¿La Bella América? An Experiment in (Reverse) Localization Gone Awry?

Introduction Call us naive, but the immediate, seemingly knee-jerk backlash on the Coca-Cola multilingual Super Bowl ad came as somewhat of a surprise.

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To begin, the ad was beautifully done.  The music alone is inspiring and the sense of celebration of the American spirit permeates the entire production.  This is particularly evident after inspecting the rest of the videos that make up the totality of this marketing campaign.  Unless we are missing something, the multitude of people featured are proud to be called Americans.

Judging from the subsequent videos, great care went into the production of the ad from a cultural (localization) and voice-over perspective with perhaps one exception:

"While I'm singing, I'm translating (sic) an English song trying to change it to a Hebrew song and that kinda made it hard" -- Natalie, on singing and interpreting "America The Beautiful" in Hebrew.

We would like to extend the benefit of the doubt to Coca-Cola.  We would like to think that "an American multinational beverage corporation" (per Wikipedia) would have professional translators tackle such an important task as this one.  Surely Coca-Cola would not leave the translation and localization duties to its young, voice-over artists as the Natalie video seems to suggest, right?  On another video, the young voice-over artist explains: "We had to go back to our elders to help translate."  So at least, the task of translation was a communal one.

Anyone who has translated poems or songs understands the intricacies of the task:  While language is always at the forefront, the translation has to take into account the music and the rhythm of the source material.  That is no easy task.

Melting Pot or Salad Bowl

The voices that rose up in opposition of this piece seem to be based on the notion that immigrants to the U.S. must abide to the melting pot theory of immigration and assimilation.  Per Wikipedia:

The melting pot is a metaphor for a heterogeneous society becoming more homogeneous, the different elements "melting together" into a harmonious whole with a common culture.

As Allen West (quoting Teddy Roosevelt) stated in one of the first columns published on this subject:

We have room for but one language here, and that is the English language for we intend to see that the crucible turns our people out as Americans, and American nationality, and not as dwellers in a polyglot boarding house; and we have room for but one sole loyalty and that is a loyalty to the American people.

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The melting pot metaphor was in use by the 1780s.  By the 1970s however, the notion of the melting pot theory was challenged by the mosaic, salad bowl and "American kaleidoscope" theories of assimilation.  The salad bowl metaphor "suggests that the integration of the many different cultures of United States residents combine like a salad [maintaining each element's unique attributes], as opposed to the more traditional notion of a cultural melting pot."

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While the melting pot metaphor seemed to describe earlier waves of immigrants who refused even to teach their children their native language (Italians, for example), anyone who has visited Chinatown in San Francisco or New York recently, or anyone who takes a closer look at the many ethnic neighborhoods that make up New York City or Brooklyn can attest that reality looks more like a salad bowl: Each ethnic group maintaining its distinct characteristics combining, yet not melting (assimilating) into one whole.  More recent waves of immigrants proudly maintain their native language while they strive for English proficiency.

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Denigration or Celebration

Perhaps the detractors of the Coca-Cola ad were equating the translation/interpretation of "America The Beautiful" with the translation/interpretation of "The Star-Spangled Banner" into Spanish a few years ago.

There is a key distinction at play here.  The translation/interpretation of the latter was done in anticipation of pro-immigration reform rallies.  It was a protest song and Americans were rightfully aggrieved.  Singing "The Star-Spangled Banner" in Spanish ("Nuestro Himno") was meant to be incendiary and provocative.

While the makers of the Coca-Cola ad more than likely anticipated some negative responses, a closer examination of the remaining videos leaves little doubt that (unlike the translation/interpretation of "The Star-Spangled Banner") the motivation the producers (and its participants) was not denigration, but rather celebration of the American spirit.  It is interesting to see the wide-eyed enthusiasm of the largely young, female voices.

Reverse Localization?

Before delving into this concept, let us define the term.  Per The Globalization and Localization Association (GALA), "localization":

Describes the process of adapting a product to a specific international language or culture so that it seems natural to that particular region, which includes translation, but goes much farther. True localization considers language, culture, customs, technical and other characteristics of the target locale. While it frequently involves changes to the software writing system, it may also change the keyboard usage, fonts, date, time and monetary formats. Graphics, colors and sound effects also need to be culturally appropriate.

As stated above, there are many elements at play when localizing material, let alone a song that strikes at the heart of a nation.  Whether the Coca-Cola producers realized it in advance or not, the controversy has apparently added another element into the discussion.  That element is hereby described, perhaps for the first time, as "reverse localization."

While localization takes into account the target audience (the audience for whom the material is translated/localized for), the Coca-Cola controversy raises a new challenge:  that of considering the source audience (the original audience for the material).

For purposes of this post and given the novelty of the term, we hope that reverse localization will be the subject of study in the future.  We do not assume to finalize, but to start the discussion on this subject.  Therefore, we will leave the reader with a few questions:

  • Should national songs/anthems be translated/interpreted into other languages?  Why or why not?
  • Does it matter that "America The Beautiful" belongs to the public domain?
  • What are your thoughts on this controversy?
  • What are your thoughts on "reverse localization"?

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Write your comments below.

Alternate Ending

We are not however, too naive to surmise that Coca-Cola conducted considerable market research weighing the pros and cons of this campaign before giving the green light.  Our suspicion is that Coca-Cola knew in advance that this campaign would exacerbate the very divisions its videos were designed to ignore.