We are an advertising agency in Myanmar doing work in English and Burmese – often both in the same campaign – and it can be a real challenge. Whether we’re doing Burmese copywriting or English – Burmese translation, there are a number of reasons that simply writing copy in English and translating directly won’t work. We’ve listed these issues below, and shared how we overcome the challenges of the language to write great Burmese copy.
Burmese is a part of the Sino-Tibetan language family. Culturally and philosophically it is totally different from English and other Western languages, so certain words and concepts that seem normal in English are very difficult to express in Myanmar. The same is true of many Burmese words and phrases in English.
Other challenges of writing Burmese ad copy are that there are no spaces between words, and the language tends to be very long winded. We often find that three lines of English copy for something like a Facebook post will turn into five lines of Myanmar language copy.
It is not just that Myanmar language is an Eastern language that has a different philosophical underpinning from English, though that’s a big part of it. It is also that Burmese was cut off from Western language and culture for so long. Consider neighboring Thailand: While Thai and Burmese languages are not related, they share many of the same differences from English. But While Thailand has roughly 150 years of close, unbroken contact with the West, Burmese was totally closed off for half a century.
During British colonial times and the first decade after independence, Burmese took on many English loan words. Under the dictatorship many of these words were banned, and the language stagnated as thousands of new words came into use elsewhere to describe all the new facets of life made possible by computers, technological advancement, evolving human institutions, and social media. Burmese just didn’t adopt these words in an organic and evolving way.
Myanmar and the Burmese language are now in a phase of rapidly getting caught up with most of the rest of the world linguistically. This New York Times article on this game of catch up is fascinating, and well worth a read for anyone planning on visiting or doing business in Myanmar.
So how do we navigate these challenges as an ad agency working with Burmese language? We do it with teamwork, and with poetry. If that sounds overly opaque, read on.
For names, taglines or other Burmese copy that needs to be very short and to the point, we usually work by committee having everybody take a first crack at it. We then pare it down and sometimes combine a few different ideas until we come up with a final shortlist. Lastly, we work with the client on selecting a final option.
Our primary Burmese copywriter is actually a talented poet who brings a unique approach to writing Burmese copy. Classical Myanmar literature is nearly all poetry so it makes sense that this works. We find that this is effective for both shorter and longer copy.
When we do English to Burmese translation, we like to say that we don’t translate, we adapt. A great example of this came from a major car manufacturer here. They had translated ‘anti-lock brakes’ directly into Burmese, but the actual meaning of the phrase meant ‘brakes that don’t work’. The error was caught and a new translation was written that meant something along the lines of ‘while braking anti-skid protecting system’.
Direct translation is nearly impossible so Burmese translators have to get creative, often finding roundabout ways to get the point across. Because of this, asking five people to translate the same copy will usually get you five completely different versions of the same thing. Our by-committee approach eventually gets us past this with the team agreeing on one version in the end. It may take a spirited argument to get there, but we do get there in the end, writing compelling Burmese copy with strong calls to action that we’re proud to show to clients.