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Translating a company: the Printful take

Marianna Zvaigzne, student of the University of Latvia Professional Master’s Programme “Written Translation” and former Senior Brand Editor at Printful

I’ve been a language student for most of my adult life, and I’ve found that everything I’ve learned over the years has only increased my passion for language. Hungry for more, I’ve returned to my alma mater, the University of Latvia, to deep dive into translation.

This year, I also wrapped up year 5 at Printful, an on-demand printing and fulfillment company that fulfills and ships custom clothing, accessories, and home & living items for online businesses. More recently, Printful is proud to have become the first unicorn company (valued at over $1B) with Latvian roots.

Since its founding in 2013, Printful’s been trusted to deliver 45M+ items and has scaled to a team of 1,800+ people across 10 in-house fulfillment centers. During this time, I saw the company grow from an English-only audience to an enterprise that speaks 8 languages, so I can’t resist the opportunity to combine some of the insights I’ve gained from the world of business with the viewpoint of a translation student.

If you ever come across an interview with the company’s CEO Dāvis Siksnāns or anyone else from the leadership team, you’ll hear them say that one of the keys to Printful’s success has been going local. And it’s not just about bringing Printful services to where the business owners are – it’s also about speaking their language.

As I already mentioned, the Printful website and main communication channels are available in 8 languages: English, Spanish, Japanese, German, French, Italian, Brazilian Portuguese, and Dutch. The topics discussed span from products, fulfillment methods, warehousing services, and delivery to ecommerce, marketing, and IT solutions. In other words, anything and everything to help the Printful customer succeed.

That’s a wide range to cover, not to mention quite the challenge for Printful’s in-house content team, since it goes without saying that any text made for the customer needs to be targeted, well-written, and adapted to a certain goal (inform, promote, entertain). When you add translation (or localization, or transcreation – we’ll get to that in a minute) into the mix, that’s a whole other set of rules.

So, how can one team manage all that? How does one translate a company?

Well, like most things, I believe it starts with the right mindset. For companies like Printful, it’s treating language and translation, in the general sense of these words, as ever-present elements in the business equation, not just a chore that’s performed as an afterthought.

For this reason, each Printful language has its own sub-team, and all Printful language specialists are trained to think like marketers. They’ll be onboarded not only to serve as ambassadors of the language and culture they represent, but also to break down a piece of content to the depths of its context, tying it in with the purpose of the task at hand and the company’s strategy. They’ll be expected to know when a “just” a word-for-word translation will do and when to take it as far away from the source text as possible.

Getting this far, you can’t help but wonder: what does “translate” mean anymore, anyway?

There are many ways to define and approach translation, but in the context of business, I think it’s important to stick to the company’s purpose; to think about how the content will help the customer. Because whichever way the language specialist might go with a content task, their goal has to be one and the same – to build a bridge between the company’s message and the reality of the customer.

To achieve this goal on a more tangible level, I think it’s useful for language specialists to try and make a distinction between direct translation, localization, and transcreation. Knowing where they differ and overlap will help decide how much time and effort a given text needs.

The rule of thumb is as follows. For recurring, technical, or low-risk content, direct translation will likely be the way to go. This is where you often entrust the translation (along with your company style guide and glossary) with a top-notch translation agency and ask your in-house team to perform a quality check before publishing. For any new, promotional or high-risk content, I’d say it’ll always be a choice (or perhaps a mix) between localization and transcreation – and it’s the in-house language specialist’s call on how far to take the adaptation.

It all sounds incredibly clever on paper (or on screen, rather), but we all know that in the day-to-day of content creation, these lines are all blurry. And I must say, that with the never-ending stream of content pouring into the web as we speak, I invite content teams around the world to keep exploring ways to play to their strengths and keep asking the question: “is this post really necessary?” As incredible a soon-to-be-published text may be, there are only so many things a customer can read on any given day.

Until somebody out there comes up with a way to replicate the human brain and the way it makes context-based decisions, I’ll always believe that the content – and translation – quality for any business is in the hands of its in-house team – their talent, curiosity, and focus on the common company goal.

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