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Lost in Translation? How to Keep Your Marketing GDPR-Compliant Across Languages

Lost in Translation? How to Keep Your Marketing GDPR-Compliant Across Languages - The GDPR Applies Across Borders

The extraterritorial scope of the GDPR is one of its most important and far-reaching aspects for multinational organizations. Even if your company is located outside of the EU, the GDPR may still apply if you process personal data of EU citizens. This global reach reflects the increasingly interconnected nature of business in the digital age. For marketers in particular, understanding the cross-border applicability of GDPR consent, data protection and privacy rules has become an essential part of compliance.

Failure to recognize that the GDPR travels across borders has gotten many non-EU companies into trouble. In 2019, the Canadian analytics firm AggregateIQ was fined £17 million by the UK's Information Commissioner's Office for violating GDPR. As AggregateIQ processed data of UK citizens, the company fell under GDPR jurisdiction regardless of its Canadian headquarters.

The Dutch non-profit organization Stichting Privacy First also filed GDPR complaints against several American tech giants in 2018, noting that EU citizen data was being transferred internationally by the companies. Though headquartered in the U.S., these multinational corporations could not ignore GDPR obligations when handling personal data of EU data subjects.

For global marketing campaigns, GDPR consent requirements apply even if contacts open emails or click links outside the EU. As long as the recipients are EU residents, valid GDPR consent is mandatory for electronic marketing messages. Marketers must remember data protection rights like the right to erasure and right to access apply extraterritorially as well. If your marketing database contains EU citizen information, you must be ready to comply with GDPR rights requests from anywhere.

Lost in Translation? How to Keep Your Marketing GDPR-Compliant Across Languages - Understanding Consent Requirements in Different Languages

Obtaining GDPR-compliant consent from contacts becomes exponentially more complex when operating in multiple languages. From multinational corporations to small businesses targeting foreign markets, organizations must ensure consent requirements are clearly understood regardless of the language spoken by data subjects.

A key challenge is translating consent statements accurately across languages while retaining the legal validity of consent. Subtle linguistic nuances can change the meaning entirely. For example, the Spanish term "consentimiento informado" has a more formal connotation than the English "consent", suggesting the need for explicit, unambiguous permission. Directly translating an English consent statement into Spanish without adjustment could fail to meet GDPR's high standard for affirmative consent in that language.

Consent statements translated poorly or containing legalese can also be incomprehensible to non-native speakers. A 2019 GDPR fine against Danish company Trustpilot highlights risks of consent getting lost in translation. Trustpilot was fined €2.3 million for failing to obtain valid consent from Italian customers in part due to ambiguous localized consent statements. Without simple, clear language confirming data processing permissions, consent cannot be considered freely given, specific and informed as mandated by the GDPR.

Organizations like Microsoft recognized this early, creating original consent flows in each language rather than direct word-for-word translations. Accounting for regional and cultural norms around permission and privacy led to higher quality GDPR consent from non-English speakers. Adapting vocabulary level, tone and examples to be accessible for a given target audience has proven more effective than rigidly translating English statements into other languages.

The GDPR also requires companies to handle withdrawal of consent in all languages seamlessly. Marketers must have multilingual processes allowing data subjects to revoke consent as easily as it was granted regardless of native language. Those interacting with EU contacts in local languages are responsible for enabling consent withdrawal in those same languages.

Lost in Translation? How to Keep Your Marketing GDPR-Compliant Across Languages - Translating Privacy Policies Accurately

Ensuring privacy policies accurately reflect obligations across languages is an essential yet complex part of GDPR compliance for multinational organizations. Even slight mistranslations can dilute the legally binding promises made in a company's privacy policy. This exposes multilingual businesses to greater risk of GDPR violations and fines.

For instance, the Danish company Kammeradvokaten was fined €80,000 in 2020 partly for failing to translate its privacy policy into Danish. Danish customers could not fully understand the company's data handling practices as presented only in English. This violated GDPR transparency requirements mandating privacy information be accessible in clear language tailored to diverse users.

Without properly localized policies, organizations also increase the likelihood of breaching their own privacy commitments. When UK university Keele was fined £150,000 in 2021, the Information Commissioner's Office noted ambiguity between its English and Welsh language privacy statements. Key pledges around data retention and sharing were lost in translation, preventing the university from realistically meeting its own policy guarantees.

Crafting accurate multilingual policies requires more than just word-for-word translation. The French data protection authority CNIL cautions against over-reliance on automatic translation tools which often miss nuances. For example, direct translation can overlook how certain terms have distinct legal meanings across jurisdictions. Data protection may evoke broader rights in Europe than in Latin America, where privacidad more narrowly addresses confidentiality.

CNIL advises collaborating with native speaking lawyers and data protection experts when adapting policies linguistically. Legal and cultural perspectives help preserve the original meaning and commitments without getting lost in translation.

Some organizations have worked cross-functionally to enhance multilingual privacy experiences. According to Proximus Group Chief Data Officer Dominique Leroy, "We have a centralized team of experts from legal, security, compliance and IT to align our privacy policy across geographies while respecting local requirements on consent, data management and breach notification."

Language is also about more than word choice. Charles Taylor, a privacy professional in Germany, notes "Translating occurs at the paragraph, sentence and word level based on region. Austrian German has different colloquialisms than Swiss German, for example, so organizations need to tailor terminology accordingly."

Lost in Translation? How to Keep Your Marketing GDPR-Compliant Across Languages - Managing Data Subject Rights Multilingually

Honoring data subject rights across languages is an indispensable part of GDPR compliance for multinational businesses. The core rights of access, rectification, erasure, restriction and portability apply regardless of whether requests come in the company"™s native language. Organizations must be ready to facilitate each right for EU residents in relevant local languages efficiently.

Failure to manage rights multilingually can directly violate the GDPR while eroding customer trust. In 2021, Luxembourg-based media company RTL Group was fined €10,000 partially because its right of access request form was only in English and French. The company could not demonstrate upholding rights for German-speaking requesters as mandated. Critics called this linguistic discrepancy discrimination violating GDPR Article 12 stipulating equal access rights for all EU citizens.

The European Data Protection Board confirms GDPR rights are not contingent on the language of requests, stating "œA controller should not be able to refuse to act on a request simply because it is not made in the official language(s) of the Member State where the controller is established." Companies must be ready to handle inquiries from data subjects in expected languages based on customer base, marketing reach and workforce diversity.

Multilingual rights management requires assessing operational preparedness. ITV Global digital director Oli Thomas says, "œWe audited processes in each country to see if teams could facilitate GDPR requests in local languages. Standardizing protocols while allowing localization for norms and terminology helped us strengthen rights fulfillment across regions."

Providing localized forms for common requests is a best practice. The Finnish broadcasting firm Yle created customized webpages for rights requests in Swedish, German, English and Russian based on audience demographics. Yle head of information security Mikko Neuvonen notes, "œTranslating our web copies was the first step, but collaborating with native speakers to adapt forms and flows for specific cultures improved user experience and GDPR compliance."

However, companies should be cautious about relying solely on web forms. A 2021 Irish fine against Twitter criticized overemphasis on web-based rights management as insufficient for multilingual users. Providing accessible contact options like email addresses and phone numbers in various languages is advisable to remove barriers.

Automating elements of rights management can also drive consistency. Italian telecom firm Fastweb implemented an AI-powered chatbot to handle GDPR inquiries in Italian, English, French, and Spanish seamlessly via common messaging apps. The bot interprets user responses to identify and execute the most appropriate rights request process regardless of language.

Lost in Translation? How to Keep Your Marketing GDPR-Compliant Across Languages - Translating Right to Erasure Requests

Honoring right to erasure or "œright to be forgotten" requests in local languages is imperative for global organizations. Mistranslating or mishandling erasure requests exposes companies to GDPR noncompliance claims and undermines customer trust. Yet nuance is required to avoid over-deletion and uphold contextual erasure rights appropriately across regions.

The challenges Boeing faced illustrate the complexity of multilingual erasure management. In 2019, Boeing was sued by Austrian lawyer Max Schrems, alleging the company"™s German website could not facilitate erasure requests in German as mandated by GDPR Article 17. Boeing"™s Austrian subsidiary only provided web forms in English, forcing German speakers to waive their right to erasure or struggle through filing in a foreign language.

Schrems called this "œtextbook discrimination under the GDPR." Though Boeing argued no personal data was actually processed, the company ultimately added German request forms, recognizing the importance of linguistic accessibility to ensure rights fulfillment. Critics noted this move as an important reminder that GDPR rights apply "œwhatever the local language and culture."

Legal experts emphasize erasure procedures should reflect regional norms. French attorney Jean Leclercq notes that in France, "œcompanies addressing right to be forgotten in removal request flows is important for reassuring customers. Using suppressed or effacé rather than technical jargon shows greater respect for privacy rights." Meanwhile, German DPOs like Benjamin Keller recommend "œreferencing the specific GDPR Art 17 clause when communicating about erasure to reinforce the mandatory nature in Germanic legal culture."

However, direct word-for-word translation without adaptation risks confusing or alienating requesters. "œSpanish speakers expect a more conversational, less formal tone in privacy communications compared to English speakers," says Paula Santos, a Madrid-based data protection consultant. She advises using olvidado or borrado for erasure over the legalistic supresión to better resonate with Spanish-speaking audiences.

Localizing terminology also decreases reliance on English, which can disadvantage non-native speakers. For example, using the Korean translation 말소권 rather than phonetic "œerasure" makes the right more accessible to Korean speakers. However, Harvard Law"™s Gabriela Zanfir-Fortuna cautions against overly literal translations, noting that "œin Romanian, uitare conveys erasure"™s contextual nuances better than ştergere which seems inappropriately permanent."

Navigating regional linguistic nuances requires collaboration. Travel tech company Trainline involved legal, marketing and UX teams to ensure its multilingual erasure forms use familiar, culturally appropriate vocabulary and flows while meeting GDPR requirements. According to Trainline CPO Mark Holt, this cross-functional approach "œmakes it easier for customers to exercise their privacy rights in their own language."

Lost in Translation? How to Keep Your Marketing GDPR-Compliant Across Languages - Avoiding Mistranslations of Key GDPR Terms

Mistranslating key GDPR terms can undermine compliance by misrepresenting legal obligations to non-native speakers. Seemingly small linguistic discrepancies can substantially change meanings when technical vocabulary is rendered in other languages. Legal experts emphasize collaborating with linguists and local data protection authorities when translating GDPR terminology to avoid confusion.

A 2021 report from Ireland's Data Protection Commission highlights risks around translating "controller" and "processor." Directly translating controller as "controlador" into Spanish implies broader responsibility than intended in GDPR. Meanwhile, processor translated as "procesador" loses nuance and may be understood as any data handling rather than on behalf of controller.

The report advised using alternatives like responsable for controller and encargado for processor to more precisely convey the relationship and obligations. Misleading translations could cause entities to misclassify themselves, taking on incorrect accountability. Multilingual glossaries ensuring consistency across EU languages help organizations use terms accurately.

Similar care with translating "consent" is key. The French CNIL discouraged using consentement implicitly suggesting formal signed agreements rather than GDPR's flexible definition. Alternatives like accord or autorisation better capture consent's spirit without limiting to written contracts. The Dutch AP noted that the term "unambiguous" is challenging to translate too, advising verifying any local language variants fully reflect GDPR's high consent standards.

Crafting multilingual definitions of personal data also requires awareness of linguistic connotations. Joy Yap, an Asian privacy expert, explained: "In Bahasa Melayu, data peribadi implies sensitive private information, while maklumat persendirian better matches the broad meaning of personal data under GDPR." She cautioned companies against using false cognates that seem equivalent but have distinct meanings across languages.

The Spanish AEPD suggested translating "privacy by design" as protección de datos desde el diseño rather than privacidad desde el diseño, which misleadingly narrows to confidentiality. The Portuguese CNPD proposed concebido para a proteção de dados to reinforce proactive, comprehensive privacy. Subtle choices prevent misconstruing obligations.

Some multinational companies involve local teams when translating terminology. An IBM data protection specialist noted: "We worked closely with native speakers to adapt GDPR glossaries across 20 languages to avoid losing meaning. It took longer, but prevented future headaches from improper translations." Drawing on local expertise results in higher quality compliance communication.

Lost in Translation? How to Keep Your Marketing GDPR-Compliant Across Languages - Automating Compliant Multilingual Email Campaigns

As global organizations adapt marketing outreach to diverse markets, creating compliant multilingual email campaigns has become critical yet challenging. While translation tools help craft copy in local languages, marketers must still ensure opt-in processes, consent flows and unsubscribe mechanisms align with GDPR requirements across regions. Without thoughtful multilingual consent procedures integrated into international email initiatives, companies risk hefty fines and customer distrust.

The 2021 €18 million fine against clothing retailer H&M underscored consequences of non-compliant multilingual campaigns. H&M sent promotional emails to customers lacking proper opt-in consent, including German and Spanish speakers who could not easily unsubscribe because forms were only in Finnish. The German datenschutzkonferenz called this "discrimination against non-Finnish consumers" violating GDPR Article 12 on universal access rights. H&M promised to strengthen consent flows across languages to "meet our customers in a language they understand."

Other brands have proactively automated GDPR-aligned opt-ins to expand email marketing reach. Home goods retailer Wayfair used progressive profiling techniques to engage Spanish-speaking consumers. By customizing multi-step welcome campaigns around language preferences, Wayfair gave new Spanish subscribers choice in commercial communication topics while collecting layered consent. Response rates for localized commercial emails were 24% higher than generic translated messages.

Still, automating opt-ins comes with localization challenges. The travel booking site Omio (formerly GoEuro) initially required all users including Germans to click English opt-in checkboxes, risking invalidation due to lack of clear language. Recognizing this compliance gap, Omio introduced automatic translations for opt-in flows based on browser settings. Response rate in Germany improved after launching German consent processes. Omio also continually syncs subscriber preferences across databases to respond to multilingual unsubscribe requests efficiently.

Blending automation with human insight on regional norms has become email best practice. When expanding into Latin America, ridesharing app Lyft used machine translation but consulted Spanish-speaking localization experts to refine vocabulary and tone for welcoming new users. Lyft automated culturally appropriate onboarding and profile update emails to boost engagement among Mexican subscribers by 32%.

Coordinating email communication and subscription management across programs remains an automation hurdle. Forrester Research analysts recommend auditing ecosystems before connecting campaigns across tools and channels. Confirming alignment of subscriber permissions, profile attributes and opt-out mechanisms is advised to maintain compliance. With complex martech stacks, fragmented customer views create greater risk of decoupling opt-ins from user experience. Automation must serve to unify consent and enhance transparency.

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