Translation Mistakes Made by International Companies

In international business, translation may seem like an afterthought. But all too often, the difference between high quality and poor quality translation can have a huge impact. Translation errors cost businesses thousands or even millions of dollars and destroy reputations. When companies overlook translation, they can end up with PR and marketing disasters on their hands. Here are a just few examples of times when shoddy translation has impacted major brands:

Car Translation Troubles

The car manufacturer Kia, hoping to target a broader Hispanic audience, unveiled the Borrego, a car with a rugged, outdoorsy appeal. The problem was, Borrego translated into the somewhat less rugged 'lamb' in Spanish. Even worse, Mazda chose to name one of their cars the Laputa, which to Spanish ears means 'the whore.' Ford suffered from similar problems with its naming its cars. One would think that the Fiesta pickup truck would go over well with the Latin American market. Apparently, no one at Ford was aware of the Spanish slang meaning of fiesta, which is ‘ugly, old woman.’ Ford also had high hopes for the Caliente in the Mexican market and splashed out on an expensive marketing campaign in the country. But when it yielded few sales, Ford finally did its research and discovered that caliente is Mexican slang for 'prostitute.' Ford does not seem to learn its lesson on translation, though. In an effort to emphasize the quality manufacturing of their cars to a European audience, Ford wanted to run ads in Belgium with the phrase ‘Every car has a high quality body’. When the ads ran, that phrase had been translated into ‘Every car has a high quality corpse’. Ford Translation Mistakes

Food and Drink Translation Fouls

The American chicken processing company Perdue claimed, "It takes a tough man to make a tender chicken." That bold phrase was made even bolder when translated into Spanish. For a while, billboards in Mexico humorously advertised, "It takes a hard man to make a chicken aroused." Somehow, in other countries it was even turned into "It takes a virile man to make a chicken pregnant." Chinese can be a particularly challenging language to translate marketing messages into. Pepsi discovered this when the slogan “Come alive with the Pepsi Generation” was somehow turned into "Pepsi brings your ancestors back from the grave" in the Chinese market. KFC made a similar mistake. The fast-food company’s famous “finger-lickin’ good” tagline didn’t go over so well in China, where it translated to “We’ll eat your fingers off.” The U.S. company Hunt-Wesson marketed its line of Hungry Man frozen dinners in Quebec under the name ‘Gros Jos.’ It did not sell as well as hoped, however, because ‘Gros Jos’ is Quebecois slang for ‘large breasts.’ Food giant Kellogg also had to scramble to rename the ‘Bran Buds’ cereal in Sweden, after discovering that the name translates to the not very appetizing ‘burned farmer.’ The friendly Jolly Green Giant that smiles up from cans of peas in the U.S. did initially sell so well in the Middle East. That’s because the first translation of the brand into Arabic was “Intimidating Green Monster.” The drinks company Schweppes should have looked more closely at translation before introducing its famous tonic water into the Italian market. In Italian, the name read “Schweppes Toilet Water.” Similarly, the whiskey brand Canadian Mist failed when it was first introduced into German markets because in German, “mist” means “manure.” Clairol made the exact same mistake by attempting to sell the “Mist stick” curling iron in Germany. The “Manure stick” was not a hot seller. In a mistake that could have had far more serious consequences, Mead Johnson Nutritionals of Indiana mistranslated the instructions on cans of baby formula. If prepared as the translated instructions read, it could have caused renal failure, heart palpitations, or even death in infants, according to the US Food and Drug Administration. The company was forced to recall 4.6 million cans and has faced enormous liability allegations.

Other International Translation Blunders

In 2009, HSBC bank launched a new slogan, "Assume Nothing," which was mistranslated as "Do Nothing" in multiple countries. This cost HSBC a $10 million in a re-branding campaign. In 1990, the California Milk Processor Board aired the hugely successful "Got Milk?" commercials. Unfortunately, the tag line was translated in Spanish to "Are you lactating?" This was not only a language error; it was also extremely culturally insensitive. Fortunately, the error was caught early and a separate, more traditional ad for milk was used in Spanish-language media. Braniff Airlines was hoping to ad a bit of luxury to their brand by launching a “Fly in Leather” campaign to the Latin American market. Unfortunately, the literal translation of the slogan “Vuela in Cuero,” which in radio ads sounded the same as the phrase “Fly Naked”. Parker Pens ran an ad it Mexico advertising the fact that their ballpoints pens would not leak in your pocket and cause embarrassment. But their translator did not seem to know that “embarazar” does not mean “to embarrass,” but “to impregnate.” So the ads ran with the slogan “Our pens will not leak in your pocket and impregnate you.” An accurate statement, but not good advertising. After a new partnership, General Electric once attempted to re-brand itself in Europe under the name GPT. This ended up costing the company, because the French pronunciation of GPT is “J’ai pété”, meaning, “I farted.”

Quality Translation: A Worthwhile Investment

As these examples show, all too often global companies with billion dollar marketing budgets manage to goof up international advertising when they don’t pay proper attention to translation. A too literal translation without a solid comprehension of the cultural connotation of the words used can lead to PR nightmares. Thankfully, these kinds of errors can easily be avoided with the services of a knowledgeable and thorough translator. Failure to use a reputable translation service can have serious costs in the long term. A business’ reputation is far too important to take chances with poor translation.  

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