Minding the cultural gap when localizing into Russian: 3 points to consider

Whether or not you are interested in soccer, the World Cup can still be quite a good source of entertainment.

For example, you can grapple with the following question: are you willing to sell your soul for a shower?

Or, when does a bold and strong brand voice become too much and start contradicting a company’s values or norms of decency?

Burger King’s Russian subsidiary was trying to be bold and memorable but instead consistently hit the wrong notes (thanks to the most current fail one might hope they’ll stop trying to shock people into buying burgers).

Aside from the casual sexism in ads, there are other, less unappetizing, differences in how different brand voices and different types of copy are perceived in Russia. The same can be said for cultural references and expectations.

While in some cases it is not unreasonable to globalize the copy and make it completely devoid of any cultural markers, I think it makes it too bland, generic, and boring. Yes, even for B2B brands.

As in copywriting, everything depends on research and understanding the target audience. But these 3 rules of thumb can make it easier to evaluate just how much localization you might need, and why.

Example: translation slam at ATA58

An irreverent and bold female voice in career coaching

At the Annual ATA 58th Conference in Washington, D.C., Yulia Novikova-Wythe and I worked on a quirky and fun text that would not do well with a “straight-up translation approach.” Slang, cultural references, colorful language and a “fun” approach to describing “serious” matters of career transitioning made it a bit of a shocker for slam attendees.

Since our goal for the slam was to have different translations that shared enough similarities to make comparison possible, Yulia and I both stayed close to the text. Even so, in some cases adaptation was unavoidable.

Too much of a good thing: (most) Russian audiences might expect you to tone it down

There is nothing wrong with being quirky and fun, but as a general rule, Russian readers expect a less personal and less direct approach.

Websites for Russian career coaches tend not be less personality-based and use more “objective” arguments, stressing the coach’s professionalism and credentials.

Unless you have a very specific target group that you are absolutely certain is going to love your strong and unconventional voice, it’s better to err on the side of formality.

Case in point: my slam partner, Yulia, described the tone of voice of the original text as appropriate for a target audience of high-schoolers. The testimonials page shows that the irreverent tone of voice, swearing and bold graphics are not a marker for high-school audiences.

However, it’s quite likely that a hypothetical Russian audience would have agreed with Yulia that this tone of voice needs to be altered.

For example, the “fundies” (don’t ask) reference would have had to go. It would take a very specific, very niche audience to convince me that this would not ruin the copy and minimize subscriptions (could be quite an interesting A/B test).

Same goes for the swearing (for example, in the “Who is it for” bullet points).

You *really* should not swear online

This will not do in Russian.

Not because Russian don’t swear.

Because there are different norms for written speech (and yes, the wondrous life of online forums is a thing in and of itself…but there is a specific set of words that are considered obscene; read more in the delightful article by Svetlana Beloshapkina on avoiding “dirty language” in movies in the 2015 Spring issue of SlavFile).

You can find additional information on legislation regarding “foul language” online, but I would advise extreme caution when considering using any swear words in the copy, banned or otherwise.

If you’re targeting a very specific online community, there absolutely will be time and place for specific slang – although I’ve seen brands with a Russian presence adapt their languages to specific channels and keep their websites jargon-free and presumably acceptable to all kinds of visitors.

But be prepared: the language of your brand (if your brand voice includes swearing) will inevitably be softened.

Similarly, direct-response-like copy does not always work well in Russian and can come across as manipulative and presumptuous. An example of this might be implying in your CTA that your customer “needs to make the right choice.”

Cultural references: no one cares about Stan and his plans

Did you know that there was a Soviet cartoon about Winnie-the-Pooh? Probably not. But if you do mention Miln’s characters to Russians, they’ll think of that cartoon, and not of E.H. Shephard’s drawings.

Image via  Unsplash

Image via Unsplash

A similar strange mutation has resulted in using “babushka” (an old lady) in English to describe kerchiefs. At the same time, old ladies are an important feature of life in Russia: they’re the ones who make sure that everyone behaves or, failing that, they discuss everyone’s business from their vantage points at the entrance to a house.

This is why they have been given a place of honor in the translation (because “even your grandma’s dog” would sound really weird in Russian).

As far as Stan and his plans go, nobody cares about Stan in Russia (but some slam attendees from the US were quite pleased to see the reference).

Of course, the text would still make sense if the “Make a plan, Stan” headline was replaced with just “Make a plan.” If anything, Justin Blackman’s Pretty Fly Copy website shows, it’s that references are there for a reason – they make you (or your brand, or Justin) more likeable.

Which is why I’ve found a way to quote the Soviet cultural icon of Swedish origin in the text, for that warm and fuzzy feeling (and yes, slam attendees who knew of Karlsson did appreciate the reference… and they had to explain to the others who that is).

While bringing up Russia-specific cultural references may not always be appropriate, I’d suggest looking for ways to do so – or at least removing the more obscure source references that would not make sense to Russians (Game of Thrones, of course, would be a safe bet; no getting away from those memes).


TL;DR Summary

Do not assume that your bold and direct copy will do well in Russia

Too much quirkiness, and you’re not credible.

Too colloquial, and you end up with a different target audience.

Try too hard to be trendy for the given locale, and you have to pull the ads.

Too generic, and nobody remembers your brand.

Good luck!


Ekaterina Howard, Pinwheel Translations

Ekaterina Howard, Pinwheel Translations

Copywriting. Website and email localization (En>Ru)