Translation Blunders: From Silly to Serious

Posted on July 14, 2016 by Ilona K

Interacting in a foreign language can often be funny as you navigate your way around a foreign tongue, learning pronunciation and correct word usage. Among friends, the oft-hilarious mistakes can lead to laughter and a lifetime of memories, but when globally-
minded businesses make mistakes in translating their product names, messages, logos, and slogans, the results can be embarrassing or devastating, depending on the severity of the gaffe.

What works in one country may not always work in another. And often it isn’t just a simple translation error. Many times it centers on cultural elements as well. Here are some global translation blunders that prove the power of language and the need for careful, precise translation along with cultural understanding.

Ilona K is a 5-Star writer at WriterAccess

Ilona K is a 5-Star writer at WriterAccess

  1.  When Swedish vacuum maker, Electrolux, wanted to break into the US market and highlight its new machine’s power, lack of research into American slang caused their vacuum sales to fall flat. Their slogan “Nothing sucks like an Electrolux,” made sure Americans steered clear of their vacuum cleaners.
  2. Indian mobile phone company, Bharti Airtel, wanted to expand their business to Africa by creating a marketing campaign that they thought would translate across 17 African countries. The only problem? They forgot to address the vast cultural differences of the target countries. Their ads’ use of only South African actors and coins resulted in a failed campaign. Many Africans could not relate to the actors or the use of coins as currency.
  3. The famous baby food maker, Gerber, is not sold in France, because its name means “vomiting” in French – something no one wants to think about when purchasing a food product!
  4. General Electric attempted to release a partnership brand in France under the name GPT. Sounds innocuous enough, but in French, GPT is pronounced, “J’ai pété,” or “I farted.” Needless to say, there were many red-faced marketing folk and a lot of money lost in the endeavor.
  5. When Jolly Green Giant was translated into Arabic, fewer people were apt to buy their vegetables. In Arabic, the giant sounds much more formidable as an “Intimidating Green Monster!”
  6. In 2009, HSBC bank’s “Assume Nothing” slogan was mistranslated into “Do
    Nothing” in many countries. Repairing the damage done by this translation mistake cost the company millions of dollars.
  7. When trying to market a product in Germany, avoid the use of the word “Mist” in your product. Irish Mist Liqueur, Canadian Mist whiskey, and Clairol’s Mist Stick curling iron all failed. Why? In German, “mist” means manure.
  8. American Motors created Matador, a car with a name they thought evoked excitement and virility. They were confident that sales would be booming. Yet, when they tried marketing this car in Puerto Rico, sales were virtually non-existent.  In Spanish, “matador” means “killer,” probably something you wouldn’t want to drive.
  9. The makers of Pepsodent’s teeth whitening toothpaste didn’t do their homework before marketing their product to Southeast Asia, a culture known to celebrate the darkening of teeth by chewing Betel nuts. These nuts are believed to strengthen teeth and are associated with many ceremonies and rituals. Historically, people of certain cultures in this area thought only savage beasts and demons showed their white teeth.
  10. Samarin, a Swedish non-prescription drug that aids upset stomachs, used catchy comic strip-like ads with no text. The ad showed three pictures. The first was a sickly-looking man holding his stomach. The second showed the same man drinking Samarin. In the third photo, the man is smiling, looking healthy. This ad campaign was a hit in Europe, however, when marketing to Arabic countries, the company forgot that Arabic countries read from right to left! Sales were horrible.
  11. American car giant, Ford, created a car for their European market called the Kuga. However, in Croatian, kuga means “plague,” and Eastern Europeans avoided this car like one.
  12. When Procter and Gamble started selling Pampers in Japan, they were confused why their diapers were not selling. Their research revealed that the packaging was the problem. The image of a stork bringing a baby was confusing to parents because Japanese folklore does not include storks in the baby story. Theirs tells of a peach that brings babies to their parents. Now storks have been replaced by peaches on all Pampers products and sales are up.
  13. Even small companies are not immune to translation blunders. In 1987 when Pope John Paul II visited America, a small Florida company wanted to commemorate the experience for the local Latino community by selling t-shirts with the saying “I saw the Pope,” or el Papa. Instead, the t-shirt read, “I saw the potato,” (la papa).

All of these marketing blunders show how even a tiny translation error or cultural misunderstanding can have a huge effect on a company’s global success. Prevent translation mistakes by avoiding literal translation and doing a bit of cultural homework before venturing out. [Tweet it]

5-Star writer Ilona K is a blogger and technical writer on a wide range of topics including cultural competence, marketing, foreign languages and evolution of language, and medical devices failure.

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