Effective translation of a mission statement: beware of vagueness

If not everything, then at least every successful business happens for a reason. I cannot think of a business which has succeeded even though it does not have any purpose. Once a business defines the reason why it exists, it creates its mission statement.

What makes for a good mission statement? According to the Forbes writer Patrick Hull, “an effective mission statement must be a clear, concise declaration about your business strategy.” Hull stresses the importance of avoiding vagueness: “your company’s mission statement should be concise and specific so your customers understand your purpose and how you provide value to them.”

Because vagueness is undesirable in a mission statement, it also needs to be avoided in translation. A translator does not do their client any good if they translate a mission statement in such a manner that it becomes less clear and specific.

Unfortunately, the importance of clarity is often forgotten. This is the case for the Polish translation of Starbucks’ mission statement. You do not need to be an expert linguist to notice that the translation is much vaguer that the original text. It is enough to compare a few lines: fragments of the English text from starbucks.ca and their translations into Polish from starbucks.pl (all emphasis below mine).

1. ENGLISH: Our mission: to inspire and nurture the human spirit – one person, one cup and one neighborhood at a time.

POLISH: Nasza misja: inspirować i rozwijać ludzi – w każdej chwili: jeden człowiek, jedna kawa, jedno miejsce.

COMMENT: The Polish translator seemed to have a hard time translating the fragment “one person, one cup and one neighborhood at a time,” which indicates that Starbucks cares about an individual approach to business. The translation of that fragment is quite literal and does not make much sense.  The Polish text blurs the message related to an individual approach to business because in the same sentence we have got plural “ludzi” (“people”) and singular “człowiek” (“person”).

2. ENGLISH: We’re called partners, because it’s not just a job, it’s our passion.

POLISH: Nazywamy siebie partnerami, ponieważ to nie jest dla nas tylko praca — to nasza pasja.

COMMENT: The Polish translator did not change the sentence structure of “it’s not just a job, it’s our passion” and translated “it” literally, as “to.” That was not a good choice because in the English text the “it” pronouns  are empty subjects which do not mean anything. On the other hand, the “to” pronouns from the Polish text seem to refer to something but it remains unclear what that something is. The reader who wants to make sense of the translation needs to make some assumption about the meaning of “to” and guess that the pronoun refers to working at Starbucks. There is so much vagueness in the Polish text that it resembles a riddle which needs to be completed with missing bits of information in order to become clear.

3.ENGLISH: We know that as we deliver in each of these areas, we enjoy the kind of success that rewards our shareholders. We are fully accountable to get each of these elements right so that Starbucks – and everyone it touches – can endure and thrive.

POLISH: Wiemy, że sukcesy w realizacji wszystkich tych założeń przynoszą wymierne korzyści naszym udziałowcom. Ponosimy za to odpowiedzialność. Starbucks i wszystko, z czym się stykamy, musi się rozwijać i trwać.

COMMENT: Again, the Polish translator used the “to” pronoun which does not seem to refer to anything in particular. While the English text explicitly states that Starbucks is accountable “to get each of these elements right,” the translation is quite confusing and literally means :”We are responsible for that” (“Ponosimy za to odpowiedzialność”). The Polish text is not only vague but, yet again, it blurs the message related to an individual approach to business which is characteristic of Starbucks. Unlike the original, which talks about “Starbucks – and everyone it touches,” the translation does not stress the importance of every human being. Instead it mentions something which is very vague: “Starbucks i wszystko, z czym się stykamy” (“Starbucks and everything we encounter”).

I could keep going and provide more examples from the Polish translation but I think that the fragments analyzed above are sufficient to show how vagueness affects the effectiveness of a mission statement. The vaguer such a text is, the less effective it becomes. This is also true for translations of mission statements. If they are to be effective, they need to contain as few unclear words and phrases as possible. Otherwise, they may do the client more harm than good, just like the Polish translation of Starbucks’ mission statement.


Translating slogans: alluring alliterations

What are the most essential characteristics of an effective slogan? It needs to be short, catchy and easy to memorize. The goal is to draw readers’ attention and this is why slogans often contain puns, references to pop culture or rhymes. It is also quite common that they include words which start with the same sound and create alliterations. You can find an alliteration in the latest slogan advertising Sephora, a chain of cosmetic stores:

The slogan consists of only three words, out of which two start with the consonant “b”: “beauty beats.” The choice of “b” in the alliteration is not random. First of all, the alliteration draws attention to “beauty,” the quality which is crucial for Sephora as a chain selling beauty products. Secondly, the repetition of the “b” sound highlights the connection between the form of the verb “beats” and its content. Once readers notice the “b” sound in “beats,” they may realize that the pronunciation of that sound resembles “beating.” “Beating” is a series of regular sounds or movements which are abruptly stopped. Similarly, the pronunciation of “b” takes places through stopping the flow of air with the two lips.

The alliteration using the “b” sound draws readers’ attention to “beating” as a type of motion which is not fluid. The lack of fluidity is underlined by the image which accompanies the slogan. Those two match each other perfectly because the image also seems to be “beating,” as if the camera shutter was stopped a number of times.

The combo of the slogan and the image is so well-crafted that the task of translating the slogan into a foreign language seems to be daunting. Is it possible to translate the slogan in such a manner so that the link between the slogan and the image would not be lost? Let’s look at the Polish translation of “Where beauty beats”:

I am really impressed by the translation of “Where beauty beats” into “Poczuj jak pulsuje piękno” (literally: “Feel like beauty pulsates”). The author of the Polish slogan managed to transfer all the good qualities of the English slogan into Polish. First of all, the translation contains the word “piękno,” which is the equivalent of “beauty.” Secondly, the Polish slogan includes an alliteration which is even more prominent than the one in the English slogan. While in English the alliteration is created by two words (“beauty beats”), in Polish there are as many as three words which start with the same sound: “poczuj,” “pulsuje” and “piękno.” What is worth noting is that the alliteration uses the “p” sound, which is pronounced in the analogous manner as the “b” sound: by stopping the flow of air with two lips. Thanks to the “p” sound, the alliteration highlights the link between the form of the verb “pulsuje” (“pulsates”) and its content. The repeated sound indicates the movement which lacks fluidity and that creates a clear connection between the slogan and the accompanying image.

I dare say the Polish slogan is even better than the original one. “Poczuj jak pulsuje piękno” does not only contain a more prominent alliteration but it also includes the imperative “poczuj” (“feel”) which seems to make the Polish slogan more persuasive than “Where beauty beats.”

All in all, the example of the Sephora slogan shows that translation of slogans requires a lot of creativity and attention to detail. If the Polish translator of “Where beauty beats” had not paid attention to the repetition of the “b” sound, the connection between the slogan and the image would have been lost. Fortunately, the alliteration present in the original slogan was transferred to the Polish translation. The translator did a great job because they did not forget the basic truth of marketing translation: every letter and every sound matters.