Designers would probably start thinking how about how the ‘O’ cleverly combines textual and visual representation to deliver a single message, as with this poster for The Simpsons Movie:
We, on the hand, tutted knowingly, thinking: that’s practically asking for translation problems. As soon as it’s translated, the text and graphic elements separate back out (the word for “movie” isn’t necessarily going keep that nice O in the middle).
That doesn’t mean there aren’t ways around the problem. Here’s a French version of The Simpsons Movie poster:
Here, the doughnut is the O in ‘Simpsons’, a word which stays the same in the French translation. The doughnut motif would have been harder to incorporate if ‘Simpsons’ did not contain an O, but this is a nice sleight of hand and an elegant localisation. As a side note, we particularly liked the fact Lisa is pictured reading Victor Hugo.
The same trick could be used even in parts of Europe where the word ‘Simpsons’ varies slightly in translation. For instance, here is a Romanian translation of the poster:
What only the most avid fan might notice is that Homer is now clutching his doughnut with his left hand instead of his right. In fact, the whole image has been flipped to place the doughnut in the correct place to provide the O. Not a problem in Romania, but not a tactic you would want to use in cultures where eating with your left hand is taboo.
The unflipped version of the picture is used in a Portuguese version of the poster which simply separates the doughnut from the O.
But because of the layout, the Portuguese translation makes that second line look a little like “OO FILME” rather than “O FILME”. Still, not a big problem: Portuguese readers wouldn’t even link the doughnut with the O, because they know how “o filme” is spelt. Some might think the doughnut could have replaced the O in “o filme”, but this “o” means “the”. How odd would it look with “THE” as the largest element on the poster?
Of course, sometimes you simply have to let the text translation separate completely from the visual element. Here is a Korean translation of The Simpsons Movie poster, which just doesn’t have any nice doughnut-shaped letters to work with:
Does all this mean that designers should avoid such clever and innovative combination of letters and artwork? No, not at all. That would be overly restrictive on creativity. But The Simpsons poster is a fun example to show that if designers are using characters as graphic elements, they should think about the implications if their document is going to be translated. Even better, avoid painting yourself into a corner and ask for feedback from your translators at an early stage.
[NB: WorldAccent did not produce the above posters and they remain copyright of Twentieth Century Fox Film Corporation. They are pictured here only as an illustration of the issues that can be raised in translating graphic design]