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  • August 4, 2016

Not Worth 1000 Words: Why Imagery Might Not Translate Overseas

From book covers to pop-up ads to cooking videos, we rely on imagery to communicate information where words might fail. But just as the meaning of words might be lost in translation, so sometimes are the meanings of images. Depending on who you are and who you are communicating with, a picture could be worth 10,000 words, 100 words, or words completely unlike the ones you intended.

Implying Too Much

A linguistics professor of mine once told the class a story of translation failure. An NGO had published health-and-safety pamphlets for pregnant mothers in Vietnam. The content was translated and hundreds of copies were printed and distributed. However, the pamphlets failed to have the intended effect. The problem: images.

The original materials were written in English for a Western audience. Images consisted entirely of caucasian mothers and babies. This in itself was not the problem – pretty much anyone can comprehend mother-and-baby regardless of race. But what else did the pictures imply?


They implied that the subject matter was not applicable to the common person. Vietnam being one of the most homogeneous countries in Asia and most of the target audience living below the poverty line, the depiction of a people often associated with wealth and “foreignness” created an idea of excess, unnecessity, and irrelevance. People understood the images in front of them but did not see how the message pertained to them.

Takeaway: Be careful when using images with familiar contexts. Just because you don’t read into them does not mean that other people won’t.

Implying Not Enough

If you have a few minutes to spare, watch this music video: That was Ponponpon by Kyary Pyamu Pyamu. It’s a lot to take in, but there is a hidden meaning during the bridge.

Around the 2:10 mark, Kyary claps and toast starts appearing on the screen. Does that mean anything to you?


If you don’t speak Japanese, there is not much to get here. However, if you do then you might get the punchline of the whole music video. In Japanese, “pon” (remember the title is Ponponpon) is onomatopoeia for “clap”, which in turn sounds like “pan”, the word for “bread”. To get the joke, imagine that as someone is clapping things phonetically similar to “clap” appear. (It does not translate very well.)

This is a bit of an extreme example, but it illustrates a point. Sometimes there is a lot of socio-linguistic meaning contained in the context behind imagery. You see this in advertising. For example, Scooby Doo has been featured on cereal boxes. While nearly everyone can appreciate the aesthetics of a cartoon dog, a lot of the meaning is lost if you don’t understand the character’s constant preoccupation with food.

Takeaway: High-context images are like in-jokes – if your audience lacks the background, they might chuckle but they won’t laugh.

Implying Something Entirely Different

If you came across something in the grocery store resembling the below image, what would guess the ingredients are?

Well, it’s difficult to tell because the first thing you notice is the baby. This is how you know it’s baby food. You have to take a closer glance to see what is actually in it.

This is probably your thought process if you don’t live in Africa. There, food labels traditionally depict ingredients due to linguistic diversity and higher rates of illiteracy. For this reason it is understandably off-putting in Africa to pick up a jar of food and see a human face on it.

Gerber experienced a marketing disaster due to this very mistake. When they launched in Africa, they used the same labels they used at home: a bright-eyed baby with a gaping mouth. While I’m not inclined to believe that people actually thought that there was a processed baby in the jar, this at least would have resulted in more than a few face-palms. In any case, poor research and ignorance lead to a negative brand image.

Takeaway: Research how your subject matter is usually depicted in the target culture (especially when it involves small children).

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