen other elements besides.

6) Start with an assessment and set your goals

The planning phase of your packaging translation project should include strategising in some key areas:

  1. Set your goals regarding your new market – what are you trying to do? Build brand awareness? Sell effectively to new audiences? Get market research from a specialist who understands how these things work in your target culture. How can your packaging help meet your audience’s expectations?
  2. Designate target languages – how many languages do you need to translate your packaging into, given local legal requirements and your target audience’s preferences? Remember that a country’s national language may not represent the language used in day-to-day conversation at your point of sale.
  3. Assess your product and packaging against target market preferences – establishing demand and suitability for your target market is step one. For example, if you are trying to sell non-Halal or alcohol-containing products to a predominantly Muslim country, you might find there is low demand.
  4. Examine your competitors – are there any successes or mistakes your competitors have made that you can learn from? Does their style, visual imagery and marketing work? If so, how? Why?

7) Consider transcreation or transliteration

Sometimes, after assessing the meaning of your slogan, product name or brand name in another language, it may become clear that no amount of careful adaptation will make it suitable.

Some good examples of where brands should have realised this are the Iranian “Barf” fabric softener and Pocari’s “Sweat” performance drink.

Whether this is the case, or you simply want to do the best job of adapting your product for a new market, there are a couple of techniques you might want to talk to your Language Service Provider about:

  • Transcreationgoes a step beyond localisation to creatively reimagine things like your packaging, brand or slogan for a new audience. This is often the best way to make a more “natural” product for a new audience. But it does call for a translation team with a great deal of creative skill.
  • Transliteration – is the process of transferring words from one alphabet to another. In this case, it may refer to the practice of using characters in a certain writing system to create a logo or branding which resembles the word in that system. This is something which Coca Cola did very successfully in China. This can also be done phonetically.

Product translation can be straightforward

Use a professional human translator to localise or possibly transcreate your product labels and you will make the entire packaging translation process much easier for yourself.

With their in-depth knowledge of your target market and your own research of why your product makes sense to sell there considering local tastes and preferences, you will soon be all set up to garner the financial and reputational rewards of having your own carefully localised product packaging.

Talk to an expert today. Asian Absolute translates product packaging for businesses in every industry.
With offices on five continents, we have native industry specialists in more than 120 languages and uncounted fields.

Get a free, no-obligation quote or simply discuss your project for free 24/7.