Rules and Habits of a Bilingual Copywriter

In a world, where everybody seems to have an opinion about writing and think they can do a copywriter’s job better, the struggle is real. Bilingual copywriters, however, maybe try twice as much, as they constantly shift between languages, aiming to bring understanding between different cultures.

At PLTFRM we solve different branding tasks with words: from strategy and core belief, to website, social media content and digital campaigns. Today, we want to share with you some rules and habits that our bilingual copywriters follow, to write effectively in Chinese and English.

Never pick up the “off-the-shelf” meaning of words
Languages, especially as different as English and Chinese, aren’t a straight swap word-for-word. That’s why machine translation hasn’t replaced language experts just yet. A good copy in target language needs to convey the message and emotions of the original, but also use words that convince, captivate, and sound naturally.Occasionally, however, even big brands fall into the pitfall of direct translation. iPhone 6 “Bigger than big” slogan is a classic example: originally literally translated as “比更大还更大”,it was quickly replaced with a more elegant equivalent: “岂止于大”。

 

Know more about the culture

For a bilingual copywriter, knowing the language isn’t enough: as a contact point between multilingual audiences, they should be aware of cultural differences as well. Remember, how lack of cultural knowledge got Dior into hot water this Spring Festival? The design of the brand’s Year of the Dog hongbao, with a single word “狗” on it, was dubbed “the best cursing device”. All because hongbao is a big deal in China, and receiving one which simply reads “Dog” on it, is considered addressing the receiver, which is offensive. Do your research, don’t make the same mistakes!

Weibo users: “this is simply a great cursing device”, “specially for singles” (in Chinese singles are known as 单身狗, literally translated as “lone dogs”), “so this is how big brands imagine “Chinese style… Perfect — you’ve gifted money, and cursed a person at the same time. So glad at least it’s not the year of the rooster anymore).
Use monolingual dictionaries
Just like translators, bilingual copywriters use conversion dictionaries for their target languages. However, the ‘next level’ professionals have a habit of checking the meaning of every dubious word in monolingual dictionaries, ensuring the transition doesn’t bring any uncomfortable nuances.Among the online resources, https://www.vocabulary.com/, known as “a dictionary with a soul”, is one of our favorite go-to tools. Those witty explanations and abundance of context—we only regret, there’s no similar vocabulary in Chinese yet.
pic. (vocabulary.com word explanation)

Expand your vocabulary

A habit of actively learning new words every day goes a long way for improving your writing. Languages don’t stop: the way we speak is always changing, new words added to dictionaries every year, some words fall in and out of fashion suddenly, and effective ‘words people’ stay on top of these changes. Expanding your vocabulary will help you to write memorable content with words that are unique.

Read more (fiction, non-fiction, poetry, products descriptions on Taobao)

For better writing and translating, you need to read. A lot. Reading fiction is as important as devouring news and wisdom of copywriting masters. Fiction helps you understand other people’s perspectives, taking a look at the world in an entirely different light. It is an often overlooked gem, an untapped well of knowledge and information.For the non-fiction, there isn’t one single ‘best book on copywriting’, you’ll have to gather the knowledge and apply what’s relevant to you from different sources. We have just a few recommendations up our sleeves. We’ve witnessed people start writing better in English after reading copywriting classics like Roy Peter Clark’s “50 writing tools” and William Strunk’s “The Elements of Style”. These books tell how to write a compelling, powerful text, effectively curing the “content for the sake of having content” illness.

For Chinese non-fiction about copywriting, “超文案” can come in handy, as it contains numerous examples of English-Chinese copy, Ye Miao Zhong’s “广告人手记” and Feng Xindong’s “小丰现代汉语广告语法辞典” may seem a little subjective, but contain interesting ideas about approach to copywriting and advertising in China. No matter if you agree with their ideas or not, these books can also give you tools to justify your copy before a client in a knowledgable manner.

Another often overlooked source of inspiration for copywriters is poetry, which can be more than useful especially in creating catchy slogans. Copywriting and poetry have similarities: both share rhythm and aim to appeal to our emotions, using same devices like metaphor and alliteration to create vivid descriptions.

Cultivate curiosity and learn from other case studies

Staying curious about your target language and the world around is essential to good cross-language writing, as it allows you to develop skills, expand cultural exchanges, and become more productive. Make a habit of reviewing attention-worthy case studies in China and abroad, learn from those that make you wish you wrote the copy for.

Read your copy out loud

To ensure everything flows naturally and doesn’t sound weird, or forced, always read your copy out loud. It applies to every language, but perhaps, to bigger extend it applies to Chinese. You may have picked very sophisticated characters that look great on paper, but read them out loud and let others read through, observing their reactions. Then you’ll know for sure.

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